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Mar 30, 2012


It was Pittsburgh this year where the Philosophy of Education Society held its annual meeting; a beautiful city. I started to come in 1994 or 95, and missed maybe one or two. The Society was founded in 1942, and John Dewey used to be a member. This is where I get to be someone else entirely. Of course, my philosopher friends know I went to the Dark Side, and joke about it. But it is all the same to them – it is the merits of your argument that count, not seniority, or how many people on the program committee are your friends (in fact, it is harder). The Society is notorious for taking peer review very seriously. One of the former presidents complained that his papers were rarely accepted before and after he served as the President: “What kind of scholarly society routinely snubs its presidents?” I had a dry spell of perhaps 9 years where I sent something in every year without any luck. It is not enough to have a good idea, but one needs to develop the craft to develop a good argument. And once you get the craft down, you tend to run out of ideas. It is not easy to have both, and the truth is – whenever you sit down to write, you can never be sure that something worthy will come out. And this is how it should be. Of course, now we can “publish” anything at all – even the haphazard writing like in this blog. And because of that, we need places like my PES even more than before. Someone has to apply impassionate scrutiny to our thinking. We need a friend who understands but who is tough. Otherwise, the intellectual enterprise called scholarship disintegrates in the relentless play of ambition, vanity, and opinion.

Higher education is changing. Every week we hear about one or another potentially disruptive innovation. Teacher education that used to support philosophy of education is under pressure, and cannot support the field anymore. And it is understandable – we are asking the public to pay for us to think deeply about education, and yet no one outside the group can understand what the conversation is about. It is a great degree of trust we are asking for, providing that unlike biologists or engineers we cannot really demonstrate any tangible benefit to the society. Change is inevitable and may be profound. I just hope there will always be a PES conference, even if none of us get to be full time philosophers. Who cares, right? Socrates did not get a pay check from the Athenian state at all; he did get a free cup of hemlock to drink. A Russian geneticist organized a secret graduate school at a Moscow pharmacy when Stalin outlawed genetics. We can’t complain of being persecuted.

Mar 16, 2012

The Open College

We deal with a number of external players – partners, collaborators, competitors, regulators, employers of our graduates, sites for field placements, funders, advocacy groups, parents, etc. They all are fairly annoying: do not understand what we do, but think they know how to run our show. Most are unhappy with us, or have specific demands, expectations, and requests; the great majority of those are unrealistic and naive. And need I mention? – Not one of our partners understands research.

Yet when I look at which projects are moving fast, and which are stalled or moving slowly, a pattern emerges. We work much faster, and do a better job when an outside partner is involved in a significant way. Examples? - The four new courses were developed within one week, because we were trying to beat the deadline on a project with TFA. The Youth Development degree and Youth Services certificate were developed within just a few months, because of our collaboration with the afterschool community. The Early Childhood degree major revision received a tremendous boost from both the program’s advisory board, and from our working with Ready to Learn Providence. The School Advisory Board has proven to be an extremely effective think tank that generated numerous practical projects, including the Blackstone Valley Prep Residency program. This blog is inspired by the Board’s meeting last night. I can think of several more examples, although there are some exceptions.

Having all those annoying outsiders on curriculum projects is good for us. Being insulated in our own professional community is not so good. To be fair, most of our faculty reach out in some capacity and try to be useful to others. It is the return traffic that we’re often weary about (this does not apply to everyone equally). Like anyone else, we develop the echo-chamber effect; we share fundamental assumptions, and hear what we want to hear. The outsiders do not share these assumptions, and prove to be more difficult to deal with. However, they also have new ideas and fresh look at our affairs. Moreover, many of our external partners are also our customers. We do ourselves a tremendous disservice if we stop listening to what they want and need. This is the paradox: to be effective as specialists, we need to be someone insulated, to develop our own language, and to have much autonomy over our own affairs. However, these very conditions, if taken too far, damage our ability to be responsive, creative and agile. We need to maintain our professional autonomy, because without autonomy there is no responsibility. But it cannot be done without the voices of those who we serve be constantly present. I don’t know anything about programming, but it does not mean I can be ignored by programmers as a consumer of software. Just because principals, superintendants, and school committees do not know about higher education and teacher preparation does not mean we can ignore what they want. 

We need to think of ways of radically opening ourselves up to the world. We don’t have to do what we are asked by outsiders, but we cannot do anything without asking for their opinion. As a first step towards that goal, a few new rules:
  1. Every committee charged with a program design or revision must either have an outsider on it, or have a way to collect systematic feedback from outside professional communities. Do both if you can. 
  2. Every program must systematically subject its curriculum to the scrutiny of the profession it serves. 
  3. Most projects must have an outside partner.

