Monday, 19 December 2011

Innovative Education for a New Century

I was recently asked how I would design a university for the new millennium if I were given the chance to be apart of such a project, especially how I would design the teaching of my field (Rhetoric). I wrote this for my reply, and although it is a draft I believe that in my proposal I have been able to sketch some of the main challenges and solutions for modern education.

                In “Changing Education Paradigms” Ken Robinson states that public education was conceived to meet the needs of industrialism and the institutions of public education were formed in its image. As Thomas Miller confirms in The Evolution of College English, institutions of higher learning followed the same patterns. Harvard and Yale, along with most other Ivy League schools, were initially founded to educate clergy for the work of the ministry. Due to pressure from both students and the merchant class, they gradually condescended to prepare graduates for other careers in law, trade, and primary education. This pattern has repeated itself again and again, showing clearly that universities, traditionally conceived, are endemically conservative institutions which furiously resist change and innovation in curriculum, canon, pedagogy, and institutional hierarchy. It is therefore no wonder that in an increasingly competitive world where change is accelerating, universities have fallen far behind society in developments of culture, methodology, and accountability. As a result they are failing to prepare students to make meaningful contributions in a modern society and economy.

Our Board of Trustees noted that “the pace of change in the economy and in our democratic society will require inventive, versatile, and nimble learners.” In order to educate such students, we have to question the assumptions that have dictated our educational traditions for centuries, and seek to learn from best practices in business, education, government, and non-profit sectors all around the world. A very basic inquiry so far has led us to certain principles of behavior which again suggest changes in educational policy and practice. You can see Ken Robinson's analysis in the video below, which is brief, entertaining, brilliant, and explains the background for my reinvention of English Departments and university structures.
Core Principle: Collaborative Communities, Not Individual Genius, Are the Engines of Innovation
Study after study has shown conclusively that group dynamics is one of the strongest controllable factors which reduce or increase innovation, even greater than individual ability. This flies in the face of educational practices such as individual testing and auditorium lectures; as well as professional practices which do not encourage collaboration and co-authorship across disciplines and penalize such work in tenure reviews. The structure of a traditional English Department, with closed-off offices, limited common areas, and socializing events generally organized within departments, plays to the Romantic ideal of the prophet-poet in voluntary seclusion to be “unsullied by the world.” Too often, this disinterest in the welfare of the world, nation, city, or even department is all too perfectly achieved, and as a result many educators are unable to articulate exactly why the world should be interested in what they have to say.

