Desert of My Real Life

{July 2, 2016}   Ten Months In

Last August, our new president, Don Birx, spoke to eager Plymouth State University employees about his vision for the campus to be reorganized around strategic clusters and open labs. Even though we are still at the beginning of implementing this vision, I think there are some lessons to be learned now that we are ten months into this process.

As a community, we have been figuring out what strategic clusters and open labs are. We have been working to implement these things even while we figure out what we mean by these terms. I think we might have moved more quickly to implementation if we had taken the time to really figure out what we mean by strategic cluster, open lab, and so on. In the rush to implementation, we actually floundered a bit last academic year in a way that I don’t think we necessarily needed to. So that’s my first lesson. The community needs to understand a bit about what we’re trying to implement before we actually start implementing it. Despite that early misstep, I think we’re coming to some concrete understandings of these terms.

As a cluster guide, someone charged with moving the initiative forward over the next academic year (including this summer), I have been fortunate to discuss and shape our understandings of these terms. We’re still working on them and will engage in discussions with faculty and staff when we all return to campus in August to really solidify the definitions. But here’s my current understanding of what we’re doing. A cluster is an affinity group comprised of programs and the resources, including people, attached to those programs. A cluster differs from a department or a college because of intention. We bring these resources together into a cluster with the intention of working across our individual disciplines in some way….through projects, through curriculum, through teaching and pedagogy, through open labs, through service. Open labs are spaces where this working together might happen. So a cluster can be thought of, broadly speaking, as “who” comes together and open labs as a place “where” the coming together happens, a space of potential since we won’t always know what will arise when we come together. Cluster projects and other cluster activities are “what” we are working on. The projects and other activities will focus on work that is useful beyond the class that a student is currently taking, giving the student “real world” experience. These definitions are maybe necessarily a little slippery. But I think we (the group of cluster guides) are beginning to have common understandings of the terms.

There are also lots of questions about why we are engaging in this change, what the benefits will be. The president has said that he sees seven drivers for doing this. The first is related to the increasing fragmentation of knowledge that he believes characterizes the higher education landscape. As society learns more and more about the world and how it works, individuals know less and less because of their areas of specialization, their fragmented disciplinary knowledge. Strategic clusters are a way of trying to organize the university so that we bring individuals (faculty, staff, students, and external partners) with different disciplinary knowledge and perspectives together to work on large problems that will not be able to be solved by a single disciplinary approach. Students then are exposed to a variety of ways of looking at the world while getting hands-on experience. They will understand how what they’re learning can be applied and integrated with what other people know. We already provide some such experiences for students. But the cluster initiative pushes us to provide multiple such experiences for a larger percentage (ideally, all) of our students.

The president hasn’t yet written the blog posts that lay out his six other drivers of the strategic cluster initiative so I can’t report on those yet. I hope he posts those sooner rather than later so that we can all think about them as we implement his vision.  But even without those, I think the new vision of the university is exciting and will provide each student with an excellent education that will serve them well as they move into an unknown future. Plymouth State University will become known for this innovative approach to education, drawing students to us because they want exactly this kind of experience. Strategic clusters and open labs will represent a unique identity for Plymouth State University, distinguishing us from other institutions. All of that is exciting to me.

Our process so far has not been perfect. As I said, I wish we had taken time to to discuss definitions before we tried to begin implementation of the vision. There are other issues with the specifics of the implementation structure (how guides were chosen and putting programs into clusters as a first step, to name two that come to my mind) that we’ve put in place that I wish had gone differently. But it feels like we are overcoming those issues. We need to make mistakes and then learn from and overcome them.

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned so far in this process, however, has to do with responsibility. Until late this Spring, I kept waiting for someone to tell me things–tell me the definition of a strategic cluster, tell me how we will implement open labs, etc. But then I realized that there is no one to tell me those things. We are doing something really different here. So I am responsible for figuring those things out. That responsibility doesn’t come because I am a cluster guide (although that fact adds some urgency to my sense of responsibility). I am responsible because I am a member of the Plymouth State University community. We all need to figure this stuff out together. We have to engage in this process with curiosity and skepticism and with a sense of trying to move the initiative forward. I know it sounds corny but I really believe that the survival of higher education is in our hands. We are responsible. All of us.

