The Power of Design Thinking

By: Edward Dunar
Incubator Participant
Graduate Teaching Fellow and Doctoral Student

The past several weeks have been a blur. When Fordham announced its switch to online learning in response to the COVID-19 crisis, I had a plan ready, but implementing it in my (now virtual) classroom has offered an ongoing series of reminders that there is still much that I need to learn. Throughout, I’ve been impressed by the flexibility, nimbleness, and creativity of my students and colleagues. We’re all making lots of mistakes, but we’re rising to the occasion.

As we work as quickly as we can to adjust, many of us feel the weight of systems ripe for reform. The disruption in the middle of the semester and the subsequent decision of many universities to switch to alternative modes of grading raises questions about the effectiveness and equity of our methods of evaluation in “normal times.” In navigating how to send students back home as safely as possible, we encounter the challenges faced by students who don’t have a place to go. As we switch to online instruction, we notice the often-reductive assumptions and philosophies of learning baked into many of the platforms and technologies to which we now must turn.

As I try to hold together short-term urgency with long-term hope, I’ve found inspiration in the design thinking that we employ in our Reimagining Higher Education Incubator. The beauty of this approach to me is that the emphasis is on ongoing perception, experimentation, and adjustment rather than controlling all aspects of how our work will unfold. Design thinking shifts us away from asking, “How can I make sure everything goes according to plan?”, and instead leads us to focus on the needs of the people and communities to which we are responsible, look for opportunities for adjustment, and build on what works. It serves as a middle ground between acting reactively and feeling bound to overly-specific plans. It calls for an ethic of observation, adaptation, and accountability in our practice of the craft of teaching.

I find this approach clarifying and freeing as I move forward in my own work in the face of new demands. Our main responsibility now is the safety of our communities. We adjust as needed according to our values in response to new circumstances. Some of the experiments we try now might scale up after the crisis is over. Some of our experiences now might give us insight into persisting problems that need long-term solutions. Other experiments won’t work or will turn out to be temporary measures only. We will learn from triumphs and missteps alike. The key will be to center ourselves in practices of attentiveness and iteration that will keep us committed to what is most important—the well-being and growth of our students.

Emergent Strategy and the Incubator Process

By: Gregory Jost
Incubator Participant
Adjunct Professor, Sociology

In much of my work, both in the neighborhoods of the Bronx and in the classroom with my students, I strive to be a facilitator of connection, critical thinking, shared learning, and participatory design. I consider context, built through an understanding of historic arcs that have shaped the world our ancestors and we inhabit, critical to the process, on equal footing with who is in the room to engage in the conversations at hand.

I was attracted to the Reimagining Higher Education Incubator first because the invitation came from two of my two colleagues from Fordham’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, giving me assurance of the larger context in which we operate. They also asked that we come in without agendas or specific goals, and be open to an intentional process of relatedness and creation. The organizers invited faculty, administrators, students and community partners to be part of the teams, so I knew we would have a great mix of people in the room. Finally, as an adjunct professor and freelancing part-time single dad, it was also critical that they were offering us financial compensation for our time and energy.

As we moved from a phase of identifying big “wicked” problems down to the small, tangible yet meaningful ways we could take these on from our perches in and out of the University, I came across a passage from Adrienne Maree Brown that spoke to the moment we found ourselves. At the close of the previous session, one of our crew shared how she was feeling frustrated and upset about how things were leaving off, moving too fast, and perhaps feeling rushed. To begin our next session, I shared an excerpt from Brown’s Emergent Strategy that I felt would acknowledge the difficulty of our task, and ground us to move forward in our newly formed small groups.

Inspired by Octavia Butler’s writings, especially her explorations of change, adaptation, iteration and intention in the Earthseed communities in Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, Brown focuses on the concept of biomimicry to guide our thinking and actions in movement work. By looking to ancient inhabitants of our planet, such as mycelium, ants, ferns, wavicles, starlings and dandelions, we see how what happens at the very small scale allows for us to take on massive problems. Mycelium, for example, is the part of the fungus that grows underground that breaks down plant matter and toxins. As the largest organism on Earth and fully out of our sights, it shows the hidden power of interconnection and detoxification. Biomimicry in this case is about looking to nature and ecosystems like mycelium for inspiration to tackle huge design challenges. How might initiatives that foster underlying connectivity and detoxification grow larger than our wildest imaginations?

My group is looking at the value of a liberal arts education given the changing 21st century workplace, while others are looking at issues such as educational equity and climate change. The process of emergent strategy frees us up to tackle the huge issues of our time in ways that start small and connect to one another. We recognize who we are, our inheritance on this planet we share, and build together, embodying the change we wish to see.

Here is a short excerpt from Emergent Strategy (pages 41-42):  
Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small).
Change is constant. (Be like water).
There is always enough time for the right work.
There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
Never a failure, always a lesson.
Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.)
Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass—build the resilience by building the relationships.
Less prep, more presence.
What you pay attention to grows.

Tradition, Progress, and Passion

By: David Swinarski, Ph.D.
Associate Dean, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

I joined the Fordham faculty nine years ago, and I am continually reminded of how fortunate I am to be a part of this team of passionate educators.

There is a cliché that professors only care about their research and do not care about their teaching. That cliché is definitely not true at Fordham. Here, I work alongside colleagues who genuinely care about their students. I am proud of the amazing work they do, and it energizes me to give my all, too.

Tradition plays a large role in both the guiding philosophy of universities and our day-to-day operations. It would be easy to view an initiative like Reimagining Higher Education as a threat to tradition. But I think it’s helpful if we can avoid dwelling on the conflict between tradition and progress. When you care about students as much as we do, it is natural to want them to get the best education possible, and therefore to continually ask what is working, and what is not. On the one hand, who is flourishing at our university as we currently operate, and what traditions support their success and should be cherished? While on the other hand, who is struggling, whom have we excluded altogether, and in what ways do our traditions create unintentional barriers to our students’ success? 

I believe that we have something amazingly valuable to offer students. I would not be a faculty member if I did not feel this way. Yet, I also want that gift to be available to all, and the crisis of affordability and the persistent issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education challenge me to question many assumptions that I previously took for granted. I find comfort in an odd way in Cathy Davidson’s book, The New Education, which convincingly argues that many of the problems U.S. contemporary universities face, arise because our universities were designed with other issues in mind. This gives me hope that when we bring all of these issues into view, we can redesign our practices in a way that both continues the very best of what we have to offer, while addressing these very real needs.