Saturday, March 26, 2016

Master of my domain

Last term, during an exercise in which I forced students to think about their progress towards the undergraduate learning outcomes, one student who will be graduating in June said that she and most students were not prepared for the world outside the classroom.  Her point was something like this: "Here, we are told what we need to get done, and we do it.  But, at work, we have to show some initiative."

Most other students nodded in agreement.  I asked, "what prevents you folks from taking charge of your own education?"

It is not that I want students to set the curriculum and design courses.  But, there is a sense of agency that is missing in most students, especially the good ones who merely follow the orders.  In the post-industrial digital economy, there are fewer and fewer rewarding opportunities for those who merely carry out what the boss tells them--those are the jobs that are easily outsourced and offshored.  Loius Menand also writes about this, in an entirely different context however:
Today, if you were starting up a tech company (hey, maybe you are!), you would simply outsource your customer relations. In house, you would want your employees to be innovative and flexible, able to work in teams and adjust to new goals as they arose. You’d want to encourage your employees’ creativity by making them feel valued partners in the enterprise, active agents rather than code-writing drones. You’d be looking to maximize the ratio of brains to adaptability. You’d try to insure your employees’ commitment by making them feel that they were generating their own tasks and measures of performance, by having them “take ownership” of the workplace. You’d want reliable people who can also think “outside the box,” not people who think that successful performance means merely meeting preset goals. You would reward the most loyal employees with stock options.
Menand, unlike me, is a real thinker and writer, who has been an academic forever at a real university.  He is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard, and has been a writer for the New Yorker for more than a fifteen years.  Borrowing from the math concept that Vimala Sitaraman taught us decades ago, I like to think that Menand and I are similar triangles--his triangle is way, way, way bigger though.  Menand writes:
I don’t work in a startup. I work in a brick-and-mortar university, one of the most institutionally conservative workplaces in the world outside North Korea. But my colleagues and I all value flexibility and innovation. We are against routine thinking and rote learning. We teach our students to think outside the box and to be comfortable with failure. We stress the importance of teamwork and interaction; we seek to have our students take ownership of the classroom and to insure that they have a psychologically safe space in which to discuss their ideas. We want them to be smarter, faster, better.
Exactly!  (Though, I am not sure about "my colleagues" aspect.)  If students are even barely attentive in any of my classes, then they would have easily understood my comments on flexibility, innovation, rote learning, failure, teamwork, interaction, and--yes--ownership.  But, hey, when has the world ever paid attention to me and why should students, right?

At a higher education conference that I attended not too long ago--perhaps  the university regrets having sent me there--the presenters at one session emphasized "intentionality and reflective action."  As we got into the discussions, I asked them for tips on how to develop in students a sense of agency, so that they can take ownership of their education.  Of course, there is no easy formula for that.

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