Wednesday, July 18, 2007


If you make people think they're thinking, they'll love you; But if you really make them think, they'll hate you.
Don Marquis
US humorist (1878 - 1937)
I’m part of a dying breed – faculty in a former life who have since moved on to become learning technology administrators. As dodo-heads go, my lot is not so bad; there are certain groups within the broader population who treat me and my brethren with much respect, sometimes even reverence. I was with such a group last week at the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Institute. This post is about the experience there and how it fits into the bigger picture of things that are happening at the moment.

We are in the midst of the post competence era. As I’m sure you’ll agree, the Bush White House can rightly claim naming rights for this new epoch that we find ourselves in. And thanks to the likes of Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, for making it clear that the Bushies make the same mistakes over and over again, due to a combination of extreme hubris and an abiding cronyism.

Given the religiosity of the President and the right wing neocons with whom he is aligned, one might conjecture that we are witnessing the just desserts for the essentially Philistine crew working at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But let’s put that conjecture on the back burner because, sad to say, it seems something else is amiss, and that something else is happening outside the world of national politics. Consider, for example, the auto industry. This story about the debacle at Ford for having acquired a variety of high end auto companies: Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo to name a few, only to find them hard to maintain and with sales that have not come close to the rosy forecasts that Bill Ford anticipated when he bought the companies in the first place, shares none of the pious rhetoric we associate with announcements from the White House on Iraq, Al Qaeda, Catrina, you name it. Yet there are some striking similarities between the two. Both emblemize the taking of dramatic action when a more cautious alternative was available, with the decision justified by an overly optimistic view of the future. Both were driven by a 60,000 foot view of reality, only much later when the initial optimism provided to be incorrect to be forced to reckon with more low-to-the-ground concerns. And both have led their respective constituencies to a precipice.
“What has really evolved here is that the scenario has changed so dramatically,” said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. “Because of that change, you’re looking at things in a far more pragmatic way, with the thought that if you screw up in labor negotiations, or you screw up in product development, the company may go down.”

When I was a kid I watched the movie version of Li’l Abner with the famous line “What’s good for General Bullmoose…” and, of course, that was a mild satire of “What’s good for General Motors…” Satire doesn’t get written unless the object is worth poking fun at. GM is not what is used to be. And many of our other institutions seem to be in the same boat, some of them closer to home. The Times Magazine is running an essay contest for College students. “Fine,” you’re likely to say. But check out the theme for this thing – “College as America used to understand it is coming to an end.” And read the essay by Rick Perlstein to “introduce” students to the topic. It’s all very depressing. That’s precisely because it seems so accurate.

I’ve got this feeling that we’re reliving the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s all compressed into one (note that Nixon was a significant part of all three decades; how’s that for paranoia?) and whereas 30 years ago after much anguish and torment we experienced a rebirth of sorts, that road has already been traveled down and it sure seems as if it can’t be crossed again. We’re trying, but we’re barely treading water.

Here’s another dimension of the problem. Bush gets blame for callous indifference in the lack of management of relocating citizens of New Orleans after the Catrina debacle --- no arguments from this quarter on that score. But the reality is that Bush inherited the levee system that was in place, which if it had worked might have meant that citizens wouldn’t have had to be relocated at all. It was the Army Corps of Engineers at fault for the levee system, not the White House, because the system they had designed simply could not hold up to a storm as severe as Catrina, and then there were errors in how deep into the ground the levees were built to boot. With that thought in mind, now ask about our infrastructure on our respective campuses, IT and otherwise, and ask further if an analogous disaster could happen at your place. I get sick thinking about it.

The problems seem to be mounting and the talent of the people addressing those problems, able as they might otherwise seem, doesn’t appear up to the challenge. Within IT specifically, budget-wise many of us manage by what I call the secret $20 bill theory – do the IT project first and find the funding for it afterwards (in that part of the wallet where the secret funds are stashed); in other words assume (or pray) that the funding will be forthcoming. In case it’s not obvious, the secret $20 bill approach does not scale well. Further, that project which seemed so exciting at the outset eventually begins to lose luster. But it doesn’t go away; it has developed a constituency of its own. And then the cycle repeats, again and again.

