Fall 2012 Convocation Speech

"A Parable of Porches"
Margaret Purser
Chair of the Faculty

Fall 2012 Speakers
August 20, 2012

Ruben Armiñana

Andrew Rogerson
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

Margaret Purser
Chair of the Faculty

Karen Paniagua
Associated Students President

Marybeth Hull
Staff Representative to the Academic Senate

Ben Ford

Good morning, everyone. It's wonderful to see you all here. So, here we are. As I mentioned earlier, I talked some friends into helping us all play a little music together, to start of this year. Now, I am absolutely NOT a musical person myself, but I come from a family of long-time singers, pickers, players and songwriters. I also grew up in a part of the world where impromptu jam sessions, especially on front porches on summer evenings, were a regular part of life. Front porch music was a key component of a much larger cultural institution, a conversational, experimental moment that happened over and over across many evenings of my childhood. Innately situational, what songs you played depended on who showed up, what instruments they brought with them in the truck, and what everybody felt like hearing at that particular time. The tunes themselves punctuated a wider stream of story-telling, gossip, and general information exchange that all fit under the broadly expansive category of activity known as "visiting".

We need to be clear, here: front porches are not like these things y'all have out here called "decks", that tend to be around back, right? Inside the "privacy fence". Front porches are fearlessly open to the world, at least to all appearances. They are in fact the classic "liminal space", positioned very carefully and very intentionally between inside the house, and outside. Between the private world of the family, and the public world of the passing street. Inclusive as they are, there are of course rules. If you are a complete stranger, it's probably polite to wait out in the street till you're invited in. But once on the porch, there is at least a tacit acceptance, and this only improves if you happen to have brought an instrument of some sort, or a fresh, juicy bit of news.

The fundamental secret about front porches, though, is all the hard work that is really going on there, underneath that picturesque strumming, humming, and conversation. The folklorist Henry Glassie has said that people in traditional societies use these small moments of community music-making, story-telling, and collective chat to actively negotiate change. The whole performative ritual is really this cleverly designed social translation device that allows people to take apart some new, unfamiliar outside encounter, unsettling event, or incomprehensible experience into component parts that are more familiar and accessible. On the one hand, each collective performance restates what's already known and familiar in the shared world of the people on the porch – the words of an old song, the sequence of an old story. On the other, each performance also allows for that one innovative, transformative moment when the old tune is altered by a new riff or harmony, or some particular element in the old tale is given new emphasis, or some set of tales and tunes are strung together in a new order, and so end up telling a whole new story. And in the process, change is brought home, it's made familiar; it is owned. The world is made to make sense again, at least long enough to keep until the next front porch session, the next creative reassembly of story and song and conversation.

Over the course of time, these repeated, opportunistic, improvisational conversations do not always create perfect harmony and complete community consensus. They do not override the surrounding economic inequalities, class hierarchies, or racial prejudices of the broader society. Reality was and is a good bit farther down the road from Mayberry than that. But what they do build is familiarity, and the kind of basic trust that comes from that shared mundane experience.

I'm hoping that by this point, this should sound at least a little familiar to you. This process is what in the academic world we often call 'analysis'. Or 'discourse'. Or 'problem-solving'.

Or "art".

Or at least, it looks like the way we have begun to think of those activities, here at SSU, over the past decade or so. Today I want to propose that this front-porch improv approach is exactly what we do here at Sonoma State. It echoes the language that we tend to use to describe what we do. We like it, we're pretty good at it, and in my 20+ years of working here, in good times but especially in bad ones, we fairly consistently assert to anyone who will listen that we need to do more of it.

In the teeth of ever-increasing workloads, collapsing resources, and an often paralyzingly dysfunctional work environment, we clamor to teach team-taught interdisciplinary courses. To create rich community partnerships and service learning opportunities for our students. We design co-curricular programs that mandate that different university and community groups come together here, and connect with each other, and us with them. We have no time and even fewer resources, and yet we will pull together a work group or advisory board or task force or ad hoc committee at the drop of a hat if we think there is something that needs doing. And if there is any campus group who could be schooling all of us in collaborative improvisation, it would have to be the SSU staff, across all divisions, who are holding this place together with baling wire and chewing gum. And maybe a judicious use of mirrors, I dunno. And all the while, all over campus, across all kinds of work categories, we insist on finding ways to hang out together. In bands and choral groups and drama groups. In writing groups (Bless you, Kathy Charmaz, you are the ONLY reason I have a publication record!). I even hear tell of this Friday afternoon pickup basketball game that is the real seat of power on campus…

