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Innovating the Professoriate: Structural Barriers to Creativity in Improving College Learning Outcomes

June 24, 2012

A Tale of Two Books

I have recently been reading two books, one that came out about a year ago and caused a huge stir in the academic world, and one that came out only a couple of months ago and has been stirring up both conversation and controversy.  Both books–Academically Adrift and Imagine: How Creativity Works–have brought firestorms down upon themselves even while drawing large and vocal communities of readers.  Academically Adrift claims that nearly half of all college students are not making significant improvements in key areas like critical thinking and writing, while Imagine draws on stories of highly creative people and companies to delve into questions about how innovation occurs.  While the first has been both praised for its bravery and its research basis, it has also been reviled by academics who don’t believe that a single standardized test can offer much insight into the long-term value of a college education.  The second, while garnering its author speaking engagements on NPR and elsewhere, also led to his apologizing for taking material from earlier books and articles nearly verbatim.

But besides the fact that both have generated controversy, the two books appear to have little in common.  One documents the apparent failure of the college system to generate in students the truly valuable, broad skills that they will need to compete in a high-tech, fast-paced workforce.  The other uncovers some of the most impressive feats of innovation and creativity in our history.  Where might the two overlap and speak to one another?

For me, the point of intersection is precisely the fact that they don’t explicitly speak to one another.  In other words, we have one work lamenting the ability of the entire institution of higher learning in our country to lead its students to the kinds of innovative and creative thinking that drives real progress in industry and elsewhere, and next to it we have a work documenting exactly how those kinds of thinking happen.  Why are the two not talking to each other?  Why is the kind of innovation Imagine documents at, for example, 3M not happening at universities?  Why is creativity happening at universities (in labs, clinics, research studies, and spin-offs) but not about them?  Why does the university–and university teaching–still look so much like it did when Francis Bacon critiqued “the academics” for simply teaching Aristotle’s ideas instead of thinking like Aristotle?

Structural Barriers to Innovation at the University

In Imagine, 3M is lauded as one of the great innovative companies of all time.  But it isn’t just lauded; the structural innovations that led to its monumental creativity are broken down and examined.  Three practices in particular stand out.  First, employees are allowed free time each day to work on projects of their own design, whether related to their current assignments or not.  Second, all design and research employees share ideas at whole-company innovation fairs, with posters and conversations and precisely the kinds of interactions with people unlike yourself that are agreed to be innovation generators.  And finally, employees are actually shuttled in and out of projects every 4 or 5 years, bringing their expertise in, for example, tape to a project on computers or some other apparently unrelated issue.  Isolation and limited constant focus on a single question are not allowed.

So why are those still not only the realities but the goals of university departments?

Faculty, especially young faculty who might be particularly interested in innovation, have to publish and present in a narrow field, and have to do so much of such publishing (and often also procure grants and other funding for it), that they have little time for anything else.  Strong, nearly impenetrable political and departmental barriers between subjects make collaborative work difficult and often unrewarded (many fields still count “interdisciplinary” journal articles as less worthwhile in tenure decisions, for example).  The way departments are funded makes insularity a benefit and cross-subject work a liability.  And the design of a campus, in which individual departments live in their own spaces, often their own buildings, and never interact eliminates the possibility of even accidental interactions between people from different departments.  And this is particularly true at the universities supposedly most dedicated to research and innovation, the so-called “R1s.”

In other words, the kind of innovation that led 3M (and other similarly innovative companies–see Space-X for another great example) were driven by interactions that are structurally, if not impossible, at least nearly so at the modern university.

Moreover, teaching itself is undervalued, again especially at R1s.  Faculty and researchers are so focused on their own projects, the ones that will get them tenure and secure their positions within their departments, that teaching takes second, third, or no place of importance in the hierarchy of the million things a professor has to do to stay viable.  Innovations, when they happen, involve genetics or sociology or business practices–the subjects of the faculty’s research–not teaching and learning.  That part of the college experience looks very much like it did a hundred, or even a thousand, years ago.  We are literally still debating the value of the Socratic method.  Now, I would not say that the classics have nothing to teach us, or that change for its own sake is valuable.  But what really new ideas about how to teach and learn are university faculties creating?

