Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Futurist Says... (The University Today, Part 1)

I've spent the past three days in meetings. I got three free lunches out of it, and did learn several good things, but a lot of it consisted of the sort of busy work, open gripe-sessions, role-playing, and "future visioning" that I'm mostly rather suspicious of. Probably any instructor at any level at any college or university anywhere in the United States can sympathize with me: meetings--with all their discussions of always changing plans and procedures and policies--are simply an unavoidable feature of institutionalized higher education today, and are to be endured. Well, endured I did...sometimes even with a little humor, though I'm not sure the numerous, well-meaning and hard-working hosts who put these programs together for us always appreciated my contributions.

Monday was the longest and most difficult of the three days, at least for me. There is, abroad not just in academia but all throughout the organizations and institutions which characterize our late-capitalist world, an often inchoate but still powerful worldview, one which is bound to be familiar to a great many of you. This worldview takes various, always vaguely defined processes--like "education," "communication," "improvement" or "teamwork"--and turns them into topics fit for evaluation and assessment, often separate from any actual content: that is, from what one is actually being educated in, or what one is actually communicating, or what one's team is actually trying to do. We're not talking, of course, about some sort of philosophical immanent critique: we're talking various commonsensical observations and truisms being brought into a meta-existence, wherein we can reflect upon "adaptability" or "problem-solving" without slowing ourselves down with hard and fast references to any specific adaptations or problems. I'm not sure this vague unreality is necessarily intended; perhaps it's simply a by-product of traveling professionals attempting to put large and varied groups of people though exercises separate from the particular contexts wherein these exercises were first imagined. In any case, the language of this worldview is quickly recognizable: technocratic, globalist, and high-tech, yet also earnest and evangelical. In our case, a good number of those who led several of our small groups had a background in Protestant missionary work, and so their frequent references to the "emergent intelligence" of the "scale-free networks" and the "infinity clusters" which increasingly characterize our "chaordic" (a combination of chaos and order), "glocal" (global and local), and "coopetive" (cooperative and competitive) world were regularly accompanied by lines from the epistles of Paul and the gospel of Mark. I confess, it wasn't a mixture I cared for.

I hasten to add that a couple of the sessions our visitors put us through were quite good: it was beneficial, for me at least, to address in a collective way some of the perennial concerns which attend Friends University's attempts to understand , honor, and make use of its Quaker and Christian heritage, whether in terms of the faculty (such as through consensus decision-making) or the students (such as through programs in faith and learning). Another session on the university's essential strengths and weaknesses as we observed them was also fairly helpful, if only to increase the sense that there is a strong consensus regarding certain key problems which we face and some resources which we share to combat them. But other sessions I have to admit I simply found annoying. Joining hands with the person next to you and drawing a visualization of the university while holding onto the same pen at the same time? Give me a break.

The longest session--and the best example of the worldview I mentioned above--was one that put us through an hour and a half of "horizon mission methodology." The conceit here is that attempts to predict the future and prepare for it accordingly always fail, because we simply end up extrapolating upon what we already know. The man running the session (a self-described "futurist" and "missionologist," meaning, I presume, that he's an expert in figuring out how to create missions towards the future, or something like that) said that such "linear extrapolation and logic" never "looks beyond the beam"--the beam being the beam of light which in our limited capacities we weakly cast upon the future. So instead, what we need to do is to place ourselves in the future, and work backwards, figuring out how we got where we are. Supposedly this is a technique that has become popular with planning teams at NASA, and who knows? Maybe it makes more sense in the context of scientific inquiries where parameters are more clearly defined. In the case of an educational future, however, we were simply given to know that it was 2023, fifteen years into the future, and that Friends University was now a provider and deliverer of a (patented, perhaps?) "Friends Global Education," a "borderless educational world" which is accessed simultaneously around the globe through holographic presentations of "content" designed by faculty whose research and teaching had been radically transformed by the universal availability of all library information everywhere around the planet, as well as the simultaneous translation services provided by omnipresent nanotechnology. And then we were asked: what obstacles did we overcome to get there (excuse me, "here")?

