Tag Archives: creativity

One Is the Loneliest Number

Earlier this year The Blue Review at Boise State University published a study about the work habits of what it playfully dubbed “Homo academicus.”  The published article that outlined the findings was called “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo academicus.”  “Long” referred to what all academics will recognize as the schedule that never ends–grading on the weekends, writing at night, etc.  The “lonely” attribution, however, was less obvious.

The study found that academics spent the majority of their time (57%) working alone.  Some of this is probably a function of when and where they do their work–in other words, it’s linked to the “long.”  Working nights and weekends means working outside the office, which is more likely to mean working alone.  Some of it, however, I would argue, is a choice.  But I’m not sure it’s always a good one.

Faculty are an unusually autonomous work force.  We talk about “my research,” “my students,” and “my classes.”  In many fields (like mine), single-authored work is the norm.  So I’m not sure “lonely” is the right word.  I think we choose and even treasure our isolation.

But at what cost?  I want to propose two alternatives to working alone.  The first is a modest proposal: what if we created opportunities to work in the same space on similar projects?  I’m thinking here of the model some universities have employed of Dissertation Boot Camps.  They create a structured schedule and space with minimal distractions.  Snacks and writing consultants are often offered as well.  But a key component is “peer motivation and support” (see this description of one offered at Stanford).  I know that many of us have employed writing groups in and since graduate school to move our projects along.  I’m wondering, however, is this model might be brought to bear on other facets of academic life.  What about a syllabus-writing boot camp?  Or grant proposal boot camp?  I think both would benefit from “peer motivation and support.”  But I also like to imagine the conversations that would take place.  Conversations about what types of assignments we use.  What our policy for late assignments is.  How we structure the pace of work during the semester.  How many books we assign and why.

My second proposal follows from the first, but is less modest, yet critical, I believe, to the future of higher education.  Two books I’ve read this summer, Jose Bowen’s Teaching Naked and Robert Zemsky’s Checklist for Change, both argue persuasively that the future of higher education is dependent upon thinking differently about the curriculum and teaching.  We need to break out of a “my classes” mindset and work across the university to design new curricular models and new approaches to pedagogy.  In different ways and to different ends, each contends that we–whether defined as individual faculty or departments–have become too isolated and defensive.  But the old models and structures for higher education need re-evaluation in light of current pressures about accountability and value.  Those conversations are doomed to fail, however, unless we agree to spend less time being “lonely” and more time being collaborative.

Don’t misunderstand.  There will always be a time and a place for the solitary work of the teacher and scholar.  I treasure those times and have often used them to productive ends.  But I also think I need to be more self-reflective about when that model is appropriate and when it isn’t.  Where are the places and moments when we would benefit from thinking less about “my” and more about “our” students, curriculum, and pedagogy?

 

It Goes to Eleven

Faculty morale. For the past couple of years at my institution it has plummeted. For the purposes of this post, the reasons don’t really matter. What does matter to me as chair is trying to remedy this. How is morale remedied in other environments? Financial incentives, a corner office, a designated parking space. Hmmm…as chair, I have no additional funds, space is already limited and constrained, and don’t even get me started on parking—the bane of most campuses. So what to do? Given my lack of resources, I decided to go small. Let me explain.

Inspired by my time spent doing research in England and Spain, I instituted the practice of Elevenses. In the UK, tea and biscuits are advertised as being perfect for Elevenses—that mid-morning snack when folks gather around the electric kettle and share a cookie and a few minutes of conversation. In Spain, the reading rooms at most archives empty around 11am when everyone goes to get a cup of coffee and have a chat.

An invitation went out to all the faculty and staff (full and part-time) in our department and to some other nearby colleagues inviting them to gather in our break room on Wednesday mornings (popular teaching when lots of folks are on campus) from 10:30 (our class block schedule doesn’t quite work with 11am on the dot!) to 11:30. Tea, coffee, and cookies would be available (now that it’s caught on, we take up a modest collection of $5/semester from regular participants, which is plenty to keep us well-supplied). Folks were encouraged to drop in on their way to or from class or to linger if they wanted to.

