Back from the Conference Season: Notes from POD

It's a tad flip, ad hoc, made up on the spot, just for this occasion, for me to joke about now having made it through the "conference season," as if I've been out on the road, hitting place after place, speaking, meeting people, then moving on to the next location, the next audience. There are some people who do live like that, on the circuit, spending less time at their home base with their core of friends and family than they do at a string of scattered stops -- but I'm not actually one of them.  It only feels a bit like that because I've (or really, we've, since my partner and I have done all of this together) traveled to and presented at three very different conferences in the last month -- sort of like taking a lifestyle out for a test-drive, the best part about which is that after you're done, you do get to hand back the keys.

Early in October, it was the CUNY Supplemental Instruction conference -- a local conference, mainly faculty and administrators concerned with developing, using, or improving  that type of pedagogical resource.  When asked, I did end up finding something to first think about, then talk about:  how a Virtue Ethics perspective can inform and complement the other ways of looking at SI (slides, draft paper, and video available).  I just got home from the MAPACA conference over in Philadelphia, where I talked (slides, video coming later) about how Aristotle's moral theory (understood broadly, through the two Ethics, Politics, Rhetoric, and Poetics) can illuminate George R.R. Martin's epic and still unfinished Song of Ice and Fire.  Sandwiched between them, just two weeks ago, down in Atlanta, was the Professional and Organizational Development network conference, which is what I'm going to write about today.

In a later post, in the coming weeks, I'll discuss the Aristotle/Martin business, and perhaps even the MAPACA conference itself in greater detail.  I've already written about the presentation I gave at the CUNY SI conference, though on another blog.  This was my first time to POD -- though it will certainly not be my last -- but far from the first time I've talked or written about the topics I focused upon in my workshop session, so after a period of infrequent blogging (on this blog, at least), it seems a fitting way both to blaze a relatively new path of words and to connect up continuities to past posts. For, what I talked about, proposed as a model, and provided both best practices and trial-and-error-learned failures from, was the Ethics in Business Education Project, which I co-founded back at my previous institution, Fayetteville State University -- and whose goals, successes, setbacks, and lessons I've written about here previously (here, and here).

In many respects, POD is entirely at the other end of the scale from the CUNY SI conference -- but it also shares with the latter a common preoccupation -- bringing educators and those who support them together to study, to present on, to dialogue about key topics in education, and ultimately to improve student learning in significant, substantive, sustainable, and hopefully demonstrable ways.  POD is international in scope.  The big companies and the startups have their reps there and sponsor sessions, long-established faculty development experts and scholars of teaching and learning mix with first-time attendees, new heads of centers for faculty excellence, presenters just breaking in.  There's so much going on in education -  there has been for some time -- that one can always find a workshop in which to learn not only some new content, but new approaches, new concerns and issues even.  Likewise, in each time slot, I found, there's some workshop, some conversation, about something one has already long been involved in, studying, implementing within which some new, previously unconsidered idea will emerge.

Add on top of all that the dimension of constant and expected networking -- a telling sign:  Everyone at POD, everyone without fail I asked, had their business cards on them -- and I must have given out dozens myself.  By contrast, only one person of perhaps the ten who asked for a card actually came to MAPACA with any in their pockets, wallets, or bags.  It's true that the latter organization publishes an email list of membership in their conference program, but there's something quite different about the act of exchange, something lost when moving from the assortment of colored cards you discover in your pocket on the ride back home, each one an individual trace of a person with whom you interacted, to mere columns of text.

Another interesting feature of POD is their use of a Wiki, called prosaically enough WikiPODia, as the repository for conference materials.  Instead of merely forwarding materials to a chair, an organizer, or a tech person from a conference, as many are still doing, POD places the responsibility -- or as I look at it, the freedom and opportunity -- to upload and structure materials into the hands of the presenters, as they see fit. In the page for my own presentation, Ethics Pedagogy as a Model for Interdepartmental Development and Assessment, I got to post and link to all of the workshop materials, embed a photo -- so those perusing can put a face to a name -- and my company logo, and  . . .  well, you know the rest, because you've probably already clicked the link.  Best of all, I can edit and update it, for instance to link in video footage from the workshop session, once we've uploaded it into YouTube.

