Good academic leadership as a model for good teaching

June 18, 2012 at 9:53 am 9 comments

There’s a Facebook meme making the rounds:

Bosses and Leaders

I am no expert on management or leadership.  A management expert may look at the above chart and shake her head sadly about the misconceptions of the commonsense view of management.  Nonetheless, the chart sets up an interesting dichotomy that is worth exploring, in relation to academia and then to teaching.

The abrupt firing of President Teresa Sullivan from the University of Virginia raises questions about academic leadership and its goals. The below quote from a Slate article on her ouster suggests that she fit under the “Leader” column above:

The first year of Sullivan’s tenure involved hiring her own staff, provost, and administrative vice president. In her second year she had her team and set about reforming and streamlining the budget system, a process that promised to save money and clarify how money flows from one part of the university to another. This was her top priority. It was also the Board of Visitor’s top priority—at least at the time she was hired. Sullivan was rare among university presidents in that she managed to get every segment of the diverse community and varied stakeholders to buy in to her vision and plan. Everyone bought in, that is, except for a handful of very, very rich people, some of whom happen to be political appointees to the Board of Visitors. (emphasis added)

via Teresa Sullivan fired from UVA: What happens when universities are run by robber barons. – Slate Magazine.

I have known academic leaders like this.  Jim Foley is famous at Georgia Tech for generating consensus on issues.  My current school chair (ending his term this month) does a good job of engaging faculty in conversations and listening — he doesn’t always agree, but faculty opinions have swayed his choices.  Eugene Wallingford has written a good bit about how to live on the right side of the chart.

I am sure that all of us in academics have also met one or more academic bullies who land more often in the left column:

The self-righteous bully is a person who cannot accept that they could possibly be in the wrong. They are totally devoid of self-awareness and neither know nor care about the impact of their behaviour on other people. They are always right and others are always wrong. R. Namie and G. Namie (2009) described bullies as individuals who falsely believed they had more power than others did…They tend to have little empathy for the problems of the other person in the victim/bully relationship.

The bosses vs. leaders chart at the top of this post is about leadership, but it’s also about teaching.  The common view of the undergraduate teacher veers toward the “boss” and “bully” characterizations above.  We are “authorities.”  The education jobs in academia are often called “Lecturers” or “Professors.”  We lecture or profess to students — we tell them, we don’t ask them.  We “command” students to complete assignments. We strive to make our lectures “always right.”

The best teachers look more like the right side of the chart at the top.   From what we know about learning and teaching, a good teacher does “build consensus.”  We don’t want to just talk at students — we want students to believe us and buy into a new understanding.  One of my favorite education papers is “Cognitive Apprenticeship” which explicitly talks about how an effective teacher “models/shows” a skill, and “develops” and “coaches” students.  The biggest distinction between a “boss/bully” teacher and a “leader” teacher is listening to students. A good teacher “asks” them for students’ goals and interpretations. How People Learn emphasizes that we have to engage students’ prior understanding for effective learning. A good teacher sympathizes with the students’ perspectives, then responds not with a canned speech, but with a thoughtful response (perhaps in the form of an activity, not just a lecture) that develops student understanding.

I saw Eric Roberts receive the IEEE Computer Society Taylor L. Booth Education Award last week.  I told him that I was eager to try a teleprompter for the first time.  Eric said that he wouldn’t.  He said that he would respond to the moment, the audience, and the speeches of the previous recipients.  He would use the adrenalin of the moment to compose his talk on the fly.  (Eric’s a terrific speaker, so he can pull that off better than me.)  He told me that it was the same as in class — he listens and responds to the students.

At the end of this week, I’m heading off to Oxford where I’ll teach in our study abroad program there.  It will be Georgia Tech students and Georgia Tech faculty, but physically, in Oxford.  I’ll be teaching two classes: Introduction to Media Computation in Python (for my first time in seven years!) and Computational Freakonomics.  I’ve taught at Oxford Study Abroad twice before, and loved it.  Sure, Oxford is fabulous, but what I most enjoyed my past times (and what I most look forward to this time) is the teaching experience.  I have 22 students registered in MediaComp (typically 150-300/semester at Georgia Tech, depending on the size of the lecture halls available), and 10 students in CompFreak.  We will meet for 90 minutes a day (each class, so 3 hours a day for me), four days a week.  It’s an immersive experience.  We will have meals together.  Last times, I had “office hours” at my kitchen table, and in impromptu meetings at a lab after dinner.

In enormous lecture halls with literally hundreds of students, it’s not always easy to be a “leader.”  It’s easier in those settings to be the “boss” (even the “bully”), professing what’s right and ordering students to do their work.  In a setting like Oxford with smaller classes and more contact, I will have more opportunity to listen to my students, and the opportunity to develop my skills as a leader/teacher.