Possibly the greatest harm caused by strong interdepartmental barriers is that research from one field so seldom enters the bloodstream of another.  Anders Ericsson and his collaborative teams, for example, have written or edited numerous books on practice and the development of expertise, as well as new psychological research on how learning happens.  Yet this work is rarely, if ever, referenced in teaching-focused articles in other fields because these articles are involved in placing themselves within an ongoing “discussion” in their own field (if they don’t, they rarely pass peer review, which is always done only by others in the same narrow subfield) in which work from outsiders is not valued or recognized.  Each department focuses on creating teachers and researchers versed in the field’s own terminology, history, and questions; knowing and using work from other fields is not highly valued.

Possible Directions

I will be writing much more about this in the future, but for now I’ll just make two quick suggestions.

The first arises from my own work, in which I have (through simply emailing professors in other departments–it’s not rocket science) made connections with faculty in the sciences, studio arts, and social sciences and collaborated with them to the benefit of all of our students.  Simply sitting and talking with these professors has given me insights into what my own students will be writing when they leave my classroom, and this knowledge has changed my own approach to teaching significantly.  Moreover, I have seen the ways that their teaching has become more innovative, more interesting, and more efficient through our collaborations as well.  Let’s make this official and take a page from 3M’s book: a teaching-focused gathering, a simple conversation exchange, a coffee break, any way for professors from different departments to meet and share ideas would be innovation magic in a culture in which very, very few such exchanges are currently happening.

Second, we need to find ways to value one another’s work, even inside our insular departments.  Why not create a neuroscience and psychology reading group for your fellow English, history, or art professors?  Why not get all the biologists in your department to attend a lecture on creativity by painters, writers, and musicians?  Why not provide a meet-and-greet for biologists and physicists, or doctors and communications majors, or any two supposedly (according to the university) unrelated groups to just talk it out?  These are innovations that can happen through the instigation of an individual or a small group, no Academically-Adrift-style global university change necessary.

The modern university’s political, funding, and promotion structures powerfully oppose and suppress the kinds of innovation-generating cross-disciplinary work that might promote actual changes in the ways we teach and learn.  Fortunately, small groups and even individuals can generate real change.  Make a goal to increase creativity and cross-pollination in your department or with friends from other departments.

  1. I like the idea of having two unrelated and unique groups exchanging thoughts and ideas through dialogue. It is imperative that teachers and professors realize that operating in isolation or even within a vacuum with only those like them does not create growth.

    • Thanks. It was only when I started talking to some people in my family who work in what academics sometimes like to call “the real world” that I realized how isolated one could get in academia. I realized that they were “teaching” as much as I was, and I was “managing” as much as they were. Thanks for reading!

  2. Yomi A permalink

    The reality is that there are a lot more politicians than academics in academe; specialists in bureaucracy as opposed to committed scholars strenuously pushing the boundaries of scholarship. Political correctness is increasingly elevated to an art form while critical thinking and academic rigor take the back seat. You can find confirmation of this tendency in the scanty traffic and lukewarm response to this critical, well thought-out article, “Innovating the Professoriate….” You can safely imagine how many have read the work and simply thumbed up their nostrils in a ‘who cares’ display of nonchalance. Universities cannot be expected to be respected as sources of solutions to social and industry challenges when they have not even proven their mettle by their own examples.

    • Hi–and thanks for reading. I know exactly what you mean about there being more politicians than academics, probably largely out of necessity, although that’s hard to know. There are certainly a lot of professors, administrators, and staff members doing wonderful and creative work, but too often what they do is hung up by procedures and politics. My own hope is to find ways to make academia and the university system more responsive to student needs and faster in responding to all kinds of changes. More flexible opportunities for working across disciplinary boundaries, which still act too much like walls, is one way forward. I’d love to hear your thoughts about others!

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