The whole 90 minutes was made infinitely more tolerable for me by the presence at our table of a few fellow faculty who, like myself, are highly dubious of any kind of tech-speak, and who look askance at attempts to transform the project of educating students into some sort of unspecified, technologically-mediated process that apparently provides no substantive or practical resistance to any of the social transformations and compromises of our day, but instead can be aligned with them, and expressed in terms of presumably eternal "innovation." And so, of course, we (there were four of us) snarked. One said that said such a world would be "a nightmare," "a dystopia"; another simply shook his head, bemused at the whole thing. I, predictably, waxed eloquent with communitarian rage at the idea that anything worth saving could really be "borderless"; that we think the lure of instantaneous technical content (direct from the U.S. of A.!) could or should ever transcend the affections that people do feel and ought to feel for their places, languages, traditions, perspectives, etc. We pointed out that if somehow we--the people we are today, with all our traditionalist and neo-Luddite sensibilities, as-yet mostly unconverted to this admittedly perhaps inevitable future--were present in 2023 and were expected to "teach" into a webcam to be downloaded a day or week or year hence in Cairo, then we probably would have in fact long since quit teaching by then, which would have removed some major obstacles right there. (Certainly my rules against laptops, cell phones or any other kind of portable electronic communication devices in the classroom, not to mention my insistence that my students cite at least a few physically published books in their papers, and my rejection of Wikipedia as a legitimate citation source, would all have had to have long since been thrown away.) Then, getting creative, we spun scenarios which disregarded the whole "borderless" notion, and instead suggested that with the breakdown of the nation-state as a viable unit of socio-economic ordering sometime following the complete collapse of the global oil economy in the early 2010s, there was a huge revival of interest in a practical education, one which merged the liberal arts with vocational training--one of our number cleverly called it the "2-2 program," with two years of liberal arts studies followed by two years apprenticed to a mechanic or tradesman somewhere--and which was provided in a hands-on, personal way by faculty who lived in the same local community as the the students did (which is good, because no one could afford to put gasoline in their cars anymore). We decided that, in order to serve our students more effectively and eliminate the creeping class sensibility which characterizes much of higher education, we would get rid of the administration (thus saving a huge portion of our budget), re-institute complete Quaker-style faculty governance, buy up some new land near the campus so everyone can live close by where they study and learn, and develop some additional land into farms so fresh vegetables--farmed by students and faculty alike--can be sold at a co-op run in the basement of what used to be the administration building. Oh, and along the way, we brought back the Socratic method of instruction (that one was thrown in at the last minute). And that was it. Nothing about "asynchronous content availability," nothing about buying every student an Ipod as soon as they register, nothing at all. The fellow in charge tolerated us, I suppose. We four had a grand time playing the radical reactionary card, though.

I happily admit that much of my criticism of the "new educational world," and how one can or should turn universities into representatives of such through means of technology and organizational innovation and the streamlining of those idiosyncratic individuals and disciplines that have historically amounted to an "education," draws upon the contrarian delight of pushing against something which, as I said, may well be inevitable. Patrick Deneen has been taking on the "techno-optimists" and the negative impact their teachings are having on the ability of students to actually stay in one place and concentrate on one thing long enough to really digest and be changed by it a fair amount lately, and I concur with practically everything he says...except that I think he's able to write what he does with some confidence that he'll be able to create, in his classrooms at least, a space where more traditional notions of learning still hold sway. For the great majority of other academics--certainly for myself--it's a matter of picking battles, of submitting to and trying to find the occasional wheat in the great wave of chaff which is the modern organizational ideology of assessment and delivery and process, a wave which has long since drowned much of the older educational model, and that those of us to love teaching must therefore need to some extent to accept and swim in, if only because many of the students we'll be teaching--the interconnected, often rootless, often organizationally-obsessed students who come into this nation's universities--have been swimming in it for so long they no longer know any other way to learn. And really, it's all about the students: if I just loved politics and philosophy, but didn't care about spreading it on to others, I'd have found myself a job and lifestyle that would have given me more reading time, and fewer meetings.

Well, the next two days didn't provide nearly so much occasion for good-hearted mockery, but there were items worthy of comment in them nonetheless. I'll try to get to them tomorrow. Perhaps, then, summer blogging can really begin.

