Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Thoughts Provoked in “A Free and Ordered Space”

I intend to use A Free and Ordered Space, by A. Bartlett Giamatti as a vehicle to explore some current issues in higher education.  In this posting I explain why I am doing this and I briefly introduce a Free and Ordered Space. In my next post, I will continue the introduction.

This graphic is not open content.  I am using it under terms of fair use.
In the coming months I plan to use “A Free and Ordered Space: The Real World of the University” by A. Bartlett Giamatti as a source and sounding-board for my thinking about higher education. In the spirit of Mortimer Adler, I hope to engage with Giamatti through his writings and perhaps through this public forum engage with others as well. I intend to methodically embrace the text; teasing out its explicit messages, its latent meanings, the patterns that are formed within, and their relevance to what we presently see about ourselves in higher education. I also hope to extend in some way Giamatti's thoughts and observations by simply building on them and applying his logic to what is currently happening within and without the university. At the very least, the ensuing posts will anchor and catalog my thoughts, but potentially others will join privately or publicly in an effort to make sense of some enduring issues.

Although I am happy to simply step through the book and share my thoughts, I also want to extend an invitation. While at one level I of course invite comment and conversation, I also invite other forms of participation. If anybody reading this blog has special insights or interests in the topics treated and would like to share their perspectives, I would be happy to expand the discussion with guest postings.

A Free and Ordered Space is a collection of presentations, which are organized into three thematic areas. Giamatti groups his presentations into the following formal sections:
  • The Nature and Purpose of the University
  • The Earthly Use of a Liberal Education
  • The Private University and the Public Interest

In addition to the 23 addresses in the book, Giamatti includes some introductory materials. I will try to treat an address/presentation (chapter) each week or so, but anticipate that some will require more time to appropriately prepare. Most of the addresses include multiple themes, each of which may merit separate posts. I will almost certainly find the need to pause occasionally to summarize and reflect a bit, share additional thoughts, and make modifications to prior posts. In addition, I fully anticipate some interruptions as professional workload ebbs and floods (right now it is mostly flooding) and personal commitments demand, so this project could extend throughout the coming year.


As indicated above, methodically treating A Free and Ordered Space may be a nontrivial activity. I'm a pretty busy guy. Like most folks, I have professional responsibilities and personal commitments, which leave me with little extra time. So, why should I spend it this way, and why would anybody decide to spend their time engaged with this project, even to passively follow along? For me, the answer is sort of simple. I am troubled. I am troubled by the way many colleges and universities are reacting to a variety of changes within the University and without. I am seeking a way to to better understand what is happening, a better foundation from which to interpret what others are writing, a more grounded perspective to interpret regulations and policies, and a principled footing to better contribute to my chosen profession and avocations. Frankly, I have found that reading current events in publications that treat higher education is not doing the trick.

A number of months ago I reached out to Dr. Marcelette Williams to exchange a few words about what I was reading and thinking about on the topic of liberal education and the university. At the time I had recently read The University: An Owner's Manual by Henry Rosovsky, and was working through Newman's Nine Discourses in The Idea of a University. Marcie recommended that I read a Free and Ordered Space as Giamatti was one of her favorite published voices on the topic. I had reported to Marcie for 3 years while serving the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Williams serves as the Senior Vice president for Academic, Student, and International Affairs at the University of Massachusetts, and stands as one of the most thoughtful and humane figures I have work with in higher education. Given my relationship and respect for Marcie, I was thankfully predisposed to take her advice.

I know that I was reaching out to Marcie to fill a gap. I had recently left UMass to join a start-up company and found myself among a small group of intensely smart managers planning to sell services to universities. Even though I had served as a university administrator for nearly to 2 decades, surrounded by managerial types (and functioning as one), things felt fundamentally different at the start-up in ways that I had not fully appreciated or anticipated when I first joined the organization. The nature of the conversations took the colour of efficiency and scale. Student services were framed as ends in themselves, while student development, discovery, civil advancement, and service of the common good were largely absent in our dialogue. It was, perhaps rightfully, assumed within the company that not only were these concerns those of the university, but their clear articulation could be principally absent in an education service provider. I am of course not being critical of the organisation. After all, a college or university outsources services when an external organisation possesses characteristics or capacities that do not or ought not exist within the college or university. I should have known that this was going to be the case, as this company was designed to “take care of business,” and that its value is located in its ability to do things that the universities themselves could not. Yet I was taken unawares by just how differently my working colleagues viewed the purpose and nature of the university than had I.

It was these experiences that punctuated the feeling that I had personally strayed from the reasons that I had first decided to pursue a career in higher education. I believe that there is a gap, which I had allowed to grow, that I am starting to explore with this project. Although I have since move back into the University, am serving the University of Southern Queensland, and feel very much as if I am in my professional home, the gap still has meaning.