The upshot of all this is that, with the exception of the chance for exactly the same sort of direct interaction with me as the workshop provider as participants enjoyed during the session, someone interested in the workshop can practically reproduce it almost in its entirety via the slides, handouts, and once its up, the video.  Even the admitted lack of immediate, and unmediated, interaction that you'd have had during the original duration of the session is not much of an issue these days, since follow-up can easily be carried out through a variety of electronic means -- free and reliable ones -- these days. 

All that conference-related comparison and analysis aside, what matters did my workshop discuss?  In a nutshell, what I was talking about how philosophy and philosophers could -- and in many colleges and universities, probably can, right now -- be of considerable use to their institutions, particularly at this particular point of time in history.  I used the Ethics in Business Education Project as a working example, a paradigm towards which to point, but I could just as readily pointed at the Quality Enhancement Plan recently developed and deployed at FSU as another example where (some or certain kinds of) philosophers, by virtue of their particular expertise, can make vital, and for the foreseeable future highly timely, contributions to improving and better assessing student learning, raising levels of competence and confidence in teaching core areas, and deepening (or perhaps in some cases, building for the first time) an institutional culture of interdisciplinary collaboration.

That last line is pretty jargon-laden, so let me express it in a bit more tangible, down to earth, but necessarily more wordy way.  Philosophers -- given that they're trained in certain kinds of ways in the discipline, and not handicapped by some other, unfortunately popular approaches -- make excellent candidates for a kind of collaboration the need for which is often not understood, felt, or even dimly realized in academic institutions -- collaboration in certain core skills, certain fundamental domains of knowledge.  For philosophers, these can be -- really ought to be -- but regrettably sometimes aren't  -- areas of our own specialized, disciplinary expertise, the objects of several-millennia-long traditions of inquiry and study.  Critical Thinking, Logic, and Ethics are among these core, foundational areas.

A short set of digressions: That's not to say, of course that nobody but philosophers studies, can make legitimate claims to expertise, or makes important contributions in these areas, in these complexes of skills, knowledge, and deeper dispositions that university education is supposed to inculcate in its students and assure its graduates to now possesses.  There are indeed many doctors, historians, business educators or practitioners who could probably better teach an Ethics course than some Philosophy instructors -- many, of course, because there are just so many in all these professions, but relatively few when you look at them as a proportion of doctors, historians, and so on.  In general,if businesspeople want to improve their competence and confidence in teaching, assessing progress in, designing courses for, infusing Ethics, they're better off to turn to the philosophers -- at least some of them.

For, I'm also not saying that any old Philosophy instructor will do, for that sort of collaboration in core educational matters.  For one example, many are rather narrowly specialized, out to sea when it comes to the vaster, more panoramic picture of Ethical theories, and while such an interlocutor that might be useful in learning, e.g. how to understand the admittedly tricky and unnecessarily technical Immanuel Kant and his particular version of deontological ethics, they're not going to be of much help in learning and thinking about the other Ethical theories. Those who focus on contemporary debates about Ethical theory in Analytic philosophy along with its attendant entirely stipulative terminology and concepts, disengaged from the previous history and development of the discipline of Ethics, don't strike me as particularly likely to prove useful collaborators either -- a generalization, mind you, as I do know some Analytically trained moral theorists who manage to bridge that chasm, usually by relying upon non-Analytic resources