16 comments:

Glen said...

Oh, Russell. I feel for you, man. I work for the government; what you describe sounds just like our training exercises, except without the free lunch thrown in. In the government we get to pay for our lunches.

"Supposedly this is some technique that has become popular with planning teams at NASA..."

Umm... NASA? NASA? Good lord, NASA is the worst agency for future planning in the history of government.

"Maybe it makes more sense in the context of scientific inquiries where parameters are more clearly defined."

Nope.

Russell Arben Fox said...

The way he set it up was really rather hilarious, Glen. According to his account, this kind of "leapfrog-into-the-future-then-deconstruct-the-hypothetical-past" method was introduced by some planning guru who suggested that the various assembled engineers, scientists, etc., figure out is it that NASA managed twenty years into the future to make a rocket trip to Jupiter and back in a month. A month. The guru says, supposedly, "On the first day, they were dismissive, said it was impossible. Then, on the second and third day, they began to get the vision: they'd already done it, so it was possible; all they had to was realize, 'outside the box,' how it happened! And suddenly, the ideas poured forth!"

What I wanted to say, but didn't, was that it was on the second and third day when the assembled engineers and scientists realized the guru wasn't going to go away, and so they decided to start thinking about how a magic race of space elves came to secretly help them out.

Rob said...

Well, I'll just note that as far as I know NASA still hasn't developed a way to get to Jupiter in a month, or we would be doing it. So, y'know, to what end was the exercise at NASA undertaken, beyond paying a consultant to get people to dream without foundations?

In the "real world" (oh, please, let's not go down contesting *that* idea for now) there is no perceivable "infinity", and thus, no "infinity cluster", whatever *that* means (is it an extrapolation from a pedagogic principle? If so, then cluster sizes will bump up against the physical limitations of computer networks).

And, if you have to coin a words like "chaordic", "glocal", or "coopetive" to convey ideas, I submit that there are problems with the usefulness of the ideas.

I'm marvelously fond of correspondence and other distance learning courses, which I suppose is part of what your visionaries were getting at. And, at university I was marvelously uninterested in attending lectures, especially those of the weed-out courses in the engineering programs, so I can certainly see the advantage a young student would see in wanting technology to take some of the tedium out of undergraduate study.

(Why, for example, would I want to spend time sitting mute in an auditorium with 800 other students for an American Heritage 110 lecture, whatever the quality of the lecture, when I could watch the same thing either live or prerecorded, especially when all the real Q&A is done by TA's in another place and time? And why would I want to write essay responses in a blue book and mail it to a professor if there were a "clean" off-net computer and a copy of Word I could do it with?)

Perhaps that sort of teaching isn't done at Friends the way it is at BYU. I hope not, actually; it seemed the Physics TA's were almost all unable to speak the English language.

I think high communication technology, especially two-way tech, could serve to improve education at lower levels of the Bloom's and Williams' taxonomies, maybe Knowledge through Application in the former for critical thinking, and Fluency through Elaboration in the latter for creative thinking. Since that sort of thing comprises a lot of undergraduate learning/training, perhaps high comms tech is appropriate.

Beyond that, my life experience tells me that you need the tree, the teacher, and a relatively very small group of students.

What's more, I think that the small, local, and in-person models for teaching are behind the best of the fastest growing organizations in the world. Most all of those are religious societies which send people out one or two at a time to talk to other people one or two at a time, or to lecture if they can get the interest. Evangelicals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons all use that model, and continue the teaching in small, space-local units.

Since no tech guru is going to acknowledge the advantages of *that*, there might be no way to argue with them. But it's ironic, don't you think, that in order to tell you all about the brave new world of high-tech edu-madness, and in order to get you to think about it, they had to get you into small collaborative groups. And against your will, for that matter!

Patrick Deneen said...

Couldn't stop laughing as I read this - laughter that was close to tears. Alas, this is the governing parlance, and philosophy, that is increasing among administrators and their lackeys in all institutions of higher education. I'm not sure why you suggest I represent any exception to the rule - this sort of lingua idiotica is rampant on our campus as well. I will be attending something akin to this kind of session in about two weeks, so I'll give a report, which I expect it to be as funny, and pathetic, as yours. However, I lack any like-minded faculty who are actually engaged in "critical thinking," so it will be less bearable than yours appeared to be.