The problem is that just like the romantic recasting of summer porchtimes as the innocuous dallying of colorful but ultimately marginalized local yokels, in our world this instinctive coming together to make things happen sometimes gets dismissed rather simplistically as just our collective institutional nostalgia. As a backward-looking yearning for the 'good old days' of a smaller campus, a more face-to-face community, a simpler time. And even more damningly, as a relic of an antiquated notion of "ivory tower" academia. Inefficient, disordered, lacking 'efficiency' or order because it lacks most of all a fixed, ranked hierarchy of people and positions and procedures.

But that's a false note. We are not looking backward. We're being carried forward on a wave of this kind of thinking and doing. The reality is, in our classrooms, in our professional fields, and in our world as a whole, this kind of integrative, collaborative, engaged, flexible, problem-oriented work is the new "normal". This isn't some romantic past, it's the cutting-edge present and a critical hope for a dynamic, empowered future. Not just for us, or our students, or public universities, but for our society as a whole. Functioning this way, and functioning well at it, is exactly what we find ourselves wanting to teach our students. And as relevant, engaged, in-the-real-world educational experiences, it's exactly what our students are clamoring to have us provide.

The good news is, we are by no means alone in recognizing this trend towards other modalities of both organization and action. But instead of defining this approach as a retrograde, messy, disorganized lack of hierarchy, researchers from neurology to systems theory to artificial intelligence to communications to anthropology to business management have begun (again) to use a different word altogether. They call it heterarchy. It's an old term, really. It was first coined in 1945 by neurologist Warren McCulloch , who was trying to describe the alternative cognitive patterning he was seeing in the way that the human brain functioned. While there was a clear order involved, it was not one that could be described as particularly hierarchical.

As you can imagine, with that disciplinary breadth of application, getting a single, concrete definition of the term can be tricky (even on Wikipedia). I'm using mostly the work of researchers looking at social applications of the term, rather than biological, ecological or informational. Many of those researchers tend to define by example. Archaeologist Carole Crumley says that "there is nothing intrinsically hierarchical about an oak tree or a symphony, yet each has undeniable structure and constitutes an orderly representation of the relations among elements". Crumley is not alone in pointing out that democracy as a system is a prime example of a power heterarchy.

People working with organizational systems, especially bureaucracies, tend to emphasize the networking aspects of heterarchies, and the connection to information flow in particular. Karen Stephenson, a Harvard Business Management professor calls it "organic organizational sprawl. This mega-state of networked or connected hierarchies is known as heterarchy." (Stephenson 2009: 4) Whichever disciplinary direction they're coming from, most of these definitions focus on three key aspects of these systems. Number one, they're complex: there are multiple, often overlapping layers, and multiple different linkages between offices or positions or organizations or levels. Number two, they're dynamic: in particular, they are often unranked, or the relative ranking of who's in charge at any given moment can shift, depending on the task at hand. They also come together and break apart relatively easily once a given task is completed. And just as easily reconvene, to meet a new task. Finally, these clusters of connection and interaction and information exchange are commonly organized around a particular project, interest, task, or activity.

Now, make no mistake, this is no utopian, egalitarian, 'join-hands-and-sing-kumbaya' opposite of hierarchy. It does not mean the absence of hierarchy, and in fact heterarchy often emerges most clearly in the presence of strongly hierarchical power structures. What this concept does do is reject the notion that rigid, ever-increasing hierarchy is the only way to define order. Or "efficiency". Or "progress". It defines instead a completely different mode of both order and power.

And this is where our particular institutional yen for this kind of interaction and connection gets really interesting. Because it turns out that heterarchical structures tend to be much better than exclusively hierarchical ones at two key things that are critically important to all of us in our current institutional circumstances. They can radically improve information flow. And not coincidentally, they can increase the flexibility of any given system, particularly when that system is reacting to and adapting to rapid rates of change in its surrounding environment. In fact, it's been suggested that more rigidly hierarchical social systems that become too obsessively concerned with fixing their ranked order in place run the risk of collapse, particularly in the face of any kind of environmental or economic change. Or as Carole Crumley observed about European Iron Age chiefdoms she was studying, it was often the way that an ancient society's elites began to pour increasing amounts of their society's resources into fixing the social ranking in a particular order that triggered a catastrophic "loss of adaptive fitness". In anthro-speak, they collapsed. This is an observation that certainly puts the hemorrhagic corporate spending in this particular election year in a somewhat intriguing light.

