Not on my watch

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 September 2003




Abeles, T.P. (2003), "Not on my watch", On the Horizon, Vol. 11 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited

Not on my watch

Tom P. Abeles

AbstractCan academics, with years of disciplinary training step out of their intellectual box with regards to their areas of specialization. More importantly, having been trained in a particular institutional format, can they risk changing the system which has nurtured them and, in the end, provided them with a sinecure, tenure? Given its traditions, how can the system change when those coming up through K-12 are educated by students of The Ivory Tower?

Keywords: Innovation, Change, Universities, Problem solving, Research, Teaching

  • It is all too easy to endorse certain values and remain quite blind as to how they should be applied in one's own life (Richard C. Levin).

It is difficult being an iconoclast, whether philosophically or in our daily activities. Books, workshops, and institutes that promote creativity, innovation, and "out-of-the-box" thinking, litter the intellectual landscape. Inventors, statesmen, scientists, heroes, and heroines who snatched victory from defeat of the mundane are paraded before us, often not in their own lifetime. The "one great idea" looms large, like the lottery; and our ears often ring from the words, "if you are so smart, why aren't you rich". Yet, we still rise in the morning and recall that mother used to say, when we were headed into the unknown, "Remember that those people are no different than you; they still put their pants on, one leg at a time". There is comfort in knowing that there are patterns of the familiar; and we can always, like Walter Mitty, dream.

Our lives are caught in this paradox, the Scylla of the familiar and the Charybdis of the strange. One, the alma mater, beckons us into a safe harbor, the other, a siren's call to a heady world of fame and fortune. Our education systems carry much of this responsibility. On one hand, they insist on students mastering the known, the past, the foundation for participation in the games of life. Both content and process, or skills and cultural protocol are advanced as ways of achieving worthy goals in life. Even forays into the unknown, under the rubric of research are but tiny transgressions at the border, and are often done in a protected environment, making risk negligible.

In primary school, we are urged to "color within the lines" so that we can advance up the ladder. At the secondary level, it is apparent that going outside the edge jeopardized our chances for attending the academy of choice for a good pole position in the economic race. Of course, those bound for graduate programs found their options even more constrained. And those who were to go into education closed the loop of intellectual conservatism. "Out-of-the-box" thinking, particularly for university faculty could be permitted once tenure was achieved, the shackles magically removed, and the brain decalcified. Yet, at that transformation point, comfort has created a track from which it may not be possible to escape. The path creates the illusion of change rather than change itself. Incrementalism becomes the paradigm and Xeno's paradox lets us approach without the fear of stepping into the intellectual void. George Land, in his volume, Grow or Die&/it;, likens the experience to a hysterisis loop which we find in physics; we return to a point where the exuberance of growth was experienced, a point in the past that repeats the path much like Sisyphus.

Today, universities represent a mixed message. Research, which was once the purview of the Royal Societies, which often shunned academics, became integral to universities whose existence was defined around a broader social and/or public purpose. Jose Ortega y Gassett, in his Mission of the University&/it;, clearly understood and made provisions for these, often contradictory, activities housed under one roof. Somewhere along this path the flavors became mixed and the concept of research to be shared in a collegial fashion became, not a forum for peer exchange, but rather a crucible for peer validation for a position in a university. In so doing, the position in the institution often became significantly dependent on the support of one's peers external to the institution.

One of the consequences has been the proliferation of the academic journal, a ritual that has burdened the physical and fiscal resources of the institutions that feel that they need to provide a window to view, broadly, that arena which supposedly tests the mettle of the academics' intellect and proves the ability of the faculty to enter the intellectual lists in service of one of the ivory towers. In the same way that gun-powder "unhorsed" the royal knights, the computer and the "open access initiatives" may expose the soft underbelly of the academic publish/perish ritual, restoring the distinction between the universities as social and educational institutions and the scholar/researcher. The arcane recordings of the intellectual guilds will be made visible to all, as public knowledge. Peer vetting will come out of the shadows and academics will face the test of the public intellectual. Academics, like their knightly counterparts, see this emergent technology as an opportunity rather than as a challenge to their hegemony. The question as to whether these guilds can survive is more than moot.

On the other side of the intellectual domain, the education of students, the academics are facing unprecedented challenges to which, again, they seem oblivious. "Best practices" online follow a familiar pattern for the academic as the classroom moves from black board to white board to virtual lectures delivered, broadband. This has been assured, up to the present, by how new teachers for the K-12 system are trained for their occupation. Given university learning experiences that vary little from the past, these individuals will be hard pressed to break the mold into which incoming university students have been formed for 12 years. Laptop universities are rapidly giving away to handheld technologies and soon broadband powered cell phones, now being adopted by students outside of their academic environment.

Where is the knowledge that was stored in the library and the minds of the academics? Open access frees this from the confines of the ivory tower. Ubiquitous broadband deconstructs the arcane community of scholars, leaving behind an academic Ozymandias, the shell of the cicadae. By default, the academic ant hill will be kicked open and the communities exposed to a larger unknown with both their educational processes and their sinecure, formerly delivered by an arcane social ritual, lying exposed. How can faculty respond? How is creativity, exhibited within one's discipline, turned outward to the larger institutional issues? When a chancellor was confronted over an overt abuse of decision-making authority, the response was that when the faculty was ready to take over the job, he would gladly "give it to them". The implication, of course, is, "not on my watch".

A major corporation once had the luxury of an essentially bottomless purse for innovations and research. Scientists and management with brilliant ideas could flit to conferences or command research budgets to test "whimsy". When funds became tight, the corporation spun these nascent ideas out, turning the innovator into the entrepreneur. One such individual remarked that when he wanted to go on a business trip, he turned to his secretary and found that he, himself, was that secretary and, to add insult to injury, he would have to write himself a check for the trip, from his own pocket. In today's academic world, faculty are seeing such sea changes but are not quite ready to take up the Chancellor's challenge. Like those who followed the rise of the stock market in the 1990s, there is hope that the index will rise again; and there is the waiting and hoping that they would not have to make that leap and break Land's "loop".

Bruce Sterling, in his short story, Green Days in Brunei, put it simply:

  • The "technical elite" were errand boys. They didn't decide how to study, what to work on, where they could be most useful, or to what end. Money decided that. Technicians were owned by the abstract ones and zeros in bankers' microchips, paid out by silk-suited hustlers who'd never touched a wrench. Knowledge wasn't power, not really, not for engineers. There were too many abstractions in the way.

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