We Are What We Think

WhatThink:rendiansyah-nugroho-454059

Oh East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. . . — Rudyard Kipling

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. — The Dhammapada

The world is orderly and simple.

The world changes constantly and is immensely complex.

These two ways of thinking have shaped human behavior and culture for millenia—and lately they have been tested in the laboratories of cultural psychology.

Richard Nisbett’s book, The Geography of Thought, builds the case that Westerners and Easterners differ in their fundamental beliefs about the world. As one of his graduate students from China said to him, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” Nisbett, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, was skeptical but intrigued. He’d always thought of himself as a universalist, someone who believed humans perceive and reason in the same way. While their cultural practices may vary widely, he thought, their ways of perceiving the world are generally similar.

He summarizes this tradition in four general principles. First, everyone has the same basic thinking processes when it comes to memory, categorization, inference, and causal analysis. Second, when people from different cultures have different beliefs it’s because they have been exposed to different aspects of the world, not because they actually think differently. Third, reasoning rests upon logic: a proposition can’t be both true and false. And fourth, our reasoning is separate from what we are reasoning about. You can think about a thing many different ways—and you can use your reasoning to come up with wildly different results. Such was the tradition that could be traced back through the Enlightenment to the Greeks. Surely everybody thought in the same way.

But that turns out not to be the case at all.

In test after test, Western subjects focused on the objects in the foreground of a video while Eastern subjects took in the whole background. That’s consistent with another finding that Westerners regard objects as most important and Easterners emphasize relationships. Following Greek thought, Westerners think of themselves above all as free agents, individuals who act upon the environment around them, changing their circumstances to match their ambitions. Easterners, following Confucian thought, see themselves as part of a harmonious whole, experiencing the links between people and their environment as continuous. One does not so much wrest control away from Nature as align oneself with it.

Independence, practically a virtue in Western societies, begins at an early age as we teach our children to “stand on their own two feet,” “think for themselves,” and “grow up.” Interdependence, the way of many in Eastern cultures, helps children to understand the reactions of others. One of Nisbett’s research partners, a 6 ft. 2 inch football-playing graduate student from Japan, was dismayed to discover, at his first American football game, that University of Michigan football fans thought nothing of blocking his view of the game by standing up in front of him. “We would never do anything to impair the enjoyment of others at a public function like that,” he said to Nisbett. It seems that compared to the Japanese wide-angle view Americans have tunnel vision.

Sensitivity to others’ emotions provides Easterners with a different set of assumptions about communication also. Whereas Westerners take responsibility for speaking directly and clearly, a “transmitter” orientation, Easterners adopt a “receiver” orientation in which it’s the hearer’s responsibility to make sure the message is understood. Nisbett notes that Americans sometimes find Asians hard to read because Asians make their points indirectly; Asians, on the other hand, may find Americans direct to the point of rudeness.

The differences extend to how we think about causality and how we deal with historical events. Japanese teachers, says historian Masako Watanabe, begin a history lecture by setting the context. They then proceed chronologically through the events, linking each one to the proceeding event. Students are encouraged to put themselves in the mental and emotional states of the historical figures being studied and to draw analogies to their own lives. Students are regarded as thinking historically when they are able to see the events from the point of view of the other, even Japan’s enemies. Questions of “how” are asked about twice as much as in American classrooms.

By contrast, American teachers usually begin with the outcomes and ask why this result was produced. The pedagogical process often has the effect of destroying historical continuity and reversing the flow to effect-cause. This reflects the Greek heritage of the West in which we have the liberty to find our goals and define the means to attain them.

“Easterners,” says Nisbett, “are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world. . . . But Aristotle has testable propositions about the world while the Chinese did not. . . . The Chinese may have understood the principle of action at a distance, but they had no means of proving it.”

No one is making value judgements about these varying perspectives. They are different ways of being in the world and viewing the world. But if this research is true or even close, we should pay attention to it for it could change how we communicate with millions and millions of people.

Occasionally in life we stumble across something that opens a window into our own interior castles. That is the experience I had reading The Geography of Thought. Time and again, as I followed the tests scattered throughout the book, I was taken aback at my unconscious affinity for Eastern thought. More often than not, when I was absolutely honest with myself, I realized how often they are my default positions.