We are now in our second year of Elevenses—so it seems to be working. Here are some observations:

* Informality is the key. Unlike brown bag lunches, seminars, or other events that are more formal, Elevenses allows people to participate as much or as little as they like. It is one of the most successful examples I’ve ever seen of full and part-time faculty socializing.

* For similar reasons, the small window of time is essential: one day a week for an hour or less. No one has to make a big commitment. If all you do is drop in, make a cup of tea, and exchange some pleasantries, that’s okay. It still gets you up, out of your office, and talking to your colleagues.

Would I like to be able to improve morale with more money for travel to conferences, new computers, a reasonable teaching load? Absolutely. But in the absence of those things, I have also learned that sometimes small is okay.

Making Change

Institutional change.  As folks invested in the future of higher ed, I suspect we all want to make some.  And there is no shortage of opinion about how to do it.

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In his recent and thoughtful book, Checklist for Change*, Robert Zemsky makes provocative suggestions about how to move higher education forward in constructive ways.  Ultimately, though, he asserts that “the number of people on whom real change within higher education actually depends is substantially less than a thousand”.  He believes government officials (state and federal), the leaders of higher ed associations, the leaders of faculty unions, heads of accrediting agencies, college presidents, and some attentive journalists (18) are the only ones positioned to make the dramatic changes he thinks are necessary.  This is probably realistic, but also disheartening to those of us stuck in the trenches, trying to bring good ideas to fruition.  Since Zemsky is addressing some of the big, vexing, meta issues facing the future of higher education (student loans, accreditation, etc), maybe there is some wiggle room for making smaller changes happen.  But how?

There may be a blueprint for doing this here.  This blog post, which grows out of Cathy Davidson’s ambitious and exciting MOOC about the future of higher education, claims to provide a practical template for institutional change.  But how practical is it?  Many of the strategies discussed there are engaging and sensible.  The author suggests being clear about what you are trying to change.  Agreed.  Identifying the problem is often more than half the battle.  We often try to accomplish too much or lack a clear objective in trying to make change happen.  The author also advocates forging good alliances with other “change makers” and seeking to initiate change at the local level (think globally, act departmentally?).  Yes.  This is wise strategy.  But I don’t share the optimistic assertion that by creating momentum and communities with well-defined objectives we will be able to persuade provosts and presidents to embrace these changes.  Sometimes we will succeed, but I think we also need to attend to why employing these sound strategies sometimes fails (one possibility is discussed here in my recent blog post).

What do you think?  What makes change succeed or fail at your institution?

* Robert Zemsky, Checklist for Change: Making American Higher Education a Sustainable Enterprise (Rutgers, 2013).

Right Under Our Noses?

One of the greatest challenges facing middle-manager academic chairs is moving a good idea forward.  Why can’t I get traction for my innovative and significant idea?  There are lots of reasons that good ideas flounder in higher ed–bureaucratic complexity, individual personalities, etc–but while listening to NPR last week I heard a reason that surprised me.

According to social science reporter Shankar Vedantam (who is great, btw!), “part of the reason we miss seeing creative ideas that are right under our nose is because the ideas are right under our nose.”  Some studies have demonstrated that it is easier to think abstractly, and more open-mindedly as a consequence, about an idea that comes from outside a company/office/institution.  Good ideas proposed by “insiders” prompt us to immediately think about whether or not they will work.  And since “most creative ideas are risky and the risks are obvious when you look at the details…when you think about it with this detail-oriented mindset, you’re more likely to shoot the idea down.”  In other words, the source of the idea may matter.

At my institution this insight would go a long way to explaining (though it’s certainly not the whole explanation) my administration’s fascination with bringing in outside consultants for problems that could be solved internally by the bright minds that are already here.  Now, there is always a benefit to an outsider’s perspective, and we can get mired in our institutional culture and miss the forest for the trees, but I sometimes wonder why we don’t do more with the smart people we already have.  And this may be part of the answer.

Hear the full story and/or read the full transcript here:

http://www.wbur.org/npr/282836487/why-we-miss-creative-ideas-that-are-right-under-our-noses