I have two major projects that I’m working on this summer. One is related to the television show Freaks and Geeks which I love and use in my Analyzing Television class every spring. The other is related to the development of strategic clusters at my University. In doing research for the Freaks and Geeks project, I discovered a comment by one of the stars of the show that made me think about our approach to strategic clusters. I love these kinds of connections that bring together the various aspects of my work.

If you don’t know Freaks and Geeks, it was a show that lasted only one season on NBC in the 1999-2000 season. It was created by Paul Feig, produced by Judd Apatow, and (mostly) directed by Jake Kasdan. Each of them had worked on other things before the show but, despite its short lifespan, the show brought them to prominence. One of the things that is remarkable about the show is that it launched the careers of some of our most successful young actors today. Many of those actors have gone on to be well-known in a variety of creative endeavors. Linda Cardellini was a 24-year-old actress when she was cast as Lindsay Weir, the leading role on Freaks and Geeks. She has since gone on to success in both television and films, winning a TVLand award for her role in ER in 2009. James Franco, who portrayed Daniel Desario in his first major role, has starred in blockbuster movies and television shows, taken smaller roles in critically-acclaimed films, hosted the Oscars, published poetry and short stories, written and directed documentaries and docudramas, and starred on Broadway. Jason Segel, who portrayed Nick Andropolis, starred in the hit television show, How I Met Your Mother, and has achieved commercial and criticalsuccess in his film career. Seth Rogen, who portrayed Ken Miller, was nominated for an Emmy as a staff writer for Da Ali G Show, and has written, directed and starred in many movies. John Francis Daley, who starred as Sam Weir, also starred in the hit show Bones and co-wrote the movie Horrible Bosses, among other accomplishments. Creators Feig and Apatow are clearly very good at identifying young talent.

Based on some comments by the cast members, however, I would argue that Feig and Apatow were also very good at nurturing young talent. For example, Segal, Rogen, and Franco, who at the time were 19, 16, and 20 respectively, would get a script written by someone else on Friday and then get together on Sunday to “improve” it. Rogen has said, “We felt if we made the scenes better on the weekend, if we came in with better jokes, they would film it. And they would! And we didn’t know it at the time, but that was completely un-indicative of probably every other show that was on television.” Reflecting on the experience, co-star Busy Phillips comments, “I don’t think it’s surprising that 8 or 10 of us that were on the show have successfully written and produced our own things. … Judd and Paul and Jake and all of the writers made us feel like all our ideas were worth something, when so many other people were telling me that basically I was a talking prop.”

These comments make me think about my University’s current effort to move to a strategic cluster orientation for our academic experience. Strategic clusters are a way of organizing a university around discpline-based affinity groups. The idea is that faculty, staff, students, and outside partners with similar interests work on problems, tasks, events, and so on across disciplines, each bringing their unique disciplinary knowledge and perspective to the endeavor. The reorganization of a university into clusters is a huge project but one that is likely to have many benefits. The benefit that I’m most excited about is that students, as part of their regular academic experience rather than as an add-on, will engage in work that will be useful outside of the classroom. I think students take the work more seriously when they perceive that there is an audience for it beyond the instructor of the course and a use for the work beyond the existence of the course. For example, the student blogs for my Analyzing Television class are more insightful and of a higher quality than the papers students used to write for the class that only I would read. I think that’s because the blogs are public and I work to make them known to a larger community of readers who will give the students feedback on what they’ve written.

The comments from the Freaks and Geeks cast members make me think of another benefit of strategic clusters. If student ideas are taken seriously on these “real-world” projects, they will see their participation as more important than just being “a talking prop.” Encouraging student ideas and actually using their ideas on these projects will benefit both the projects that the students are currently working on and the students themselves in the long term as they see themselves as vital, valuable contributors to their disciplines. If the creators of a very public television show can use the work of a group of college aged people in a serious way, so can we. And so should we.

et cetera