If you start that college you discussed, give me a call...

Russell Arben Fox said...

Patrick, I'm happy (sad?) to hear that you get to be subject to exact same "lingua idiotica" (awesome phrase, by the way) there at Georgetown as we do here at Friends. I suppose all I meant by my comment was that Georgetown is--presumably!--secure enough in its finances, and confident enough in the relative quality of its students, that teachers like yourself who insist upon such outdated modes of instruction as assigning books and giving lectures (regarding which students needs to take notes!) probably have a bit more security in resisting the tide than do teachers at basically open-enrollment institutions (which pretty much describes Friends), which feel the pressure to advertise themselves a little bit more as offering students exactly what they're used to already.

As for the locally-grown vegetables sold in the co-op in the downstairs of the Davis Building, I'll get back to you on that.

Glen said...

Rob said...
"And, at university I was marvelously uninterested in attending lectures, especially those of the weed-out courses in the engineering programs..."

Hah! I can vouch for that.

"Beyond that, my life experience tells me that you need the tree, the teacher, and a relatively very small group of students. "

Yes, I agree. You know, info tech has really changed the way I do my job. I no longer have to go to the library to find pertinent research; now I go to Google Scholar or Citeseer or on of several other sites and do keyword searches, and then download pdfs of the papers directly. For the most part, this is a very good thing; I can produce much higher quality literature reviews much faster than before. And, even though Russell slams Wikipedia, there are other more focused sites that work basically the same way that are absolutely bulletproof. One example is Mathworld, which is basically a wikipedia for all things mathematical. It's enormously comprehensive, fast, and free, and it's a great way to look up a formula or a technique you need to know.

But even with all that great, easily available information floating around, the new technology hasn't changed the way I learn. I cannot surf Mathworld to gain a better understanding of a field of mathematics I didn't already know. For that I have to seek out a colleague that knows the field and start asking questions. The teacher and the tree. And when I need to figure something out, I still use either a pad of paper or I stand in front of a board. I suspect this is even more true of non-scientific fields.

I dream of the day when the board and the web merge, because at that point I can stand in front of the board and write down new equations, but have the computer do the tedious job of solving them for me. If that ever happens, the computer will stop being a tool and will start looking more like a colleague. But we're a long way from that yet.

Glen said...

Since I'm at home today and really have little else to do...

I find something very ironic about all this. The idea of technology changing the educational landscape is not per se a bad thing. The book, after all, is a technology, and few people would argue that it had a net negative impact on the university. The printing press was also a technology, as were the transportation advances that made international study so much easier. I'd argue that even the lightbulb and air conditioning have improved education, in ways that you would really have to think about for a while to appreciate.

The problem is that for every good idea in how to improve education there are thousands of bad ones, and which are which are, of course, entirely unclear until well after the fact. So your futurist made the exact mistake he was trying to get you to avoid: he made a "linear" (remind me sometime to rant about ow that term is misused) extrapolation of current events - the advance of the internet, the vastly improved access to information - and assumed that more of the same was both inevitable and advantageous. This is a perfect example of thinking inside the box.

So, Russell - are there any conceivable technological advances you can think of that really would improve the way you do or could teach?

The Modesto Kid said...

So: It is 2009 and everybody has a pet pony. What obstacles did we have to overcome to get to this state?

Sounds kind of fun in the retelling, actually. But I can imagine that being there and thinking about the stuff you were not able to get done because you had to attend the session, probably outweighed the fleeting delights of snark.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Glen,

A couple of comments/clarifications:

I go to Google Scholar or Citeseer or one of several other sites and do keyword searches, and then download pdfs of the papers directly. For the most part, this is a very good thing; I can produce much higher quality literature reviews much faster than before.

I do the same thing; these tools for distributing research are wonderful. But--and here's the difference--you and I have learned what research is, and what it isn't. Students at the undergraduate level don't know that, and so they need to be obliged to sit still and work carefully through data and ideas in order to come to that understanding. An easy reliance on what much technology offers short-circuits that process.

