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Feeling Beleaguered?

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Many people who work in Higher Education are feeling beleaguered. Signs are easy to find, but I have had a special vantage point from my position as chair of the PCC faculty Learning Assessment Council these last two years (2010-2012). I have heard lots and lots of voices from dedicated and hard-working educators — people who feel pressed for the time and resources needed to do their jobs well, who feel under-appreciated even when they ARE doing their jobs well, and who are just not clear on what exactly it is that the reformers want, other than to heap blame.

By the way, I have stepped out of the chairperson position now. But I know that assessment will remain a faculty-owned and led initiative at PCC under the capable leadership of Michele Marden (last year’s Vice-Chair of the Council) and Wayne Hooke (a founding member and brave man, who steps into the Vice-Chair job.)

Meanwhile, Michael Morrow appointed me to the union’s executive council as one of his parting presidential acts, and the council ratified my new role as VP for PT faculty at Cascade. I am hoping to help make sure that the valuable assessment work taken up by faculty is both recognized AND FUNDED by PCC. (We also need it to be supported by professional development opportunities and the kind of in-house trainings that are possible through our campus-based TLCs.) I plan to continue this blog, but now as a way of sharing my particular point of view — NOT as an official vehicle of the Learning Assessment Council. If I come across particularly interesting or under-represented points of view as I talk with people here at PCC, I will invite them to write as guest-bloggers. And I will routinely try to entice other Council members or administrative supporters to take a turn as a poster.

Other than that, it will just be me posting to this blog.

So people are feeling beleaguered. And when feeling beleaguered, I think it is always a good idea to ask:

WHY are things so hard now?

What (in the *&%^$##) is going on?

Questions like these invite an analysis. And lots of people in academics are GOOD at analysis. As a result, they come up with lovely explanatory tales.

I have a private little system for sorting these explanations. Here is my classification array.

  • Things are bad because thoughtless or foolish or short-sighted people have made them bad (or at least prevented us from making the intelligent, long-term changes that would make things better.) Here’s an example that I like a lot: http://shankerblog.org/?p=6032
  • Things are bad because the education sector is undergoing HUGE changes due to changed world conditions and the fast pace of technological evolution. For an example, check back here NEXT week!

For now I want to look at the first two categories a bit.

Things are bad due to the bad actions of the bad people

There was a time in my life when I would have gravitated toward bad-people sorts of explanations.

My parents were very conservative politically, and hugely loyal members of the Catholic church. I came of age with the shouting matches characteristic of the generational rift of my time and social group. From my dad I heard: “If you don’t love America, why don’t you move to Russia?” From my mom: “How could you throw away the gift of faith?”  In my youthful arrogance I yelled back that the REAL patriots questioned the stupid choices of their political leaders, and that REAL seekers of spiritual truth questioned the claims of infallibility of their religious guides.

I told them that I was different than they were. That I was better. That I knew that I was right and they were wrong. It wasn’t LIBERALS who were ruining America, it was conservatives. It wasn’t the atheists that had lost their moral compass, it was the non-thinking allegiance to any one oracle of truth (like the pope) that was the true moral evil…

Fast-forward 4 decades….Both my dear father and loving mother are dead. We won’t get to yell about politics any more, thereby ruining some increasingly rare family get-togethers.  And so I can’t tell them how I now see what I kept of their way of making sense of the world, of what our differing views nonetheless had in common.

Though I had swapped out the labels of the bad guys and the good guys — Ronald Reagan was evil instead of the one true American Hero of our time! – still, I kept the basic explanatory framework.  Just like my parents, I pictured our earth as a battlefield between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Whenever I come across something that was bad or badly functioning, I saw it as the work of the bad, bad, bad people.  Who should be stopped…

Now, when I hear someone voice this kind of an explanation, I take a deep breath, close my eyes to try to call up my father’s face, my mother’s laugh …. and then turn away.  Things can be bad without the need to conjure up bad people.  This category of explanation just doesn’t satisfy me any more. Anyone who looks for the bad guys in the conservative reformers (and/or their corporate masters), the greedy and overpaid administrators exploiting the heroic instructors (who alone care about the students in the classrooms,) the feckless and spineless politicians (who will do anything to get elected)…. well, I wish them well. But an analysis that says bad stuff is due only or mainly to bad people tends to point to making things better by doing something bad to the bad people. It leads to demonization, a loss of curiosity, and recommendations for actions that are fundamentally warlike and intended to cause harm… That is because in this paradigm, we have to destroy in order to save, to beat some people down (the evil ones) in order for good to triumph, to hurt in order to help.

I think these explanations are false, and the advice we can glean from them unhelpful (or worse.) These days, I gravitate toward the idea that everyone is doing their very best….

Things are bad due to the bad decisions of the foolish or ignorant people

In conversations about the accountability movement —and specifically the emphasis on high stakes testing in the No Child Left Behind legislation — lots of people deride the idea that we can successfully reform education simply by decisions over what and how to measure. In the Shanker piece, for example, the roles of childhood poverty, economic and social inequality, and problems with variable access to basic health care and good nutrition are all called out…. Education is put in context, and we are asked to consider the question how we can expect teachers, by themselves, to effectively solve problems arising from much wider structural problems.  The idea that reformers are foolish — rather than evil —seems like a step up to me. And it leaves us some empirical maneuvering room around the question in the background —

what ARE the causal factors relating to learning success and failure?

People can have different hunches — and different research — about the answer to that question without being cast as bad people. The main problem I see, however, with entries in this category of explanation is they point to educator helplessness. If the reason so many of our students are failing in our classrooms (and with ever higher individual debt loads) is located in society-wide economic and social factors, then what are we to do? We are unfairly blamed…. but that is not very satisfying for very long, because this analysis means there is nothing WITHIN our classrooms we can do to help our students succeed….

I like explanatory theories the best that both refrain from demonization AND leave some conceptual room for effective action. And that is why I like explanations the best that are both BIG (including relevant context) AND maintain room for effective local solutions…

I think much of what we have built over multiple generations in “the west” has been challenged FAST by global changes in economics and politics, and the sweeping “disruptive” technologies for communication. I think it is our turn, as educators, to be disrupted. I think much of what has caused this huge and fast–moving dislocation is big picture and beyond local control. But I also think that there is much we can do —especially by turning toward one another, pooling our skills and wisdom, and staying open to change — to gladly and joyfully find ways to better serve our students.

Those people we are all here to serve.

I will tell you more about this kind of explanatory tale in my next blog.

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