How do I know?

It’s a tough time for many of us in education. We are working in a time (and yes, there has always been a recurring concern here) where reasoned discourse is not only often absent but readily dismissed. Facts are in dispute, and the idea of expert credibility seems to lack credibility.

For the few of you who read this, you know my academic background: Rhetoric. So that phrase alone may make you think I and my fellow practitioners are responsible for the mess we all find ourselves in–mere” rhetoric–making the worse appear the better cause and all. But Socrates never did like rhetoricians and rarely missed the opportunity to engage in a good straw person fallacy when discussing rhetoric.

No, today we get to think about how rhetorical theory does offer a good and productive way to think about how we do decide what we think. Let’s take a look at what Walter Fisher wrote a few years ago about the concept of narrative reasoning.

Fisher conceptualized what he termed a narrative paradigm which he placed in opposition to a “rational world” paradigm. Human beings, Fisher argues, do not come to conclusions solely or even primarily through reason and logic (that would be Vulcans for you ST followers) but through understanding their world through the stories and narratives we share. Human beings are best understood as homo narrans not homo  sapiens.

But narrative theory doesn’t toss reason out the window–credibility and “good reasons” are still at the heart of how we come to a conclusion. Reasoning takes place primarily through the concepts of narrative coherence and narrative fidelity. Narrative coherence look at the internal structure of the narrative–does the story work as a story? Is it internally consistent and internally logical? Narrative fidelity looks outside the narrative–is what is being presented in the specific narrative supported by our other experiences? Is there an external reason to find the narrative convincing?

So how does that get us to making a “reasoned” decision and what is the relevance of narrative theory to the times we live in today?

Well, we decide what is “right” and “correct” and “true” not just by rationally weighing the evidence and impartially reaching a conclusion. We reach our conclusion by analyzing the narrative (all the information we receive from various sources) through its internal consistency and its external connectivity–is it a coherent narrative and does it match/is it supported by our other experiences and our understanding of our culture and society?

The meaning of this: Beliefs, values, cultural assumptions and yes cultural stereotypes (often just another form of cultural assumptions) shape our decision-making process. Narrative reasoning is still reasoning, but it acknowledges that we actually do employ more than logic and rationality in our decision-making, and that the stories and narratives with which and in which we live shape how we reach our conclusions.




Inputs and Outcomes

Interesting article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education (may be behind a paywall) about the appropriate point of emphasis concerning college and university students. Written from the point of view of a faculty member (and Director of a Center for Teaching Excellence) at a small, private college (so a somewhat different scope and mission than at my university, William Paterson), this article asks a basic question (OK more than one question, but let’s start with one): Why do colleges and universities place more emphasis on the educational quality of an incoming class of new students than on the educational quality of a graduating class of students whom they have taught?

The author of the article, James M. Lang (more of a brief essay than a longer, more researched and supported article), notes some of the usual suspects for this emphasis: Rating schemes that prioritize incoming student test scores and GPAs and application to acceptance ratios; need for high retention and graduation rates that more qualified students generally bring; desires on the part of a college or university to be able to proclaim and market itself as select or exclusive (therefore helping to perpetuate the cycle); and faculty desires to have smart students in their classes.

So what’s wrong with that (and this is granting, for now, the validity of the claims made in this article–which, as noted, is not filled with evidence)?

Lang, borrowing heavily from the work of educational researcher Alexander Astin, notes a few possible problems with this approach.

First is the problem of “acquire” versus “develop.” An emphasis on bringing in the most educationally prepared (and only the most educationally prepared) students shifts the focus of a college and university away from helping students grow and develop through teaching and learning. What is the purpose of a college or university if it is not to help students grow and develop and learn?

But don’t really smart and qualified students need the same chance to grow and learn? Sure–but how much help do they need as opposed to students who did not score at the top of the charts on the SAT or ACT (and check the correlation between test scores and socioeconomic indicators before you make the meritocracy claim)? Don’t we (especially public universities) have a responsibility to those students who did not have all the benefits that result in high test scores and GPAs? Lang argues, a la Astin, that the education of that group of students is even more important.