Implication 1: Focus Teaching and Research in Voluntary Centers, Not Departments
At W.L. Gore and Associates, which for the last eleven years has been ranked highest both in innovativeness and employee satisfaction, they noticed that large facilities and plants significantly reduced capacity for innovation and growth. As a result they focused their business model on small teams working together in locations which seldom exceeded 250 employees. This despite the fact that W.L.Gore hires thousands of employees all over the world. The research and teaching of professors should be focused in centers working towards specific purposes. Thomas Miller gives an example from Temple University where the Institute “brought together poets, critical pedagogues, social activists, and others involved with literary and cultural studies” (246) around literary studies and democratic culture. One center at New Millennium University could be called “Center for Democratic Leadership” with a focus on democratic experience and collaborative action. The approach would be inter-disciplinary, bringing together scholars in rhetoric, literature, political science, organizational behavior, communication studies, etc. Professors would apply for temporary positions, with the center of their choice much like workers (called associates) at Gore are not assigned tasks, but rather apply for the projects they themselves find interesting. As such they are invested in the center’s success and they have personally committed to work towards common goals.
                Implication 2: Leadership through Persuasion, Not By Coercion
In “Harnessing the Science of Persuasion” Robert B Cialdini outlines the challenge of leadership for corporate executives:
[They] every day have to figure out how to motivate and direct a highly individualistic work force. Playing the ‘Because I’m the boss’ card is out. Even if it weren’t demeaning and demoralizing for all concerned, it would be out of place in a world where cross-functional teams, joint ventures, and intercompany partnerships have blurred the lines of authority. In such an environment, persuasion skills exert far greater influence over others than formal power structures do. (72)   
The centers are established on a temporary basis by allowing professors formulate their own ideas for them with main objectives and a tentative mission statement sketched out. They would then present their ideas to the greater body of faculty to generate interest and applications for their center. A center without applications or followers will simply cease to exist before it has started. It is a necessary prerequisite to this approach that all faculty operate as equals without the constraints of a hierarchy. To end the multi-tiered system of tenured professors, untenured adjuncts, and lecturers, the system of tenure should not be established. A relatively high entrance-level salary, combined with opportunities for academic development and an innovative culture will still attract strong talent to the university. The contract of any professor will go through regular performance reviews, and one thorough review every five years. Ending tenure will render all individual professors accountable to the collective faculty body and to the student body. It also makes the university climate more dynamic with more new hires and project-driven focus. The professors themselves need to be examples of mobility, innovation, adaptability, and creativity if that is what we want our students to become. A regular student will have at least eight different jobs throughout their career, and professors themselves need to develop some of that experience. Additionally, the “spontaneous” nature of followership means that leaders will emerge inasmuch as they possess and display qualities of leadership similar to those the students will need to be leaders in their work. The personal development of faculty will be directed towards leadership and collaboration, since these are some of the keys for higher pay. As at Gore, the salary of professors will be determined by their peers based on the value of their contributions to the team.
                Implication 3: Organize Based on Purpose, Not Educational Background 
Although there will still be a Department of English, enlisting an equal balance of professors in Literature, Rhetoric and Composition, English Education, and English Language, the focus of the university will be built around the innovative centers. Department of English Literacy is quite cumbersome, and would almost necessitate the suffix of “literacy” to be added to just about every department at the university (Information Systems Literacy, Science Literacy, Communications Literacy, etc.). Literacy broadly speaking means to be able to understand and use a certain symbol-system for a certain purpose. In a world and university with many symbol systems (and every teacher operates in several of them) it makes more sense for scholarly work and teaching to be focused around purpose (as in the centers) than means.
                The focus on purpose would also be a central factor in the hiring process. Without tenure the university has more options to hire faculty specifically for individual projects; generally they should be looking for people who will not only fit the skill sets needed for the job, but who also feel comfortable and can contribute in the organizational culture. The university should hire not only Ph.D.s, but also master students and bachelor students with significant professional experience in their fields. For example, Rhetoric students should be able to learn from social activists, speech writers, public relations professionals, political strategists, negotiators, etc. who could teach them how to apply rhetorical principles in specific rhetorical situations. Especially professional experience, and experience in community work and outreach, applying the principles of the field should be desired qualities for hiring.
                Implication 4: Students Should Be Taught and Evaluated in a Collaborative Community
Almost every sector outside of education has understood that collaboration is the stuff of growth, and that is the general situation graduates will face, whether in business, government, or not-for-profit organizations. Yet universities are stuck in paradigms which try to measure intelligence, analysis, and learning individually. The timed test does not correspond to any meaningful activity in a modern society. It is more a test of memorization techniques than of intelligence, analytical ability, or even comprehension. Group projects, research, presentations, and proposals on the other hand have a more direct relation to valuable production in a modern society. Though there are many different approaches and methods in the various fields at a university, there are some common goals which should direct the undergraduate teaching: 1. Learning and evaluation should be collaborative, and 2. Teaching and evaluation should always include an element of practical application of the principles learned in the course. This practical application should preferably be connected to solving real problems, and should be connected to the over-all purpose of the center which the professor belongs to. In this way the students themselves can participate in research, community outreach, and problem-solving, which will make them more attractive for the labor market. Because of this focus on group work, all students need to learn basic skills of communication and collaboration. This will be accomplished by requiring all students to take a class in Rhetoric and Composition and a class in Organizational Behavior in their first year of college, preferably in the first semester. Some of these classes can be taught by graduate students in order to give them valuable experience in teaching, but at least half of the classes should be taught by experienced faculty who can train and supervise one graduate student each. These courses are the foundation for the rest of the university education for the incoming students, and as such they must be given the most careful oversight.
Final notes on Majors, Minors, and GE
                The General Education requirements would remain pretty much as they are today. The English major would be much more flexible with equal amount of choices among the four foundations of English (language, literature, education, and rhetoric). To fulfill the General Education requirement every student should take at least one class about the rhetorical conventions of their chosen major. For example, there would be a class on “The Rhetoric of Physics,” “The Rhetoric of Math,” or “The Rhetoric of Dance,” since all disciplines to a certain extent depend upon written knowledge to store and transmit information. The classes would feature some genre theory from Devitt, discourse theory from Kenneth Burke, and Wayne Booth’s “Motivism and the Loss of Good Reason.” These would be the tools students would then use to analyze the current discourses of the scholarly community in their field to discover trends, analyze what counts for sufficient evidence, and the attitudes and values which the community holds In common. The GE requirement in literature would be a course in literary analysis, featuring deep reading of works from several periods of American or British Literature. Education and language would feature a course together, teaching language and language pedagogy, culminating in community outreach teaching English language to pupils in high school and primary school that are struggling with the concepts of the English language. The minimum requirement (excluding the First Year Composition program) would be 9 credit hours.
                Each of the four pillars of English would have their own minor, with one English major featuring optional courses from all four fields but at least one of each required. All English major graduates should know the fundamentals of literature, education, language, and rhetoric. The English majors should be able to shop around to form their major according to their career plan and interests. For Rhetoric it is essential that courses are established in The Rhetoric of Social Media and Online Communities. It should be a course which allows the student to try to establish an online presence and attract an online audience by using Kenneth Burke’s literary form to keep attention and Internet advertising tools to attract it.