On the Hewlett Proposal

26 Jan 2001


I think your draft of material for the proposal has a number of fine things in it, but that it tries to stretch the Hewlett opportunity to cover too much of the TLRG's mandate, and has the effect of delaying some things that need more immediate attention. I'll say more about the latter at the end of this, but first I'll try to summarize my thoughts on what you've presented in the draft. I'm also appending a couple of other bits that I wrote a while ago, and a wodge of photocopying from a book I've recently read. Those appendices may make more sense of what I have to say below.

I think the central idea of The Role of the Liberal Arts Education in the Information Age is an excellent focus for the Hewlett opportunity, and that our grand goal with such funds would be to create a focus for community attention in big issues --to create what Stanley Fish has labeled a "community of interpretation" (though he seems to have purloined the phrase from Royce, out of Peirce...).  My reading of the Hewlett guidelines is that they want to support reflective and conceptual efforts, out of which may come task-oriented mobilization on the campus and communication with others beyond W&L. The end goal of a conference with that kind of communication in mind (with other ACS institutions and various like-minded consortial partners from the Oberlin Group and others as invitees) seems entirely appropriate. To raise the probability of success with the application we need to propose specific activities that are novel, that can't be done without extraordinary support, and that are of interest and value to other institutions like ourselves.

We need to create the setting for a campus-wide process of engaging with the ideas and dilemmas that will help us understand our connections to the Information Age. The activities to be covered by the Hewlett grant could be considered as (forgive the sports analogy...) institutional Time Outs, whose main aims are discussion and information-gathering, representing an institutional commitment to rethinking how we do things in the light of (1) the changing outside world, (2) our own commitment to diversity and broadening, and (3) evolving information technologies. I imagine the basic format to be Symposia which focus community attention on ways to understand and meet the challenges of the Information Age --opportunities to listen, to talk, to define agendas and directions, to air differences, to build understanding, coalitions, collaborations, and perhaps even consensus. We might concentrate the funds on bringing in speakers, facilitators, animateurs, and on creating forums that will draw broad participation from faculty and students and staff and community.  These activities would be more than just lecture series (would include Roundtables, formal and informal Reading/Discussion Circles, other sponsored activities) and would have a specific pitch in time --they would take place over more than 12 but less than 18 months or so, and could begin as soon as money was in hand from the grant.  That means that the activities covered by the grant aren't appropriate to handling the shorter-term needs and demands that are part of the TLRG's mandate/domain (which is why I'll discuss those at the end of this part). And as we know the Hewlett funds aren't for either planning or hardware, also to be discussed below.

I think the rubrics of "Task Forces" and "Pilots" aren't quite right for the activities that I see as appropriate to the Hewlett guidelines, though a number of things you've sketched certainly do fit into my notion of Symposia. The 4 (or 5?) "levels" you've identified may be appropriate framework, but I'm of two minds about some of the details (though in complete agreement about others). Taking them one at a time:

at the level of the university: I think the Career Services workshops idea is a piece of genius --a clear, relevant, original, timely and appropriate candidate for a Symposium. The basic question for faculty to consider in this context is: for what are we preparing students, and how should these prospects inform what we build into courses and disciplines? What is the future of medicine, of law, of commerce, of scholarship in the Information Age, and how should a new awareness of that present and future lead us to interpret and develop our educational mission? The Symposium is also of importance to students because it would bring some reality to their partially-formed ideas of what 'career' is all about in a world where flux is the rule.  And explicitly identifying advisors as an audience is another stroke of genius.
at the level of the individual program: my problem here is one of generalizability of the experience of, say, the Spanish department to the [necessary process of] curricular challenges of other programs and departments. The questions you identify as objects of study are entirely appropriate to the general case and certainly do connect with TLRG interests and objectives, but I don't see this as a really clear case for Hewlett support, and I think it might even weaken our case with Hewlett.

at the level of the course: the items you identify with bullets are interesting and worthwhile, but I think this section is our opportunity to place TLRG at the center of the process of General Education reform, and that such an effort to focus a Symposium around that [inevitable, and even scheduled] issue would be of great interest to the Hewlett folks --it's a necessary process here and elsewhere, involves reflection by the whole community (including students...), ought to refer to what's going on beyond W&L with General Education in Liberal Arts colleges, but also can be innovative --indeed, has to be innovative if it's to be more than a simple retread. We would ask the same questions that you bullet. The outcome would be an information- and colloquy-based redesign of a necessary part of our educational mission.

