Carol A. Hand
Life always amazes me. I try to postpone some of the tasks I agree to, like writing recommendation letters. I think it’s because I really do want to help but I’m not confident that I will find the right ways to encourage employers to hire a former student or colleague. I’m afraid that the things that I value most – self-directed inquisitiveness, critical thinking, passionate compassionate hearts, and radical views – are not necessarily seen as assets by potential employers. So I procrastinate. Whether I have a month or a day, I still wait until the last moment. The only thing that changes is the length of time I feel guilty for not completing this task sooner. I do care about the people who ask for my help. I feel a sense of obligation to honor their vulnerability and trust.
This time, there was only a couple days’ notice. Monday was the due date. The draft was sent off to the person who requested a recommendation. I try to always give people a chance to provide feedback before letters become “official,” tucked into sealed envelopes with the obligatory signature over the glued or taped flap to authenticate its origins.
This task, like many others these days, required travels into the past to recover details. Interestingly, the memories uncovered were about a class I taught when I first met the former student whose letter I just drafted. Social Work Macro-Practice. It’s not a favorite topic since most social work students want to work with individuals as counselors. Few want to work as change agents in partnership with organizations or communities.
Many tenured faculty who teach macro-practice classes have never done this kind of work. They rely on textbook authors to provide necessary knowledge and foundations for students – only because accrediting bodies require this subject even though it is now viewed by many as a shibboleth – a useless custom from the past. Therapists don’t need to know this stuff. Decontextualized, ahistorical psychology will suffice in a corporate-controlled dystopia. The only skills needed are those that help people accept and adapt to their circumstances. I call this assimilation, a euphemistic term for eradicating cultures that were defined as shibboleths. It’s a process Native Americans know all too well.
Image: Drawing by C. A. Hand
(based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault)
But I digress. Change is fact of life that all cultures face. People, organizations and nations can attempt to build walls, but change will come any way. What does stop when we try to wall out the inevitable is our ability to adapt in visionary, constructive ways. Turning inward ensures stagnation, the path to a slow and painful death.
“According to the second law of thermodynamics, all systems tend toward entropy. Entropy is a measure of disorder or a measure of the energy in a system that is not available for productive work. In essence, all closed systems tend to break down. The principle applies not only to physical systems but also to individuals and organizations.
“People tend to progress and then plateau. At first, the plateau provides time for consolidation and recovery. Later, it becomes a zone of comfort. In our comfort zone, we know how to do the things we need to do. They become routine. And as long as nothing changes, we can be successful.
“The problem is that the universe is an ever-changing system. From the external world, we receive signals suggesting the need for change – the need to grow beyond our routines and move to a higher level of personal complexity. We all tend to deny these signals. Usually it is not until we are jolted that we are willing to make a significant alteration in who we are and how we do things.” (Quinn, 2004, p. 18)
“The failure to change is a process of closing down, of ceasing to respond to the changing signals from the world around us… In organizations [communities, or cultures], the same dynamics come into play. We all spend most of our time unconsciously colluding in our own diminishment and the diminishment of the organization. We collectively lose hope, turn to self-interest, and experience increasing conflict. The organization becomes more disconnected and loses more energy. At both individual and organizational levels, we tend to choose slow death over deep change.
“This slow death is the consequence of remaining in the normal state. To be in the normal state is to be externally driven, internally closed, self-focused, and comfort centered.” (Quinn, 2004, p. 19)
“After a time, the implicit assumption is that the system cannot be fixed and no one expects it to be fixed. We accept that life is supposed to be toxic. We accept the fact that each person’s role is to pretend to care about the system, while in the privacy of their own minds they tell themselves that their first priority is their own welfare. At this point we come to know for certain that the world is a Darwinian place where only the strongest survive.” (Quinn, 2000, pp. 93-94)
We blame others for the problems around us, defining ourselves as victims, expecting others to save us. Our humanity and communities are dying a slow death. This is something I witnessed directly in many of the settings where I worked, not only in the Ojibwe and Euro-American communities I studied in 2001-2002. Clients and community members blame bureaucracies, line-staff blame administrators, and citizens blame “the government.” We become fearful, angry, and hopeless that anything will improve so we hunker down and grab what we hope will protect us from the disaster we fear will be coming.
