January 8, 2020 | Bringing It #29: Looking to the Year Ahead

Dear friends, 

Happy New Year! We hope you had a restful and festive holiday with family and friends alike. 

First, some good news. When we started our bi-weekly Bringing It emails back in September 2018, we had around 2,500 community members on our listserv. We are thrilled to announce that we now have nearly 4,000 readers!  Around 27 percent of you are faculty, 25 percent administration, 28 percent student affairs, 10 percent organizational partners (think nonprofits), and 10 percent students.  

We are excited that our numbers have grown so robustly. But you’re more than simply our “readership.”  Together we are a large, diverse, and growing community of practice. Thank you.

Uncharted Territory: A Reflection from David

Maybe it was the dawn of a new decade.  Maybe it was simply the chance to breathe, read, and reflect over the holiday break. But I have relished the chance this month to think less busy thoughts about the work of Bringing Theory to Practice.

I love the fact that (as noted above) Bringing It speaks to a growing community of educational change-makers. We’ve heard from many of you that you value the frequency, informality, and informative content of these letters. And of course their brevity. We’ll keep posting about projects and partnerships, grants and convenings, your activities and ours. But sometimes we’ll also want to step back and reflect (with brevity) about large issues and big changes confronting higher education. We want your thoughts as well. More on that below.

In that spirit, here’s a reflection on one of the more compelling readings that crossed my desk this fall: Uncharted Territory: A Travel Guide To Reimagining Higher Education. It’s a report of the Hasno Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University (colloquially known as the Stanford d.school)—the second part of an ongoing d.school project about the future of higher ed.

I confess that I approached Uncharted Territory with some trepidation. The first report (issued in 2014) had some of the qualities that leave me simultaneously excited and ambivalent about the “design thinking” approach for which the d.school is renowned. It invited the reader to “time travel” a century in the future and look back from four radically different paradigms of what higher education might become. The provocations were rich and interesting. But they also reinforced the stereotype of an inert academy that requires the imaginative disruption of design thinkers to sweep away its cobwebs and free up the possibilities of change. To my eye, the framework of “time travel” and “provocations” tended to lowball the richness of existing innovation. It made it hard to tell the difference between guiding lights and shiny objects.

Uncharted Territory takes a refreshingly different approach. It’s grounded precisely in existing innovation, showcasing twelve institutions that are modeling and testing a range of ways forward for higher ed. The case studies comprise a diversity of institutional types, educational missions, and visions of change. Some are radical experiments; others infuse new practices into well-established colleges and universities. It was gratifying (and not surprising) to find BTtoP partners and grantees well-represented, including Georgetown University, Bates College, and College Unbound. The report includes other examples of innovation we’ve been tracking, such as the curricular and project-based learning initiatives of Georgia Tech. But it also lifts up exemplars that were new and exciting to me, like the African Leadership University in Rwanda and Indian River State College, a community college in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Uncharted Territory also digs beneath the stories themselves. It includes interviews with key change-makers—you’ll find our friends Randy Bass, Adam Bush, and Clayton Spencer in its pages—as well as strategic tips for guiding institutional change. And the report maps its case studies onto eight key themes of emerging transformation in higher ed: among them, “changing spaces,” “changing paces,” “career crafting,” “citizen shaping,” and “agency oriented.” (Umm, I still wish there was less design-consulting jargon, but you can’t have everything.)

All in all, this is one of the best guides to academic innovation that I’ve read. And what I value most is its recognition that change—creative, substantive, and positive—is already seeding and spreading across higher ed. I don’t mean to minimize the resistance and defensiveness that so often marks our institutions, our colleagues, and ourselves; nor do I lowball the threats of destructive change that so often fuel that resistance and defensiveness. But I’m passionately convinced that the best ways forward are already germinating within higher education, across and against our tired practices and siloed structures. Uncharted Territory nourishes that conviction. Read it and let us know what you think.

A Challenge and an Invitation

As David notes above, we are excited to include in future numbers of Bringing It more reflection about big issues confronting higher education. So we start the new year with a challenge and an invitation. As we enter a decade of turmoil, change, and creativity in education, we want to hear from you:

·      What are the key strengths that higher education carries into the 2020s?

·      What are the key weaknesses of higher ed as we enter the 2020s?

·      What new opportunities for positive change will the coming decade bring?

·      What new threats to our work and our values does the coming decide pose?

Send us your own answers to any or all of these questions. (No more than 250 words, please.) We want Bringing It to serve as a forum for great thinking, imagining, argument, and conversation.

We send you the warmest of New Year’s greetings and our thanks for the work you do.

David, Caitlin, Mercedes, and Kate