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Friday, June 24, 2011

Reflecting: Neal/laeN

I am finally getting around to my requested reflection (before the deadline even)

1. What worked? What would you celebrate?
In general, I always celebrate the learning that I have undergone (and continue to undergo) as I continue participating in the SUSTAIN project. The ability of a disparate group of faculty to convene on a regular basis to talk about something very risky and poorly understood demonstrates a commitment to try new things and even learn. Much of this learning has been painful given the seeming misunderstanding that often seems to happen but I even celebrate that.
Why? Because it makes me feel that I am going through the same process that my students go through in learning something. The engaged students (some of them) can be demanding and often feel strongly that things could have been better -- a better lecture, a more organized syllabus, better objectives, etc. As an instructor, it can rile me that they think that they know what they are talking about but then I realize that this is potentially a sign that they are paying attention. I hope that they understand (sooner rather than later) that there was a rhyme and reason to what I did but I also accept the possibility that they might be right. In going through the SUSTAIN project meetings I get similar feelings that the students have that things would go so much smoother/faster if people accepted/believed/understood where I was coming from. Fortunately, I stay mum and realize that I am continuing to learn and that others are also learning but not always in the same or in understandable ways. We often tend to believe that a structure imposed on a group is best for the group but, realistically, it isn't that way. It's best for the university, for the budget, for the department but no one can realistically say that it works best for anyone -- it tends to be what we do. SUSTAIN is allowing us to question that approach but we are all learning. So, I celebrate my learning much more about the other "professional" colleges and of the un-"professional" colleges (sorry for the lame joke). This whole process has made me think of what Paul Romer has said about his charter cities project (look it up on TED) -- it is all about building institutions that allow a process for establishing rules to change rules.

2. What is missing or yet to be done in order for the 100-student freshman iniative to be successful?
Oh, the usual stuff -- the students, the final schedule, etc. More broadly, I am not convinced that we are missing anything fundamental that the process itself will not provide. We are all pretty smart yet we sometimes stress about having more of a finished plan than maybe we really need. Going back to my comments about learning in the first section of this post, are we expecting too much to have everything worked out to everyone's satisfaction? To put it differently, does everyone's concerns have to be answered or do we trust ourselves (based on a lot of work done over a lot of time) to move ahead and know that we have a means to dealing with (the inevitable) problems that will arise as we implement the program. As we build this SUSTAIN institution, we are building a communal trust. I know that people can respect my concerns but I also know that I trust them to have my best interests in their mind (so long as I am willing to share them) as we move ahead into less fleshed out areas of teaching 100 students. The transparency of this process will be served if we are honest about what we haven't done but still are confident that we have a means for sorting these issues out as they arise. Maybe at the beginning of every meeting we state not only our individual "check in" but also reinforce the big idea of creating a newer and better way of teaching/learning. It might seem pointless but it does remind ourselves of why we are here in the first place.
3. What are your reflections on our last day's conversation?
Again, reemphasizing my comments in (1), it was all learning. Some of it was uncomfortable, most of it was enlightening and it was all necessary. Could it/Should it have happened earlier? Maybe but I am not sure that it would have made any huge difference. We are all still getting to know each other and explicitly articulating (implicit articulation doesn't do much good for working as a group) what matters. We change (along with some of our assumptions, hopefully) and that is important. Can we really force change to happen at the best/most convenient times? Well, maybe, but I don't think that is time well spent. The glory of the process is that these things actually come out -- I have been on enough committees and project where this sort of thing NEVER comes out. It is more likely that people will stop coming rather than share some uncomfortable thoughts.

4. What did you learn? Was there anything valuable?
Again, reflecting on earlier comments in this post, I am continuing to learn about learning. I have said a number of times over the past couple of years that should this process fail, it will still pay out benefits. I don't say that as often because it could be taken the wrong way but I do want to emphasize that it speaks to the value of what we do that we are willing to risk some level of personal failure (I actually do a lot of that, so I must be quite a valuable person to myself). I am still an avid and willing learner who tries not to be the stereotypical economist who tells everyone what the real deal is. I love SUSTAIN and, if called upon, I will to the best of my abilities walk through walls for it.


  1. Neal, your post is really inspiring. You captured some nuances of value about what we are doing together that often get lost ...for me, they are lost because I can get caught up in the goal orientation and miss the value in the process.

  2. Neal, I have so enjoyed working with you over the past couple years. I love SUSTAIN too for may of the same reasons you stated.