Additionally, as noted above, the emphasis on acquire rather than develop helps perpetuate a cycle of inequality in educational aspirations (and most likely outcomes). The best prepared students keep going to the most selective institutions, which become more and more selective, garnering more and better prepared students. A dualistic educational system becomes more rigid, and students are tracked from the start of their education–prepped in High School, supported by the select colleges and universities, and then launched into careers and professions open primarily to graduates from those select institutions.

As a society, we are becoming more aware of some of the structural inequalities built into our systems. As educators, especially as educators at a public university whose stated values include a commitment to diversity and the preparation of citizens, we need to keep in mind that education remains one of the more powerful tools for social mobility and mitigation of structural inequalities—unless it is a system that perpetuates those structures.


Ethics, Leadership and Persuasion

If you have been following along at all, this blog has been looking at issues of leadership. We looked at power—from where does it come and how is it used. (As an aside: I was asked to review a book on educational leadership that will be published by a former colleague—it is a very good book by the way and when it comes out I will recommend it—and in reading the book the author reminded me of how I think power works: As soon as you exert authority, you begin to lose it.) We looked at persuasion and what that means. Now, if we are to think about leadership in a more complete manner, it is time to consider ethics.

Power and persuasion are both tools, or tactics, of leadership. They are means to achieve an end. Ah, but to what end? That is where ethical considerations come into play.

As has been noted in previous posts, I am a rhetorician, and proud of it. That is what I study; that is what I teach; that is what I practice. For the over 2,000 years that people have been studying, teaching and practicing rhetoric, one of constant issues is the relationship between rhetoric and ethics—after all, these were two different treatises from Aristotle (though if you read closely you will find that Aristotle shared ideas from both works).

Ethics provides the grounding for the ends of persuasion and leadership, for the proper and wise (as opposed to simply the effective and efficient) use of rhetoric.

There are of course, many ethical frameworks, theories, schools and approaches—and outside of the very few, most people (consciously or unconsciously) ground their lives in ethical approaches that are not pure applications of any one ethical theory or framework (or for a different view, some may argue that a specific ethical framework is so broad and all-encompassing that it really does provide the answer to all dilemmas—I’ll leave that argument to those who spend more time studying ethics—and as another aside, it was good to see that my school, William Paterson, is establishing a minor in Ethics—now more can study and think about ethics).

So—how does ethics, for me, inform and guide the use of persuasion and the practice of leadership?

I find, at least at this point, that a general utilitarianism framework provides the best ethical guidance. And of course the concept of utilitarianism is so broad as to perhaps be meaningless as a phrase, so some specifics.

As I think about utilitarianism as an ethical guide, the basic heuristic I use is this: what is the best outcome that provides the most advantages with the least cost? How can we help the most people and not cause harm to others?

One specific application: Like all of us in public higher education, here at William Paterson we are watching every penny carefully. There are a lot of great ideas and a lot of people and programs who need/want additional (or even continuing) resources. The value criteria that I look at (and just as a reminder, I am but one voice in decisions not a final arbiter) is: how will these resources help the most people and hurt the fewest (because in many cases, the “new” resources come from something that we then have to stop doing in order to do the new thing).

And because this is higher education, one additional twist: of the people that will be helped/harmed, students are at the top of the ladder in consideration. So how will these resources best help the university and its students without hurting others.

That, at least, is the basic ethical configuration that provides the framework for how I try to use persuasion in the practice of leadership.


On leadership

So if you read the last posting, I closed with a promise–a discussion of leadership to follow a discussion of power. Not that the two are synonymous, but few would dispute that there is a connection between the two.

When I think of leadership, my thoughts are shaped by both the French and Raven typology, as well as by my own academic background–and of course my experiences and my preferences.