That might explain why I found it so difficult to be the ‘answer man’ when working in faculty development at a research university. While some thought I should provide techniques that would work in every classroom—universals, in effect—my tendency was to see each teacher and each classroom as distinct. Instead of developing objectives for all to reach my thought was to develop each teacher’s own style to fit their context. Context and background instead of rules and foreground. At the time I lacked the analogies to talk about it, although pushing against that instinctual feeling made me feel off balance much of the time.

Thus we live and learn and discover coves and bays along our spiritual shoreline we did not know were there until we put out to sea.

Photo: Rendiahsyah Nugroho on Unsplash.com

Cutting the Branches at WAU

A short post on the dubious reading of Scripture to justify faculty cuts and layoffs . . .

Washington Adventist Community

Weymouth Spence writes a half-page column each month in the Visitor, the primary publication of the Columbia Union Conference. His column for July 2014, entitled “Partnering for Fruitfulness,” drew our attention here at WAC (Washington Adventist Community) for several reasons. We’ll look at what it suggests about his management style in this post and leave the rest for another time.

He points out that external stakeholders have grown increasingly interested in the academic performance of colleges and universities, calling for more accountability and more assurance that graduates can perform at the levels these institutions claim they can. The tools employed to gather this evidence are numerous: enrollment patterns, retention, completion, and graduation percentages, job placement rates, graduate school admissions, and more. In the business of higher education these approaches go by the names of evidence-based or competence-based outcomes. Gathering this data and crunching the numbers reveals, in President Spence’s words, “whether the institution’s…

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Thresholds and Endings at WAU

Saying goodbye to WAU’s 2014 departees . . .

Washington Adventist Community

There are liminal moments in the history of an institution in which a threshold is crossed.  One such threshold has arrived for WAU: for the first time in recent months we are hearing from people whose judgment we respect worrying out loud about the demise of Washington Adventist University. Years of misguided decisions and instability in academic leadership at the Cabinet level have taken their toll on departments across the campus. Programs have been reduced, suspended or scheduled for closure, departments have been cut and faculty members dismissed. That has inevitably had an effect on student retention.

Just as worrisome is the apparent lack of concern on the part of the board for the direction of the university. A majority of the board are conference presidents, some of whom would be just as happy to see WAU close—and have privately said as much. The fact that there is little, if any, inquiry…

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How WAU Can Win (Back) Friends and Influence People

Washington Adventist Community

None of us want to see WAU close. That includes us here at WAC. Although we’ve been accused of being an “evil” website trying to bring down the university, that is far from our intention. What we want is what many others want: a healthy, financially stable educational institution, with a clear sense of purpose, that is dedicated to helping students learn how to learn and how to transform their world into part of the kingdom of God. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But you can’t achieve good ends by shifty means. You can’t build on sand and you can’t cut corners in the construction of “present truth.” What we’re looking for from the administration of Dr. Spence, Provost Kisunzu, and VP Farley first, is transparency. There are tough problems right now at WAU, and bunkering down behind false promises and self-interest isn’t going to help. We’re all…

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Washington Adventist Community

One of the purposes for which Washington Adventist Community, aka WAC, exists is to raise questions about the actions of the administration at Washington Adventist University, aka WAU. And there is no end to the questions that come to mind. In fact, trying to figure out the logic behind their actions can consume more time than any of us should spend. Nevertheless, we here at WAC do it so that you don’t have to. However, a word of caution: if you should plunge headlong down the rabbit hole into this alternate reality don’t expect to find your way back to the light without considerable effort. With that in mind, we’ll begin.

Despite almost seven years of contradictory evidence we continue to look for a clear plan for this university. We’re not talking about “The Plan,” the prosaically-named revision of the strategic plan of the early part of the century. We’re…

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Why Adjuncts Can’t Replace Full-Time Faculty

We knew this day would come: Washington Adventist University (WAU) is trying to fill the gaps in their faculty ranks with adjuncts—lots of them. The NAD Employment site is filled with listings for openings at WAU. In fact, there is an Adjunct Faculty Career Fair coming up on June 4 on campus in which prospective adjuncts can meet with representatives of various departments to discover “what it’s like to teach at WAU” (see a copy of the Email with more information here: WAU_Today’s News (05.28.2014).