And that is not as much of a flippant, off-hand remark as it sounds. It brings me to one of my key points in all this. To stand and bear witness to the fact that there is another way to act, to create, and to produce in this world besides extreme, fixed hierarchy is, in our current social and political moment, an act of moral courage. That there may be more than one way of doing business, including some that aren't actually, you know, "business": that's a dangerous statement in some quarters. It is a stance that can earn you not just scorn, but sanction. You can find your voting rights circumscribed. You can get fired. It can land you two years in a Russian prison.

This is particularly apparent in the battle over the future of public higher education, in California and in the United States as a whole. And nowhere is this more salient for us than in the increasingly critical public identity crisis of the CSU. We have all heard the old saws: I mean, what does it mean when we are told that we "just" teach? We haven't been "just" that for decades. But increasingly, the political language used by supporters and adversaries alike is that somehow our students should be given less of an education, just because they are being educated here, by us. And after all, what else, exactly, do we "produce" besides mass-produced degrees?

Well, as a matter of fact, here in the CSU, we actually DO produce something else. We just use a somewhat different production model than the one used to describe us, 50 years ago. In much the same way that one "makes" music, we "make" experience. We "make" understanding. We "make" engagement. We "make" inquiry, and reflection, and dialogue, and discovery. We "make" knowledge. And from these things that we make, every day, moment to moment, in our classrooms, around our campus, all of us together, students, faculty, staff and administrators, we "make" the future, for ourselves, for our institution, for our communities, and for our society. We do it because that's our job. We are a university. And it's also our joy. It is OUR "music".

So we are really, really good at this heterarchical kind of collaborative productivity. Or at least, we would like to be. It is how we define ourselves, and what we're striving for. But there is an important catch. It turns out, there is one key element to creating successful, flexible, and sustainable heterarchies in social systems, especially bureaucracies. That element is called trust. A substance trickier to pin down than Higgs boson, and like light, often defined most clearly by its absence. Tolerating the risk inherent in any improvisation requires not blind trust, but intelligent trust, the kind that is built through repeated experience. And that's where it can come in handy to have a few half-decent institutional front porches around. To build that kind of trust.

But we have a problem, in that regard. It is one thing to lose trust, as an individual. I will be the first to acknowledge that over my years at SSU, I have often lost trust here. In people, in processes, and in the larger institution of the CSU as a whole. What is more profound, and more dangerous to our university as a community, and as a public institution, is the way in which we have also lost so much of our ability to build trust. We have abandoned, neglected, torn down, and in some cases very nearly forgotten how to build our front porches altogether.

So, this is my other main point in this parable of porches: we need more of them. A lot more. That's right, you heard it here first, folks: I am advocating a building boom. Luckily, it doesn't have to be on quite so grand a scale as this one. In fact, last year, faculty chair Ben Ford built us an excellent new front porch, by creating the institution of those lunchtime conversations. We're going to continue those this year, and open them up to include a broader spectrum of campus. If you've walked through the main quad lately, you've noticed that work has begun on another new front porch: the "Mario Savio Speaker's Corner" is taking shape.

So yes, we need more of these kinds of institutional front porches. And once they're built, we need to go hang out on them. And make a little of our kind of music together. Talk to each other. Talk to people from another department. Another school. Another division. Swap stories, and ideas, and arguments. Solve some problems. Create something new. And build some trust.

Because we are going to need it. We are heading into a year guaranteed to challenge very nearly everything about who we think we are, as an institution, what our job is, and what we need to do to get that job done. Make no mistake about it: Sonoma State University is going to change, and probably change quite radically, certainly over the professional careers of our most recently hired colleagues. We will change in no small part because the CSU will change. Because American public higher education will change. And we will have the change that is defined for us, or we will change ourselves. We have to own the change. We have to.

So let's practice a little of that front-porch heterarchy that we are so innately good at. Let's make a little of our collective music. Let's build some intelligent trust amongst ourselves. And let's use it to turn Sonoma State itself into a front porch of a kind, not just for ourselves, but for our broader community and our society.

Thank you, and I'll see you on the porch.