‘Mind the Gap’ — Develop Cultural Competence

The alleged “skills gap” dominates conversations about the relationship between education and work. Peter Smirniotopoulos and his co-author Natalie Pregibon offer an insightful analysis and some solid recommendations for how we might better prepare students for the demands of the workforce, today and tomorrow. One thing I really like about Peter’s approach is his uncompromising insistence on the value of creative thinking. Read Peter and Natalie’s series, Public Education and Job Readiness, here. Peter and Natalie were also recent guests on my radio show, Trading Fours with Drs. Modeste & Wes. You can listen to the show by clicking here.

Content is Crap (S/O to Greg Satell)

My classrooms are laboratories for engaged discussion and the development of new ideas. ConversationMy hope is that this will lead to an informed understanding of the content under scrutiny and also more meaningful and smarter work lives and civic engagement. I am passionate about educating. In my mind, the practical application of knowledge, can’t be beat. Over 20+ years of educating, I’ve put in the “deliberate practice” of 10,000 hours. What’s this mean? In part, it means the content I deliver doesn’t suck.

Why is THAT important?

In “Content is CrapGreg Satell tells the story of Ed Catmull who, as president of Pixar films, was committed to moving the films from “suck to not-suck.” This is important because Catmull wasn’t just looking for a gimmick to trick more people into seeing his films. As Greg notes, Catmull wasn’t merely seeking an audience” he wanted to “share something important with the world.” For all my love of content — American culture & jazz, ethnic studies  — “content” as Greg notes “is crap.”
But academics are genuinely delighted by content. We spend decades studying our fields of interest and by the time we reach the dissertation level, we have narrowed our chosen fields to an esoteric spot in the universe that no one else has considered in exactly the same way. Academics are the most blase entrepreneurs.

Here’s the thing — the content we find so fascinating sucks to most of the world. The way to salvage not just our egos but our beloved fields of inquiry from extinction, is to deliver the content is such a way tBoringhat connects us with the audience, that creates an emotional link between the content and something meaningful in their lives. We must create not just a new audience for our ideas but “share something meaningful with the world” which necessarily requires pushing beyond classroom walls. We must “mind the gap” between disciplinary specificity and the pragmatic demands of life outside the academy.

Education and Employers

A recent Guardian article lamented the state of economics education. Students and employers are struggling to see the relevance of skills honed in class because theoretical models fail to impress beyond the classroom. “Employers complain that recent economics graduates, while being technically proficient, know very little about the real world. Lacking knowledge about the historical backgrounds, institutional details and political idioms of real-world economies, they end up being idiot savants – they can manipulate most complicated mathematical models but cannot translate their insights into business strategies and economic policies in the real world.” — Ouch!

Disconnect

Here’s another biting critique: “When graduate economists do have something to say about the real-world economy, their advice is incomprehensible to noneconomists – and noneconomists make up almost all their audience.”

How do we Bridge the Gap?

First, educators must educate as if most students will not pursue PhDs (because most don’t). Second, academics must write for non academics. Since tenure is growing ever more elusive, this is practical because it’ll help academics secure jobs beyond the academy. Those scholars seeking to spread messages and educate the public broadly through MOOCs and/or social media (blogs, video blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio programs, etc.) democratize education and include the global masses by using language that is easily understood. Third, seek professional viability beyond the academy — please.

You’re on your own!

According to the Guardian article, students in Norway were told by professors, their role was to offer “an analytical framework” for the material and students themselves would “have the rest of [their] lives to learn about current affairs.” This is such a cop-out. The aura of elitism is used to obscure poor pedagogy, lack of creativity, or just plain laziness. However, as hierarchies go — “‘pure’ research is more prestigious than applied or policy-relevant research, and research is more important than teaching. So, the more detached from the real world your work is, the higher up in the intellectual hierarchy you are.” Higher Ed is responsible for its own marginality, is doing its part in maintaining the status quo, and is abdicating its responsibility to prepare students for the future.

The Necessity of Mess  

This is no surprise. Our cultural quest for increased efficiencies (think Six Sigma), has led to hyper specialization, the mechanization of human beings, and the devaluation of emotional connections. We seek linear explanations and simple dichotomies to explain complex phenomena. Regarding education in economics, the Guardian writes, “In the past, economics was taught as a series of interrelated debates about competing theories and the different policy recommendations of those theories. Imprecise, even messy, but useful.”

