TITLE: Leaders, Teachers, and Imprinting AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 18, 2011 7:48 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Last week, I wrote an entry on managers and communication motivated by some of the comments John Lilly, formerly of Mozilla, made in an interview with Fast Company. In the same interview, Lilly mentioned teaching in a couple of ways that made me think about that part of my job.
... what's the difference between leadership and management? For me, leadership is imagining the world that you want and figuring out how to go make it that way and how to get other people to help you. That happens sort of all up and down the spectrum of people. Teachers do that every day.
There is certainly an element of leadership in how our best teachers reach students. The K-12 education world talks a lot about this sort of thing, but that discussion often seems to lack much connection to the content of the discipline being taught. University educators work at the intersection of instruction and leadership in a way that other teachers don't. To me, this makes college teaching more interesting and sometimes more challenging. As with so many other things, simply recognizing this is a great first step toward doing a better job. In what ways am I as an instructor of, say, programming languages a leader to my students? One part of the answer surfaces later in the article (emphasis added):
I've been interviewing a lot people for jobs ... lately. I've been struck by how strongly their first job imprints them. People who went to Google out of school have a certain way of talking and thinking about the world, people who went to Amazon, have a different way thinking about it, Facebook a different way. ... ... You just start to see patterns. You say, "Oh, that's an Amazon construct," or "that's totally a Googley way to look at the world." ... From an organizational leadership point of view, you should think hard about what your organization is imprinting on people. Your company, hopefully, will be huge. But what you imprint on people and the diaspora that comes out of your company later may or may not be an important and lasting legacy.
Most companies probably think about what they do as about themselves; they are creating an organization. The tech start-up world has reminded us just how much cross-pollination there can be in an industry. People start their careers at a new company, learn and grow with the company, and then move on to join other companies or to start new ones. The most successful companies create something of a diaspora. Universities are all about diaspora. Our whole purpose is to prepare students to move on to careers elsewhere. Our whole purpose is to imprint a way of thinking on students. At one level, most academics don't really think in this way. I teach computer science. I'm not "imprinting" them; I am helping them learn a set of ideas, skills, and practices. It's all about the content, right? Of course, it's not quite so simple. We want our graduates to know some things and be able to do some things. The world of CS is large, and in a four-year undergrad program we can expose our students to only a subset of that world. That choice is a part of the imprint we make. And the most important thing we can leave with our students is an approach to thinking and learning that allows them to grow over the course of a long career in a discipline that never sits still. That is a big part of the imprint we make on our students, too. As members of a computer science faculty, we could think about imprinting as an organization in much the way Lilly discusses. Can someone say, "That's a totally UNI Computer Science way of thinking"? If so, what is that way of thinking? What would we like for it mean? Are our alumni and their employers served well by how we imprint our students? As a department head, I have a chance to talk to alumni and employers frequently. I usually hear good things, but that's not so surprising. Our department might be able to improve the job we do by thinking explicitly up front about our imprint we hope to have on students, a form of starting at the end and working backwards. As a teacher, I often think about how students approach problems after they have studied with me. Thinking about the idea of my "imprint" on them is curious. Can someone say, "That's a totally Professor Wallingford way of thinking"? If so, would that be good thing? How so? If so, what does "totally Wallingford way of thinking" mean to my students now? What would I like for it mean? This line of thinking could be useful to me as I begin to prepare my fall course on programming languages. Without thinking very long, I know that I want to imprint on my students a love for all kinds of languages and an attitude of openness and curiosity toward learning and creating languages. What more? -----