A Free and Ordered Space was published posthumously in 1990, and is a collection of addresses that Dr. Giamatti had made to a variety of groups while he served as president of Yale. Most of the addresses were given between 1980 and 1985 and many were presented to undergraduate audiences of incoming and graduating students. I will provide more detail in the following post. For those colleagues who may be interested in reading along, you can access the book through many libraries or purchase the book through the usual channels. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down open versions of many of the addresses, but I will continue to look. If they exist, I welcome any suggestions about sources for open and other types of relevant resources. I will maintain a page dedicated to resources, and perhaps, time permitting, will keep a annotated reference list. I will for the benefit of casual readers start each post with a summary of the address, but I am sure that my efforts in this regard will fall short.

As this post was going to get a bit too long, so I have decided to split it in half and will post the reminder during the next day or two. In the following post I will outline why I think that Giamatti, through a Free and Ordered Space, will serve as an excellent guide who provides touchstones to interpret some activities and events in higher education.

Giamatti, A. B. (1988). A free and ordered space: The real world of the university. New York: W.W. Norton.

Adler, M. J., & Van Doren, C. L. (1972). How to read a book (Rev. and updated ed.). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Newman, J. H. (1959). The Idea of a university. Garden City, N. Y.: Image Books.

Rosovsky, H (1990). The University: An Owner's Manual. N.Y.: W. W. Norton.

The University of Southern Queensland

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

How can the Course Catalogue Save Education?

In a recent article, James Lang introduces the notion of “Far Transfer” to help address questions about student learning and critical thinking.  As treated here, far transfer is the ability for a learner to apply concepts across classes and circumstances, and represents one of the most desired outcomes of a college or university education. When achieving far transfer learners are exercising critical thinking. Transdicipinary and liberal education are important considerations to help ensure that the university course catalogue is a vehicle for learners to achieve far transfer and critical thinking.

More than a week or so ago James Lang wrote the first part of a series published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, titled Why Don't They Apply What They've Learned, Part I. In the article Lang questions why many students do not seem to be able to apply previously learned knowledge over time and across courses (and more generally across circumstances). In his article, Lang refers to a recent book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, in which Susan Ambrose and her co-authors use the term “Far Transfer” to describe the ability of a learner to apply knowledge across courses. That is, far transfer is the ability of learners to apply conceptual knowledge learned in a class to learning situations and practice in other classes and to circumstances outside of the classroom (perhaps on the job). Intuitively we must recognise that far transfer is a pretty important aspiration of higher education. After all, the ability for our students to apply knowledge outside of a specific classroom situation is a reasonable expectation that reflects not only on the ability of the learner, but also on the relevance of the university itself.

Lang makes it clear that Far Transfer is not easily accomplished, pointing to Ambrose and then James Zull, the author of The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, Lang highlights that:
  • Transfer is difficult, and it becomes increasingly difficult as the application context becomes increasingly dissimilar or novel to the learner. The failure of the learner to successfully transfer their learning to an unfamiliar or novel context can be attributed to tying their knowledge too closely to a specific situation, or it could be associated with their learning being overly formulaic or shallow. This reveals in the learner an understanding of the mechanics of problem solving, while lacking the understanding of the underlying principles being used.
  • Although conceptually it may appear that applying learned rules across situations should not be too terribly difficult, there are physiological changes in the brain that allow for transfer. Cognitive development depends on the growth of neuronal networks in the brain, with transfer of knowledge across situations being made possible when these networks connect.

After Lang takes us through some examples of how he creates expectations of far transfer in his writing classes, he makes what I think is a critical point.

If you have ever thought or told your students that you are teaching them "critical thinking," for example, you are banking on the prospect that students will abstract some general cognitive skill from your course and apply it to future courses or even life situations.

This notion stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, it seems that teaching critical thinking skills is frequently cast as the University’s holy grail. That is, critical thinking is often identified as one of the less tangible, highly valuable, and infrequently achieved outcomes sought from graduates of colleges and universities. Second, for me, it points to two critical topics that extend far beyond skill development or skill delivery – the transdisciplinary curriculum and liberal education.

Transdisciplinary Education

Lang chose the following quote from Zull to connect conceptual notions of what critical thinking is with the physiological response in a learner's brain to learning a disciplinary subject (forming a neuronal network element) and connecting these networks in ways that allow for far transfer.

"Neuronal networks grow by building on existing networks," Zull writes, "so our entree to reasoning in one subject comes through the neuronal networks for the information in that subject. Often we don't have the networks that connect one subject with another. They have been built up separately, especially if we have studied in the standard curriculum that breaks knowledge into parts like math, language, science, and social science."