This particular dodo-head can analyze the problem out the wazoo. That is something of a talent. After all, sometimes analysis can lead to a solution. But analysis of the problem is in itself not enough. Indeed, nowadays analysis mostly seems to lead to paralysis. So this dodo-head starts to think of a different bird, a very large bird, one that is known for keeping its head in the sand. That’s the opposite of what they teach at LTLI about “chin up” leadership, true. But the dodo-head knows that the ostrich is not going extinct.

* * * * *

Though the original designers of the institute may have had something else in mind, the LTLI turned out be a bunch of latter day Morpheus’ (I was one of those) getting an even larger group of Neo’s (the 50 or so attendees of the institute) to take the red pill and go down the rabbit hole. These folks in attendance are good people and you could see they had an emotional need to make the journey. As it turns out, learning about IT leadership is very much like seeing the “real world” for the first time.

But that initial journey is harsh and especially during the first evening some of the people in their table teams were uncomfortable with each other. They didn’t know how to work through a group process to decide things. They didn’t know how to disagree with each other and get to a resolution of the issues. And they seemed to feel on stage.

In that they were right. We were watching. We were looking for stars. We’re always looking for yet unrecognized talent who might take the next step up. But mainly we were looking for trouble. We spent a lot of time beforehand talking about trouble and what we’d do if we found it. Prior institutes had some non-functional “Making the Case” teams. History repeats – sometimes. Turns out it doesn’t repeat if you’re watching too carefully. Our teams had a momentary impasse that first evening, but they got through it. They bonded. Then they were fine. I don’t know if our worrying mattered or not. I do know that near the end some attendees reported a strong emotional experience from the institute. I felt that too.

Four years earlier I had attended the Frye Leadership Institute and in many respects was in the same boat then as the attendees at LTLI were last week. But, dear Obiwan, it is now I who am the master. I’ve made this rapid transition by embracing the dark side of the force, oh the lure of the dark side, the fascination with self when so many others require attention.

There were seven of us faculty at LTLI. Among this august group, I was tasked to represent the professoriate and true to my calling, profess I did, whether it met the circumstance or not.

And now a little aside. My first semester at Illinois, fall 1980, I did a horrible job teaching intermediate microeconomics to undergraduates and, perhaps unsurprisingly but still painful for a young instructor, some of my teaching evaluations said I had to be the worst professor on campus and I should be fired. (I’ve since learned that there are many candidates for worst professor on campus, with new ones each year.) The next semester I got to teach graduate math econ in the style I learned from Stan Reiter at Northwestern while taking essentially the same course from him. (Stan indirectly got the approach from Plato.) I liked playing Socrates with the economic theory and I was comfortable in that role. The course went well. The grad students liked it in part because they hadn’t experienced that sort of thing in their other classes. It turned out I wasn’t the worst instructor on campus after all.

I was half my current age then. I’ve had a chance to mature since. I don’t have as much opportunity to play Socrates nowadays, at least not with a large group like at LTLI. But from my experience as a faculty member at LTLI last week it is clear that I still like doing it, especially when  I’ve given some forethought to the issues to get at without feeling the need to lead the dialogue from a pre-written script. That’s what I did in my first plenary session with Larry Ragan, which was on “Building Relationships.” That session was supposed to provide insight on relationships between the learning technology leader and many different types of players on campus. When it came time to do my spiel, I got to spend an extended period on building relationships with faculty members, in particular with emphasis on just what it is that drive faculty in their actions. I did that through Socratic dialogue.