Mar 9, 2012

How to ask for money without begging

Your children’s teacher, principal, and counselor are likely to be Rhode Island College’s graduates. RIC improves Rhode Island’s knowledge-based economy and makes this a better place to live and to invest in. We do it by providing rigorous and student-centered college experience to everyone at a reasonable cost. The State’s voters, philanthropists, and legislators have long recognized our value to the public and invested in our institution. Now we need more of your support to implement critical initiatives at Feinstein School of Education and Human Development:

  • First few years on the job are critical to a teacher’s career; too many talented teachers become discouraged. Help us follow our graduates into their first years and provide coaching and mentoring support. Help us nurture the new generation of smart and passionate teachers. 
  • A new teacher should not only be a competent instructor, but also an agent of change. Help us give new educators skills and experiences that will make them leaders of tomorrow’s education. 
  • Children learn not only in schools, but in after school and summer programs. We just designed a major and a certificate in Youth Development, a degree in Community Health and a coaching minor. Help us build on these successes and become a regional leader in the field of Youth Development. 
Dedicate you gift to one special teacher that changed your life. Remember, we need to prepare more of them for every child in Rhode Island. Contribute to the Feinstein School of Education and Human Development’s campaign My teacher is the best. Our goal is to raise one million dollars to fund innovation.

We had a development workshop for deans about fundraising earlier today. One of the things we learned is how to construct a clear message if you are going to ask anyone for money; either an individual philanthropist or a group of people. The message should include some emotional appeal, an argument on why your organization deserves help, and also communicate how you are going to spend the money. And it should be brief, otherwise no one will read. So, it took me perhaps 2 hours to write this draft above – and it is still rough. I could have written 4-5 pages of a reasonably coherent text in that time, or send two dozen emails. But that is not what we need in this instance. I will appreciate any ideas on how to improve the blurb.

I have written already about writing shorts. It is not easy, for the more crowded is the informational space, the more effort it takes to compact rich meaning in smaller and smaller packages. Yet it is also perversely fun. I encourage anyone to take your best piece of writing, and just try to compact it to a form that is no longer compactable, but still does not lose much of the meaning. It feels like self-mutilation at times, but it works. This is why some people get paid millions of dollars for one-liners. I have heard somewhere that one word used for branding can cost 20,000-150,000 to develop at a high-end marketing company. One word, and sometimes it is not even a new word; so people pay someone to find it in the dictionary! It is not, however, something magical and we can definitely try to work on these messages internally. They may not be brilliant, but still much better. For example, last year a committee developed “ED@RIC: Change Lives!” tagline. Is still think it is a good one, and we just need to incorporate it into a more comprehensive public relations and fundraising campaign.

Mar 2, 2012

The flood

CEP offices were flooded this week with sewage, a third flood of those offices in recent memory. The work crew is still cleaning and drying the carpet (brand new), cutting the bottom parts of drywall, drying between the walls… It does not stink anymore, but is noisy, crowded with huge fans, workers and their tools, hot, and yucky. It could not have come at a worst time. As everyone knows, that week right before the Spring break is the hardest in academia, what they call “the cabin fever” in the West. Everyone is tired, the winter has been long (although mercifully mild), and most of us are behind on our work. A candidate came for an interview the next day after the flood. Students still need to meet; their mid-term projects still need feedback and grading.

There is no way anyone could call a sewage flood a good thing. Yet I want to say that the unexpected events like this – disasters for sure, but not mortal disasters – bring certain richness to our lives. Otherwise, life would have been too predictable, too plain. They can bring out best in people, too. I am very impressed how Monica deals with the whole mess decisively, and reasonably. I am happy to see the Facilities folks at their best, reacting quickly, and communicating with us clearly and openly. I heard how our two secretaries Ginnie and Paula solved the interview location problem without a prompt, as a matter of fact. It warms my heart to see Charlie having a conversation with a student among the chaos, both seem to be unfazed. Prachi’s office is unsafe because it flooded the second time, and yet her computer is on, and she has been working. Ellen offered a vacant office (sabbatical) to a CEP faculty as a temporary shelter. They all are stressed, I am sure, but they also use this as an opportunity to dream big and to plan for the future.

I wish I could tell about all the little acts of grace, inventiveness, creativity, and persistence that happen here around me every day, every minute. I wish I could know all the stories that happen without me. Life is endlessly fascinating.