Thursday, March 7, 2013

Risk is in the Eye of the Beholder

You know sometimes I feel like I never stop talking about "back in the day" and at this point I've grown to feel at peace with that. It's on days like today when I remind myself just how much the experiences of the past 15 years influence not only my teaching by also my entire perspective on life and this world we live in. 

Thankfully I've worked through some of the more negative artifacts of my experiences, and have held strong to a few of those lessons that forged me in what I feel are positive ways. This brings me to the topic of the day. 


This is a topic thats grown out of a conversation among the folks in #grad602 last Thursday and what seemed to be a shared concern around being a new faculty member joining a new department and not wanting to stir the waters too much. There seemed to be pretty strong support for the opinion that faculty should tread lightly and not make too much trouble by trying to change things up. People seemed to be concerned that professor Craft was playing a little too fast and loose with the incorporation of all these new approaches. People seemed to be concerned that it was a pretty risky position to take. So I had to step back and try to understand, just why it was that I didn't find it risky at all… And, I think for me it goes back a few years. 

When I was 22 years old I had met my probationary requirements at the police department and could not legally be denied an opportunity to try out for the SWAT team. It was early 1999, I was a rookie, and it was an event of endurance that challenged me both physically and mentally (definitely mentally). At the end of a few days of suffering and proving myself I was introduced to the men who would become a second family to me over the next several years. At most municipalities in the US, SWAT is a secondary assignment, and mine was no different. A few of us were Detectives, Street Crimes, or Narcotics Investigators, and a another was a Warrant Officer. Most of the SWAT operators on my team spent the majority of their days on street patrols, but when the call came out we all gathered and assembled to deal with the kinds of situations that were too dangerous for traditionally trained police officers to handle. We trained, and trained, and trained together. For the next 6 years anytime there was a hostage barricade or possibility of an active shooter situation, any high risk warrant service (i.e. drug dealers with guns), or any other situation where needed, I responded, along with my brothers. For me that was just under 100 call outs in total during that time. So why go into all this? Because I learned a hell of a lot about risk. 

Risk [for me] is not going into unknown situations... Rather, risk is going into ANY situation unthoughtfully and unprepared. Risk is standing still when the environment around you changes. Risk is standing in the doorway instead of moving in. Risk is a failure to act when needed. Risk is refusing to adapt and evolve when situations around you shift and change. Risk is not change and growth and experamentation, rather risk is complacency, ego, and status quo. Risk is when you loose your edge, not when you sharpen it. 

There seems to be this perception that doing things out of the ordinary is risky. I would argue that reality is quite the opposite, and perhaps in this regard I'm biased. From the way a SWAT Operator's mind is wired, doing what is expected is the biggest form and expression of risk. There's nothing in the world that will bring about a meeting with the afterlife to you or your teammates faster than doing what is expected, traditional, status quo, or ordinary. 

I believe risk in higher education, as we talked about the other night, is similar to the risk in the mind of an operator in the way it is tethered to fear. With that I think it's important to note that the bravest people I've ever known did in no way live without fear. They learned how to LIVE…. WITH it. When you learn how to live with the things that scare you, you are liberated to learn a few things about yourself. 

The first of those is that it is our natural compulsion, when we are in fear, to restrict, constrict, and move back to a place where we feel comfortable and safe. We literally revert to known conditioned "safe place" (muscle memory) behaviors. These are instinctual. For example, if someone was to grab your hand in a forceful way you would probably have the instinct to pull back. Forcefully. It's not something you would consciously think about. This I believe is highly connected to our discussion the other night. When presented with a new environment our impulse will likely be to stay "safe" and do what is "known" even if that is not the best choice of action. SWAT Operators must learn not how to eliminate their fear, but how to manage it and recognize and be aware of how they respond to it. And lets just be honest, you've got to get good at doing that pretty darn quick!

Now is teaching in Higher Ed like SWAT?… I sure hope not. But there are a few things I hope I can impart in this discussion. Think about the assumptions you have about what scares you and why certain things do. Reassess what you think safe behaviors are and why you find them safe. If you are comfortable doing things the way they have always been done, think about why that is and if it's healthy, because what you consider to be rocking the boat may be just what you need to keep the ship afloat. 

I leave you with this. Risk is not moving forward. Risk is standing still; and higher ed has been standing still for more than 2000 years. Like I said in this weeks podcast, armies centuries ago would stand in formation and take turns firing at each other (spears, arrows, projectiles, whatever). It was tradition. It was what the tools of the day allowed. And, even though someone always won, it caused MASSIVE casualties. Technology has evolved and so have tactics in military environments. For some reason, even as technology has made massive improvements educators continue to stand in formation and fire. How many student casualties could we prevent if we evolved our tactics to utilize modern technologies? We are teaching in a modern world. How is it risky to move our practice forward? Is it not more risky to keep our practice rooted in the false security of the past?

But hey... This is just my take.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance

Every once in a while most of us come to a place where the beliefs or belief systems we’ve clung to are challenged. It's a place where the evidence we are presented with in our current lives conflicts with what we have previously believed to be true. Cognitive Dissonance describes that place where we feel angry, anxious, scared, and defensive, and where the popular reaction is to ardently cling to the “truths” we believe exist rather than the truths we see in front of us. We all do it, no matter how noble we pretend to be.

So why would I want to talk about it here, and why in the context of higher education? Perhaps it’s because I question this system. I question that just because higher-ed has functioned this way for the past 2000 years or so, means that we have to continue to do it this way even in the face of the advancements afforded us by modernity. There are new ways to teach. There are new affordances for connection. There are new, and never before seen, ways to access information. I simply believe if we ignore all of this we are missing the boat. I’m talking about this because I believe we (as the new generation of scholars/professors/teachers/leaders) have the ability to change this system for the better. We have the ability to help this system evolve, but I also believe this process will take bravery.

Here’s my thing… We ask our students to trust us when we deliver a new perspective. We ask them to embrace the vulnerability of learning how to do things they have never done before. We ask our students to lean into the uncomfortableness of new ideas, and I ask you how can we do that in good faith if we are unwilling to do the same?

I’m committed to pushing through the cognitive dissonance associated with shifting the paradigm by which we approach and view higher education. I think as leaders we should act at least as bravely as we are asking our students to act. I believe we can do new things and “well that’s the way it’s always been” is a revolting concept to live by. I think we can do better. I think we must, or this thing we call higher education will cease to be.

It’s up to you to decide what you want to do. Who do you want to be remembered as? Are you a Mark Twain, a Ben Franklin, a Nikola Tesla, a Martin Luther King Jr. or one of the folks whose names we will never remembered? I think it depends on if you go with the grain, or against it.