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9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dennis J Frailey  |  June 18, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Neither of the options shown accounts for competence and capability. In my experience, lack of these is rampant among managers in industry and in academia. Such lack tends to be compensated for by over reliance on either the leadership or “boss” model. Clearly we all want the leader rather than the “boss” to be in charge (In most situations, although perhaps not in emergency ones). But if we rely on the notion that the person in charge can get by on “leadership” skills, we’ll end up with a lot of politicians.

    Reply
    • 2. Alfred Thompson  |  June 18, 2012 at 10:59 am

      I agree that competence and capability is in short supply these days in both industry and academia. Boy do I ever. Part of the problem is that we as a society tend to see promotion into a leadership position as proof of competence and capability when this is clearly not the case. At least with the right side of the chart there is a possibility that those in charge will actually listen to others.

      Reply
      • 3. Dennis J Frailey  |  June 18, 2012 at 11:33 am

        In a crisis I may want a competent boss – there’s no time for pussyfooting. In normal times I want a competent leader. Far too often I get an incompetent! I agree that in such conditions an incompetent leader is preferable to an incompetent boss. I always defined a leader as someone whom others willingly follow. This implies things like respect, competence, and charisma. But note that having the characteristics of a leader (as is taught to far too many leadership aspirants) is not the same thing. This is rather like saying the uniform makes the general.

        It’s really too bad we make the assumption that the administrative head should be the overall leader of a group. This assumption is made in many organizations, perhaps because they think one person should have all of the requisite qualities. But it results in too many poor administrators, poorly administered organizations, and incompetent leaders. I’ve known a number of true leaders who couldn’t survive without competent administrators – the good ones knew this and arranged for it and acknowledged the contributions of their administrators. I’ve also known many excellent administrators who lacked true leadership skills and relied on their office rather than their personal characteristics for authority. Many excellent administrators had skills that were not appreciated by anyone other than those being managed, so they could not get promoted. They lacked the “leadership” characteristics necessary for rapid advancement. At least these were humble enough to recognize their limitations! I’ve also known far to many “leaders” [more often than not, tall, athletic men] whose administrative skills were not very high but who failed to really understand this. This happens in the military, for example when there’s a surplus of officers (pilots after a war is over, for example); in academia when there’s a surplus of tenured faculty (we’ve all suffered from this); and in industry when there’s a reorganization resulting in fewer assignments for mid-level executives.

        As I see it, a teacher should be a source of inspiration and a role model. This is a lot like a leader, but is also a lot like a parent Your job is to make others succeed.

        Reply
  • 4. Alfred Thompson  |  June 18, 2012 at 10:55 am

    Several times while I was teaching I had groups of students for several years in a row. Since these were small classes and many of these students were pretty regular in my labs even outside of class we got to know each other pretty well. This changed the dynamic of what we like to call classroom management. I realized after a time that the “boss” method could not possibly work even if I wanted it to. The students knew me too well. They knew my weaknesses particularly well so fooling them that I knew it all was not possible. The upside is that this forced me to the right side of that chart above. I think this made me a better teacher for all my students.

    Reply
  • 5. gflintGarth  |  June 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I once worked on a PhEd degree in Educational Leadership. After 30+ years in the military I think I have a firm grasp on the concept of leadership. The Ed Leadership degree had nothing to do with Leadership, it was a degree in administration, budgets and law. Leadership is the blend of those two columns to fit the requirements of the situation. I have worked for some good ed leaders and some bad ed leaders. It is easy to deduce who worked mostly in which column. Managing independent minded people in groups, be they soldiers or students, requires a blend that accomplishes the mission and yet does not piss everybody off so much that they will not work for you willingly. It is possible to get too deep into the right hand column and simply lose control. Student group dynamics sometimes require an iron fist but kept to a minimum. Goodwill is all fine and dandy but high school sophomores need a good dose of authority at times.

    Reply
  • [...] may look at the above chart and shake her head sadly about the misconceptions of t…See on computinged.wordpress.com Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

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  • [...] University of Virginia. You can read about it here or Mark’s excellent summary and commentary here, for a couple of summaries, or just search for more details because there is certainly no shortage [...]

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  • [...] emails suggest that one of the reasons that the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors ousted President Teresa Sullivan was that she was resistant to online education: Various theories have been traded among [...]

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  • 9. Online education: It’s going to happen - reestheskin  |  June 21, 2012 at 11:22 am

    [...] the traditional higher education providers. One of the most important points for me was when Eric Roberts of Stanford pushed back against the flood of support for MOOCs, pointing out the costs of on-line education in [...]

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