Saturday, October 18, 2014

Shooting for Buy-in

“We knew they wouldn’t stand a chance,” Student X said.  “The training we gave them was shit.”  
Class was long over and a conversation about total institutions had naturally led to the military, and from there to ISIS and the current situation in Iraq.  Student X was a vet and spoke freely about his time in the Army.

“We’d give them their shiny new M16, aim ‘em at some makeshift target, and say shoot.  They’d then blow through a few magazines and we’d call it good.”

“That’s it?” I was incredulous.

“Yep.  No range.  Nothing about sighting-in or how to maintain the weapon.  We didn’t want them to know too much.”

“Because of deserters?”

“Yep.  Why would I want to train an Iraqi soldier today who might change his mind and decide to shoot me tomorrow?”

“Weren’t you an officer?  What about your orders to train the new Iraqi army?”

“I was an NCO –in the dust with the grunts.  We went through the motions but given the reality of our world, actually filling that boot on the ground, we weren’t exactly motivated. It’s no wonder they’re getting beat so bad.  We didn’t train them at all.”

A feeling of resignation and distant anger took hold of me.  It was top-down thinking at its best and a common failing of any large institution.  Those in charge, in this case remote politicians and generals, conceive an idea and make a decision.  This plan of action is then kicked down the chain of command for actual implementation.  Thus, a strategy devised in Washington by high level officials must be executed in Iraq by those on the very bottom of the totem-pole.  These sad-sack individuals, living the reality of the conflict, naturally have their own ideas and opinions about what needs and should be done.  Given the vast discrepancy in rank, geography, agency, and personal safety, these ideas are often quite different from those of their far-off superiors.  So, as Student X says, they go through the motions.  They do enough to look busy and avoid getting in trouble, then call it a day.  A report then travels up the long chain stating that Iraqi soldiers were trained today.  This is not true, but because it is properly filed and sent back up through the ranks (like some vast game of telephone) it gains a sort of organizational reality.  After a few months of these reports the politicians and generals at the top assume their plan has been implemented. 

Large institutions are predicated on this sort of magical thinking.  A linguistic imperative is made (in the beginning was the word) and physical reality is then expected to conform.  Now, if this change was anticipated immediately, no one would buy in.  However, because the command is uttered by a figure isolated by his/her own authority and expected to be carried out by distant minions, a seemingly efficacious fantasy is sustained:  “I told them to train the troops.  They said they trained the troops.  Therefore, the troops must be trained.”  Sadly, the devil is in the details. 

Given his position Student X can’t really be blamed for this failure.  Nor can the generals and politicians be judged for believing these generally honest and hard-working soldiers.  Everyone involved, including the tragic Iraqis, is simply a victim of institutional thinking.  

So, why am I relating all of this in a blog ostensibly about education?  Because, for better or worse, we teach within institutions.  The stakes are, admittedly, lower, though perhaps no less important when looking at the long-term health and well-being of our nation. As teachers we occupy a unique role in the hierarchy of the institution.  We have administrators above us relaying commands and expressing expectations, and below us are our students, to whom we relay commands and express expectations.  This makes us the fulcrum of the institution and ideally positioned to combat the perils of institutional thinking. 

We do this by seeking to understand the “boots on the ground” reality of the students –what are their challenges, hopes, and fears?  In turn, we ask for them to buy-in to our vision of what needs to be accomplished.  Working in close conjunction (and this is key) we can then pursue implementation together and track results. 

When looking to our administrators, we must demand the same.  Invite them into our reality, share our goals and concerns and then seek to develop an institutional vision together with broad, vertical support.  If a teacher feels understood and believes in a president’s plan, it’s likely to succeed.  But if not . . . well, we might as well just call it a day.        