In economics, the most popular reform proposal is “The introduction of mathematical models of complex nonlinear systems – the kinds of models which, at least with hindsight, might have predicted the 2008 financial crisis.” This is great but without practical application, this will be — yet another — theoretical model. Lively debate, interactive class assignments, collaborative projects that involve field work, and actively engaging social media to disseminate and test ideas are just some of the ways that will make the experience of learning economics (and all fields) meaningful and practical. Let’s transfer this pedagogical approach beyond the classroom to the workplace and boardroom.

The swing of things

John Coates wrote a really insightful NYT Sunday Review article, “The Biology of Risk.” In a nutshell, he likes the idea of uncertainty in markets because it teaches us — via practical experience — to be agile and creative. If our bodies are physiologically conditioned to respond to stress such as that caused by volatility; then, reducing change leads to a reduction in our ability to respond effectively to stress. The result? More and more devastating bubbles.

Coates explains, “Under conditions of extreme volatility, such as a crisis, traders, investors and indeed whole companies can freeze up in risk aversion, and this helps push a bear market into a crash.” StressCompanies, however, have no coping mechanism. Fortunately, we have the blues and jazz — cultural coping mechanisms with built-in features like call and response, swing, and improvisation that endow practitioners to manage change confidently and even gracefully.

MurrayAccording to Cultural Historian Albert Murray, “what is ultimately at stake” in a moment of crisis “is morale, which is to say the will to persevere, the disposition to persist and perhaps prevail; and what must be avoided by all means is a failure of nerve.” (Stomping, 10) Seizing up is not an option. Coates notes, “risk aversion” [amongst traders and the like] “occurs at just the wrong time, for these crises are precisely when markets offer the most attractive opportunities…” Indeed, we need people who are agile, who can respond reflexively and creatively to changing conditions. Murray’s explanation of a musical break is relevant to, at least, those working in finance. On dealing with uncertainty, he writes: it’s a matter of “grace under pressure, creativity in an emergency, continuity in the face of disjuncture. It is on the break that you are required to improvise, to do your thing, to establish your identity, to write your signature on the epidermis of actuality which is to say entropy.” (Blue Devils, 95) But you can’t just read Murray’s writing, you have to apply his theories practically and develop a trained, reflexive, response to change. If you want your business to swing, develop cultural competence.

The similarity in thinking expressed in Coates’ 2014 NYT article and Murray’s 1974 nonfiction text belies the 40 year time difference. There’s been a gap between theory and practice for decades, at least. What’s more, the notorious racial segregation in the United States is compounded by the segregation of ideas — science and technology are necessarily divorced from music and culture — and this hurts us all. What we need is an integrated approach to educating; the practical application of Murray’s 40 year old ideas in realms beyond the art and humanities and in forums beyond the traditional classroom and stage. We must mind the gap between theory and practice, bridge it and (perchance) close the skills gap. Educate holistically and move from crash to swing.

 

Morning Riffs: Apple & MOOCs

Duke Ellington, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” (1943)

“A blues riff is a brief musical phrase that is repeated, sometimes with very subtle variations…”

— Albert Murray, Stomping the Blues

Apple

As I sat reading Nick Wingfield’s NYT article today lamenting Wednesday’s sharp decline in Apple’s stock and the subsequent quotes from various financial “experts” and investors whose pessimism over the stock decline has turned “once-euphoric investors” into “nervous” (neurotic?) bunch, I want to scream ENOUGH ALREADY! Apple is a solid company and will be for decades to come.

So, here’s my take:

Apple is an enviable company and will remain so. Apple’s move to provide less expensive products signals market expansion, a meaningful effort to reach out to the next billion consumers at a price point they can afford. The United States can be seen as one big beta test. Apple will also save billions on marketing because US consumers – Western consumers in general – have been an impressive sales and marketing force, buying so many Apple products that even when stock slides, revenue remains solid and sales are up. The rest of the world is now convinced that Apple’s products are reliable and superior.

Nick’s assertion that Apple is moving into “cheaper product categories” is instructive and indicates the hyper consumerism and greed that have gotten us into all kinds of trouble (remember the housing bubble and financial fallout?) The pernicious language gives insight into behaviors that have allowed otherwise smart, savvy financial experts and investors to ignore the fact that Apple’s profits remain sizable and that Apple earns profits beyond US borders. The “nervous” twitches are the result of a gluttonous hunger for fast and furious financial gains. Apple’s success should be valued long term. It’s great that Apple’s financial acceleration was dizzying for so long but expecting constant acceleration is shortsighted, at best. For now, I’ll say this: use different metrics to assess Apple’s viability and value. Apple is not a crash-and-burn type of company. Chill.