“We are currently seeking to expand our pool of qualified adjunct faculty,” says the announcement, “and to fill several openings in key discipline areas, such as English, Math, Business, Computer Studies, Nursing, Biology, and Chemistry.” (Full details are also on the WAU website)

We here at WAC thought those were “key discipline areas” too. And we thought that those areas were being covered pretty well by the full-time faculty who not only taught in their disciplines with expertise, insight, and dedication, but advised, served on committees, participated in research, coordinated on-campus and off-campus events, found internships for students, led out in worship and spiritual events, were available to students during office hours and more, and generally provided not only information but experience and wisdom to students year after year.

But now those classes will be covered by adjuncts. Covering the instructional material is all an adjunct can generally do. One of us here at WAC is a full-time adjunct. Whereas some adjuncts have steady jobs from 9 – 5 and teach in the evenings, many of us do this full-time.

Nationwide, adjunct faculty now make up 76% of college instructors. They make on average $20,000 to $27,000 per year, with no benefits (NPR, Feb. 3, 2014) . This trend began in the 1970s when adjuncts were few, but usually professionals who wanted to share their expertise with students and pick up some extra money on the side. They brought their “real-world” experience to the classroom in business, criminal justice, health care, vocational, and social work.

The difference now is that most of the part-time instructors are of two types: either they were cut from full-time teaching or they are just out of graduate school and hoping to hang on long enough for a full-time position to open up.

That almost never happens.

As long as administrators can hire a competent instructor for less than a third of what they would have to pay an associate or full professor—and no costly medical or retirement benefits—they have no incentive to change.

Colleges and universities have differing attitudes toward adjuncts. Some go out of their way to make them feel part of the campus by offering orientation sessions at the beginning of each school year, parking privileges, access to the library, recreational and dining facilities, and invitations to campus events.

Other colleges are late with contracts, don’t provide information about schedules, important dates, access to copy machines, or remedial services on campus that a teacher might refer students to. Information that the teacher needs is difficult to find or is contradictory or is simply not available, all of which is frustrating for someone on a schedule that is sometimes calculated down to the minute.

Adjuncting full-time means juggling schedules on two, sometimes three or four campuses, with five to seven different preparations for classes that can begin at 8 am on a campus an hour away and conclude that night at 10 pm on another campus—usually with two to three other classes in between on yet another campus.

When you’re racing from one campus to another there isn’t much time for face-to-face advising with students, even if you can find a place on campus that offers some privacy. Advising must be done through email, throughout the day, between classes on one’s phone or at the end of the day after hours of preparation, teaching, driving, and grading.

The reason why most full-time adjuncts teach overloads is because most campuses will not give an adjunct more than two classes a semester, lest they have to pay them benefits. So in order to make a living wage one has to teach as many courses as possible. I know adjuncts who not only teach three or four courses a week, but have another job as well.

When you read the comments after articles or podcasts about the grind of adjunct teaching, it’s clear that many people have no idea what teaching is really about. They can’t understand why anyone would work so hard for such low wages. “Get another job!” they say. “Nobody needs your sacrifice.” The full-time adjuncts I know live with these conditions because as stressful as it can be at times, all of that usually fades away once we step into the classroom. There’s an excitement and anticipation that just can’t be found in a lot of other jobs.

But this is not an ideal situation for anyone but the financial officers of a campus. No matter how dedicated and innovative an adjunct may be, they can rarely replace a full-time faculty member who has more resources, more time, better facilities, and a fuller sense of the mission of the college.

As WAU tries to fill these positions they will quickly find that there are precious few qualified Adventist instructors who are willing and able to meet the schedules and to work for the wages that WAU offers. They may be hiring people who are content experts in their respective fields, but who will be unfamiliar with the unique culture and ethos of an Adventist campus. Fitting into that culture will not only take explaining but coaching. Given the fact that most faculty at WAU are already overworked, not much time and attention can be given to adjunct faculty beyond basic instruction.

Fasten your seat belts and lower your expectations. This could be a bumpy flight come September.

What is Shared Governance?

