Tuesday, November 23, 2010

(The Inability to See Beyond) Business as Usual

Receiving the newest CALS News (the magazine for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences here at Cornell University) made me wonder: will there be anything in here about the Department of Education? It seemed it might get some kind of mention, even if only in the the dean's comments. Rather, Dean Boor noted how good things are. She stated:
Under [Susan Henry's] leadership, the college took a strategic approach to planning for the future. Our books are balance, we are well on our way to "Reimagining CALS," and recent mergers among eight sister departments are encouraging even close collaborations across the Ithaca and Geneva campuses.
That would have been the place to say something about Education. But nothing. It gives the sense that everything is perfectly fine and on track. And, for many within the college, that's true. There's not even a decency to note that the "Reimagining" process has cut an entire department and altered the future study of education at Cornell. The article then goes on the praise the new Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and other wonderful things going on within CALS. The ranking of top programs is highlighted. And, as the dean says, CALS is "one of the best places in the world to conduct research in agricultural, environmental, and applied social sciences." The article concludes with this paragraph:
Many of the most important issues that we face today--climate change, food security, economic and environmental sustainability--are complex questions that require multidisciplinary solutions. By taking advantage of the amazing depth and breadth of academic resources we have here at CALS, we can form natural collaborations that make a big difference. By continuing to work closely with our outreach partners locally and around the globe, we can amplify that impact and truly become land grant university to the world.
These are big issues that we're attempting to deal with and address. We do have tremendous resources to do so, but there's something lacking in the way we're conceptualizing and putting into practice this work. Stay with me for a minute or two.

I continue to be baffled by the actions taken by CALS regarding the study of education here at Cornell. The Department of Education exists in the shadow of what once was the study of education here at Cornell. There is a long history of Cornell wanting to get rid of the study of education, moving the School of Education from the endowed side of the university over to CALS and creating a department that would eventually dwindle down to a size able to be dismantled. There have long been decisions made at this institution to ensure that education remained small and expendable. It's current manifestation, frankly, is trying to be too much and that's why it was able to be dismantled. Without institutional support this obviously had to be the case. Many argue that universities and colleges must play to the strengths of an institution while curtailing or cutting others. The concern for me is not simply the closure of the department, but rather the ways in which we go on thinking we've got the bases covered. Let me clarify what I mean.

Susan Riha leads an open meeting on Marcellus
Shale drilling. Notice the expected table with microphones
and the people in the audience nowhere to be seen.
The feature piece for the applied social sciences is "Concerns Ignite about Drilling Deep for Gas" and is about the possibility of hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale.

The article states that "Faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have mounted an unprecedented response to the issue. They have stepped up their research and extension efforts to help individuals and communities make decisions about the benefits and dangers of this new form of natural gas drilling and to think about broader energy development scenarios."

I have no doubt that Cornell is doing a great deal of research and engagement. I know, personally, some of these individuals engaging in this work. The article continues and notes, "Today, the team [of diverse faculty and extension educators] dispatch information to individuals considering leasing their land, community groups, and local governments. They have also briefed state and federal officials on the issue." But what kinds of research and engagement?

The problem with what's being done, as the picture above demonstrates, is that the university's role is to take information and give it to individuals and communities. The goal of this work is to, "communicate the evidence that's available and help people evaluate the risks involved....We are about providing accurate and, when possible, research-based information." Creating panels of experts to disseminate information to citizens not only privileges the type of knowledge coming from experts but it also makes the knowledge, experience, and feelings of citizens marginal to evidence-based research. What's missing from this story--and sadly much of the work within CALS--is a dimension that takes seriously the contribution and knowledge of citizens, especially around issues such as gas drilling. Rather than sharing our research with communities, what if CALS did research in and with communities? What if we had deliberative forums for citizens, experts, gas companies, and others to engage one another rather than maintaining a power dynamic that privileges the university--and science--over citizens?

