Sunday, November 4, 2007

Denver roundup

Back from the conference on another flight plagued with delays -- including a 45 minute wait for luggage -- and I'm still abuzz over some of the realizations that impressed themselves upon me in the last two days.

In some ways you go to these conferences to be inspired, to have moments of clarity. Surrounded by those engaged in the same discipline or work as you, carrying on a ceaseless back-channel chat in your head as they make their presentations, complaining or bonding with your colleagues over drinks or dinner or waiting for a session to start, gauging the temperature of new acquaintances to see whether they are revolutionaries or reactionaries. It's impossible not to figure out some stuff. The problems that are confusing, intractable muck day to day become clear categories and corresponding programs of action.

Of course, when you go back, you lose some of that clarity. After two days talking intensely with my administrative team about the direction we're trying to take the program, we tend to think we've come to some agreement about how to frame problems and where to look for solutions. But back in the muck, it's harder to carry out those plans. People, and one's obligations toward them, get in the way.

The realization about which I'm most conflicted is that there are two kinds of people in my field: those who are willing to consider radical change, and those who will always find a reason to resist and refuse. We educators are not supposed to believe that some people are ineducable. But perhaps at some point, and for some personalities, they are. The unfortunate fact about Honors education is that comparably few people get into it because of a deep compatability of their aims with its values. Instead, they are asked by their university administrations to take the job -- administrations that know little and care less about those values, and have no opinion on how best to achieve them (other than to do so as cheaply as possible). That's not a recipe for matching up innovators and student-centered folk with Honors programs. The reasons universities ask certain folks to take charge of Honors have much more to do with who's at hand, who's available, and who can be persuaded than with what Honors is all about.

And so we end up with some people floundering to find out what Honors means and how to get it done, and others content with the murky, fuzzy, marshmallow buzzwords that are the only descriptors with any hope of being applied to the diversity of programs, aims, values, reasons for being, and structures that call themselves Honors. And not many with any vision for making its inchoate promises concrete, and then making them real.

To consign some of my colleagues to the outer darkness, giving up hope that they can be persuaded to embrace rigor and revolution, cuts against the grain. And yet in the room listening to Derek Powazek's electric presentation -- hearing him challenge academics to truly empower their students rather than preserving their own authority and privilege -- it was abundantly clear that there was a deep divide in the room. On one side -- the students, who knew exactly what he was talking about and were thrilled to hear someone saying something real and challenging to the educational establishment, and a few of us maverick academics who want to turn the structure on its head and bring it out of its pre-war romantic obsession with cults of personality and control over information. On the other -- the rest of the professoriate, aghast at the idea of trusting the masses, bemoaning the death of the canon (again), worried for their power and their jobs.

And yet, as loath as I am to see that divide as real, there's a gulf in my own faculty that's hard to deny. I'm beyond the point of believing it can be bridged, and now I'm just wondering how it should be dealt with. I'm not sure my like-minded colleagues are at that point with me, and part of my ongoing roller-coaster ride is thinking that they have made their camp in what I see as the real world, only to find out that they're back on the other side trying to change people that can't be changed.

At this point, the realizations and the clarity of purpose that came with them are still fresh in my mind. I'm going to enjoy them while I can, before they get obscured by the day-to-day confusion that will get us all off track until the next conference.

1 comment:

the secret knitter said...

So much to think about here. We're in the midst of some major shifts in how we do things, empowering the students, etc. and likely have more to come. There have been many rough spots, and the students are the ones resisting as much as anyone. Still, I think (and hope) it will be worth the trouble it is right now.