As the Washington Adventist University campus prepares for Graduation weekend there remains among faculty, students, and alumni a palpable sense of distrust in the statements released by the university on the loss of accreditation by the Nursing Department, the reasons for the laying off of four full-time faculty, and the financial state of the university.

So it’s interesting to note that Washington Adventist University was the subject of a dissertation, A Qualitative Assessment of the Meaning of Shared Governance at a Parochial University (2012) by Shaton Monique Glover-Alves, a doctoral candidate in education at Northeastern University in Boston. The author gathered data through surveys and interviews with administrators, faculty leaders, and even a student leader, to determine the meaning of shared governance on campus. Not surprisingly, she discovered that it had different meanings to various groups on campus, but that the diversity of perceptions could lead to misunderstandings and miscommunication. While the official statements in the bylaws and regulations defined shared governance, the actual practices in interactions between faculty and administration often diverged widely from the required processes.

When asked to define ‘shared governance’ both administrators and faculty leaders interviewed said ‘it all depends.’ This led the author to coin the term ‘situational shared governance,’ meaning that while there were official descriptions of the role of shared governance on campus, the changing situation often dictated how that was interpreted. In other words, due process was often not followed.

The faculty interviewed all said that the many committees on campus had a ‘voice but not a vote,’ that they functioned merely in an advisory capacity, and that their recommendations were often vetoed by the administration. Committees appeared to make a decision, but the real decisions were made elsewhere at another level. Administrators readily agreed that this was the case and one interviewee, referred to as ‘Shane’ (described as the chairman of the Board of Trustees), took care to reiterate that faculty did not have a vote in major decisions.

Faculty have served on search committees in which they spend countless hours recruiting candidates for positions on campus, vetting them, conducting extensive interviews with them, and then making their recommendations on the best candidate, only to have the President summarily appoint someone else. Their disappointment and frustration suggests that in practice, at least, they have a different perspective on their role as a search committee than does the President. One example of this was the appointment by the President of a person to develop a program in Homeland Security. Neither the program nor the position nor the instructor went through any faculty committee or Academic Council. As it enters into its third year on the budget at an estimated cost of over $100,000 per year, the program still has no students. While it was touted as a full four-year degree it is currently advertised as a six-month certificate training program.

The researcher noted that “When faced with questions and definitions about collegiality, “Paul” [a pseudonym for one of the administrators] reported that the governance structure supported the collegial model, and that faculty, staff and cabinet got together to engage in the strategic planning process to discuss mission, vision, and goals. Both Frank and Holly [pseudonyms for top-level administrators] describe collegiality in terms of faculty power and reported that faculty committees only had advisory power, but the administrator had veto power (71).”

The response given by “Paul” is a non-answer. It is a demonstration of his mastery of the sidestep in which the goal is diversion. However, the researcher was not fooled.

Trust was the second major theme that emerged in the study. There was a strong emotional connotation to the idea of trust among the faculty interviewees. The researcher described an interview in which a faculty leader struggled to control his tears as he talked about the humiliation he experienced in actions taken by administrators. Trust was equated with transparency about financial matters, academic decisions, and the goals and visions for the university. While benevolence, competency, and reliability were highly desired by the faculty interviewed, none of those dimensions mattered without trust.

“Paul” noted that “trust takes a long time.” Other administrators talked of “deferred trust” and “delayed trust.”  While some of the faculty interviewed felt that they were trusted to do their job by the administrators, they still had deep reservations about the consistency of care exhibited by administration. In a carefully nuanced statement the author commented, “Researcher reflection suggested that without the formation of a relationship, and a sensitivity to the corresponding emotions, there would be little basis for the success of situational shared governance.”

So when President Spence insists that he operates from a position of shared governance, he means something quite different from what faculty actually experience. He thinks if committees gather, discuss, and talk about an issue that shared governance has taken place. He is then free to disregard or veto the committee’s recommendations. Thus, faculty and administration operate with decidedly different expectations and goals about shared governance. The result is miscommunication, misunderstanding, and constant inefficiency.

