Thursday, June 29, 2017

Collegiality: The coming wave for work and learning

Photo: Siansa National Concert Hall Dublin

“What do you call a co-worker these days? Neither teammate nor confederate will do, and partner is too legalistic. The answer brought from academia to the political world by Henry Kissinger and now bandied in the boardroom is colleague. It has a nice upper-egalitarian feel, related to the good fellowship of collegial.”

 A new exploration in the world of work and worklife is emerging: the discipline and skill set of colleagueship.  Starting at the university level, Michael Fischer wrote an impassioned piece in Inside Higher Education (April 30, 2009) on why colleagueship is important--in fact essential--to the rewards of teaching and research.  In his article, ”Defending Collegiality,”  Fischer explains the value and essence of the collegial life, noting that this is in many respects what makes college teaching careers so worthwhile.  Especially in academe, educators enjoy a “remarkable autonomy,” as distinguished from other kinds of work where people are considered employees rather than professionals.  But the social backdrop for this autonomy, rather than the boss-peer dyad, is the flatter dynamic of peer-to-peer empowerment.

Even deans and department heads, the boss level in higher education, are considered colleagues first and bosses second.  In his book The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t (2007), Robert I. Sutton details the extensive morale damage that can be done when power-personality-driven faculty or executive staff decide to treat colleagues like despised hirelings rather than respected fellow professionals. 

This innovative focus on the relations among professionals has been insightful in looking critically as a cultural analyst at a couple of leading professional schools: one in the arts and one in music.  The mandate was to design in-service seminars to teach the basics of what is being called Cultural Competence.  CultComp has become a requirement across colleges and universities intended to reflect and magnify their diversity profile, leaning toward students.  Such training serves to raise awareness and appreciation in order to improve communications to bridge language, value, belies, and ethnic differences. 

At both highly selective institutions, rather than researching their student identity brand at the Student Life level (the customary approach), my team determined that their selective student body was like the theory that informs Marine Corps recruiting: that recruits are born with the special aptitudes that make a Marine and then they find the Corps.  In the same way, students at highly selective institutions are born rather than made, deliberately rare and different from the ordinary in dedication to their m├ętiers.  These academies, like the Marines, are looking for a few, not the many, very good students.

Also like the Marine Corps, specialized institutions are turning out graduates who will work in the same field, as friends, colleagues, and competitors – often over an entire career – and it is collegiality that makes that possible. As basic training, Cultural Competence makes crossing all sorts of borders the bridging tool.   

So rather than design Cultural Competence courses at the expected level of undergrad through senior, I recommended developing the “expert student” concept on a higher track – that of professional development.  Even at the entry level, these elite trainees are already performing at the expert level, expecting to continue along the fast track into their graduate and post-graduate careers.  From there to take their places in the front ranks of the arts, both visual and performance-based. 

The needed cultural learning bridge isn’t student life skills (study, time management, club activity, athletics) but the startup toolkit of a working professional, including agency (self-management), career management, competition strategy, teamwork, and long-term tactics for understanding the needs of colleagues and mentors alike.   Asking and answering lifelong questions along the career path within the studio or classroom takes the broader vision of student life as a career already well-launched. 

Photo: CalArts: U.S. News and World Report
Such questions that inquiry and training can address early on include career-building, networking, work/life balance, the ethics of competitive performance, publication, and service.  The emergent meaning is in discovering how to be and behave as a worthy colleague (including reputation-building, maintenance, and repair).  These concerns begin at the graduate level and project decades into the future of any professional career.  A Higher Education Research Institute study at UCLA in 2004-05 ranked “being a good colleague” as “very important or essential” at 91.6%, versus 80% fifteen years earlier.  

Collegial life is increasingly militated against by scarcer public resources, the alienation of faculty from their schools and each other by the pressures of squeezed budgets and time-scarce schedules, a buyer’s job market, increasingly fragmented adjunct and part-time “piecework,” and amidst growing pressure to publish and perform, increasing introversion and disengagement—all tending to community disintegration.  And there is increasing need to create engagement and networking designed for independent scholars and freelance professionals, including still-active retirees, who labor in isolation or project by project or course by course. 

