Highlights from Open Book IX: recent literature in student affairs

This year marked the ninth edition of the Open Book panel at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) and, IMHO, it was one of our best. Three ingredients seem to make for a good learning experience for both panelists and audience alike: 1. A diverse range of books that stretches our perspectives, rather than merely reinforces what we already believe we know; 2. Serendipitous connections between the books and ideas they represent and 3. Audience participation. We had a little of each at Open Book IX.

Our panel included five thoughtful practitioners from across the country — Sarah Graham from Thompson Rivers University, Heather Fitzgerald from St. Jerome’s University at the University of Waterloo, Nona Robinson now of Trent University, Tim Rahilly of Simon Fraser University and myself. We choose our books pretty much independently – sometimes we stick to traditional student affairs territory or tried and true scholars in our field, and sometimes we venture into the literature of higher education generally, business, technology, generational theory or other “big ideas” that influence our work.

This year, rather than produce the coveted paper reading list (which people always asked for in advance and then skipped the session — really missing the point, frankly) we put up an Amazon list, available here. We didn’t get through all the books but we each got to share our thoughts on at least one.

front cover: the Innovative UniversityMy choice was The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, by Clayton Christensen and Henry J. Eyring. Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, is well known as the father of the theory of disruptive innovation – an innovation that breaks the “bigger and better” cycle by bringing to market a product or service that may not be as good as the traditional product but is more affordable or easier to use. Think floppy drive vs USB, for example, or chemical vs digital photography.

Just as Christensen’s earlier work, Disrupting Class, applied his theory to K-12 education, The Innovative University applies it to higher education. The method used is essentially case study – a compare and contrast analysis of two universities. The first: Harvard – source of the essential genetic code for most universities – and the other: rural, Mormon Brigham Young University-Idaho, an experiment with the potential to seriously disrupt higher education as we know it. This is where co-author Henry Eyring comes in: he’s an administrator at BYU-Idaho fascinated with the opportunity to break the mold with this emerging institution.

You might find the history of Harvard and the recent reinvention of BYU-Idaho too remote to be of interest to a Canadian student affairs practitioner. But I found the sections on Harvard to be particularly compelling; the degree of influence that single institution has had on our understanding of the what a university is and does is astounding. Everything from departmentalization to the traditional summer recess can be traced backed to Harvard’s evolution and is now embedded in university DNA. BYU-Idaho, on the other hand, is rewriting the genetic code, at the forefront of what is emerging as a movement towards “no frills” education. Rather than take the “bigger and better” route – without regard to the impact on price – BYU-Idaho is creating a new market by opening up its doors to those who can’t afford and have little interest in frills like intercollegiate athletics, but want to take courses whenever and wherever they’re able to.

You can already feel the influence of some of these disruptive innovations BYU-Idaho and others are experimenting with. Here in Ontario, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities recently floated the idea of year-round undergraduate education, three-year degrees and online education to enhance productivity. BC’s Quest University is possibly the country’s best example of disruption in higher education. It’s not offering education at a discount, but it has dramatically altered the DNA by offering the one-class-at-a-time format, now being talked about elsewhere.cover contested issues

My fellow panelists balanced out this futuristic look at where higher education is headed with some more pragmatic offerings: like Nona’s pick Reframing Campus Conflict, a bit more of a how-to for those interested in bringing alternative methods of conflict resolution into your student conduct practices, or Heather’s focus on One Size Does Not Fit All — a nifty and handy little analysis of different approaches to and organization of student affairs work, by the folks behind the DEEP Study of high-achieving institutions. Tim introduced us to the latest work from Marcia Baxter Magolda and Peter Magolda called Contested Issues in Student Affairs — a deeper look at the more difficult aspects of student affairs practice that poses challenging questions like: “If student affairs-academic affairs collaborations are such a good idea, why are there so few examples in practice?” Canadian content made its way into the panel once again this year with Heather’s review of SEM in Canada and Sarah’s review of Who Stays, Who Goes, What Matters? a data-rich analysis of access and persistence in higher education in Canada.

So there you go – another year’s worth of reading and insight. As always, new panelists are welcome as are written reviews, which can be posted here and submitted to Communiqué.

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