Universities of the Future and Other Intellectual Re-Imaginings: More from the AAC&U Conference

Below I continue from my last post to summarize what I learned at the AAC&U Conference in Portland, OR, at the end of February, 2014.  We begin by imagining the university of the future, and end with a serendipitous meeting, and climate change.

Imagining the University of the Future

I attended some interesting plenary talks at the AAC&U conference opening night. One was about designing a general education program for 2030 – that is, for the future. There were some pithy quotes in the talk, including one attributed to John Seely Brown, to the effect that universities were primarily equipped “only to look in the rear-view mirror.” The essential idea was that there is a great gulf between what we know about best practices in learning (the “learning paradigm”) and the way teaching is actually done. Our understanding of learning, according to the speaker, has expanded much faster than our conceptions of teaching. A lot of it has to do with institutional structures.   Among the list of high impact practices are learning communities, first year seminars, community-based learning, capstone courses, collaborative learning. Yet, the talk seemed to suggest, these were often at the periphery, in the form of experiential co-curricular learning, rather than at the center, which continues to be dominated by the formal undergraduate curriculum.

The talk was about imagining a university of the future, a university set in 2030. How would you design such a place? You’d design for context, not content. You would have to have a notion of how the world would have changed at that point. Imagining the future is something I enjoy speculating about, so this was of great interest to me. The speaker talked about a future dominated by technology, in which the human labor market would be engaged in solving structural problems, or gathering new information, or carrying out non-routine manual tasks. Routine manual tasks, the speaker said, would be carried out by robots or low-wage workers overseas, not humans. (I don’t think he meant to lump sweat-shop workers with non-humans but my hackles did go up at that point). He spoke of integration being a particular talent of universities, and how an integrative approach to learning that used technology in a way that enhanced the face-to-face experience was crucial. There was some criticism of massive online open courses (MOOCs) which to some extent is justified, I think (MOOCs can’t replace the face-to-face experience but they do have some positives). The speaker ended by declaring that universities were in the business of formation, transformation, and Integration.

I had some disagreements with regard to imagining the future in 2030. I know something about science fiction, and the speaker’s outlook seemed a bit limited and mired in a privileged world-view. Knowing that climate change is going to disrupt everything as we know it, how can one even talk about 2030 without talking about climate change? There are so many changes coming our way – just read the latest IPCC report – from extreme weather events that will challenge infrastructure and be economically damaging, to mass migrations, and the specter of war… the list goes on. So after the talk I found the speaker and asked him about it. A woman waiting to talk to him chimed in to say that the first thought she had when he mentioned the university of 2030 was – well, Miami will be under water, so what will happen to the university there? The speaker, whose background is in the humanities, turned out to be quite knowledgeable about climate change, and very much aware of its interdisciplinary nature, and conceded my point that you couldn’t talk about the future in a serious way without including climate change impacts. “So why aren’t we having an AAC&U meeting about how climate change is going to affect university education, and how we can serve the next generation in keeping them informed and prepared? After all, it is an issue that is deeply relevant to liberal arts education issue,” I said, and the speaker nodded in agreement. But the conversation left me puzzled. If someone who is so aware and informed about the issue doesn’t talk about it when speculating seriously about the future, what do we do? Why the silence?

Bring in the Real World!  Science Literacy at UO

An outstanding workshop I attended was conducted by University of Oregon professors from the Geological Sciences, Environmental Sciences and Science Literacy Program. Entitled General Education Transformation Through Science Literacy and Science Communication,” it took us through an interactive small-group-based exercise that mimics the program’s teaching philosophy. The science literacy program at UO focuses on science literacy for non-science-majors, pedagogical development for graduate students, and faculty development. The topic at hand during this example exercise was taken from a class about energy. Instead of starting with the usual stuff about the energy crisis and alternative energy sources, students (i.e. us) were handed some news articles to read in small groups. A couple stand out. One was a news report about how a local utility was suspending its energy efficiency program because it was too successful – so much so that the utility didn’t ‘need’ to save more energy. In my group we read the report, learned about how the energy saving department at the utility was (naturally) rather at loggerheads with the energy-selling department, and discussed whether the utility did the right thing in suspending the very successful program.

The next assignment was even more interesting. We looked at and interpreted a number of graphs about energy usage in the US and the effect of increasing energy efficiency. Some calculations were called for, but it became obvious that the calculations rested on some rather dubious assumptions. This led to a debate within our group and in the class as a whole about a) how the given information was not sufficient to draw conclusions from, b) what additional information would need to be collected, and c) in the real world we rarely have full information, so how do we come to conclusions based on inadequate data? As part of the assignment we then read a New Yorker article on energy efficiency. Here’s the crux of the argument.

The US has never been more energy efficient

–  In 1970 it took 18000 BTUs to produce each real dollar of GDP

–  In 2008 it took only 8520 BTUs

Yet the total energy use has increased.