Overall, the skills of colleagueship can be ranked as basic social skills, which are not taught explicitly but picked up and practiced as group norms or far more rarely, by leadership example.  In collapsing-hive cultures, however, where norms have gradually sunk to abysmal, collegial relations can deteriorate so severely that the only solution is a complete escape and a fresh start in a better-kept hive.  But community disintegration is definitely one of the least-desired concomitant outcomes of the breakdown of social mores among professionals in any field.   Negative interactions, at the micro level, exert five times the effect on mood and morale than positive ones, a finding often cited to show the high importance of supportive environments of compassion over those of distrust and intimidation. 

To address these pressures, colleagueship is poised to become the mainstay skill of any successful career as well as school or department.  It is not graded per se as a skill area for promotion and tenure (as are research (creative activity), teaching, and service.  Yet the human relations demands of the professions, from the arts to music to medicine and the law, are based on their increasingly collaborative nature, within and across disciplines—especially in closely concerted enterprises such as studios, stage, R&D labs, and orchestras.   In these sophisticated venues,  understanding how to approach, analyze, and resolve the inherent conflicts of highly competent people working within the paradox of closely competitive as well as cooperative conditions—including issues of gender, religion, politics, class, ethnicity, nationality, personality, opportunity, and styles—is all activity seasoned professionals do intuitively.  That skill is why they are seasoned and therefore successful.  Sensing and solving for conflicts and avoiding confrontation is just a part of “expert system” thinking by pro collaborators, which operates consistently and without overdue conscious deliberation. 

Making that expert system visible and conscious by analytical exploration and explanation can reveal the principles of diversity, self-awareness, and negotiation involved.  What is called for are ways to codify what expert colleagues do naturally as part of a process of knowledge transfer for the upcoming generation (and Millennials reputedly do this, so far, poorly).  Treating collegiality as a skillset, as an art and a practice essential to the profession itself, can open out to understanding how differences operate to support and further creative effort and environments.   




Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Omni-arts and Imagineering

CalArts: the first degree-granting institution in the country specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts.
 Photo: California Institute of the Arts

“I love Walt Disney’s original concept of creating a school in which the arts could intermingle with each other. “
–Rick Haskins, CalArts Board member

Last month I toured California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA, and began to reflect on its meaning.   

The school came into being out of budget hardship in 1961, with the merger of the Chouinard Art Institute and the historic Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, when both had financial troubles. One of the benefactors of Chouinard was Walt Disney, who had been training and finding his artists there since 1929.  His vision culminated in the merger of the two institutions to create the first degree-granting institution in the country specifically for students of both the visual and performing arts.

CalArts was imagined by Disney at the end of his lifetime in the mid-1960s as a tribute to the many arts that supported his studio empire-enterprise.  Now nearing its half-century anniversary, CalArts has already graduated major talent in music, graphics, film, and theater, besides its best-known suit, animation.  It is also a hub for advancing the global reach of avant-garde communities across Latin America, Europe, and the Pacific Rim.  As one example, CultureHub is an international streaming incubator linking artists and audiences to promote collaboration across continents., with studios at CalArts, SeoulArts, La MaMa NYC, and Manchester UK.  

The school’s deliberate one-building design, mandated by Walt, provides a single-planet creative space for a unified arts experience.  Part of the arts interplay is learning one’s way around the tunnels without signage—much like the infrastructure at Disney World park.  The CalArts mission for the arts is interactive, integrative, and international.  The curriculum reflects the broad as well as intricate knowledge base of the original Disney Imagineering team who were tasked to think like storytellers and filmmakers as they executed on architecture, city planning, wayfinding, exhibitry, and ride design.  By this method of imagination plus engineering (Imagineering), they pioneered the gold standard of themeatics as “venu-ology,” the creation of meaning out of space. 

