A Clean Room for Colleges?

Collaboration is one of those things that everyone in higher education claims to want more of, in more ways, and yet almost no one ever gets around to pushing beyond calls for more. I keep feeling in particular that there’s a collaborative space that is largely empty at institutions like Swarthmore that seemingly have the resources to support new initiatives.

For my teaching and scholarship, I’m largely free to do as I please, including to pursue ad hoc partnerships with other authors or teachers. In the sciences, scholarship is almost definitionally collaborative at the level of a single lab or a partnership between labs; in the humanities it is typically individual but that is perhaps changing slowly. Co-teaching has a pretty significant institutional price tag so if I were to do it regularly that would likely raise some issues, but on an occasional basis it is available to many of the faculty. My department has a very open curriculum so I only need to do some basic diligence when I’m considering a new course regarding whether it overlaps with someone else’s existing course and whether it meets the broadly-constituted needs of my department. Other departments have more tightly designed majors and that can act as a constraint on the curricular creativity of individual faculty in those departments. In terms of course structure and pedagogical technique, I’m even more free to do as I see fit.

Collaboration between whole institutions is, as perhaps it should be, a complicated matter that requires a lot of high-level agreement and a good deal of legal and procedural formality, even though the need for such collaboration is increasingly clear to many presidents and senior administrators, say, around issues of publication and open-access.

Collaboration at the level of whole disciplines between scholars mostly doesn’t involve formally defined institutional mechanisms or governance structures, but it nevertheless shapes our professional lives a great deal–journals, peer reviews, grant committees, setting funding priorities for research.

At Swarthmore, with a very strong tradition of faculty governance, there is a culture of protracted deliberation around matters that involve the entire curriculum or around policies that directly impact the faculty, such as deciding which departments will be given permission to search and hire into a tenure line or setting general education requirements. This is also, for the most part, as it should be.

The empty space that bugs me lies between my autonomy over my own teaching and scholarship and the deliberative work of committees and the faculty as a whole. What bothers me is that there is almost no opportunity to collaborate in a relatively spontaneous way with other faculty as well as administrators or even students on projects or initiatives that involve institutional processes or structures that are smaller and more consciously transitional or temporary than “the entire curriculum”, “divisions”, “departments”.

I came across an article recently about a company where the CEO limits meetings to no more than three people unless there is some overwhelming reason for the meeting to be bigger. More people, he argued, just adds more reasons to say “no” to a good idea or useful innovation. I gather this is a bit of a mantra in the tech industry and maybe thus a bit of a fiction. But I like the concept, much as I like at least the imaginative vision behind the supposed “employee manual” of the software company Valve.

Now I readily understand that visions of small innovative groups and flat hierarchies can hide all sorts of inequalities and problems if adopted, as some of the follow-up reporting on Valve’s work culture has suggested. Changes that will affect everyone, or that will have a major financial impact on an institution and its faculty, should have to go through a more grinding and inclusive deliberative process: there is no alternative to that except direct top-down hierarchical control, which I think is the worst of all the options, at least for higher education.

I feel though as if there are ideas and project that could operate in the ‘in-between’. Shorter-term curricular collaborations that aren’t about discipline or subject but about some pedagogical concept or technique, small groups of faculty collecting data or information about trends in higher education or their own institutions with the aim of producing a white paper, small ‘fairs’ where faculty teach other a specific technique or skill, microbusiness ventures of various kinds, pop-up instances of instruction dealing with current events, and so on, a two-year studyproject on an issue. All of which could be considered “labor” for the institution, none of which need the heavy hand of a full process of faculty deliberation. A kind of space for institutional experiments, a sort of “venture capital”.

I know there are some universities that have something like this in place, and some small liberal-arts colleges have a few projects or programs out there that might fit this description as well. (Say, Bryn Mawr’s 360 initiative.) But I do feel that small institutions, despite having what seems like an intimate and informal scale that ought to allow for flexibility and invention, are paradoxically often more restrictive, more laborious in their deliberative processes, more prone to trip over small bureaucratic artifacts and the temperamental conservatism that hangs over committee work like a shroud. The ambition to create an institute for the liberal arts is attractive to me partly because I see it as potentially creating this sort of architectural breathing room in the structure of the college–a sort of ‘clean room’ where small groups of faculty, staff and students can tinker with their practices and aspirations without requiring a big budgetary investment up front or requiring extensive consultative efforts with the entirety of the community. But my feeling from talking to colleagues is that this kind of space is needed throughout higher education, and that this is the kind of initiative that really should come from faculty rather than be done to them in the name of some outsider’s vision of what constitutes innovation.

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