That means it is not enough to increase energy efficiency – one must also decrease total energy use. The article cites a fascinating concept called Jevon’s paradox. The idea is that increase in efficiency in using a resource leads to increase in the use of that resource. William Jevons, writing in the mid-1800s, noted that technological improvements in coal usage led to more usage of coal.   While some economists do not believe Jevon’s paradox is true (the classic rebuttal apparently being the refrigerator – if your refrigerator is super-energy efficient, you don’t go out and buy more refrigerators), others think it needs to be taken seriously. It seems to me as someone uninitiated in the joys of economics that Jevon’s paradox is rather obvious in many circumstances. High energy efficiency might induce people to indulge in more and more appliances. This is very interesting to me because it illustrates how apparently green actions can be counterproductive if they are not accompanied by a fundamental shift in how we view the world. If we regard energy as a precious resource whose conservation is crucial, irrespective of efficiency, we will be less likely to buy 3 televisions and five computers. In the movie Kilowatt Ours that I show students nearly every semester, much is made of energy efficiency and buying Energy Star appliances. But we also need to be aware that demand can go up as efficiency increases, unless there is a change in attitude as well. (I am reminded here of my mother, who even now turns the stove off a few minutes before a dish is completely cooked, allowing it to cook in the residual heat. This is not because she has to save gas – she can more than afford the gas bill – but because of her fundamental belief that waste is bad as a matter of principle).

What was fascinating about the workshop was its active learning nature. We read, discussed, examined graphs, performed small calculations, debated when information was sufficient or insufficient to come to conclusions, and had rather heated exchanges on real-world issues. A number of fundamental ideas about energy, data, and real-world dilemmas came up naturally. Our facilitators informed us that in an actual classroom there would be several instructors and their assistants moving around the room, prompting questions and helping students grapple with unfamiliar ideas.

“Authentic Assessment” versus standardized tests

Other things that stood out from various workshops included the notion of ‘authentic assessment’ that goes beyond the tendency of judging a student solely through standardized tests and exams. I picked up some material on this that I plan to go through when I have the chance.   There was also much discussion of a software called e-portfolio that is being used increasingly to showcase student work, to communicate with students, and to keep track of student progress.

STIRS Workshop

On the last day of the conference we had a special all-day workshop for STIRS scholars. Thirteen of us sat around tables in a long conference room generously supplied with food and drink. Our two facilitators, one of them an expert on designing case-studies, ran the workshop. They went through the crucial elements of a successful case study, drawing on our own proposals as examples, and allowing us to discuss and critique each other’s ideas. After a fruitful exchange of thoughts on all thirteen proposals, we were divided into working groups. I found myself with two faculty working on a) the ecology of gardens and lawns and b) the issues facing native peoples (in particular) with regard to the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline. We went through each proposal in great detail. I was excited that each of the other topics was also interdisciplinary. For instance the lawns and gardens idea relates to the social meaning of a well-kept lawn, and the changing esthetic with regard to lawns and gardens being eco-friendly or not. The recent Californian water drought might well change attitudes toward lush lawns. The Keystone pipeline issue relates to native rights as well as economic benefits of shale oil and gas, and is possibly the topic closest to my own, regarding oil and gas drilling in Alaska. The most wonderful thing was that the group as a whole as well as my sub-group consisted of intelligent, warm, interesting people whose company (as we had found at a special dinner the previous evening) was a delight and inspiration. As we develop our ideas over the course of the next several months, I look forward to our continued collaboration.

Meetings, Planned and Serendipitous: writers, lawyers, and circling back to climate change

My trip to Portland was fruitful in multiple ways, including some I will just mention – a wonderful meeting with old friends I had not seen for some sixteen years –my oldest writer friends, in fact, lunch with two major writers who are among my favorite writers ever, a visit to a favorite hangout, Powell’s, the world’s biggest independent bookstore in which one might, happily, get lost, and a plane ride back sitting next to a gentleman who turned out to be an environmental law professor. The five-and-a-half-hour discussion with him opened my eyes to the legal dimensions of environmental issues, including that of climate change, and how the right laws can change how things are done. It ended up with my acquiring contact information of several key people in Alaska in relation to my sabbatical project on climate change, learning about the public interest doctrine, arranging to work on a conference panel together, and filling two pages with references and email addresses! One of the most crucial and interesting efforts I learned about was the work of Mary Wood and Our Children’s Trust. Since 2011, young people all over America have brought legal action against the 50 states and the Federal government, known as Atmospheric Trust Litigation, in an effort to force cuts in carbon emissions to limit climate change. Intergenerational justice, anyone?

The issue of climate change forces us to come out of the isolated silos of our disciplines and talk to each other. From what I learned then and later about the public trust doctrine, there are not only such things as public lands, oceans, and the atmosphere, but also public intellectual spaces where the work of reforming, re-visioning, and re-educating ourselves and others must take place.



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2 Responses to Universities of the Future and Other Intellectual Re-Imaginings: More from the AAC&U Conference

  1. Judith Otto says:

    Jevon’s paradox also forms the crux of part of David Owen’s argument about how cities are the most energy-efficient ways of organizing human settlement, in his book Green Metropolis. We read from this in the Global Cities course.

  2. vsinghsblog says:

    Very interesting, Judy! I must look up David Owen. I revisit Jevon’s paradox again in upcoming posts reporting my numerous interviews and conversations in India!

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