For me, Lang seems to be setting the ground for the need to really think about the function of courses and the functions of curriculum in different but complementary ways. Disciplinary and technical skills, that are frequently very sophisticated, are developed in particular classes. While, courses represent the vehicles in which disciplinary conceptual networks are created, it is the constellation of courses that compose a well-developed curriculum that provides the platform through which disciplinary neuronal networks can connect allowing for far transfer of knowledge.

Liberal Education

So, if a transdisciplinary curriculum can serve as the framework for an educational experience that lends itself to far transfer and critical thinking, how do students take advantage of the opportunities being offered and actually make the connections among disciplinary networks? It seems to me that simply creating the opportunity for far transfer and critical thinking is not enough. Evidence of critical thinking will require some capacity on the part of the learner to connect the networks with some discipline and creativity. For example, when applying far-transfer, how does the learner decide which concepts from which networks best apply to a problem situation under a variety of circumstances? To what degree can a particular conceptual model be applied, how much of the model needs to be modified, or integrated with other models? What sort of intellectual disposition and what sort of behaviours do learners and practitioners need to successfully engage in critical thinking?

It seems to me that the arts and habits that are the hallmarks of a liberal education are germane to disciplined and creative far transfer. To illustrate, I refer to an earlier posting titled Is a liberal technical education something more or something else? in which a short listing of the arts and habits that are assumed by a liberally educated person. One of the lists started with
habits of an educated person
  • the habit of attention
  • the habit of submitting to censure and refutation
  • the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy
Taken together these habits (along with others) will help learners make thoughtful attempts at far transfer and improve their ability to critically apply their thinking in the future under other circumstances.

Just a Little More

So, for me, the punchline from Lang's article is that for learners to achieve Far Transfer and Critical Thinking they must have
  • opportunities to create disciplinary neural networks (acquired on the course level), 
  • opportunities to connect disciplinary networks (acquired through a trans-disciplinary curriculum), and
  • the behaviours and capacity to actually make those connections (acquired through a liberal education).

Because it is obvious that far transfer and critical thinking are particularly valued outcomes when they are extend beyond classroom application, it makes sense to think about the transdisciplinary curriculum more broadly. We might think in terms of moving from a transdisciplinary curriculum to a transdisciplinary education that includes “off-campus” experiences such as experiential and service learning, citizen science, and citizen civics. In addition, we might more consciously construct the notion of a transdisciplinary education as continuing throughout a lifetime.

Maybe I am predisposed to rationalise my way to this conclusion, but it does leave me in a happy place. By my thinking, the elements of an education designed to achieve Far Transfer and Critical Thinking are for the most part inherent in the University mission – teaching, discovery, and service. It is a matter of rethinking the nature of traditional curriculum, to support a transdisciplinary education and recognising the value of a liberal education along side professional (and vocational) education to support the development of technically competent professionals who are able to apply critical thinking. Add a little life-long learning, and some universities may have made themselves relevant in a more broad and recognised way, without fundamentally changing their values, staying true to their learners and the common good.

Continuing that thought...

During the last few days, while I was constructing these few paragraphs, my attention has been drawn to a (wonderful) posting by Christine Geith titled How the Course Catalog Killed Education at the WCET Frontiers site. Its influence on the title of this posting is obvious. Now it seems to me that Christine has hit on an important insight about the poverty of the college and university catalogue as an expression of value. She asserts that the value of the University does not rest in its catalogue of courses or programs, but instead is embedded in its “Brand.” It is the brand that serves as an expression of the university's capacity to distinguish its catalogue with something far more then the simple collection might imply. I think that Christine and I are barking up the same tree from different sides. Christine did a very tidy job at pointing to what the research university brings to the table beyond its catalogue, while I am pointing to the role of the catalogue in creating that "something more, "which transforms taking courses into an education and transforms course takers into critical thinkers.  

It is my feeling that thinking beyond the course catalogue will help us better frame the ongoing trend toward fragmentation in higher education and the “unbundling” of traditional college and university services. Although thinking beyond the catalogue is critical, we may also ask what type of course catalogue will best support a university education? One that delivers on helping learners achieve far transfer becoming critical thinkers and practitioners. I believe too that this type of thinking and these types of questions can provide a way to frame the ways we engage with things like MOOCs, education service providers, open educational resources (there will always be more things), and more generally understand the economics, identity, nature, and value of the University and higher education (themes that seem more timeless).

Why Don't They Apply What They've Learned, Part I 


Is a liberal technical education something more or something else?  

How the Course Catalog Killed Education