November 14, 2011

A Sneaky Truism You Might As Well Realize Now

People's positions, titles and roles don't really tell you much about how capable or effective they are or who they are. It is unfortunate. It would be so much easier if we could correctly assume that titles (Directer, President, Professor, etc.) or degrees (PhD, MSW, MD, etc.) were associated with competence and effectiveness. Before you conclude that I'm simply authority-bashing, keep reading. This is going somewhere.

If we use titles and/or degrees exclusively to navigate who to trust as an authority or who we should listen to and learn from, we run the risk of not listening to and learning from the many people in our communities that have experience, perspective, and wisdom to share, but no formal trappings of authority or expertise. At best, we simply miss learning from them. At worst, we devalue their knowledge and quietly belittle them.

The other issue associated with assuming markers of authority indicate competence is that we potentially discredit our own input, ideas, and experience simply because we don't have the formal indicators of authority or expertise. This really struck me when I was at a community meeting, open to anyone, and I happened to be sitting next to a student from our school. I knew him because I was the faculty advisor to his student group. At one point the he leaned over and whispered an idea. I whispered back, "That's a good idea. Why don't you say it?" He replied, "I don't know. I'm just a student."  Whether he was a student or had been in the field for 30 years wouldn't substantively change the value of his idea. But because he thought he was "just a student" he was willing to shelve his contribution... even though his idea was great, and he had as much right to speak in that forum as anyone else.

Back to people in positions of leadership and power or people with some formal credentials or titles. It took me until I was in graduate school to realize that I had to let go of the idea that the further you get into higher education the more focused, thoughtful, and committed people would be. (I was trained as a clinical psychologist by the way.) But what I realized [way too slowly in hindsight] was that my graduate school peers and faculty were a very diverse group. Some were really talented, thoughtful, and seemed very capable. Others less so. Some of my peers seemed more grounded, curious, and thorough than some of my professors. And some of the faculty members that had substantial responsibilities in their work roles seemed woefully inept. Some people I knew who had no interest in graduate school at the time are much more intellectually rigorous and engaged than my fellow grad students who seemed to be just doing enough to get the degree. If you look around in your work world, your community, or your school, you'll see it too.

By the way, higher ed degrees mean that the person knows a lot about about a specific something... not a lot or even a moderate amount about everything. If anything, getting a masters or a doctoral degree gives you lots of depth in your education but substantially less breadth. Graduate school taught me that though I know a lot about clinical psychology, I know little about everything else outside of my discipline.

So, getting rid of a blind assumption about markers of authority and expertise is both freeing and challenging. It is freeing because you can hear, listen to, and value many more perspectives and ideas, and you'll be less surprised by wobbly leadership. Getting rid of this assumption also allows you to challenge the voice in your head that discredits your own ideas. It will be challenging because you can no longer rely on assumptions about people based on their degree or their position. You'll have to get to know someone rather than assume.

So, you know a lot. You do. And we all have a lot more we can learn. Keep listening and speak up. Greet people assuming you can learn something from them and that you have something they can learn from you too.  

November 12, 2011

When the Teacher Can't Tell

I found myself talking out loud in class about my most recent and pressing teachery dilemma. A group of students who were given plenty of classroom workshop time to develop their group presentation were floundering on the day that they were scheduled to present. One arrived on time to class clearly frustrated by the other three who were allegedly a few rooms away still trying to get the Powerpoint together. The class started at 11:00 am. The first student presented... and we waited... for nearly 30 minutes... for the remaining three students. I chose to wait, rather than not give them a chance to present despite the waste of class time while we waited for them. The rest of the presentation was rough. One of the late students reminded another, "We're not professionals... so it's okay." That was the last straw for me. 

First off, I support students' rights to blow off any class they choose. For whatever reason. Just because I value education and learning and my classes, doesn't mean that I can magically require students to do so. [What I can require and what I expect are two different things.] As a teacher I would actually be less upset to find out a student is blowing off my class, but working hard in others than just blowing off all their classes. If you are going to blow off all classes and school entirely, leave. Come back later if you want, but come back when you want something out of your education. So, having been clear that I support students' occasional less-than-solid engagement in classes, let me be clear about why I have high standards and prefer engagement. I want students to have the skills and confidence in their ability to utilize these skills so that when they need to or when it matters most to them they can do a great job. I'm not sure how students get the skills or the confidence in their abilities without regarding school work (i.e., presentations, projects, papers, etc.) as practice. Skills improve with practice. On one hand, I get it. Not every class is riveting and sometimes life gets busy and sometimes work slides. On the other hand, why wait until some magic time in the future to regard your work as professional? Care about it now. It will make improving and producing quality work now or in the future much easier. You discredit your abilities and delegitimize your contributions by imaging you are "just" a student.

My second issue: If you screw yourself over - that's one thing. Letting down everyone in your work group is something else entirely. Much of my work life and service to my community has been group work. Work with people I've known and enjoyed working with and work with people that I just met and/or people who have wildly different perspectives, priorities, and styles than I do. When students complain about the logistical difficulties of working in groups, I sympathize. Very much. And I know that developing ways to work effectively with others involves an invaluable set of skills for the students now and in the future. This skill set is one of the things (along with an expectation that they'll keep improving these skills) that I hope our majors develop before they graduate. Students who drag down their peers [coworkers, colleagues, or neighbors] by not showing up, not communicating, not coming to meetings prepared or not shouldering their responsibilities to the group -- majorly uncool. Disrespectful. When other people are directly impacted by your choice to work, step up. Choose to blow off a solo assignment that impacts you alone instead.

By the way, lest you think I am on a negative streak, the picture below is from a class in which students worked well together. They debated and argued... and got good work done. No, the picture below is not staged.

My Dilemma or When the Teacher Can't Tell

Now I'll get to the main point of the post. Sometimes I can't tell whether students perform as they do because A) I overestimated, and the students don't have all the requisite skills for the assignment or B) the students chose not to use the skills for whatever reason. The reason why a teacher [or supervisor or team leader or director, etc.] would care about this is if people don't have the skills to do the assignment the teacher needs assist the students in gaining the skills. If students have chosen not to utilize the skills -- out of habit, a really busy week, or other priorities -- the teacher not up against skill-deficit, but lack of motivation or differing priorities. In Situation A), the responsibility is squarely the teacher's. The teacher misestimated and poorly planned the assignment. In Situation B), the teacher can encourage, but the students have the lion's share of the responsibility for improving that situation.

Did I overshoot my students' skill level to ask for a group presentation in a 200-level class? It's a completely fair question. Too little support on group process? Too few guidelines for the mechanics of the presentation? Do students know how to extract the central points? Have they considered their audience's needs when they organized the presentations? Did they use good public speaking skills when they presented?

If I asked, would it prompt us to sincerely reflect or adopt a defensive posture? I think we got caught by the end of class. The question remains.