A Multiplicity of Voices: My Reflection on Rice’s De Lange Conference

It has been just over two weeks since we wrapped up the De Lange Conference at Rice University, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the questions raised by the event.  The planning committee, of which I was a part, knew that we wanted to tackle some major issues relating to “Teaching in the University of Tomorrow,” and I think we succeeded in doing so.  If nothing else, we turned over a few stones in order to start important conversations, although this inevitably meant that we also left other substantial issues underexplored.

I’m very proud of the event and all of the work my colleagues did to put it together.  The program for the conference combined keynotes by well-known figures in the world of higher education such as William Bowen, Ruth Simmons, Nancy Cantor, Roddy Roediger, and Stephen Kosslyn (among others) together with break-out sessions on pedagogy featuring folks like Derek Bruff, James Lang, Jose Bowen, as well as some of our finest faculty at Rice.  Moderators for the event were Jeff Selingo, Caroline Levander, and George Rupp.

The conference was strengthened by the inclusion of five social media fellows–Kelly Baker, Jason Jones, Dorothy Kim, Ben Railton, and Liana Silva–who worked hard to create a robust conference backchannel on Twitter at #delange9.  They were joined by others who were either attending the conference or who were following the hashtag from afar, including Jennifer Ebbeler.  The discussions on Twitter were boisterous and incisive, skeptical but persuasive. (Full disclosure: I not only personally invited the social media fellows but was an active participant in the backchannel as well.)  Many of Team Twitter, as I like to affectionately think of them, have already written about the event.  Ben, for example, has a wonderful series of blog posts; Kelly wrote a thoughtful critique for Vitae; and Jason wrote two nice pieces for ProfHacker, one of which dealt specifically with the conference’s use of Twitter.  There have even been two articles written by people who weren’t in attendance at the event but were following online–one by Elliot King and the other by Jonathan Rees.

With all of this commentary already available, I won’t belabor the details.  What I’d like to focus on is a holistic assessment of the conference.  Much has been said about the ways in which the tone of the keynotes was very different from the breakouts and from the backchannel.  I think this is fair, and–in many ways–was intentional.  Although there were common threads recurring throughout the event, it would be difficult to see the conference as having a unified vision for the future of higher education, because such a thing is not yet possible to achieve given our different institutional contexts, politics, etc.  Attendees and speakers were sometimes diametrically opposed in their philosophies regarding the purpose of universities.  There was no better example of this than the final panel where audience members put pressure on speakers to address the issue of contingent faculty.

Here is my main takeaway:  this kind of disagreement is not only okay, but it is vital.  This is the nature of academic debate.  Some of the commentary on and offline expressed either a kind of surprise that such a gulf in perspectives would exist or an outrage directed at one side or the other of the debate about teaching and learning.  I’m glad the conference evoked this response, because we wanted the event to mean something. How boring and unproductive it would have been if everyone at De Lange had said and thought the same thing as if we were in some sort of echo chamber.  Ultimately, we can only really build a future for higher education if we acknowledge many different perspectives, put them on the table for honest dialogue, and work together.  The conference brought together people–speakers, workshop facilitators, writers, commentators, and (most importantly) teachers–who I think can take important steps in this direction.

It is perhaps most valuable, then, to view the De Lange Conference as the sum of its parts, and I said as much on Twitter, as Jason notes in his ProfHacker post.  I think the legacy of the conference will be that we asked the tough questions via a multiplicity of voices and through a variety of media.  We didn’t arrive at any answers yet, but there will be time for that…