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Liveblogging the League, Part I
March 2, 2008 - 4:00pm

The League for Innovation conference has a very different feel than the conferences I used to attend in my scholarly discipline. It makes sense, given that it serves such a different purpose, but I was surprised at how immediately noticeable the difference was.

Someone I respect a great deal once described my discipline's conference and national organization as "a mechanism for the production and allocation of prestige." That stuck with me, since it so accurately captured the nametag-gazing and jockeying for position that characterized it. When I was in my doctoral program at Flagship State, I had the Flagship State name on my tag, and was reasonably well-received wherever I went. When I started at Proprietary U, that name on the tag usually elicited looks of incomprehension and/or surprise. When I moved to the cc, the looks I got at the conference ranged from visible revulsion to conspicuous looking-away, the way you might behave when your uncle with dementia makes an off-color comment at dinner.

The panels there were usually comprised of three or four people presenting their papers, with a chair who tried unsuccessfully to keep them within their allotted time, and a discussant who would offer a quick critique and try to get the Q-and-A going. The format of every paper was the same.

1. This topic is important. Look at all the important people who talk about it!

2. But they're all wrong. I'll show how.

3. Of course, there's still more work to be done.

The point of each paper wasn't really to contribute to a discussion; it was primarily to carve out a niche for the author. That became clear in the Q-and-A, when any attempt at actual agreement had, quickly, to be qualified beyond recognition. After all, if all you say is "So and So is Right," then you aren't adding anything. Disconfirming hypotheses showed prowess; confirming them was so pedestrian as to be unworthy of notice.

Here, both the format and the point are different. Although there is something of a national job market for community college administrators (cough), the primary function of this conference appears to be for folks working in relative isolation (and in very different and dispersed settings) to share stories of what has actually worked. It's not about drawing distinctions, finding fault, or being 'critical' in either sense of the word; it's about showing folks at a college in, say, Ohio, that a particular approach to a common problem worked pretty well at a college in Tennessee.

The first panel I went to this morning, which isn't unusual in any sense, featured several administrators from a single college talking about the strategic planning process they used, and offering helpful tips based on that experience for people at other schools to take home and try.

The feel of it couldn't have been more different. Nobody was jockeying to impress or one-up anybody else, since there really wouldn't be anything to gain by doing that. The co-presenters were all collaborators on a single work, and their project was presented as generally successful. Although they used some common terms of art, there was little in the way of a literature review, and what little they did do was presented as gratitude for stuff they found helpful.

The presentation included the mandatory Powerpoint-and-handouts (admittedly, not my taste), but it also included some audience participation. (This would have been simply unthinkable in my scholarly field.) We were put through a little exercise to demonstrate some of the steps they had taken at their school, and we quickly saw both some of the potential and some of the flaws. Strikingly, though, the tone of the presentation was entirely pragmatic; here are some things that worked for us, and that might work for you. There was no claim to any sort of conceptual breakthrough, generalized truth, or ownership of a new paradigm. It was closer to Helpful Hints than hypothesis testing.

The dean in me appreciated the helpful hints, even though I could see that some of them wouldn't survive in transplant. The social scientist in me kept thinking "this is badly undertheorized," which is a highfalutin way of saying that it's anecdotal. Of course, there's still more work to be done.

Old habits die hard.


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