We mingled at the breaks and sat interspersed with the attendees at the meals. I professed there too, whether I knew what I was talking about or not; I was comfortable in holding forth, if not with the specifics of the issues we discussed. As I said at the outset, sometimes dodo-heads like me are accorded respect. I took advantage of that.
A centerpiece of LTLI is “Making the Case.” Near the end of the first plenary session on Sunday the attendees were grouped into teams that would persist throughout the remainder of the institute. The teams were tasked with coming up with a plan to resolve a serious campus issue and then on the final day of the institute they were to make a public presentation to the institute faculty who at the time of the presentation would be role playing as campus administration. The other attendees would be in the audience during these presentations. Immediately following each presentation the faculty, no longer role playing, would critique what they heard. The critique was intended for all in attendance.

Each afternoon the attendees had time to work in their Making the Case Teams. They also did a working dinner and several of the evenings continued in that work group mode into the evening. The team work on this project was interspersed with attendance at plenary session on various aspects of leadership. The sessions had relevance to doing the projects and in that way the institute design made sense holistically.

Each of us faculty were assigned to observe the first afternoon meeting of one of the Making the Case teams. We were there to see if they were functioning and making progress, to answer their questions if they should arise, and otherwise to keep our mouths shut. We were not to be the guides on the sides. We were supposed to be quieter than that, like good children, seen but not heard, speaking only if first spoken to. The other faculty stuck to this script. I knew it would be difficult for me to do so. With my group I kept butting in from time to time.

I don’t feel I’m much of a leader. Leaders have a certain pace for doing things and get things done in tempo. Mostly, I don’t get things done; instead I supervise gridlock. The gap between aspiration and accomplishment for me is huge, the sense of inertia strong. Supervising gridlock is one, unfortunate approach to management all too common nowadays --- post competence era, remember? But supervising gridlock is not leadership.

Getting things done, however, may not be leadership either. King George III, one of the object lessons in Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly, accomplished a lot. He succeeded in getting the American colonies to achieve their independence. Of course, he didn’t set out to do that. American independence was an unanticipated consequence. I would not call King George a leader.

Underneath my fa├žade I was asking myself before the institute what it was really that I had to contribute. The implicit idea of LTLI and indeed of the other Educause Leadership Institutes is that a more experienced generation of proven leaders pass along their wisdom to the next generation, the up and comers who are soaking in knowledge so they can climb the chain of command. What wisdom would I pass along?

Leadership and thinking are not identical, but they are related. The only President whom I have a living memory of and whom I think of when the word leadership is mentioned is Kennedy. Kennedy had a remarkable brain trust, the power behind the thrown so to speak. I couldn’t help the Making the Case Team directly with their leadership, but I could help them a bit with their thinking. There were lessons to learn on that score.

The team I observed was very eager to make progress to solve the problem they were assigned. They did not have the patience at first to ask whether the problem itself was well defined --- it wasn’t. As it turns out there was a need for them to make important assumptions to give the problem a real definition. Lesson 1 – before solving the problem, do note that most IT people are pretty good problem solvers given a pre-specified problem, ask what problem it is that should be solved. That is harder. The solution may be far from obvious. One doesn’t get to that in a linear fashion. One negotiates to that end through a sequence of iterations by developing an increasingly subtle understanding of the complexities at hand.

Because I didn’t feel constrained to help the group directly with leadership, but I had recently written this post Writing as Problem Solving, I had a strong predisposition as to what they needed to learn on the thinking front. They needed to learn to guess and discover what a good guess looks like. And they needed to develop a process of confirmation as to whether their guesses held up. For my part, after listening to them for a while, I’d play Socrates. “I’ve got a question. If you’re assuming such and such, why doesn’t that mean this? And if it does mean this, doesn’t that create a train wreck for what you’re proposing?” They didn’t like the questions because they impeded their “progress.” I left them that first afternoon after about an hour feeling a bit unsettled, but I had a sense I accomplished something in affecting how the group should proceed with their work. I wonder if the group members reflecting on that experience would feel the same way.