 

MOOCs

How do we monetize Massive Open Online Courses? That’s the essential problem for higher education. Thanks to the Internet and companies like Apple and Google, we are able to give away course content free of charge. The problem is this: universities rely so heavily on tuition as a source of revenue, that MOOCs totally disrupt and simultaneously fascinate higher ed boards, administrators, and wily investors as they devise ways to generate more money. What do we do? It seems to me that the more we democratize knowledge acquisition via the Internet’s open platform, the more we increase the value of face-time. Here are two ideas, let me know what you think:

  • Change the education delivery model: Roving professors would create dynamic classrooms where professors and/or traveling educational teams move globally from campus to campus – like jazz musicians on the road – delivering global lectures in person. This is also a powerful diplomatic tool that helps integrate students around the globe, putting them in actual — not just virtual — contact with one another and creating opportunities for increased cultural understanding and innovative ideas.  This also has the potential to effectively combat the rising cost of US tuition as – like Apple – we expand our pool of students. Break-out teams can help reach and monetize the next billion students. Creating international campuses on the same stagnant model of delivery is nothing new; same thing, different country. Time for change.
Jonathan Batiste

Jonathan Batiste

  • Change the revenue model: As a knowledge economy, we should place primary value on the transfer of ideas, not the number of butts in a seat.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates opted out of higher ed. The tuition they might have paid a single university pales in comparison to what they could afford to do as successful businessmen. In the spirit of collaboration via jazz, engage students on a lifetime journey of learning, social responsibility, and associated philanthropy.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Call-and-Response: the US, Qatar & Current TV

In a move that exemplifies his ability to identify and form strategic partnerships – not to mention his business acumen – Al Gore sold Current TV to the Qatari owned Al Jazeera for a handsome $500M. In quick response, Time Warner Cable (TWC) dropped Al Jazeera English (AJE) from its cable line up eliminating access to education in international affairs and world news to millions of viewers.

This is a bad thing…sadface3

AJE is not without its critics. In a delightfully biased article, John Nolte takes the New York Times to task for criticizing TWC’s right to cut ties with Current TV given the sale to AJE. Lambasting the “elite journalist overlords” who “apparently consider this openly anti-American, anti-Semitic, pro-terrorist cable news network” worthwhile, Nolte asserts “it’s no secret that Islamists subjugate women, fight for a theocracy, and despise gays.” And since protecting the freedom of speech is important in the US, it’s also “no secret” that the right-leaning in the US have a robust reputation for doing the same, but for now…

Praised by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator John McCain for its coverage of the Arab Spring, AJE is more than the incendiary news source its critics claim it is. Rather, it’s an educational platform that allows average people – not field professionals, such as journalists, politicians, diplomats, scholars, etc – to better understand and weigh in on discussions regarding international affairs. AJE could help create a better informed US populace, particularly if people don’t agree with the range or tenor of topics being covered because through ideological dissent, clarity of one’s own views can emerge.

As in jazz, call and response (CNR) are intricately connected actions. The repetition of calls and responses forms a conversation or swing and sustaining these conditions is no simple thing! Watch this short clip of Reggie Thomas and Alvin Atkinson.

When AJE puts out a “call” regarding world affairs, the US populace returns a “response” based on what is heard and understood. Eliminating the “call” means either the “response” doesn’t exist or it is disconnected; in which case, the populace remains “ignorant” literally – “destitute of knowledge or education.” Encouraging conversation — not perpetuating ignorance — should be our goal.

In severing ties with Current TV, TWC abdicates its responsibility to help educate. In an act that reinforces corporatism, TWC seeks to maintain the status quo and so the dim glow of already lackluster intelligence by hiding behind the excuse of low ratings and the legal right to terminate the agreement.

Creating a more engaged populace requires collaboration, conversation. CNR is a necessary part of building understanding and improving listening; it’s also a central tenet of the blues and jazz. Given Qatar’s increasing involvement in world affairs, its acquisition of Current TV makes sense. Qatar is also home to Jazz at Lincoln Center Doha and like it’s NYC counterpart, JALC Doha privileges swing jazz. Why? Because swing requires engagement, active involvement. Qatar is sending out a global “call” and the opportunity — the responsibility — to respond is ours.