Even though Russell slams Wikipedia, there are other more focused sites that work basically the same way that are absolutely bulletproof.

My concern isn't whether Wikipedia, or anything else, is bulletproof or not (I use Wikipedia all the time, especially when I want to look up some junk about, say, a canceled television program). My concern is what students who use Wikipedia are, or are not, learning how to do. I want good and timely data and research to be in their papers, but more importantly than that, I want them to learn how to identify what is the good and timely data and research out there. Wikipedia gets in the way of that.

Are there any conceivable technological advances you can think of that really would improve the way you do or could teach?

More money, more library resources, small class sizes, more guest lecturers and other educational opportunities, more efficient and predictable prerequisites and training made available to incoming students...is any of that "technology"? Some of it might be, under some definitions. But if you're looking at classroom-specific electronic technological tools, then my answer is, I think...no. I love e-mail, and I've experimented with blogs and wikis in the classroom, and so on and so forth. But the teaching itself? As Rob said, all I need is me, my students, and a tree (though I would also demand a chalkboard and some chalk).

Patrick Deneen said...

Russell -
Apropos your response to my response - NO school feels secure in its position. These institutions are sort of larger scale versions of our students - anxious, fearful of their position, always replete with intimations that they are falling behind as others are pulling ahead. It never ceased to amaze me when I was at Princeton how much time was spent wringing hands about what Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc. are doing - all the while, Princeton was "#1" on US News and World Report, so it was presumably setting the standard... The meritocracy applies with no less ruthless logic to institutions than it does to individuals (students, faculty, workers, etc.). Its logic is to make us all keenly desirous to be on the cutting edge - which, at this point, means adopting some of the Orwellian-speak of the business world.

Moreover, what's happened in private industry is happening here too - even if one's reputation seems nationally solid, there is the fear that international competitors are on the rise. This anxiety is doubtless being stoked by the widespread, growing, and probably accurage belief that the U.S. is losing its status as world's uncontested superpower (and a good thing too, I'd think).

What strikes me is that it is those institutions that have simply refused to play along that are much more self-confident about exactly what you describe. It has nothing to do with resources or quality of student, and everything to do with self-confidence in what one stands for. These are, most often, committed and religiously affiliated liberal arts colleges. Yes, the usual anxieties will creep in, but still, there is a far greater sense of clarity about mission and less desire to "keep up with the Joneses" - or the Princetons or Williamses. Still, what you're describing at your own religiously-affiliated college is disheartening - and one can only hope that good core faculty like you and your world-wise colleagues put the brake on this kind of idiocy. I strongly believe that what you teach in that setting will be far more needed than the kind of thing students at Georgetown are getting these days. We need to learn how to live in a world with less globalization and less mobility. That will not be easy, especially for those who believe it is their birthright. Resist the beast, fight the fight.

Rob said...

@Glen -- Ah me. I railed, didn't I? And now I look back and regret the lost opportunity.

Germane to this little discussion is the fact that I just completed BYU's HIST 201 course (with an "A", thankyouverymuch), surveying ancient world history to about 1500 CE. I used Wikipedia, oh yes, but only to find the sources the authors of the articles were using, in order to back check at the local library or see if a public domain book was already Google-scanned.

Research itself is both simplified and complicated by high comms tech, with the advantages and perils familiar to all of you, I'm sure.

Sure was nice to have the Medieval Sourcebook right there online, though.

The basic problem with HIST 201 online?

Yup. You already guessed it. Little or no contact with the professor. Less than satisfactory answers to my more mature lines of questioning (because I'm almost 40) about history, from the assigned TA. Frustrating, but still possible. And I was able to write eight pages of drivel about how we're all really still worshipping nature.

Even so, I think two things would have perfected the correspondence approach. The first would have been taped lectures. The second would have been for him to return my nature worship paper with at least a few comments over and above "94 -- A"

So, for what it's worth, I take your point.

By the way, Russell, do you teach lower 100-200 level classes? And, sign me up for those vegetables.

Glen said...

I understand and largely agree with your points about understanding how to do research. And certainly, wikipedia in particular gives a student no way to distinguish between what is accurate, what is not, what is current, what is old, and what is simply crap.