The author offers three recommendations:

1. Campus leaders should assess the level of trust in the leader. “There may be a need to build trust before shared governance can be fully effective.”
2. It is wise to periodically “review all documents that describe shared governance to bring them into greater reality with practices on campus.”
3. Campus leaders should “engage in discussions on shared governance to clarify campus meanings before embarking on project which require shared governance.”

The research was done to discover the meaning of “shared governance” at a religiously-based university. It resulted in more questions about the nature of Seventh-day Adventist higher education. The dissertation concludes with this sentence: “If the institution is academic, then shared governance will flourish; if it is not, then market-driven, corporative, non-input and handed-down decision will be the order of the day.”

The provost and the president have made it clear in videos, written statements, and public forums that their decisions are market-driven, data-based, and handed down. They have consistently resisted input from faculty and alumni and have couched their language in corporative terms. If we take the findings of this research seriously we can only conclude that shared governance, however defined, no longer flourishes at Washington Adventist University.

A Community of Compassion

Where conventional education deals with abstract and impersonal facts and theories, an education shaped by Christian spirituality draws us toward incarnate and personal truth.” — Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known, 14


I have always found the phrase, ‘the real world,’ both perplexing and damnable. It is perplexing because of all the worlds we may think we inhabit there is none more real than the one we all live and move and have our being in. And before the phone lines light up—yes, caller, I am aware of metaphors and analogies and similes. Still, the force with which those three words are usually hurled at someone—“Wait until you have to survive in the real world, then you’ll see!”— suggests the hurler believes the reality of this world transcends figures of speech. 


The phrase is damnable because it cordons off a group of people, usually students, and then condemns them for being isolated from the world. The students I teach are well acquainted with the real world. Many of them hold two jobs, take a full load of classes, and care for a child. Some of them play sports in and out of state, while maintaining their classes and work. All of them know the depths of disappointment in striving oneself to weariness and still falling short of goals and expectations. So it is not a phrase I use on students in particular nor most people in general. 


There’s no question that we are in the world; the real question is how we are to be in the world. For Christian teachers and students this is the central question they must answer every day.


Recently, I’ve had reason to question what the advantages of an Adventist Christian college education might be for a young person over one in a ‘secular’ college or university. This is a recurring question for me, a kind of diagnostic to be run in those times when the church as the body of Christ seems pocked with disease, to say nothing of being blind and lame. 


It’s not in the buildings, the landscaping, the amenities, or the sports fields. Most North American Adventist colleges were built near the turn of the 19th century and cannot keep pace with state or even private college campus facilities. On the other hand, I’ve taught on a campus where some buildings pre-date the war—the First World War—and yet students and faculty cheerfully go about their days working around the charm of an infrastructure that was new not long after Oscar Wilde was released from the Reading Gaol. 


It’s not in the endowments, the gifts outright, or the scholarships. Nor is it in the tuition rates, the sports teams, the residential halls, or the food service. 


It’s not in the research facilities, the government and military contracts that bring in millions, nor in graduate assistantships and grants. Most Adventist college professors are too busy teaching four or five classes each semester, plus working on committees, and engaging in service to the college, the church, and the community, to do any research except that directly related to the teaching of their disciplines. 


And it’s not even in the ‘star’ quality of the faculty, although many of the Adventist college professors I know could walk into any college classroom—from community college to Ivy League—and teach as well, if not better, than current professors. 


Where it differs, sometimes dramatically, is in what Parker Palmer calls “a living and evolving community of creativity and compassion.” He goes on to say, “Education of this sort means more than teaching the facts and learning the reasons so we can manipulate life toward our ends. It means being drawn into personal responsiveness and accountability to each other and the world of which we are a part (To Know as  We Are Known).” 


That kind of community, one that draws in students, faculty, staff, and administration, takes time and nurture and care. It develops when the community weathers financial crises together, when difficult decisions about people, programs, and purposes must be made. It can only develop when there is trust and trustworthiness. And if it is formed in the crucible of hard times, it survives because “truth is not a concept that ‘works’ but an incarnation that lives. The ‘Word’ our knowledge seeks is not a verbal construct but a reality in history and the flesh (Palmer, 14).” 


A community like that will not lack talent and expertise in its teachers. They are guided every day by the overwhelming desire to see their students become ‘thinkers and not mere reflectors of other men’s thoughts.’ 