The institute had a strong sense of theater and I believe that the dramatic themes, a subtext rather than a fully fleshed out idea in our planning prior to the institute, contributed strongly to the emotional feeling that many of the attendees experienced. One way the theater manifest was during the presentations of the Making the Case. Several of the teams brought in nuggets they had garnered from institute faculty, delivered in the same way as the faculty had originally presented them, but integrated into their overall presentation. The effect was to show they had been listening, to create a good chuckle, and to give the faculty a sense of looking in the mirror. Imitation may not just be the sincerest form of flattery; it may also be an effective way of persuading others.

I believe the institute’s main impact was cathartic rather than intellectual. It was intense while it lasted. For the institute to have a lasting impact the attendees must now spread their wings and fly from the nest and not have big birds on the brain, extinct or otherwise.


Barbara said...

Fascinating post, Lanny.

I, too, found the NYT contest for college writers disturbing, because it both draws the line between THEN and NOW in a way that seems utterly beside the point (and obvious) and is too directive. I must admit, though, that I'm curious to read submissions--to see WHO would write in reponse to this prompt.

As a faculty member, I find your discussion of the interactions between faculty and IT/edtech leaders very interesting indeed, and their discomfort with some of the ways in which you asked them to think & interact. Unsettling a group is a good thing, I believe, for as the dynamic systems theorists tell us, "Learning occurs in cycles of disruption and repair." (Thelen & Smith)


Lanny Arvan said...

Barbara - thanks for the insight from dynamic systems theory. I'm not usually comfortable enough to deliberately cause discomfort in others, but last week I felt empowered to do so.

Let me give an imperfect metaphor as a way to try to make the case that the Times is onto something, even if their contest is flawed.

Consider this blog post and ask whether it could have appeared in Educause Quarterly. (There was an article about an interview regarding the first LTLI which might be worth looking at if for no other reason than to consider the tone in which the ideas were presented.) I don't know. I haven't tried in the past to submit something like this blog post to Educause and it's been quite a while since I've sent anything out for review. But let's say for the sake of argument that it wouldn't be accepted because some of the ideas are too raw, it is all over the place in getting its inspiration, and the language is too colloquial.

I would argue that our students need to be in ongoing conversations that are raw, colloquial, and all over the place. An intellectual life of that sort is how they will grow. But if it wasn't always that way, College has become more about what's proper, orderly, and well mannered. Perhaps, now in the Business school, I'm too strong with that view. Perhaps that's what we should expect from the appealing to Baby Boomers as parents. And maybe it is that it's finally time to pay the toll for all that damage they thought TV was doing when we were kids.

I don't know, but I don't want to dismiss the contest out of hand, not just for the individual contribution but also for what dialog it might generate among us.

Barbara said...

I agree wholeheartedly with you that "our students need to be in ongoing conversations that are raw, colloquial, and all over the place. An intellectual life of that sort is how they will grow." That's exactly why blogging--if we do it this way, as unfolding conversation--can play a significant role in our classrooms. Every day could/should be an intense conversation about learning.

And, yes, I am pleased to see the Times actually care what college kids think, but why did they run this contest in the summer? If they had done it in the fall--how rich to bring it into our classrooms and into the diningrooms and kitchens for discussion. And who do they think will give it a go? Which students read the Times and feel they have the right to submit to such a contest? In the summer? Does it smack a wee bit of privilege??


Lanny Arvan said...

Barbara - This is a guess on your first question about who will do this. Likely candidates would be students whose writing is already in the public eye and who are seeking even greater recognition, e.g., those who work on the Student Newspaper at their respective campuses, or wannabes. And if that makes sense, then perhaps the summer is better because their regular obligations are less. I know you're asking about whether your own students might submit under different circumstances and whether the Times will miss other interesting voices by their approach. Probably.

The other questions might be explained simply by the lag between the submission deadline and the time of announcing the winners. This is from their rules

The prize winners will be announced on September 30 in The New York Times Magazine and online on

If I were designing the contest - not likely but just to show the economist at work - I'd figure out the announcement date first and back out everything else from that.