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Anne Dalke's picture

risk and innovation

At the gathering at which he presented his talk, Paul was introduced as being "among the most annoying people on campus," because his comments are inevitably "ruffing in some dimension." His presentation focused on why--given adverse consequences (being fired, not getting raises)--one might continue the practice of taking risks.

Is it arrogant and solipsistic to insist on being judged by the standards one sets for oneself? Don't we need common, community standards of judgment? Mightn't principles of fairness and equality get in the way of innovation and risk-taking? Mention was made of the annual report, which in reflecting a certain structure of values at the college, a preference for peer-reviewed scholarship of a rather traditional sort, excludes much of worth and interest. Who reads the report? It is its production that matters. What ever happened to the study that was being done of web-based scholarship? Did it "go anywhere"?

Similar financial and psychological disincentives operate to inhibit innovation and risk-taking for students and staff. But how important is it for us to have our work affirmed by the college? Mightn't we be more inner-directed?

This is all very familiar.

It is also everybody's problem: that a uniform definition of achievement reflects the lens of the past, not the problems we will face in the future. The key issue is not fairness or equality, but a recognition that past standards, uniformly applied, inhibit innovation. The logic of relying on past standards is that they will act as predictors for future achievement. If we think that they are poor predictors, what will we replace them with?

Building on Liz McCormack's earlier discussion of hierarchical vs. distributed leadership patterns, Paul proposed a combined model: group standards, never fixed, can be continually renovated in response to group feedback. This model requires a "fuchsia dot," someone positioned to "read" the imput from group members, and able to recognize the patterns articulated by them.

Such a structure, which is flexible and supportive of innovation, offers more than generosity: it enables a system to change, by recognizing, acting to avoid, and correcting known problems. The community can then be governed, not by ideal standards, imposed from above or derived from past practice, but via a continuous involvement of all in the re-definition of shared standards. The answer, in short, to the paired problems of solipsism and hierarchy are
1) to encourage everyone to be their own final judges; and
2) to put into place a structure for continually evolving group standards for shared judgment.

Discussion closed with questions about just how repressive a "new standard of innovation" might be. Isn't there built into this proposal a bias toward an absolute standard, of innovation as a good in itself? The world is not stable and always uncertain; we need positions from which to respond to uncertainty.

Conversation about taking the risk of changing our scholarship will continue on November 8, and will be led by Marissa Golden from the Political Science Department.

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