I’m a rhetorician–I study the meaning and uses of symbols, and language is symbolic. I was trained and educated at a time when post-modern/post-structural theories (and that is an extremely broad conception) of language were dominant, so my approach to the study and use of symbols is tied to those theories. Take a look at my bookshelf some time–lots of Kenneth Burke and Wayne Booth, with a sprinkling of Foucault-and plenty of classical rhetorical theories from the Sophists to the Elocutionists, many of whom I would argue shared to some extent post-modern/post-structural theories of language–well, maybe not so much the Elocutionists.

So what does that have to do with leadership? At least my approach to leadership?

Well, I find leadership to be a very symbolic activity, grounded in the use of symbols (language and many others) to help shape perception and action. (Meta-point–this blog is persuasion and therefore leadership as it is an attempt to use symbols to shape perception and action). Which, unsurprisingly, is also how I define persuasion–another common topic I have taught and studied for a number of years.

Leadership is persuasion.

And persuasion, as I tell students over and over again, is not about getting people to change their minds, or convincing them to do what you want them to do. Persuasion, and therefore leadership, is knowing what you want to be accomplished, working to find common ground between what you want to be accomplished and what your audience (those whom have the power to make what you want to happen, happen) values, believes or perceives to be in their best interest. You don’t persuade people to do something they don’t want to do; you persuade people that what you want to accomplish is also what they want to accomplish and you do so by creating identification between your wants and desires and their wants and desires (see, as noted above, Kenneth Burke for what I mean by identification).

Leadership, therefore, is a continuing practice in creating a common understanding.

Next: Ethics, Persuasion and Leadership

Have a happy holiday.

On Power

There are a lot of issues facing public higher education today, and here at William Paterson we are right in the midst of these issues. The cost of a college education continues to rise (though be careful here and don’t equate the actual cost to provide an education with the price a student pays–one has risen far faster than the other as the balance has shifted from state funding to tuition funding); the pressure to help students complete their degree in a timely fashion continues to grow; state and national legislation continues to provide new and additional requirements; accrediting bodies, often in response to legislative pressure, also continue to impose and mandate enhanced requirements; high school populations in many areas are in decline, meaning all of us are competing more fiercely for fewer students; and we seem to be enduring multiple questions about the value and function of a college degree.

So, I’m the Provost–the chief academic officer of a university–why don’t I do something?

Thus today’s topic: Power

I think about this quite a bit (I’m still an academic–thinking is what I do) whenever I hear the statement–“well, you’re the Provost, you have the ability to just make things happen–so do so.”

I go back to a conception of power that is old as far as research goes, but I have yet to find a  better conception (well, there is Foucault–but we don’t really have time for that analysis, and actually I do find some connection between Foucault’s perspective and the one below).

In 1959, two social scientists, John French and Bertram Raven, proposed a model of power based on five types or bases:

  • Legitimate
  • Reward
  • Expert
  • Referent
  • Coercive

Raven added a sixth a few years later:

  • Informational

Legitimate power comes generally from traditional hierarchical organizational structures–as Provost, this position provides a legitimate claim of authority over academic decisions at a university (though universities are not always that big on hierarchical organizational structures). And even more, the concept of “legitimate” is always open to interpretation and question.

Reward power is pretty straightforward–the ability to reward. To some, it may seem that Provosts have a great deal of reward power–we control large budgets and personnel decisions generally go through the Provost Office at some point. But as French and Raven point out, and as experience makes clear, reward power is often quite limited. Budgets are never as big (or flexible) as they may seem, and other structures–contractual and shared governance, for example–play a major role in almost all “reward” activities.

Expert power, or power that comes from special or unique knowledge or ability (when clearly known and demonstrated) can provide a basis for the exercise of power. But again, in higher education, we are, by definition, a community of experts. Especially with faculty, we are all very much the expert in our field of study.

Referent power is one of the most important bases of power, and one of the most difficult to build, manage and use well. Referent power is earned–it is built over time and can easily erode when not used well.

