Agile Faculty Manifesto – Responding to Change

This post is part of a series looking at the Agile Faculty Manifesto. Read the Manifesto in this series preview post or in Chapter 1 of the book. This post explore what it means to focus on responding to change in higher education.

Agile Faculty respond to changing environments rather than maintain status quo of academia.

<My academic brain is telling me I should support the following post with extensive research about the history of the university, but I’m just going to go with my gut here. I do recommend Cathy Davidson’s recent book, The New Education, as a great resource.>

In the afterword to Agile Faculty, I spend time in a thought experiment, imagining what Agile higher education might look like, imagining what might happen if we broke the legacy features of university structures and tried something radically different, something more flexible and Agile/agile, something truly responsive to the students and communities we serve. And much of it is a pipe dream.

The academy is a paradox – we are supposed to educate future citizens so they are ready to contribute economically, socially, and civically…but we do it through a mishmash of anachronistic systems – the medieval university ideal (see regalia, which is the bane of my existence during mid-May outdoor graduations in North Carolina), the German research university model, Harvard’s elective system developed by Charles Eliot in the late 1800s, the Carnegie system for counting hours and seat time, etc. Responding to change in academia then can be a paradox as well, when our reproduced and entrenched systems are often at the heart of the problem.

In my five years teaching as a graduate student and 11 years as a faculty member, I have gone through periods when I have fiercely defended my “turf” from perceived threats, justified the existence of programs and courses in my area, argued with people creating courses just to teach their esoteric research specialty, spent large chunks of time fearing being scooped before my research and book came out, and complained about teaching (and about other people complaining about teaching) service courses. I have attended meeting after meeting that could have been accomplished by email and a good Google Doc. I’ve participated on committees and work groups to design university programs and enhance curricular offerings, even as we struggle between what we perceive to be the demands of academic rigor and job-readiness, a struggle felt most deeply in the humanities.

It wasn’t until after my (positive) tenure decision that I really started to interrogate these structures and create new options, even from within the system itself (see my work on the Design Thinking Studio in Social Innovation). But really I have supported and reproduced the systems of higher education through my teaching, research, and service activities. Because old habits are almost impossible to break when they are so entrenched in our academic psyches. I read a Twitter thread recently about power and hierarchy in academia, arguing that the entire underlying currency for academics is respect and reputation, gaining it, bestowing it, withholding it. The original impetus for this particular thread was issues of sexual harassment in the academy, but it resonates on so many levels. We can’t fix problems with the tools we used to create them.

It wasn’t until after my (positive) tenure decision that I really started to interrogate these structures and create new options, even from within the system itself.

The world around us is changing (obviously, it always has been), and it can often feel like we (at least I) are stuck in a system that doesn’t make sense. Why is a narrowly focused single-authored manuscript that will appeal to a tiny readership the gold standard for many tenure decisions? Or only publications in certain “high quality” journals count rarely journals about pedagogy or faculty development (which surely are just side interests, right)? What does tenure even mean anymore, especially in the face of overworked, undervalued adjunct labor teaching classes other academics are trying to get out of teaching? Why do we still have semesters and seat time requirements? Do people really learn from sitting in a chair in a classroom for 200 minutes a week for 14 weeks? Why do we still grade papers on an A-F scale when we know we have trained students to work for a grade instead of for learning, when we know that will be a damaging perspective to take into the work world?

I could go on. I’m sure you agree with some of these points and disagree with others, perhaps strongly. I’m sure I would feel the same about your points. But, really, my point here is that if we truly want to prepare students for the opportunities, challenges, and hard struggles they will face as citizens, we need to rethink our systems for helping their skill and knowledge development. If we want to relate more to the public and legislators angry as they imagine faculty sitting in comfy chairs reading 24-7, we need to be more public with what we do, why we do it, and how it contributes to society. etc. etc.

Because of the faculty governance model, it falls to us to recognize the changes in our world and students and be actively responsive rather than reactionary and protectionist. Yes, we can still demand rigor and critical thinking and excellent writing and speaking skills while re-imagining what higher education could look like, the experiences, the rhythms, the relationships, the learning, the acting. What would your response to change be, and how will you act on it?


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