There are many reasons why the university would prefer to do work as it has typically been done. The university has a status and role within society and there is a concern by many (but not all) that engaging citizens and communities as peers rather than clients would reduce the role and importance of science and research. What we do is research and then provide that information. The quotes above demonstrate that approach very well. But what happens is that that particular approach is understood as the approach. Rather than simply being one way for the university to engage communities about public problems, it becomes the only way. So when we talk about dealing with public problems as Dean Boor did in her message, we are saying that complex problems require more involvement and engagement among researchers. What we should be saying is that to deal with such important issues, we'll need to rethink the ways in which universities interact with those beyond campus.

What we're losing, with the closure of the Department of Education, is the program which I've called home since coming here to Cornell. Adult and Extension Education takes seriously the contribution and knowledge of citizens. I can't speak to how those in other programs within the department, but Adult and Extension Education folks would challenge the statements made about the type of research and engagement going on around the issue of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. I am deeply troubled that we speak about dealing with and addressing some of the most pressing social problems by telling folks what the science says. If we really want to address these public problems, we need to meaningfully engage the public. There is a role for research and information as part of such processes, but it can't be all that we do. We must form collaborative relationships that make a big difference, but that has to be citizens and experts, not simply university experts. We just don't get that we need to look beyond the university to deal with these problems. The closure of a program such as Adult and Extension Education quiets a community that challenges the dominant paradigm. CALS and Cornell just don't get it. We can't just do business as usual.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Shrinking Scope of Our Land-Grant Mission

Here is an article published in the Cornell Daily Sun

November 8, 2010
By Timothy Shaffer

The closure of the Department of Education and the subsequent response from many who are deeply concerned by this strategic move by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and by the University itself, is alarming. It is alarming because it calls attention to how differently this issue is thought about. I don’t want my words here to be anything more than a Ph.D. student deeply concerned about what’s going on.

The concern I have is different from much of the current conversation, including the reporting by The Sun and especially the editorial “Strategic or Predictable” and the subsequent response from Dean Kathryn Boor. I, with many others, have been involved in organizing other concerned individuals about what the closure of the Department of Education means. One of the common phrases mentioned is the loss of part of the “land-grant mission.” In the midst of many concerns and conversations, I want to stress why this is so important to me.

Cornell has, since its inception, struggled with being a land-grant institution as well as a premier university. By and large, however, the University has happily wedded its land-grant mission with its status as a research university. One conception of the land-grant mission has been focused on the dissemination of knowledge. We have tremendous researchers and laboratories in which we engage in important research for the public. Dean Boor notes that the land-grant mission is the guiding principle for everything that happens in CALS. I’d like to agree, and I think I can on some level, but I want to push back a bit about the mission. The list of examples provided in the dean’s letter to the editor includes biofuels research and the Community and Rural Development Institute, as well as 4-H workshops. All of these are part of the land-grant mission, but I would argue that it’s not all of it. There are competing — and conflicting — views of what it means to be a land-grant institution.

The problem with so much of the discussion about the land-grant mission simplifies that mission into a heroic metanarrative — to borrow a phrase from Professor Scott Peters, education — that limits the way we might think about the public mission of land-grant institutions. What’s not included in that list is the example of the educator embodying the democratic spirit of engaging citizens as equals rather than giving information to them to deter pests from destroying produce or to address something as far-reaching as sustainability. Liberty Hyde Bailey, a name that may only sound familiar because a hall bears his name, was one of these educators in our land-grant history who offered another approach to Cornell’s public mission. He wrote books such as What is Democracy? and The Holy Earth. In the latter he writes, “The college may be the guiding force, but it should not remove responsibility from the people of the localities, or offer them a kind of co-operation that is only the privilege of partaking in the college enterprises. I fear that some of our so-called co-operation in public work of many kinds is little more than to allow the co-operator to approve what the official administration has done.” What Bailey wrote about is more than translating research into usable information.

What I’m most concerned about with the loss of the department is the space in which conversations transcend the belief that issues are technical; that all we need to do is provide information or convene a workshop where experts let citizens know what they should do. Dean Boor notes, “we fully intend to provide the disciplinary knowledge (e.g. agricultural sciences, biology) upon which effective teaching must be based and to craft ways for students to obtain teacher certifications.” I want to challenge Dean Boor — and others — to not limit what “education” means here at Cornell. I am an Adult and Extension Education Ph.D. student. Most of my peers in other departments or colleges have no idea such a program exists. But what students in a course such as EDUC 6820: Community Education and Development would tell you is that education is not simply about getting certification or being in a classroom.

