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Christensen, Clayton, M., and Henry J. Eyring. The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

I should have read The Innovative University last year. It is a book that seems to have penetrated fairly deeply into higher education management circles after the authors' central concepts of "disruptive innovation" and institutional "DNA" found an audience in the larger business world.

I should have read The Innovative University just so that I could better understand some of the ideas behind administrators' thinking these days. The incentive to read the book came this past month in the form of an invitation by the provost to join a discussion of the text and the possible implications for the future of my own university.

I find little to argue with in the authors' complaints about the hazards of attempting to transplant the "Harvard DNA" into colleges and universities that lack the resources, selectivity, and star power of a Harvard. And who but a member of a dying breed of nostalgic professors could claim that the tremors that currently rock higher education are just noise that will have little impact on his or her institution. Online education, careful consideration of the teaching-service-scholarship mix, and redefinitions of scholarship itself are clearly on the table for almost any college or university. And The Innovative University offers some food for thought in these areas. As always, I remain ready to engage with colleagues on just these issues.

But I found The Innovative University lacking a certain scholarly treatment of the issues. Early on, the authors claim that they will use "DNA" as a metaphor, and such a move is innocent enough.  One can employ metaphor to great effect.  But, of course, one can also push a metaphor so far that that it is no longer suitable. This, it seems to me, is where The Innovative University runs with its metaphor of DNA.

I'm no biologist, but my sense is that DNA changes through random mutation and combination in reproduction. Its expression in phenotype or perceived traits has something to do with dominant and recessive traits. Many elements of DNA have little or no impact on the functioning of an organism (or a species). Some weaken the organism's ability to survive and reproduce, to be sure, while others may offer the organism a competitive advantage in the quest for survival, a mate, and offspring. This kind of change is generally understood to be very slow, particularly for more complex organisms. (And, of course, an organization is not an organism.)

And this is a problem. If it's DNA that explains the "evolution" of Harvard University and efforts to replicate or transplant that DNA that are getting so many schools in trouble, why is the book chock full of decisions made by specific individuals responding to particular challenges/circumstances?  One doesn't will a change in DNA, unless one is a sort of deity who can go into an organism and perform miracles. Hmm. University presidents as nearly omnipotent beings capable of shaping DNA.

In a sense, perhaps the authors' use of DNA to describe what sociologists and students of organizational behavior might call an organization's culture or its institutions is actually a vehicle for signaling to leaders that they stand in this God-like position: "Yes, your university does have DNA.  It's important to 'know' that DNA so that you can mold and shape it to respond to perceived market forces. Institutional make-up is hard wired (DNA), and yet transformational leaders of the sort who move Harvard and other universities are powerful enough to change it."

That kind of power is generally seen as the province of Mother Nature, God, or natural selection. While this isn't the central message of The Innovative University, it may help explain why the ideas of disruptive innovation and organizational DNA are so appealing to CEOs, presidents, and others in positions of power and influence.

Changing an organization is so hard because it's encoded in the DNA of an institution. But the true leader is able to see the DNA and manipulate it to enable the organization to adapt in ways that make it better suited to its environment. Heady stuff, indeed!

Kathleen Blake Yancey delivered the keynote at the 2009 Georgia Conference on Information Literacy, a talk entitled "Creating and Exploring New Worlds: Web 2.0, Information Literacy, and the Uses of Knowledge."

Sources=Materials

Yancey worked to open our conception of sources a bit, to broaden it from alphabetic or written to include multiple media, and consider that one's sources both come from others and are created by us. Is this new?  The multiple media component is certainly a relatively new phenomenon, at least the ubiquity of it is.  And most students in colleges generally experience research or engagement with source materials as the manipulation of other people's material. But much of the material we think of as "source" material has been created by someone.

Information Ecology

Yancey argues that, as teachers, we should push students into the "stew" of information, scholarly material found in libraries and academic subscription databases, material in blogs, in more popular press publications, and more.  We should then encourage students to evaluate the information found in these sources as a way for them to take charge of the information they encounter.

Content

Information literacy practices must have content in them if students are to make meaningful use of them.  Yancey claims that one key to the transference of skills from one context to another is content.  In the absence of content, skills become something we may practice without really understanding the why, the reasons the skills are valuable.

Sam Wineberg and Information Ecology

Yancey notes that, for Wineberg, we establish credibility through corroboration (or fidelity), sourcing, and contextualization.  When students don't engage in these practices in writing about history, they run into trouble.  When confronted with a variety of texts that describe/explain a historical event, students struggle to determine which source(s) are most authoritative.

Assignments

Note the role of "content" in each of the following assignments

  • Analyze an entry in an encyclopedia and one in wikipedia. How do the entries compare? How are the pieces written? How does one evaluate the entries?  Shifting the order of filtering and publishing.  Encyclopedias begin with filtering, then publish.  Wikipedia publishes first, then filters.
  • Build a blogging map on a topic. Find blog-based material on a specific topic.  What do we learn about evaluating sources by engaging with these blogs.  Are .coms better than .edus? Yancey argues that when we dig into a source we can't simply "source" by looking at the URL.
  • Sourcing backwards.  Start with an editorial in the NY Times.  Then work backwards and locate the kinds of sources the editors draw from in moving to the editorial.

What is the Role of Content?

Logic of Research Practices - transform our thinking from filling in slots to citation, to thinking about the logic in citation or documentation

  • access
  • intellectual property
  • economy
  • standardization
  • transparency

Identify key terms that together are Information Literacy.

  • Circulation - Who cites whom in an article. We can see that scholars are in conversation with each other. In the new circulation, on the web and in television news, we can see propaganda served up as information.  Yancey claims that this development is possible because of changes in the position of filtering in the new information ecology.
  • Credibility -
  • Corroboration -
  • Plausibility -

Yancey argues that we should also use "critical incident theory" practices in the classroom.  Build assignments that put students in positions to take a critical incidents approach in locating and working with sources.

I very much like the suggestion that we have students confront specific critical incidents by juxtaposing information sources as part of evaluation. What I'm not so sure about is Yancey's conception of "content" in this framework.  Obviously, content matters, and I'm supportive of her point.  (Absent content, information retrieval or research is merely an empty exercise with little relevance to us, or to our students.)

At the same time, I suspect that this kind of work will have the greatest impact in the context of actual courses, places were it may be least likely to find an audience.  Students in a history, biology, or literature class, when asked to conduct research as part of the course, would likely be most receptive to this kind of approach.  But faculty teaching these courses are more likely to be focused on the content knowledge itself.  Embedding the kinds of information literacy assignments into the curriculum will be a challenge that may even be more daunting than the efforts to infuse process writing pedagogies into such courses.