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Change Paradigms

Do you ever give your students a pre-semester quiz to test their knowledge before they take your course? Here’s a pre-semester quiz for you.

  1. If you buy something that costs $9.80 and give the clerk a ten dollar bill what will he give back to you?

    That’s right, you get change.

    And what kind of change?

    That’s right, a pair-o-dimes.

  2. What paradigm will you adopt to face the change on your campus this fall? Will you be a grumpy professor or a resilient one?

  3. What kind of change might you notice on campus? Check as many that apply. Add your own.

    • Possibly fewer students or many more. Curiously, at the same time some institutions are experiencing a downturn in enrollment, many urban and community colleges are experiencing increased enrollments of adult students using the occasion of unemployment to return to school in the hopes of learning new skills and making themselves more employable.

    • Fewer faculty teaching more courses; Class sizes may be up and adjunct faculty may be increased or decreased depending on how the bottom line plays out. In some places the full time faculty are taking on the teaching responsibilities previously assigned to adjuncts. In some places the faculty have pay cuts as well as increased responsibilities.

    • More online or blended courses. Learning the technology to manage these courses can have a considerable learning curve.

    • Budget cuts affecting programming, equipment, and staffing. For example, the next time you experience email and website breakdowns, there may be fewer tech wizards to rush to your rescue.

    • Grumpy administrators.

    • Grumpy faculty.

You can probably add other items to the list. These trends all lead to the theme of doing more with less. Who would have thought at the beginning of the fall term last year what sweeping economic changes were to come upon us all just a month later?

Most changes in response to economic trends are not directly under your control. Even if you are an administrator who makes decisions affecting program, personnel, and policy you have the realities of limited funds affected by the drop in your university’s investments or the state budget or donor giving.

The good news: Everyone is affected. Not just at your school but at all schools. Not just in the US but all over the world. Not just in the world of higher education but also in retail, housing, banking, etc.

Thus we have a common experience to unite our human suffering. The bad news: because the experience is universal, we can find many fellow sufferers to complain with and to join with a change resistance movement.

The Good News about Resistance

Change is hard for all of us because resistance to change has a very useful purpose. Without a brain that resists new learning your brain would be too fluid. Here is what would happen:

  • The information needed for you to function at work and at home would flow in and flow back out just as fast.

  • Nothing would stick long enough to be available the next time you needed it.

  • Everyday would be like starting over as a newborn baby.

  • Every day you would have to relearn whether a green traffic light means go or stop.

  • Every day you would have to relearn your office procedures and your colleagues’ and students’ names.

So our brains are adapted to make survival easy – at least for simpler times. Our cave parents’ survival depended on routine and occasion thinking outside the box. For centuries grain was planted, harvested, ground, and baked using pretty much the same procedures. However, living in today’s world with its high rate of change requires having some routine and a whole lot of thinking outside the box. Sometimes we don’t even have a box to begin with. Understanding why our “old brains” resist the rapid rate of change will help you be more patience with resistance, your own and that of others.

Paradigm Shifts

While we do not have control over all the changes on campus affecting us, what we do have control over is the paradigm we adopt for dealing with the changes that affect us. You can adopt a grumpy paradigm where you feel downtrodden and put upon and start the school year not at your best or you can create a resilient paradigm of dealing with the realities of the situation in such a way that allows you to operate at your best in spite of circumstances.

What is the best way for you to deal with change: fighting, resisting and hating change (The Grumpy Professor) or are you better off accepting, adapting, and mastering change (the Resilient Professor)? Which paradigm will increase your productivity and life satisfaction? The question is an empirical one, namely, what will be in your best interest personally, being a change victim or a change victor.

In case you do not know the answer to the above empirical question from your own lived experience, researcher Barbara Fredrickson has designed the empirical studies and found that people who are in a good mood function better than those in a bad mood. They are able to take their skills and talents and do what she calls, “broaden and build.” People in a positive frame of mind can get better at what they are already good at. Happy people are more effective in thought processes and more creative. Therefore, by approaching change with a more positive paradigm, you have a greater potential of developing your own potential and will be more influential to those around you. Armed with two days of data you can now make an informed choice as to how you want to face each day.

