Starting Though The Dogpile

Dogpile.jpg One of the notes that I found in my dogpile was a folded index card from the now-defunct Seminars in Academic Computing. I participated in a discussion with a group of colleagues on the topic of What Do Faculty Expect From Higher Ed. IT? The discussion was described in the program:

Traditionally faculty have needed technical support for the ways in which they use computers in teaching and research. Innovative faculty may also have required support in instructional design or general teaching and learning technologies. Are these expectations changing? Are IT staff becoming more siloed or more symbiotic? Can faculty and IT leaders truly collaborate on transformative projects, or do faculty expect a service bureau only?

When I came back from SAC, I wrote some notes about the session:

Participating in the discussion make me re-examine my current framework for understanding those questions. It also made me realize that my perspective has changed dramatically in recent years. While I’m still fascinated personally by the potential new computing and communications technologies hold for enhanced learning, I’m less optimistic about the ability of IT staff to be the leaders in capitalizing on that potential–no matter how hard we work at it. As someone commented, institutional transformation really isn’t an IT function–though we can help other leaders with the process if they want our help.

Transformation isn’t a high priority for most faulty, since their plates are overflowing with teaching, research, reading, writing, parenting–you name it. These faculty members value an IT organization that is:

  • Transparent: They want to be able to find all the services available to them without having to rely on special favors or insider knowledge of the IT organization.
  • Efficient: They want to get their questions answered or their issues resolved as quickly as possible–even at night or on the weekend.
  • Empathetic: They want IT staff to demonstrate through words and actions that they understand the unique demands of faculty life and that we’re doing what we can to help alleviate those pressures rather than adding to them.
  • Responsive: They want IT members who returns phone calls and email and who communicate clearly–even when we don’t know the exact answer. Caveat: They do expect us to know the answers more often than not.

The vast majority of our faculty are perfectly happy with what at SAC we called service bureau model–as long as we are really good at being transparent, efficient, empathetic and responsive.

Some times the stars align–as they seem to have recently for the dream team at the University of Mary Washington, and I think those of us in the academic IT business have to be tuned in and ready to pounce on those magical moments. For the most part, though, our institutions will be best served if we stick to the knitting and focus on doing the best job on the mundane, non-transformative services that keep the place running.

6 thoughts on “Starting Though The Dogpile”

  1. You won’t be surprised when I say I don’t agree. 🙂 I don’t know that I’ll have the most cogent response below, but I do want to think aloud a bit. So, with the indulgence of one of my main inspirations, here goes a first draft.

    First, I think the service/transformation dichotomy is a false one. Or maybe a better way to say that is that innovation counts as transformation, and I’m counting on innovation all up and down the line, whether the innovations are small or large.

    Second, look at libraries. If there were ever a place that in many eyes seems to “stick to the knitting and focus on mundane, non-transformative services that keep the place running,” it would be the library. What’s more mundane than sticking books back on shelves? Yet libraries are both service bureaus and agents for radical transformation in the academy. They are leaders in the move toward “cyberinfrastructure” for both the sciences and the humanities. They help us envision both the creation and preservation of knowledge, for they are a living, working symbol of both essential activities. And they are constantly scouring the horizon for new opportunities to engage the core missions of higher education. I would argue that the library gives us an excellent example of the continuum between service and transformative leadership. IT is a lot more like libraries than it is like Kinkos. (And even as I write that, I think about how transformative even Kinkos has been–but I digress.)

    Yes it’s vital to keep the trains running, but it’s more important to be sure the conversation about where the trains are going is as rich and inclusive and powerful as possible, and that everyone in higher education, faculty and staff and students, has a stake in that conversation. To just “stick to the knitting” will simply reinforce all the silos, stall innovation, and confirm false and inimical divisions within the academy, I think.

    We can’t afford to do that!

  2. Your post’s been weighing on my mind and heart, so I hope you’ll forgive the follow-on comment. I hope others will join in and speak their piece as well.

    You write, “Transformation isn’t a high priority for most faculty, since their plates are overflowing with teaching, research, reading, writing, parenting–you name it.”

    This morning as I read these words, it sounds like *everyone* is sticking to their knitting, whether it’s service (faculty do this too, of course) or teaching or research or reading or writing or parenting. And those things are of course not only valuable but essential.

    That said, I can’t believe that a strategy of keeping-on-keeping-on will suffice, or ever sufficed. No one’s making the argument that higher ed is just fine just the way it is. Everyone agrees that change is needed, whether that’s better parking or cheaper professional journals or digital scholarship or higher retention rates or better access or engaged learning or infusing foursquare classrooms with active, inquiry-based learning or using Web 2.0 to break down tired, walled-garden CMS paradigms. By definition, someone’s got to stray from their knitting if that change is to come about. (I know I’m a mutt, so maybe I’m a stray as well.)

    Even folks who acknowledge the need for change will often resist it, of course. People are people. That’s the bad news but also the good news. I believe education can actually work, low-yield and glacially-paced and difficult to assess as it may be. I’ll stake my claim that all of us in higher ed. must be learners and, to some extent, teachers as well.

    You *know* how much I’ve learned from you. Techfoot. Please don’t cancel class.

  3. In my view — and this may just be my view — your take on the wishes and needs of faculty at the College of William and Mary is way, way off. Personally, I am convinced that there is a lot of room for creative work and guidance and other assistance from the people involved in academic computing at the College. Faculty are waiting for you to exert some leadership in this area. I am frankly kind of perplexed by the attitude apparent in your post.

  4. Larry,

    I don’t mean for a minute that there aren’t lots of creative faculty at William and Mary, but in my time here I’ve found very few them who are looking to me to be a leader in transforming teaching and learning at the college.

    I think we have a lot of work to do in making the tools that are already in place easier to find, easier to use and easier to integrate into teaching and learning. Focusing on accomplishing those goals has to be a higher priority for academic computing than it has in the past.

  5. Gene,

    Sorry for the late response, but here goes. At the risk of disagreeing with Gardner, I really liked this post for the following reason. In my experience it does an excellent job of articulating what typical faculty would like to see in an effective IT support group. It’s not what Gardner, Larry or I look for, but it is what most do.

    Keep up the good work!

  6. At the risk of disagreeing with Steve, I have to wonder what the word “effective” means in this context. In my experience, the kind of service-bureau support many faculty expect in fact effects very little, and affects even less. Instead, it’s a system of pulleys and conveyor belts. It should be a conversation, a collaboration, a self-renewing source of energy and inspiration. Services will still be performed, of course. But they’ll be a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

    To do otherwise is to cooperate in the gradual and perhaps fatal ossification of commodified education. In my opinion, anyhow!

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