Monday, August 18, 2008

The Traffic Jam Known as Higher Education

Over my vacation, I read Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. I picked this book up because Mr. Geeky and I got into an argument about driving in traffic. Specifically, he did not like the way I was driving in traffic on I95. This, as well as issues around map reading, is our main argument these days. I've learned to read while he drives so I don't notice.

Anyway, I hadn't taken any books with me to the beach, so I popped into a local bookstore and picked up whatever struck my fancy. This was the perfect book to read after navigating 95. It also had some insights into my own work. I know what you're thinking--you learned something about educational technology in a book about traffic? But it's true. You see you might think that traffic is about cars and roads and tolls and signs, but it's not. It's about people. People make traffic. A couple of key insights in the book are that a) people don't really cooperate much while driving; they're in it for themselves and b) even if they want to cooperate, they don't know exactly how.

The first insight was the one I found most interesting for my purposes, although the second was also fruitful. When we're driving, we're focused on getting from point A to point B. We're in our cars. We can't easily make eye contact with each other to signal, for example, that you'd like to squeeze into that space just in front of you if you don't mind. As Vanderbilt puts it in a nice interview posted on the Amazon site:
people are more likely to cooperate with one another when they can make eye contact. When we don’t have it, when we become anonymous, we not only lose some of that impulse towards cooperation, we seem to become susceptible to all kinds of behavior we might not otherwise engage in. In most driving situations, of course, we lose eye contact, and have to make do with our rather limited vocabulary of traffic signals.
What does this have to do with higher education, especially technology and higher education? Most of my communication occurs via email or over the phone and not face-to-face. This allows both me and the person I'm communicating with to feel like we can be a little ruder than we might otherwise. I might get defensive about my time. They might get defensive about theirs. We both dig in our heels and no work gets done. Also, miscommunication can happen. I might think someone is asking for one thing, but they're really asking for another and vice versa. But also, I think, there's a lack of "signage" or "vocabulary." While I continue to live in the world of the academic--understanding tenure, trying to understand faculty work flows, areas of research and more--I feel that faculty often don't understand my world, both its vocabulary and its context. It's as if my signs are in Japanese with no English translation available. So how to fix this? In traffic, I'm afraid, there's not much chance of providing more eye contact, but that's easy in my world. It's more time-consuming to visit people in their offices, to try to catch people around campus, but I think the payoff is better. As for the "lost in translation" problem, obviously I can do some translating in face-to-face situations, but I can also continue to provide information to help people navigate in my world.

Speaking of anonymity, Vanderbilt also covers the the issue of road rage, which he theorizes has to do with a general increase in narcissism:
[Psychologists] find, as time goes on, more people are willing to say things like "If I ruled the world, it would be a better place." Traffic is filled with people who think that roads belong only to them — it’s "MySpace" — that being inside the car absolves them from any obligation to anyone else. People are glad to tell you that their child is a middle school honor student — as if anyone cared! — but they deem it less important to tell you what they’re going to do in traffic.
I'd say this is a general tug-of-war we all experience, but which may be prolific in higher ed. That is, we feel a sense of our selves as important, as perhaps more important than anyone else and so pursue a path that benefits primarily ourselves versus feeling a sense of our selves as part of a larger whole, as contributing to the greater good in some way and so pursue a path that benefits others. In traffic, this tug-of-war may play out by first, cutting people off, driving too fast, etc. When feeling more magnanimous, we might allow a car in front of us, keep a safer distance between us and the car in front of us, or generally drive more slowly. In higher ed, I see two things happen. One, there are plenty of people walking around with a lot of ego (I'm not necessarily saying I'm not one of these people). These people are the equivalent of the overly aggressive driver. Two, there's the definition of the larger whole to which someone might contribute. As a staff member, I'm more likely to see that larger whole as the institution or perhaps a collection of similar institutions. A faculty member might see the larger whole as their field and not as the institution. Students, I think, are focused primarily on themselves although many of them contribute to a larger whole that's even bigger than the institution--politics, fighting poverty, improving inner city schools, etc. There's a conflict then, not only between individuals as egotistical or not, but also between those who are genuinely trying to do good things about what those good things are.

There's a lot more that I could say about the relationship between traffic behavior and the behavior I see every day, both from myself and from my faculty, but I'll spare you the details. But think about these few things:
  • When you're driving, it's hard to tell how well you're doing. There's very little feedback and most people are worse drivers than they think they are. In many areas of higher education, there's also a lack of good feedback. In driving, one can be made aware of how good a driver one is by installing some simple monitoring equipment. I suspect that monitoring is not something that higher ed will embrace quickly.
  • Doing something that benefits others rather than doing something that just benefits you actually makes the whole system better, including for you!
  • We are more distracted than we think we are.