Thinking Inside and Outside the Box
In a recent chairs’ council meeting at my institution, we discussed the job description of department chairs, which had been drafted several years previously. We all agreed that it needed to be updated to reflect their increased workload. In our discussion, two very different mindsets became apparent to me; my own default mindset and the mindset of our chairs, both of which I think are grounded in two very different educational and cultural systems.
The discussion focused on the various tasks all chairs must work on which include providing administrative leadership for their departments and leading department meetings, among other duties. In other words, our conversation was strictly context-bound, as the chairs only addressed their day-to-day responsibilities. The question as to what chairs at other institutions do never came up. However, that was the very first question that came to my mind.
Having been socialized in the Austrian educational system before I moved to the US to pursue my doctorate, I tend to always look for standards, best practices, and norms outside of my own institutional context, hoping to learn from them before entering a discussion on how to implement changes, create new programs, or the like. The consensus in the European educational system, it seems, is that tradition should not be undervalued.
Such is not the case only in higher education. Guilds have traditions that date back to the Middle Ages. If one wants to become a goldsmith, for example, one must start out as an apprentice, followed by years as a journeyman, before achieving the level of master. The thinking is that over a thousand years of tradition cannot be wrong. There is undoubtedly wisdom in established concepts, best practices, and educational standards, even though this rigidity is not without problems. For instance, a friend of mine who started out as a cook in Austria ended up settling in New York City where he is now a goldsmith, creating remarkable jewelry for high-end brands. In Austria, he would never have been hired in a goldsmith’s shop as he never received “proper training” in his craft.
Unlike myself and many of my European colleagues, American colleagues more often than not tend to begin with a tabula rasa, which in the best scenario has the potential to lead to highly innovative results. However, starting from scratch can also yield highly idiosyncratic results.
I have always found it puzzling that colleagues who teach different sections of the same class would not share their syllabi with each other. Instead, professors would rather create their own syllabus than follow someone else’s lesson plans, which, of course, makes sense in a culture that prizes individuality over collectivism. Some professors are even so protective of their syllabi as their own intellectual property that they refuse to send them to the assistant in the provost’s office. This does not sit well with administrators who see this as a violation of institutional policies. As a former faculty member, I found myself in meetings where my colleagues and I were tasked with reinventing the wheel, which sometimes proved to be labor-intensive and the meager results were not always worth the trouble.
And yet, I find this freedom, and even the expectation that both faculty and administrators should be highly creative, to be well-worth pursuing. Being encouraged to improve one’s pedagogy, academic discipline, or institution is highly liberating; it empowers both faculty and administrators to make meaningful and lasting contributions to higher education. For that reason, I could not imagine myself working at one of the European institutions I am familiar with where innovation is seen with suspicion.
Having been shaped by American higher education for almost 20 years, I realize that the two mindsets—respecting tradition and valuing innovation—are not mutually exclusive. Rather, I see them as part of a dialectic that allows one to think productively outside the box. Being able to think outside the box presupposes the existence of the box. In promoting their book, A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, Douglas Thomas and John Sealy Brown make a similar point when they emphasize the importance of constraints for the imagination: “Contrary to popular myth, imagination and innovation are actually spurred by constraints. Too much freedom can be paralyzing.” In the case of higher education, the proverbial box stands for time-honored pedagogical and organizational practices. Yet as the current framework is also the product of an educational model based on the needs and demands of a pre-digital society, it is more important than ever to think outside the box and to envision models of higher education which prepare students for both workplace and society that are constantly challenged by digital technologies.
The dichotomy of thinking inside and outside the box also reminds me of an essay by the linguist Kenneth Pike. In his essay “A Stereoscopic Window on the World,” Pike provides a summary of the two concepts he forged in the study of phonetics and phonology: emic and etic. The emic view, according to Pike, is a context-dependent or an insider’s perspective while the etic view is the perspective of an outsider looking in. Both have independent merits, but when taken by themselves, they are limiting. Phonology describes the sounds of a specific language. The phonology of English is quite distinct from the phonology of Mandarin, as the sound inventory of a specific language only make sense in that language system. Phonetics on the other hand describes all the sounds humans use in their 6,000 or so languages. As the title of his essay suggests, Pike emphasizes the necessity of applying both perspectives at the same time. In order to truly understand different languages and cultures properly, Pike argues, one needs to have both an insider’s and an outsider’s point of view.
Having worked in different cultural and academic contexts over the years, I see Pike’s notion of the “stereoscopic window on the world” as a sine qua non. As an administrator, I appreciate the cultural context of my university; however, to move the institution forward and to be truly innovative, one needs to have not only an appreciation for the unique inner workings of one’s own institution, but one must know how other universities tackle similar issues as well.
It is only when institutions think both inside and outside the box that they can equip students with the skills to succeed in an ever-faster-accelerating world. In other words, reinventing the wheel is not necessary; however, what is needed is refashioning a wheel that is shaped by hundreds of years of previous experience so that it can perform well in and adapt to ever-changing situations.
Gregor Thuswaldner, PhD, is dean of arts and sciences and professor of humanities at North Park University. His latest book, The Hermeneutics of Hell: Visions and Representations of the Devil in World Literature (Palgrave Macmillan), co-edited with Daniel Russ, came out last November.