Coercive power is the dark side of reward power–and again, it may seem from the outside that there is coercive power, but the same structures that limit reward power affect coercive power equally–and coercive power is a bad idea in general anyway–live by the sword and die by the sword tells you all you need to know about the failure of coercive power.

Informational power, the add-on from Raven, is less studied but still important–though some may argue that in an age of social media and multiple sources of information, information power holds less sway. Information power is access to and control over information–but we are a public university, and there is (as it should be) very little information that is controlled.

OK–so what does this mean?

Back to Foucault (and others of a post-modern bent): Power is the ability to shape outcomes. And that means power rests with many and is built into our processes and practices. Power is both diffuse and often situation specific. Students have the power to learn or to potentially destabilize a learning environment; faculty have the power to shape curricular actions and possess to a large degree all six bases of power in their classrooms and in their departments and colleges. Power doesn’t always rise to or coalesce at the top, especially in modern organizations and quite especially in higher education.

Power to act is something all of us have and all of us use in a variety of ways.

So when asked: Why don’t you do something? My answer is: Let’s do it together. That means time, hard work and communication, connection and collaboration. Power is not the same as leadership–and leadership is not the ability to have people do what you want them to do.

So stay tuned–next time we will talk about leadership.




In praise of grey

Read this as a political post-presidential election message if you wish–the tale is more complicated.

And that is the point.

In the midst of all the fear, bitterness, anger, resignation and angst (if you were on the side that lost the election) and all the optimism, enthusiasm, joy, celebration, and contentment (if you were on the side the won the election), we have a long-standing and lingering problem: We haven’t yet seemed able to deal with most anything except to place it in binary opposition.

  • If you’re not with me, you’re against me
  • My way or the highway
  • Love it or leave it
  • All or nothing
  • Point-counterpoint
  • Pro-Con
  • Affirmative-Negative
  • Black or white

We have, as a society in the United States, baked this into how we operate as a culture–at least when it comes to presenting information, opinion and arguments. For years (1949-1987, specifically), The Federal Communications Commission required all broadcast media to present, on matters of public importance, both sides of a position (and yes, I am guilty of simplifying here as well). The still dominant model of preparing people for the profession of journalism (though many may argue that it is practiced less and less) is to teach journalists to be objective and one of the simplest approaches to gain a level of objectivity is to always present two sides to every story.

My academic background is rhetoric and argumentation. My work as an academic and scholar lives in the grey–the in-between area between opposites. When I engage in scholarly writing, I have been trained (and conditioned) to write in argument–that facts and data alone are never sufficient to make a case–it is the responsibility of the writer/arguer to put it all together, and that “the better argument” is the goal, so that these arguments can help us get a more reasoned solution and a more reasonable world. Though there are many other theories of rhetoric and argumentation.

The idea of binary opposition is actually, in my field, considered a fallacy in argument–but again, that is a more complicated matter.

I’ll summarize the explanation from T. Edward Damer, in Attacking Faulty Reasoning. The fallacy is often called “False Alternatives,” and it basically means an argument where the possible solutions are reduced, often to just two opposite positions, so that the only possible solution is to pick one of the opposites. Damer notes this as a fallacy because it conflates two different concepts: Contradictories and Contraries. A contradictory allows for no middle ground–it really is one or the other. Damer uses hot and not hot as examples–you can have either one, but there is nothing in between. Contraries set up a condition that allows for a middle ground–hot and cold, for example. There is a lot of grey in-between hot and cold.

The fallacy arises when we think in contradictories rather than contraries–when we only have two possibilities with nothing in-between.

Why do we do this? Well, as noted above, it is part of how we have been trained to behave and how our information is often presented to us. Probably more importantly, though, we engage in this sort of thinking because it is easier. Complex thinking is hard work. Multiple perspectives are far more difficult to manage than binary perspectives. Emotionally, “either-or” is a lot more satisfying than “it’s complex.” In a 90 second or 60 second news story, complexity is left in the editorial room–no time or space for it. In social media, extremes catch our attention. Here’s a challenge–find a good internet meme that captures and champions multiple perspectives.