at the level of the tool: the two pilots you identify seem to me inappropriate to the Hewlett guidelines (too specific, not very generalizable), and in addition neither of them can wait that long --and both have other more proximate possibilities for funding (Glenn grants, RE Lee, etc.). Here is where I would like to see a Symposium on the broad question of electronic resources in the classroom, focused on the big problems, not on the specific tools or the hardware. The question here is how the gamut of 'electronic resources' is transforming teaching and learning, and how we should alter our thinking and planning to take account of the evolution we're surrounded by. I don't just mean computers in the classroom, though they're a part of that; in fact, it's more a matter of content than conduit. So this asks questions like ?what other uses besides presentation [glorified overhead projector] can computers serve in classrooms? and ?what difference does it make that we have vastly more powerful desktop access to resources, that we can get to online full text, that our search engines are interlinked with what they point to? (to make this less opaque, take a quick look through several of my recent pages: http://home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/bio182/week2.html ,
http://home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/global/climate.html , http://home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/scilib/sfs.html , http://home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/global/24i.html ). These questions are applicable to all departments, to all faculty and all students, and they aren't examined --again, a novel and original subject, but one about which a lot is known by people who ought to be in contact with one another. We have a lot of collaborations along these lines here and now (viz: Tom Whaley's interest in 'digital libraries' is dovetailed with Frank Settle's Alsos Project, which ties to Skip Williams' work with ASP and Access databases, which connects to work I'm doing with library materials and more I'm planning with Jim Kahn... and so on). In this context a resource like GIS is surely relevant, but in the generalized context of information visualization, rather than the specific situation of a disciplinary application.

So I think we are awash in opportunities to think about the consequences of the changes wrought by the Information Age, and that it's really important to foster inquiry into the big issues (and how we should adapt teaching and learning), with the expectation that such discussions will provoke examination of the specific cases of, e.g., what is the I.A. doing to Journalism, to Commerce, to Management, to History, to The Law, to Biology. Hewlett funds would do wonders toward making this inquiry (dialog, conversation, whatever...) possible and practical.

Now on to a couple of other issues, raised by some of the specific items you mention in the draft:

We have some things to deal with that don't fit into the conceptual and temporal frame of the Hewlett opportunity, some of which need other money and/or resources, and a whole different approach to finding funding and other support. The (interlinked) specifics I have in mind at the moment are  (1) planning and funding for the Teaching and Learning Resource Center (or whatever its name will eventually be) and (2) the here-and-now (as distinct from planning or 'philosophical') issues of computers in classrooms. The meeting with Carole next week will give us baseline information on (2), but it will also (I am almost sure) project us into the necessity to take some action, dimensions unknown.

As I understand the TLRG's mandate, we have, among others, the important (and otherwise largely untenanted) roles of planner, advocate, place to come with problems and opportunities, clearinghouse for the consideration of concrete and day-to-day problems of  Teaching and Learning with technologies. It is our responsibility to articulate problems and begin the process of seeking the solutions that others haven't been able to craft. Sometimes those problems will necessitate mano a mano with potential grantors; they also generally have a degree of immediacy that demands attention; and they often have to do with hardware and personnel issues. They can't be put off until the Hewlett process is further along, which means that we need to devise some sort of parallel track for dealing with immediate issues as they arise. Perhaps task force units (which report back to the TLRG, but pursue solutions with more agility than a whole committee can) can be created to cope with general and even specific issues. Often the problem is an Information issue, where somebody needs to find out things from several people and put them together into a public document (a Web page...?); sometimes a problem becomes an Action issue, where some combination of jawboning and begging and proposal-crafting is the appropriate response, and sometimes the only possibility is more meetings...

Similarly, questions of the possibilities of wireless computing and implications for possible classroom use (sketched in my Passepartout thing) fall somewhere between crisis-of-present and Hewlett-type conceptualizing. At the moment the TLRG has no means to handle such proposals, or to offer support (material, informational, moral...) to people like Mark Rush who embark on adventures out of interest and without benefit of clergy.

I know I'll think of other things, but I'm off to Asheville for the weekend...

 (The Social Life of Documents, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid)

Chapters 1, 3, 5 and Afterword from Brown and Duguid The Social Life of Information (HM851 .B76 2000)

http://home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/tlrg/midnov.html Mid-November Thoughts

http://home.wlu.edu/~blackmerh/tlrg/dec.html Mid-December fragments