Core areas in education -- like Critical Thinking, Ethics, Written Communication, Cultural Literacy, and so on -- by their own comprehensive, general, overarching nature tend to be difficult to reduce to a routine or set of procedures, a comprehensively systematized body of knowledge, or rather articulately arranged information.  This makes it difficult not only to come up with good assessments whether students are actually developing these (or for that matter, even -- and this involves assessment of instructors and curricula -- encountering them!), but to even agree upon what we mean by the very terms like Ethics, Critical Thinking, and so on.  Nearly everyone claims to do and foster some sort of "critical thinking" in their classrooms -- because it's easy to be very loosey-goosey and vague about precisely what it consists in, especially if your own main systematic, thematic encounters with Critical Thinking as a student were confined to a class and then whatever your disciplinary instructors claimed to be Critical Thinking.  That's precisely why, if you want things done well, rigorously, you call in the experts.

What happens once disciplinary experts of two sorts are at the table, looking at what the present educational situation actually is and what kinds of improvements need to be made, can go a number of ways, and I talked about these in my workshop as models.  You can compartmentalize matters, so that the core area gets focused on, studied, and taught by the subject-matter experts.  You can bring in philosophers to develop and teach, for instance Business Ethics classes, hoping that the students will get enough grounding in Ethics that the necessarily connected material found throughout the rest of the Business curriculum will now become clear to them (and the Business instructors, usually not trained specifically in Ethics to any great extent).  Not a particularly good strategy to adopt, not least because it sends a consistent message to students:  this Ethics stuff is actually not important, just a hoop to jump through so that we can get on with studying the real stuff.

There's other available models, practically all of them better than the compartmentalization one.  The one we deliberately adopted, and I think perhaps even may have contributed to developing a bit in EBEP involves the subject matter expert(s) in the core area -- in this case, philosophers with respect to Ethics -- working closely with the subject matter experts in the other field -- in this case the FSU School of Business and Economics.  The main goal is for the philosopher to assist the Business faculty to gradually become more and more competent in dealing well with Ethics content -- competent, but also more confident.  One workshop which I provided to the Business faculty, for instance, focused on the sorts of common student complaints and challenges that arise when an instructor -- in practically any discipline -- veers into, or realizes they are now deep within, Ethics territory, and how to turn these into good opportunities to promote deeper thinking about Ethics, rather than allowing them to -- as instructors come to dread -- turn into roadblocks, overly tense situations, even occasions of humiliation.

The instructors in the discipline into which Ethics is being deliberately infused or incorporated -- and where some Ethics is most likely already being done though not recognized as such -- are the people who have the most contact with the students in their major, and enabling them to teach Ethics consistently and well should both reinforce whatever Ethics knowledge and skills students picked up in earlier classes, and help them to continue progressing, hopefully becoming what we now term "lifelong learners," people who choose to continue their education after leaving the academy and entering the workplace.  Those instructors are also the ones who ought to be most involved in assessing the demonstrable development of students in Ethics -- whether in moral development itself, or understanding of ethical theories, or application of those theories to cases -- and philosophers ought to enable non-philosopher instructors to design, use, grade, interpret results from, and improve assessments for Ethics.

Much more could be said about this -- in 75 minutes at POD, I felt I only scratched the surface -- so I'll end by advocating one thing and pointing out another.  So, first the soap-box pitch:  the sort of collaboration in core areas between disciplinary experts that I've briefly described here is what ought to be going on -- and so rarely is -- at every institution of higher learning that claims to be producing graduates who are educated in any real sense of the word.  That, undoubtedly, calls for some further explanation, perhaps argument, on my part, but I'll defer that to a later post, with the exception of one blatently pragmatic appeal.

Given the current educational, economic, and political climate, it has never been more important -- let alone just downright prudent -- for educators to demonstrate to the stakeholders who fund their efforts that education is really taking place -- not just technical training, but core education -- sustained, reinforced, built-upon, deep-enough-to-be-retained core education.  Now that can't happen unless students are actually encountering these core areas of development, being fostered and challenged in them, learning from others who possess them at a level of mastery, not shallow facsimiles of them, but genuine core skills, knowledge, and dispositions.