• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.



Narrating a moment in a meeting.

February 20, 2020

“Metacognition” is hot in discussions of good teaching. As I understand it, it’s the process of narrating (or developing a narrative of) the learning process either as it happens or immediately afterward. The idea is to provide both some connective tissue for the material and some sense in the student of their own agency.

I’m a fan, which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has read my stuff for a while. If one were so inclined, one could take my blogging oeuvre as an extended exercise in metacognition of management. (Come to think of it, it’s in its third decade. It started in the 2000s, continued through the 2010s and is now in the 2020s. Tenacity has to count for something.) Political theory is pretty “meta,” by definition, although professionalization in the field sometimes hides that under suffocating layers of references. But that’s another post.

Twice in the last few weeks, I’ve gone “meta” in meetings. In the right moment, it adds something.

Both times involved extended discussions of sticky issues, for which different people in the room favored different solutions. As the discussions wore on, people stayed both appropriate and on topic. Eventually, we were able to narrow the field of possible answers.

I made a point of noting to everyone just how positive and constructive the dynamic was, and of thanking everyone for taking that approach. Meetings around tough issues in which everyone takes the high road can’t be assumed or taken for granted; we’ve all seen them go haywire from time to time. When everyone brings their best selves at the same time, it’s worth noting. If nothing else, pointing out how well it went -- as opposed to how badly it could have gone -- might encourage folks to take the high road again the next time.

If nothing else, it’s a statement of value. Sometimes hiding your own frustration and consciously choosing to be more reasonable than you feel can be emotionally taxing. Getting some validation for the effort helps right the imbalance.

Teaching occurs throughout the college, not just in the classroom. The way we run meetings, for instance, teaches people what we value. Does the loudest or most dramatic voice win? If so, then we can expect volume and drama to increase over time. Is one-upmanship rewarded? If it is, the long-term effect on the culture of the place is predictable. But if mature and constructive behavior draws positive notice, well, maybe that can flourish, too.

One of the perks of working in higher education is that most of one’s colleagues are smart and capable. Lack of intellectual candlepower is rarely the limiting factor. But sometimes we get in our own way, whether through ego, habit, fear or any of the other usual human failings to which nobody is entirely immune. When very verbal people are afraid or angry, they have plenty of tools with which to inflict damage. But when they use their powers for good, especially in large groups, the effect can be remarkable.

So I remarked on it. Call it metacognition, good manners or even humblebragging; whatever it is, I recommend it.


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