In one of the best TED Talks I've heard in a while, +Dan Ariely addresses the question of what makes us feel good about our work. The core of his argument is that we naively assume that traditional incentives like money are the best way to motivate, increase productivity, and produce happiness in work settings (in this way, it is quite similar to the main argument of Dan Pink's book, Drive). Ariely spends most of the talk addressing the issue of incentives and what his research suggests about what really motivates us.
But, at the end of his talk (about the 18:25 mark), he changes gears a bit and shifts to something of an historical commentary regarding how the industrial revolution has influenced the nature of the work we do. To make his point he starts by contrasting Adam Smith and his emphasis on efficiency, with Karl Marx and the importance he attached to meaning. The fact that, with regard to the work we do, Smith won and Marx lost is apparent almost everywhere one looks. Factory workers assemble cars and computers, the food I'll eat at dinner tonight likely went through five or six pairs of hands from the time it was grown to the time I took it through the grocery store checkout line, and large organizations are divided into departments and divisions where everyone plays a unique and specialized role. Gone are the days of the artisan or craftsman who saw a project through from start to finish.While the implications of this shift from meaning and wholeness, to efficiency and fragmentation are clear for industrial settings, it's also important that higher education consider its own "industrialization" and what this means for those of us who spend our time on college campuses.
In our ever quickening attempt to model ourselves after industry and corporate America, we have come to worship efficiency. This is particularly true of large campuses like mine where division of labor and specialization have become increasingly prevalent. Admissions officers decide who gets in, student affairs staff welcome students to campus and help them feel comfortable, academic advisors make sure they have classes on their schedule, financial aid counselors make sure students can pay for everything, and faculty members teach classes (we've even divided the faculty role into "teaching faculty" and "research faculty," signalling our view that teaching is no longer an inherent aspect of being a college professor). Not only does this fragmentation take its toll on the student experience, there are hidden costs in terms of the meaning and purpose faculty, staff, and administrators attach to their work.
In his talk, Ariely asserts that we find meaning when our work involves us in creating, developing, or producing things or ideas, particularly when we can see those things through to some kind of meaningful closure or conclusion. The problem with the current division of labor in higher education is that the structure of most campuses means faculty and staff are only involved in a narrow segment of the student experience. Few of us have the kind of prolonged engagement with students that positions us to see them develop across time. There are at least two problems with this fragmentation. First, it creates an environment where meaning is hard to find. Students drop in for an advising session during their second semester and we don't see them again. We admit them with high hopes that they'll be the first in their family to graduate, but we never see them again after their campus visit. They take our intro to psych class and we never find out if they decided to take the next course in the sequence. Fragmentation in structure, leads to fragmentation in relationships and interactions. And, without relationships, meaning is tough to come by.
Second, a fragmented structure makes it difficult for members of a learning community, whether it is faculty, staff, or students, to keep sight of the overarching purposes that unite them. If all I ever do is admit students, take them on tours, or teach the same history course, I forget that these independent activities are intended to contribute to a much broader and more meaningful set of objectives.
So, what to do? I'm not so naive as to suggest that institutions should dissolve all departments, divisions, colleges, etc. Or, that any one of us should be able to perform every function on a college campus. However, campus leaders would do well to examine their structures and identify potential points of integration where fragmentation could be reduced. For example, how might faculty members play more of a role in academic advisement? How could admissions officials be involved in meaningful interactions with students during orientation? What would it mean for a college president to teach intro level courses?
By giving up some efficiency, we stand to gain a great deal of meaning. And, ultimately, that increased meaning could have far-reaching effects on quality (and maybe even be more efficient than we think).