Education takes seriously that the most pressing issues our state, nation and world face are not simply technical. They are technical in some respect, but they are also political, cultural, ethical and even religious. Bailey wrote about this in 1915. Who will write about this in 2015?

This counter-narrative of the land-grant mission, albeit marginal throughout history, has been about engaging citizens and communities not as receptacles for information but as co-creators of knowledge. We have rich historical and contemporary examples of such work, but it was and will presumably continue to be on the periphery. The closure of the department signals a loss of space for complex questions to be thought about and engaged with. What I’m concerned about is the further narrowing of the land-grant mission as faculty and students are told by the institution that thinking about sustainability, for example, as something other than a purely technical and scientific issue isn’t valued. I’m glad that the only decision that has been made thus far is the closure of the department. I have great hope that we, the Cornell community, might engage one another constructively to ensure that we do indeed embody our mission as a land-grant university.

Timothy Shaffer is a Ph.D. student in Adult and Extension Education.  He may be contacted at tjs279@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Rhetoric and Reality: What is a University?

I write this with a sense of sadness and hope. In recent days, the decision has been made by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) to close the Department of Education. The decision was made based on the future prospects of the Department of Education being a preeminent faculty and program. In short, because of an institutional mission focused on technical, scientific research, the contribution of education is marginal to CALS desire to be the world's greatest college of agriculture. I do not argue that the Department of Education's existence within CALS in unique, but I do want to challenge the assumptions made about the scholarship and contribution of education to CALS, Cornell, and higher education. We find ourselves in this most difficult situation because of a lack of understanding -- or a devaluing -- of education's role in shaping how and what we know. We, as members of the education community, are complicit in this confusion and thus must speak out and engage others to do all that is possible to call attention to education's role in our institutions and world. 

We don't have to look very far to see the disconnect between rhetoric and reality. Here at Cornell, we are doing a phenomenally poor job at recognizing the disconnect. Some striking examples of this failure to recognize the role of education have emerged in the days following the announcement of the Department of Education closing. The first deals with the recent gift of $80 million to support sustainability research and what we claim we're doing with this tremendous gift and opportunity. The second deals with the need for investment and support of the humanities. 

