Leadership: I love it, and it’s heart breaking.
I said this to Sonja in a meeting recently and I have been repeating it to myself as I process everything that has happened over the last weeks and months. It was a realization coming out of OpenEd16, a bittersweet event full of friends, and learning, and challenges, and tears. Conferences don’t usually make me cry but I cried at least four times that week. And, heart hobbled (the election results, the death of a dear colleague, personal and professional struggles), I feel like I’ve been crying ever since. And I want to talk about it. Let’s talk about leadership.
In our OpenEd16 presentation on Critical Instructional Design, I shared my reflections on kind of leadership needed in digital/technology organizations at colleges and universities:
“That’s the leadership challenge I have faced since I began hiring IDs in 2008. How do you make space for critical instructional design and how do you make critical instructional design something that is valued at your institution? How do you define the roles of instructional designers at your institutions and help others to understand their roles? What, exactly, are the roles of an instructional designer on campus…? And if they are the last things on this slide (skeptic, troublemaker, questioner, deconstructor), are we willing to accept the risks of that kind of role at our institutions?”
I talked about how most higher education settings I have encountered do not welcome such critical, scholarly, and activist/agitating leadership:
“This is what keeps me up at night. I worry that too many people I admire because they broke the mold and too many centers for teaching who transformed themselves to be more critical, those people are either being squeezed out, or their groups are folding or centering because our campuses are hostile to critical approaches. There is a real incentive to doing things that don’t offend anyone, that bring faculty into the digital, the open, but that don’t really question the ways those concepts (and how they get implemented) impact our campuses, our students, our teaching instincts. I think it’s natural for us to want to build something palatable to faculty and administrators, and then to become entrenched.”
This fear is not unfounded. Tears I shared with a mentor at OpenEd16, tears about his own experiences of being pushed out because of his agitating/activism, left permanent trails on my cheeks. Colleagues sharing this week that they are being forced into rubber rooms because their much-needed critical perspectives are not welcome. As a young director of a center for teaching and learning—a center that earned national recognition for its creative and unexpected approaches—I experienced rubber-rooming like this first-hand. I was able to leave that institution, but other colleagues have reasons to try to stay at institutions that won’t tolerate their activism.
This is something we don’t teach in leadership programs. We talk about communication strategies, setting vision, influencing decisions, budgets. We don’t talk about the barrage of troubles you will face if you try to be a critical pedagogue/leader. If you try to make change that shakes people’s foundations. If you agitate. If you encourage people to question assumptions and inequities in the work we do as designers and technologists. This work, this essential work of taking critical lenses to our technologies, to our classrooms, to our institutions…it’s heart breaking work.
Right, so I’m supposed to be writing about chapter 3 of We Make the Road by Walking. Here is the tie-in, I think. I have been struggling, especially since OpenEd16 but even before that (see: my evolving leadership manifesto), with my own leadership journey. I can be a good leader—do all of the expected things, hit the service marks, check the boxes, set some palatable strategies, complete the projects, show impact. But in my heart, I know education needs more. Our students need more. I need a way to talk to people at my institution and in higher education more broadly about this. To be able to say, with a clear moral stance, that an initiative to require students to learn Excel, for example, will not help students. Doesn’t address the real issues that digital learning surfaces or obscures.
People like to say that digital learning organizations are “service” organizations. To them, that means that we do what we’re told. We make the tech work, we “support” it, and we help faculty and students to use it. No questioning. No troubling the waters of what that tools does, what assumptions it makes (or propagates), what inequities it creates. People who trouble the waters get rubber-roomed.
So when I was reading Horton and Freire, this section from Myles Horton hit me like a ton of bricks (102):
“…there can be no such thing as neutrality. It’s a code word for the existing system…Neutrality is just following the crowd. Neutrality is being just what the system asks us to be. Neutrality, in other words, was an immoral act…It was to me a refusal to oppose injustice or to take sides that are unpopular. It’s an excuse, in other words.” [emphasis mine]
Claiming neutrality is the same sin as when people say they “don’t see color” (so how could they possibly be racist? ). It denies their privilege, it denies that real racism (structural, systematic, hidden, and overt) exists, because “color” can simply be ignored. Neutrality claims that you can “just be neutral.” In digital/tech organizations, you can be “neutral.” In teaching. In research. But, I dispute the idea that anything can ever be neutral. Nothing is neutral. Technology certainly isn’t. Teaching isn’t. Research isn’t. Claims of neutrality ignore, obscure, diminish…they’re immoral.
I can imagine at least two responses people may have to these statements: 1) but Amy, does that mean we should allow people to impose their views through their work, their teaching, their research?; and 2) but Amy, what if faculty and students just really need you to teach them Excel?
I’ll first pull from Horton (105):
“That doesn’t mean I have to impose my ideas on people, but it means I have a responsibility to provide whatever light I can on the subject and share my ideas…” Horton goes on to say that we are always imposing ideas, but rather than denying it, we should be aware of it and work toward starting from places of empathy and respect for people. Neutrality is not possible, its claims are immoral, but starting from a place of questioning dominant ideologies seems like a good start. This is why Sean Michael Morris and I say that a key tenet of critical instructional design is questioning, rather than telling or directing through a process. In our work as designers and technologists, obliterating neutrality means bringing critical hegemony-busting,questions and approaches to every tool we bring to faculty and students. It means that instead of teaching digital tools, we should be helping students to question tools, analyze the ways digital spaces and tools shape “public spheres,” building new tools that counteract or replace unacceptable tools, and owning their own domains.
To the second question, I would say, yes, sometimes people just need some tool training. I don’t take that as lightly as it may seem. Meeting needs may be an entry point to building trust to get to critical inquiry. But as Horton says (119): “Solving the problem can’t be the goal of education…if education is to be part of the process, then you may not actually get that problem solved, but you’ve educated a lot of people.” Our work is about educating, not training people to use Excel. Yes, our work. Your work. You are not just a “service organization.” The digital is not just tools. The digital is not neutral.
So now what? I sometimes tell the story of a conversation I once had with Gardner Campbell, who I’ve considered to be a mentor since I first encountered him in Texas in 2009 or so. A couple of years ago, I asked him, “how long does a you or a me have at an institution?” I was asking because I wanted to understand how a person in my role, asked to effect major change at my institution by bringing “the digital” to bear on teaching and learning, can *actually* be successful and not lose their soul. Gardner said, “Well, if you truly care about making the kind of transformative change our institutions and students need, you’ll be lucky to have 4-5 years.” Gardner wasn’t being a Debbie Downer. He was exactly right. Leadership that is not neutral, that is activist and critical, will probably take you down a path of heart ache and loss. And what I heard Gardner say that day was, “have courage.”
Leadership is heart breaking…and if it’s not, you might be doing it wrong.