"But if you're looking at classroom-specific electronic technological tools, then my answer is, I think...no."

Technology and electronics aren't necessarily the same thing, although they are often equated.

And I also certainly agree that the fundamental resource for any educational experience is a talented, committed teacher and a small number of motivated students. Still, how about... a really good language translator? So you could give reading assignments of foreign language original sources? If you were teaching history, how about a way to simulate historical events so you could explore the (probable) results of different choices? No?

I'm interested because, in scientific fields, certain select electronic tools really can improve the learning experience. In my wife's classes, for instance - she teaches anatomy - they're exploring the use of electronic three-dimensional representations of the body as an alternative to paper medical illustrations. Some professors are also starting to use electronics simulations of bodily systems. Her advisor was one of the pioneers in developing these tools.

The problem one runs into, I think, is when you assume that the tools can replace the professor, or turn a poor professor into a good one. They can't. The best they can do is merely to allow the student to interact with the ideas presented in the class in different ways.

In a way, all of these things fall under the category of "improved library resources". Of course you can do both of those things without any electronics at all. The electronics just make them easier.

Glen said...

Rob wrote-
"@Glen -- Ah me. I railed, didn't I?"

I think there was plenty of railing going on, from all sides ;)

Russell Arben Fox said...

Rob--

I used Wikipedia, oh yes, but only to find the sources the authors of the articles were using, in order to back check at the local library or see if a public domain book was already Google-scanned.

See, if I could impress upon my students that this the proper way to use these tools, I would penalize them for relying upon it. But until then, or until I give up trying, I'm marking them down.

By the way, Russell, do you teach lower 100-200 level classes?

Yep. Just because they're new students doesn't mean we shouldn't have high expectations for them. In fact, it's better to get them used to it now than later.

Glen--

Still, how about... a really good language translator? So you could give reading assignments of foreign language original sources?

You mean, some easily available, perfectly accurate, context-and-culture-sensitive translator that they could run texts through on their own? Sorry, but from what I've heard, it doesn't exist. We're just going to have to rely upon texts that have been produced by actual human translators in this life, I suspect.

In my wife's classes, for instance - she teaches anatomy - they're exploring the use of electronic three-dimensional representations of the body as an alternative to paper medical illustrations.

Now, most of the stuff you bring up in regards to "recreation" of historical events or so forth falls under the category of "illustration" or role-playing to me, and you don't need anything fancier than an overhead projector or an Elmo for that. But what you say about your wife's work shows the limits of my teaching experience. History and politics and philosophy never involve such corporeal investigations, in case of which I can imagine holographic technologies being a great assent. So, in all that I say, keep in mind that I'm one of those low-paid humanities and social science losers, with all their usual attendant bitternesses, etc.

Glen said...

"You mean, some easily available, perfectly accurate, context-and-culture-sensitive translator that they could run texts through on their own? Sorry, but from what I've heard, it doesn't exist."

Yep, that's what I had in mind. I didn't mean to imply that such a thing actually existed, because you're right, they don't - just inquiring about whether, if one did, you would find it useful.

"Now, most of the stuff you bring up in regards to "recreation" of historical events or so forth falls under the category of "illustration" or role-playing to me, and you don't need anything fancier than an overhead projector or an Elmo for that."

Yes, of course - that's what I meant about technology and electronics not necessarily being the same thing. An overhead projector is technology, after all, and technology that Socrates didn't have. But you can also do such things using electronic tools, and in some cases the electronic tools may have some advantages over the transparency.

"keep in mind that I'm one of those low-paid humanities and social science losers, with all their usual attendant bitternesses, etc."

Okay, so that actually made me snort. I've never lived with a humanities professor, but I guarantee that there's considerable bitterness in the animal science department.

Nate Oman said...

I envision a future in which reactionary, localist communitarians, unable to find sufficient numbers of local interlocutors to maintain a vibrant discussion of how to undermine the global technological capitalist order use blogs, email discussion lists, and other forms of networked communication made widely available at low cost by a combination of large scale government research and global competition in the telecommuncations market to swap ideas about how to buy locally grown lettuce while persuading their students to become saddlers.