I have noted the contradictions and omissions in this work previously, but I feel the need to stress that education has a central role as part of this initiative. The exclusion of educators and scholars of education isn't something new. It has been this way. But what I want to stress is that now is a time when the Cornell community should truly reflect on what it is we claim to be doing and what actually occurs. As Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said
"Achieving a sustainable world will require increased awareness, policy changes and an inclusive approach....And Cornell is ideally positioned to lead the current discussion and help shape the next generation of leaders."
Cornell is an ideal institution if we understand ourselves as such. There are academic silos that are so deeply entrenched in this institution that we can't even recognize that interdisciplinary means more than engineers speaking with chemists. Krupp continued,
"Great universities like Cornell need to speak up about global warming. There's an ethical dimension here....There's also the opportunity for Cornell to be involved in a way unique in American universities -- to create the examples and the constituents that make policy."
We do need to speak up about global warming, but as long as we try to deal with ethical issues as if they were technical issues, we'll continue to lament larger society for not "getting it" when we as a land grant institution have only done part of the work we are charged to do. We should be more than a factory creating information. However, what we're doing is feeding the "overapplication of scientific rationality to public policy making"(Frank Fischer, Citizens, Experts, and the Environment (Durham: Duke, 2000), p. ix). We don't take seriously that non-experts have something to say about an issue like sustainability. It doesn't show up in anything that we say, but Cornell continues to operate with the deficit model as a starting point. We have the knowledge and skills. We need to fix these problems. The way we do that is through scientific research. All of these statements are true, but I would amend them. I would say, 
"We have the knowledge and skills to contribute meaningfully to the work but not all. We need to fix these problems collaboratively with others, especially those who are impacted by decisions. The way we do that is through scientific research as part of a larger conception of scholarship that takes seriously local knowledge and the multiple forms of research within the Academy."
This is what I would like us to be saying and doing. This requires much more conversation and collaboration than we have seen or experienced. We may continually be building new science buildings for researchers to cross departmental boundaries, but if those scientists don't even know that there is a Department of Education, then we've failed as a community of scholars. We are a university, a "whole." But do we act like it. Gregory A. Petsko has captured this in an open letter to the president of SUNY Albany. To quote Petsko: 
I know one of your arguments is that not every place should try to do everything. Let other institutions have great programs in classics or theater arts, you say; we will focus on preparing students for jobs in the real world. Well, I hope I've just shown you that the real world is pretty fickle about what it wants. The best way for people to be prepared for the inevitable shock of change is to be as broadly educated as possible, because today's backwater is often tomorrow's hot field. And interdisciplinary research, which is all the rage these days, is only possible if people aren't too narrowly trained. If none of that convinces you, then I'm willing to let you turn your institution into a place that focuses on the practical, but only if you stop calling it a university and yourself the President of one. You see, the word 'university' derives from the Latin 'universitas', meaning 'the whole'. You can't be a university without having a thriving humanities program. You will need to call SUNY Albany a trade school, or perhaps a vocational college, but not a university. Not anymore.
This leads me to the second point that I found ironic in recent days. President Skorton, in his State of the University Address on October 29, has called for the hiring of new faculty members humanities. The article in the Cornell Chronicle notes that,
"Far from being irrelevant in the digital age, the arts and humanities not only teach the basic skills of critical and contextual thinking, communication and ethics but also have value as disciplines of research and critical analysis in their own right. And on a fundamental level, they teach us what it means to be human, he said." 
This comment is something I wholeheartedly agree with, and I would argue that much of what takes places within the field of education asks these deeply important questions about what it means to be a person in today's world. I would argue that the college and university administration have failed in understanding what it is that happens within the Department of Education. Yes, there are aspects of technical training with the department, but so much more than that takes place. Read through the description of the Adult and Extension Education program here at Cornell. Read it. This isn't technical training, and this is simply one program among others that will continue to lose support as the department moves toward closure. I believe that if others actually knew what we think about and do, they wouldn't be closing it down. Education is much more than simply teacher preparation (and by no means am I demeaning teacher education). What I mean to say is that education engages questions about what it means to be a citizen in communities, states, or the world. There is serious engagement with some of the most important questions about who we are and how we might live with one another in the future taking place within classes that will be cut from the curriculum without much concern.

To close, I want to paraphrase a new friend and colleague that I would never have met had it not been for an education course. In response to the frustration of the call for support for the humanities while killing education he wrote, 
"we need to redefine the scope of education to include the values and ideals that the president mentioned in defining liberal arts and humanities. it's the soul of the university --it's how we transform an elitist institution into something relevant to people across the state and the world. it's also how we connect every school, college and department in cornell." 
Exactly. Let us begin that work. We're meeting tonight with those who are wanting to be involved in the conversation about the future of education here at Cornell. We're meeting tonight at 5:00pm in 231 Warren Hall. Please come and invite others. You can find out more information at http://cornelleducation.info. If you're not able to make it tonight, we're going to begin a community conversation about the future of education at Cornell on Tuesday evening at 5:00pm in 360 Warren Hall. The image below is the flyer we're passing around with the hope that we might have a truly inclusive conservation about education. With this in mind, please encourage and invite those outside of the field of education to participate. We want and need many voices. For too long we've all stayed insular in our work. We can no longer afford to do so. 
Click to enlarge.
We are a truly great university. Let us enliven the spirit of collegiality and collaboration. Let us be a "whole" in a way that draws from our diverse strengths to contribute to the work addressing some of the most pressing problems facing humanity and our time. If we want to be one of the best universities in the world, let us prove it through the meaningful work that changes the world for the better by being contributors to that work rather than dominating it because we feel we have the answers and others simply need to listen to us. Problems such as sustainability are multifaceted. They aren't only technical. There are political, social, and ethical dimensions that must be considered. We all need to be part of this work, including those who study education.