But don’t take my word for it or even Barbara Fredrickson’s. Design an experiment to test what works for you. Try the grumpy paradigm for a day. Look around and find things to complain about; you won’t have to look very hard. Complain a lot. Walk around campus with your head down. Then, evaluate how you feel about your productivity and your relationships for that day. The next day try out a resilient paradigm in which you see yourself as a master of change reframing the challenges as opportunities. For example, perhaps the challenge is how to come up with ways to teach well even if you have been assigned to a larger classes or more sections? The change mastery strategy might be to study the pedagogical literature on effective ways to teach large classes or on how to help students write well without adding grading time to the professor’s schedule. Armed with two days of data you can now make an informed choice as to how you want to face each day.

In case that you are thinking that you are too old and set in your ways to adopt a different paradigm, I would like to suggest that you actually have another paradigm in which you see change as positive. For example, you probably wouldn’t get upset if your dean offered you an unexpected raise or you won an award that you didn’t apply for. Why is it that you wouldn’t see those changes as horrible and awful? Isn’t it because you might think differently about those changes as beneficial? What if you could broaden your definition of change as providing benefit and opportunity at the same time as it is challenging you?

If you like the resilient paradigm, you can become a master in it because you already know how to master other things. You may have already mastered teaching well. If you are a mid to late career academic you may have mastered your research field and produce good work in that field. You may even have a hobby such as a martial art or photography in which you are on the path to mastery. What process did you follow to get good at those things? I bet it was some version of the following.

  1. good instruction from a mentor or role model;
  2. lots of practice;
  3. helpful feedback from a coach;
  4. practice;
  5. repeat.

What if you applied the same process to understanding and mastering change?

The Resilient Paradigm is a different way of looking at these problems and might lead to these interpretations of changes you are facing:

  • I have a choice each day which paradigm I adopt. I can see each day as a fresh start to my goal of mastering change.

  • Every day I have the opportunity to teach well and do good scholarly research.

  • I need to have a clear focus on my priorities so that I can keep my energy and productivity high.

  • Economic changes of the past year have affected every corner of the world from housing to unemployment to research. We are all in this together. Economic changes come and go. Things will improve.

  • With unemployment rounding out at 10%, I am grateful that I have a job. I am fortunate that the job I have is one that I like and am good at.

  • These difficult times have some new opportunities as well. There is stimulus money available in some sectors like for community college education and science research.

  • My college needs me to offer an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. I can’t afford to waste time in depressing, “ain’t it awful conversations.” I need to be sharp for my classes and writing time.

  • With staff cuts there are opportunities for me to exercise leadership on some special projects related to my mission.

  • Doing more with less is difficult gives an opportunity to trim waste. I can do that personally by getting rid of old files and equipment I no longer need.

  • If funds are not available for travel I can still continue my professional development in lower cost ways like joining a learning community or mastermind group of other professors interested in learning new things. I can also use my own funds to support my attendance at high priority conferences. My professional development is important to me.

  • I can figure out ways to go deeper with some of my work to increase my job satisfaction.

  • I can collaborate with like-minded colleagues on team teaching, guest appearances in each others’ classes, and research projects.

  • I can review my syllabi and look for ways to offer the same pedagogical goals with less time intensive methods. For example, I could cut down the number of written assignments but require students to rewrite the assignments that have received a preliminary grade and comments. I will can valuable time for class preparation of new material and the students will deepen their learning.

  • I need to keep my stress level down by eating nutritious delicious food, exercising regularly, and getting to bed earlier on weeknights.

  • I can establish supportive routines to substitute for the lost security I am feeling. I can approach my calendar like a creative endeavor to fit in the activities that make me productive and happy whether they be writing first thing in the morning or taking a yoga class with a friend.

As school begins this fall, ask yourself a healthily selfish question: which paradigm will bring me the most benefit? Test it out empirically so you can make an informed choice.


Nothing endures but change. Heraclitus.

© Copyright 2009 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information.

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