And in the end, just what does this have to do with William Paterson? Well–we’re a university. We say we teach critical thinking–complex thought, in other words. When faced with a world that keeps trying to boil it all down to contradictories, we need to remember and teach how to work in contraries, and how to make the arguments that lead to reasoned solutions and a reasonable world.

This is an approach that may seem anathema to many, because it not only allows for but may require that positions and perspectives that may seem abhorrent still have to be dealt with through argument. It may appear that this approach and thinking doesn’t allow for big T Truth (absolute and unassailable), and that such a position, in today’s terms, “normalizes” what should not be considered normal–and there may be a point here. Plato, though truly no real fan of rhetoric, lays out the basic complaint–that rhetoric “makes the worse appear the better cause” (The Apology).


But I like the grey. By training and temperament (and there’s a real chicken and the egg question), I find my place in between extremes, so I offer a final claim: Being able to operate in-between may not be as emotionally satisfying as operating always and only based on big T Truth, but it seems in the end to do a better job of getting more of us to a good and reasonable place–which is not a bad goal for a place of higher education.


Fast, Cheap and Good

Erik Bethke, in his 2003 book entitled Game Development and Production, focused on what he called the Project Triangle, and the three legs of the triangle are being on budget, being on time, and producing a high quality project. As Bethke notes “It is a business law of software development projects (and just about any other type of project) that you can achieve two out of three of these goals on any project, but you cannot achieve all three (p. 65).”

This concept is not really all that new or limited to software development, and as it has been applied and misapplied in many areas, the concept has been shortened to the following elements: FAST CHEAP GOOD.

The rule stays the same: You can get FAST and CHEAP, but it probably won’t be very GOOD; you can get FAST and GOOD, but it will cost you; and you can get CHEAP and GOOD, but it will take some time.

While this principle may not have the same explanatory power of Newton’s three laws of motion, keeping this model in mind whenever we think about developing and implementing a new product, process, class, technology, etc. is a pretty good idea.

I think about this model a lot as we do work on curriculum development, new program development, and as we continue our work on student success issues. Higher education is often accused (sometimes fairly, but not always) as being rather deliberate in its decision making and implementation process. Metaphors such as glaciers (less and less appropriate these days) and turning around ocean liners abound in discussing higher education decision making.

I find that the FAST CHEAP GOOD model provides a better frame for thinking of what we have to do in higher education. We know that the world in which we operate is changing fairly rapidly: technology, demographics, accountability, funding, and the purpose of higher education are just a few of the elements that are disrupting the educational environment. We are being asked in higher education to be more rapid in our responses, and to make changes to long-standing ways of operating and ways of teaching and learning—and we do need to be aware that change does have to take place.

But as we make our plans and implement these plans, it is, I would argue, always a good idea to remember FAST CHEAP GOOD.

Higher education (at least public higher education) is not very flush with finding, so of the three elements, CHEAP is probably going to be part of the discussion in most cases (not always—there is still some ability to provide a good amount of resources in support of new ideas). Since CHEAP is almost a constant, and since we also always do want GOOD, we may find that it may take a little more time to get the quality we want at the price we are able to provide. This is not an excuse about not acting or implementing, or a reason not to move forward with new projects and new ideas—but it is a reminder of the importance of using our time effectively to reach the quality we need–and of course, since there is always another metaphor or saying that can be used to argue an opposing view, also keep in mind the saying that “perfect should never be the enemy of the good.”

So, as I like to remind people that I did get a chance to have a good classical education, at one time, we do need to work for balance between the elements of the Project Triangle (as well as between conflicting and competing sayings). We close with Aristotle and the Golden Mean: Look for the desirable between the two extremes.