Archive for June 18, 2012

Good academic leadership as a model for good teaching

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.

June 18, 2012 at 9:53 am 9 comments

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