Tuesday, September 18, 2007

You can't have margins without differences

Interesting discussion going on over at Terra Nova about the idea of academic tenure vs. business acumen.

The idea that a tenured professor is necessarily a good teacher is as laughable as the idea that a VP is necessarily good at managing people. In many cases in both academia and the business world, the skills necessary for advancement are often be quite separate from the skills necessary for mastery.

I had great English professors at Cornell; I went there specifically because the undergrad writing program was widely praised as one of the best in the country. The profs could write (many were widely published novelists, writers for the screen, poets, etc.) and could teach. In some of my other classes... not so much. I remember specifically a _______ professor who was hired for publishing cred, but who may have been the worst teacher I've ever known. Friends of mine in the major said that it was a total coup to have gotten this prof... but I dropped the class because her pedagogical technique consisted of asking questions, nodding while you answered, and then slamming you for being totally wrong. This was in a Freshman intro course, which should be a place to get kids interested in a subject, not a forum for constant haranguing.

On the flip side, I've known people in business who are great teachers. Some have had actual classroom experience, some are just gifted.

The problem is (and may always be) that rigid authority isn't particularly good at the margins. And the margins are often where the most interesting work takes place.

I teach history of advertising (and have taught marketing) as an adjunct professor at the Columbus College of Art and Design (www.ccad.edu), one of the best fine arts colleges in the country. They specifically design their overall curricula to bring in business people from a variety of related industries in order to broaden the exposure of the students to people "not like them;" ie, not artists.

I am by no means an artist. I write and do some decent layout... but these kids are truly talented artists. Why should CCAD hire a non-artist, non-teacher to come in and yap and them? Why should my course be required for students in the advertising major? Because I look a lot like what their bosses will look like. They will do better having spent some time around a budget-conscious, client-side, results-focused project manager type goon.

Which brings me to my actual point: good organizations (in both academia and business) need to think about the *overall* goals more, in addition to the specific requirements of a particular position.

If you're teaching game design and have a faculty of 12 and none of them have industry experience... hmmm... might be a bit unbalanced on the academic side. If you're a business and you have nobody on your staff with some higher larnin'... you probably aren't going to push some interesting envelopes.

The margins where disparate areas touch are often the most fertile for creativity. If you only have one kind of person in your gang, you ain't got no margins. Diversify to succeed. 

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