Observational Course Journal #1

The Observational Course Journal for TEL 791 is designed to “encourage and capture regular habits of observation and reading.”

For this entry, I observed a Faculty Flashpoint event at JMU about civil discourse and the current presidential election.

Part 1: Worksite: This week I had the opportunity to talk about my problem of practice with a student worker in the libraries who I knew was a transfer student and is graduating this year. It was interesting to hear from him his opinions on why transfer students don’t take the MREST before graduating. He had an anecdote about a friend who had to come back to campus over the summer to take the test in order to “ransom her diploma.” Interestingly, he did not connect the library to the test – he didn’t know that the library is responsible for the development and assessment of it – even though he has worked for us for three years and was one of our peer reference specialists. He said he’d had to discover the requirement on his own “as usual.” Lots to unpack in that particular conversation, and one that I’m using as part of my reconnaissance for my Problem.

Part 2: Observation: I observed the Center for Faculty Innovation (CFI) – sponsored flashpoint “What Ever Happened to Civil Discourse? The 2016 Election” on the afternoon of Friday 10/21. This was a 90-minute panel-based discussion of civil discourse in politics, particularly with an emphasis on the incivility in the presidential election. CFI sponsors events for faculty development, though students also attend. I believe some students come out of interest, and others are required to attend and report on events for class (much as I was doing). The panel consisted of four faculty members from political science, media arts & design, integrated science & technology, and psychology, and was moderated by a CFI Associate from art & art history. There were approximately 35 attendees (not counting CFI staff and the panel), of which I estimate 2/3rds were undergraduates and 1/3 were faculty. It was held in the Duke Hall atrium, a large, two-story space in the center of the art building, in which chairs had been set up. Through the glass wall on one side, two students were mounting an exhibition, and occasionally people would wander by on the first or second floor on their way to something else. The room was maybe half full.

The first half of the event was a typical panel discussion, in which the moderator asked, “What is the most important thing to keep in mind about discourse in this election – what would be your first point?” The four panelists talked for a while – and in surprising diversity – about this topic from their different perspectives. After than, the moderator opened the floor to questions. By my count, half of the questions were asked by students, and half by faculty. The student questions tended to be both more challenging (in the aggressive sense) than the faculty ones, which tended to what I call the “let me show you how smart I am” type. Two faculty members in the audience dominated the questions, one of whom essentially became a panelist because she would interrupt the panelists to answer student questions. This felt wrong, as if she were interrupting the established power of the accepted experts on the panel.

My sense of the educational nature of this event, the interrupting faculty member aside, was that it fit rather nicely into a discoursive model of instruction, which is driven by student questions and shared sense-making from multiple perspectives. One of the strong themes in the discussion was that while this season feels unique, when one looks at it from a broad historical perspective it is not. After that was established, the audience turned to trying to suss out what is unique about this time – my theory is that it’s a difference in the language available to women, minorities, and other underprivileged groups to describe their context – but we ran out of time to fully investigate this.

An interesting thing about CFI is that they have created a set of learning and fidelity outcomes for their events, including flashpoints like this one. These fit within their goal to develop the larger academic culture, in the Madisonian civic engagement model. Link: https://jmu.edu/cfi/academic-culture/flashpoints/index.shtml.

Part 3: Readings:

Weick, K. E. (1976). Educational organizations as loosely coupled systems. Administrative Science Quarterly, 21, 1-19. doi: 10.2307/2391875

Weick posits that, although the greatest amount of research and thinking about educational organizations has focused on tightly coupled systems (because these are visible and easy to track), the problems brought by loose couplings are deserving of attention. Of particular interest in this paper were the examples of loosely coupled systems (p. 5), the functions/dysfunctions of loosely coupled systems (pp. 6-9), and the questions for further research (pp. 16-18). Sense-making came up again, as it did in Rittel and Webber. This is a thread I think I’ll want to keep pulling on.

Hargreaves, A., Lieberman, A., Fullan, M., and Hopkins, D. (Eds.). (2010). Introduction. In Second International Handbook of Educational Change, Part 1. (xi-xxi). New York: Springer.

The introduction sets forth a vision of a future for education that turns away from the large scale (bigger), tightly controlled (tighter), data driven (harder), and gap-oriented (flatter) model for instruction (especially standards-based instruction), and towards a model of education that supports and nurtures innovation, creativity, critical thinking, and adaptive learning, as a result of a global economic meltdown. While the vision is solid, it also posits a post-materialist society that is hard to see at this time. There are ten suggestions/predictions given for education in the coming decade.

Bentley, T. (2009). Innovation and diffusion as a theory of change. In A. Hargreaves, A. Lieberman, M. Fullan, and D. Hopkins (Eds.), Second International Handbook of Educational Change, Part 1. (pp. 29-46). New York: Springer.

Bentley focuses on the challenges of diffusing innovative practice (he embraces standards, in seeming opposition to the Introduction) across large scale educational systems, with a particular focus on the potential ability of applying the lessons of open source technology innovation to the educational context. I see connections to the idea of loose and tight couplings, not just because Rittel and Webber and Jordan et al discuss the difficulty of spreading innovations across loose couplings, but also because the tri-level framework for educational management seems to

Part 4: Integrations: This week I’m thinking about my Problem of Practice in the context of innovations. Innovation has a connotation of newness and excitement – some product or process that fits a new niche.This is not the nature of the innovation I need to make for my PofP; I have a need for an innovation that fits well into the mundane, so that it can quickly be adopted into workflows and bypass the problems of diffusion across loosely coupled networks as described by Weick and, to some extent, Bentley. My conversation with my transfer student also highlighted some of that looseness of connections (if not coupling) across our university, with the student:test coupling being perhaps the least of my concerns. I’m thinking I need to do an inventory of relationships, intentions, actions, and goals out there, including the general education curriculum and academic advisors.


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