But a community like that is built up over time. It is not the result of data sets, market relevancy, or alignment with fleeting strategies. It comes about when people sacrifice for the purpose, gladly and well, because they know they are in this together. 


If, as a leader, you should find yourself fortunate enough to belong to such a community, walk modestly and listen well. It can all be torn away in a day. 

An Education in Transcendence

“An education in transcendence prepares us to see beyond appearances into the hidden realities of life—beyond facts into truth, beyond self-interest into compassion, beyond our flagging energies and nagging despairs into the love required to renew the community of creation.” — Parker Palmer, To Know As We Are Known


That we are alone in this world is a fact which is confirmed by movies, reality shows, advertising, and economic self-help theories. That this is, in fact, false is something we must learn. 


I don’t mean alone in merely a physical or social sense. I once had a colleague, a recent arrival from China, who went to a public gathering on the 4th of July in Baltimore and felt a sense of panic because she was in a crowd numbering only a few thousand. It’s all in what you’re used to apparently. 


This kind of aloneness is not that of the weary commuter on the train gazing without seeing as the stations blur past. Not even Philip Seymour Hoffman, dying on the floor of his bathroom, a needle stuck in his arm, was alone in the way we are told is the norm.   


This kind of aloneness is deeply American, although other cultures are sensing its allure. It’s a strand of ideological DNA which causes moral palsy in some: the hand outstretched to help twitches, the cup of cold water crashes to the floor.


We are taught to be unique at an early age. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an essay entitled “Self-Reliance,” drummed the message in with eloquence and fervor: “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” And, “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And again: “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”


There is something thrilling in these lines, and in many others that Emerson writes. He hated the mob, the unthinking crowd so easily swayed by demagogues and charlatans. He wanted people to think for themselves, to see themselves as individuals. 


What the nation needed in 1841, he thought, was a sense of the present, not the past. Europe was the past: for all its intellectual glories it could not be the template for America. The country needed to build itself from the ground up and the way to do it was to boldly go where no nation had gone before. A nation of individuals, each one pursuing his or her course with a sturdy vigor, was the ideal. 


But somewhere along the way that centrifugal honesty snapped its line and arced away. What we see now is not Emerson’s neighborly self-reliance, but what Parker Palmer calls an endless power struggle between the self and the world. Each self is convinced it is in a battle for survival, with dominance over the world the only possible goal. 


Palmer has been a teacher for decades, a Quaker by choice, and a thoughtful critic of an educational system that trains people for arrogance rather than service. 


He suggests that our hunger for knowledge arises from two sources: curiosity and control. Curiosity for its own sake is amoral, a need to know that shrugs off any restraint. Control “is simply another word for power.” Together, curiosity and control can generate knowledge that leads us toward death, not life. 


But there is another kind of knowledge that contains just as many facts and theories as the knowledge we now possess, but that springs from something other than mere curiosity and control. “A knowledge born of compassion aims not at exploiting and manipulating creation but at reconciling the world to itself (To Know as We Are Known 8).”


This is not a sentimental warm fuzzy kind of love, he notes, but a tough love—“the connective tissue of reality”—and we find it most often in community. 


Palmer talks about “community” a great deal, a word that splays out in so many directions these days that it’s hard to grasp what it means. I can sense that it’s a good thing, though, and as spiritual qualities go, it tops any wish list I could draw up. I’m just not sure how it comes about.


Palmer ties it to transcendence, a word often misunderstood. We need to think of transcendence as not being drawn up and out of life to an eternal realm, but as a sideways impulse, a breaking in of the Spirit which breathes hope and trust into us. That’s the kind of transcendence which happens in community, a practical notion of love with its feet on the ground and its heart aflame with Jesus incarnate—God among us.


I get a much clearer sense of what ‘community’ can mean when Palmer speaks of a “discipline of mutual encouragement and mutual testing, keeping me both hopeful and honest about the love that seeks me, the love I seek to be (To Know as We Are Known 18).”


At Sligo I have found community in the study group I belong to, Believers and Doubters. For years we have prayed together, argued together, studied the Bible and books about it together, laughed and suffered together, and suffered the loss of members together. I would not trade it for anything. It has been an “education in transcendence.”