Productive Tension in Campus Learning Organizations

On the relationship between consensus, knowledge creation and institutional impact.

December 11, 2019

One observation that is often made by those who work in campus learning organizations is how nice everyone is to one another.

Aside from the fact that people who work in these spaces are just generally nice folks, being nice -- being friendly and open -- is often important to the success of campus learning organizations.

It makes good sense. The work is built on relationships, trust and goodwill. It’s important that the people who support teaching, mentoring, well-being and inclusive pedagogy on campuses across the country invite faculty and students into these conversations. Being nice helps.

While being nice is important, it can have unintended consequences. It can lead to a culture of avoiding productive tension.

Success in the corporate world depends a great deal on managing tensions. Similarly, academic scholarship is often built on challenging existing thinking and assumptions. Academics are socialized and trained in a disciplinary methods, theories and language that have advanced through productive tension and dialogue.

Campus learning organizations are often different. The average campus learning organization is defined by its openness to collaboration, consensus and mutual support.

What could be wrong with consensus and collaboration?

While we are believers in collegiality, we are suspicious of agreement. At least Josh is. Eddie doesn’t necessarily agree.

We do agree, however, that agreement without challenging each other -- productively, respectfully and in the spirit of civility -- does not advance the mission of our institutions, or of higher education, in meaningful ways.

Knowledge rarely advances through uninterrogated consensus. Incremental improvements in knowledge may be less contentious, but big leaps are often accompanied by clashes of ideas.

We are at a place within higher education where incremental advances may no longer be adequate (though we’re not even sure we agree on this).

Every college and university is facing an unprecedented array of demographic, economic and competitive pressures. For some schools, the fight will be to remain economically viable. At other institutions, the challenge is to better serve students and other stakeholders by lowering costs and improving outcomes (such as retention and postgraduation employment). Even comparatively well-off schools must constantly innovate to remain in the top echelons of institutions.

Campus learning organizations are, we believe, increasingly central to the strategic direction of colleges and universities. The work of learning innovators, in collaboration with faculty, will more and more determine the resilience and sustainability of institutions of higher education.

Schools lacking entrepreneurial and risk-taking campus learning organizations will likely be less well situated to benefit from new technologies and new models of teaching and learning. However, we suspect that these campus learning organizations will not be as impactful at their schools as they need to be if they do not embrace some form of productive tension.

What might this look like? More room needs to be made within CTLs, academic computing units, schools of continuing education and online learning units for respectful and meaningful argument and debate.

Similarly, challenging our own assumptions and engaging in difficult conversations should exist both within the learning organization and across interactions with institutional leadership.

Effective campus learning organizations will need to debate (and argue about) the best ways to make teaching and learning central to the mission and value of higher education.

These debates will explore pressing issues such as what a college or university should prioritize in response to pressures to focus heavily on vocational training, how it should rethink its structures and conventions to adapt to the changing landscape of experiential and online learning, and what it means to prepare students to be lifelong learners.

These are the debates, as well as many others, that campus learning organizations need to have. And if these campus learning organizations are to provide campus strategic leadership, then the members of these units will need to get comfortable with the idea of engaging in debate internally and with institutional leaders.

None of this comes particularly naturally to campus learning organizations. They have been built on nurturing relationships and providing value to campus stakeholders.

Going forward, campus learning organizations may need to adopt more of the norms of academic disciplines if they aim to develop knowledge and practices related to institutional resilience and advancement. When it comes to the academic spaces inhabited by nonfaculty educators, a little more disagreement might be a welcome change, though on this Josh and Eddie tend to disagree.

Even as we say all of this, we know that disagreements and arguments can create an environment that may unintentionally leave people out or reinforce inherent power dynamics. To be clear, we hope productive tension does not need to come at the expense of being kind. Empathy, understanding, respect can (and should) be fundamental to productive tensions that encourage creativity and innovation.

So, we ask, are there good ways to create a culture of productive tension that is inclusive, meaningful and consistent with the ethos of centers for teaching and learning?

How do you do it?

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