Imagineers were constantly asking questions about the ideal forms to match up to the demands of the exhibit, ride, landscape, parade, or pavilion on the drawing board:  how would any given artform or effect, drawn from the treasury of cultural history worldwide, fit into and advance the story and theme?  It is the ongoing question of every filmmaker everywhere.  Disney’s talent was to apply that question in three dimensions on the ground. 

To respond, the Imagineering studio had to know how the guest—the theme-park arts audience—thought and felt about an array of themes and stories, and the potential of each art form to bring it to life as a design suite.  Leading portfolios of their solutions can be experienced as Main Street, USA (Hometown, childhood), Adventureland (exotic places and people), and Tomorrowland (the imagined future as it blends back into present-day technology).   These theme cores actually form the heart of the Disney parks and re-create the core values of the American experience in symbolic form, choreographed to be experienced in small (mainly family) groups.

Such in-depth insight called for a solid grasp of culture as it exists in the collective imagination—the way people perceive and value the world as a shared mental and artistic expression.  This turns out to require approaches and appreciation going far beyond replication of authentic and documentable reality.  John Hench, as lead Imagineer, outlined this archetypal understanding of the park guest psyche in his career portfolio, Designing Disney: Imagineering and the Art of the Show (2003).  Hench lays out the operating principles of theme design based on human perception and behavior as his Theory of Constraints.  This theory runs what designers can and cannot do--by defining and drawing the limits, first, to describe the range of physical and cultural spaces that human beings experience, and second, to understand that creativity has to take place within those limits of perception, expectation, thinking, behavior, and social awareness.   

Disneyland was an entirely new artform in 1955. Critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.
Photo: J. G. O'Boyle, The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis 

The Disneyland proto-park concoction was first unveiled in 1955.  This was a new artform/ critics didn’t quite know what to make of it.  It was clearly far more than an amusement park.  By now it has far overreached its original concept of public space drawn from film, pollinating and breeding dozens of new design platforms across the past six decades (malls and history museums are just two).  It is also the most comprehensive artwork ever devised, conflating and incorporating every other known art within the theme-space berm. 

These range from the folk arts to the fine arts, performance (dance to speech), graphics in every mode from murals to signage to digital; architectural innovation, film, sculpture, light and sound, and of course, special effects of every sort imaginable, and hybrids of all these derived from Ars Mixto technology.  It is the complexity from pairing-up of forms that makes up the native creativity of Themeatics.  “This model of creative exchange,” says the college’s outgoing president Steven Levine, “the crossing over of different perspectives and influences, has always been in our DNA,” at the root of the college’s dedication to cross-pollination. 

Now CalArts has a new lease on the future of design and the creative imagination that feeds the “arts in concert.”  Elsewhere in Creative Intelligence I’ve written about Visioneering as the coming phase of creative artsmaking, outlining the interplay and interbreeding of formats, history, and styles.  As these become a working assumption, the school, with its already global reach and reputation, has a jump start on becoming the place where Visioneering grows and thrives.  

How, then, should this new Omni-arts vision be instructed and practiced within an arts academy?  The professional organization for theme park design, The Themed Entertainment Association (TEA), will hold its annual SATE (Story + Architecture + Technology = Experience) conference on CalArts’ campus this year in October.  Design now operates within a world in which the theme park is an established arts institution and in fact a core concept of practice and collaboration that has spun off its magic into the many arts that created it.  However, there are still few academic centers dedicated to this vision, taking it apart to make sense of its dynamics, preserving and curating its process and histories, or teaching it. 

An engine of the new age of the arts is the strength of the colleagueship behind any project and its operation for multidisciplinary specialization. Here Carnegie Mellon, Savannah College of Art and Design, and Valencia College are in the forefront of entertainment design.  Programs and majors are so far a rarity.  Most theme-park designers are the self-made product of their own CalArts-style personal programming in the tradition of project-based experimentation.  The challenge is to find more systematic ways of capturing, curating, and transmitting their hard-won work and knowledge to take it to the huge stage that off-screen entertainment will occupy for the coming century. 

The lead role is now open for the perceptive institution that can envision itself inventing and reinventing  the theme parks of the future—and other launching pads and creative platforms to come.