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Generation Specs

Apparently, the Millennials aren’t very smart.  No, really, there’s even a book on the subject: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.  Falling just outside this maligned designation, I’m rather fond of Mark Bauerlien’s title, and I enjoy confronting my students with it.  Their reactions generally veer from woeful acceptance: “Yes,” their sad little eyes say, “yes, we are,” to righteous indignation, “who does he think he is!”  Regardless of the student’s emotional response to Mark Bauerlien’s published impertinence, the book is a capital conversation starter and a fine segue into discussions on parenting, technology, consumption, and even philosophy.  On particularly diabolical days, I’ve been known to divide classes, force them into a little research, and then let them go at it Law and Order style.  The resulting class session neatly encapsulates one of the more important debates of our age, and offers a nice rebuttal to Bauerlien’s assertion: these kids are smart, you just have to get them away from them:

Lacking a personal video to prove this, I’ll instead introduce one of my teacher-crushes and let him do it for me.  Mike Rugnetta has made over 100 brilliant and funny shorts for the PBS Ideas Channel, and, this close to Halloween, I’ll go with his talk on Zombies.  Regard:

Great stuff, right?  Well, your opinion might vary according to your age.  Remember the expression, “if it’s too loud, you’re too old”?  In this case, it’s more like “if it’s too fast, too mashed-up, too multi-faceted, too self-referential, you’re too old.”  Rugnetta is delivering a fusillade of fine information on the topic of zombies, his thoughts and ideas ranging carelessly (and pointedly) from pop culture to classical sociology, from low brow to high.  He colors with all of modern human experience, and he’s not afraid to go outside the lines.
Now, the most common invectives lobbed at Millennials accuse them of a lack of concentration, diligence, and the ability to think deeply.  And some studies bear this out.  However, the brain exhibits remarkable plasticity, and while technology and modern life may weaken some skills, it’s actively strengthening others.  Video games and multi-layered social engagements train young people to access and absorb a great deal of information quickly.  Refer back to Rugnetta’s rant on zombies.  Ideas are relayed via video, text, audio, and image simultaneously, resulting in a thought-collage rather than a one-dimensional point.  The advantage of such a system is readily apparent though still undervalued and certainly underserved.

As a literature professor, I can surely appreciate the importance of concentration and deep reading.  However, as a pop-culture teacher, I can also value stimulation and multiplicity.  Reaching students and providing a meaningful education means not choosing one over the other, but rather utilizing both, and in so doing engendering a learning environment everyone can benefit –regardless of generation.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

No Man is an Island

What a strange profession teaching is!  Though we pass our coworkers in the hall, eat with them at lunch, sit beside them at meetings and share supplies, joys and fears, our labor itself is solitary.  In five years of teaching at Yavapai, I’ve had only two colleagues in my classroom.  We’re accustomed to this                      
independence, some of us even celebrate it, but it’s certainly not the norm.  The bricklayer can view his buddy’s growing wall, the lawyer her opponent, the doctor his office partner –their techniques, feats, and foibles are all quite public to the profession. This is not the case with teaching.  Students filter in and out, but our peers do not.  At work, perhaps only the author is more isolated in her practice. 

The result of this is a sort of Galapagos evolution: over the years we adapt and improve but only within a very narrowly defined, self-determined ecosystem.  Yes, occasionally diversity washes up on our shores in the form of conferences, Academe articles, and 9x9x25 Challenges, but, for the most part, our pedagogy plays out in isolation.  This can create didactic dodos –creatures perfectly suited for their own environment but incapable of adapting to new challenges.  In a century thus far defined by ever-evolving technology, increased governmental attention, and administrative pressures, an inability to react and alter course may ultimately prove a genetic dead-end.   

So what’s the answer?  In a career that lends itself to professional sequestration, how do we promote  sustainable adaptation?  Easy.  We just need to introduce a little hybrid vigor.  Now, before you get all hot and bothered, realize that, for us, this means watching other teachers at work.  We need to get into their classrooms, attend their lectures, take their quizzes, complete their assignments, and then shamelessly incorporate anything of value into our own instruction. 

At some colleges this method of career development is institutionalized, but more often teachers have to seek it out on their own.  So let’s do more of that here at Yavapai.  Open your classroom to a colleague.  Take a course from a friend.  Join a MOOC.  Do anything collaborative –just don’t be a didactic dodo.