I agree with Quinn. I believe that the only alternative to slow death is the willingness to engage in the processes of deep personal and organizational change – to face our greatest fears and find the strength, vision, and integrity to live our own truths. But there are no easy answers. How many of us are willing to walk away from the illusions of comfort, security, and predictability to embrace the unknown?
“When we commit to a vision to do something that has never been done before, there is no way to know how to get there. We simply have to build the bridge as we walk on it.” (Quinn, 2004, p. 9)
The major obstacles for initiating and sustaining the ongoing transformation of ourselves and our institutions and cultures no longer come primarily from outside (Quinn, 1996). And it isn’t only Native Americans who have been assimilated throughout centuries. The systematic capitalistic cultural ways of seeing the world are already part of the person most of us have been socialized to become.
In my experiences, only organizations that were undergoing a state of crisis for survival were open to deep change. Most organizations greeted any suggestions for change with a universal refrain – but THE COMMITTEE DECIDED…” Keep in mind that the committee consisted only of those who had gained admission because they agreed with those in power, assuring the continuity of hegemony and homogeneity from one generation to the next.
Image: Exclusion (Microsoft ClipArt)
Introduce someone from the margins who sees the world from a different perspective, and things become interesting. It was in one of these contexts when I first met the student who recently requested a recommendation letter.
Here’s a bit of context for those years. It is drawn from reports I had to write to justify my tenure-track position in the university my former student attended.
Teaching Philosophy and Accomplishments
Libertory praxis remains the philosophical foundation for my approach to teaching. During the past few years I have had an opportunity to read more broadly and reflect on the cultural fit of this egalitarian, dialogic, and consciously modeled approach for working with others who have less power in a given socially constructed community or institution.
It is my belief that social work educators have an ethical responsibility to teach students the knowledge and skills they will need to work respectfully and effectively with diverse clients. Unlike other disciplines, social work educators have an additional responsibility to model strength-based, empowering practice in their pedagogical approaches with students.
We know that students do as we do, rather than what we tell them to do.
Macro practice courses are often challenging to teach because the majority of social work students are interested in working with individuals and families. Because this was the first time I had taught this particular course, I relied on prior syllabi to plan course assignments. However, based on student feedback and my own critical analysis of the most effective ways to approach macro-level assessment and change from a liberatory praxis paradigm, many assignments were refined as the semester progressed.
The following discussion highlights four development areas: 1) strategically chosen texts and articles to provide a range of different perspectives, 2) new sequencing of assignments, 3) accommodating travel challenges, and 4) student engagement in developing a new assignment.
First, the readings that formed the foundation for the class represented both essential social work perspectives and new ways of looking at assessment and planned change at organizational and community levels drawn from other disciplines. For example, students looked at the seminal work of Lisbeth B. Schorr (1997) regarding the seven attributes of highly successful programs, the best-selling work of business leader Geoffrey Bellman (2001) focused on “getting things done when you are not in charge,” and the appreciative inquiry model grounded firmly in a strength-based macro practice (e.g., Cooperrider & Whitney, n.d.).
Second, the sequencing of assignments was refined to follow a more logical implementation sequence as well as to accommodate the competing responsibilities of students in the graduate program (full-time employment, family responsibilities, and geographic dispersion). All assignments were based on applying the principles of organizational and community analysis and planned change described in the readings to their practicum agency.
This was a challenging set of assignments. However, once students graduate from an MSW program, they are typically hired for, or quickly promoted into, management positions. The types of skills applied in the course assignments are essential for effective supervisors and decision makers. Yet the rigor also reflects a compromise reached with the students.
Third, the difficulty of the above assignments reflects a dialogue and consensual agreement with students. In order to accommodate a difficult winter for students who drove long distances to classes three nights a week, we met every other week. In exchange, students agreed to more difficult assignments. During alternate weeks, the class used online blackboard to address questions, they met or communicated on group assignments, and emailed weekly practicum logs. The quality of research and critical thought in written work was excellent, as was the dialogue during classes.
Fourth, the refinements made to the class schedule and assignments also provided an opportunity to work with students as partners (liberatory praxis), increasing their engagement in the course. Using group work techniques that were described in the readings for the course, one assignment was completely revised with student input as they interwove key concepts from two other texts in relation to their practicum experience.
The macro-practice lab was integrated into the modifications made to the class schedule. Students applied the principles of effective group work and group decision making as members of one of three teams, largely structured around geography. The focus of the work was to explore the feasibility of incorporating distance learning into the MSW program, the resources within the region that could be used, and a recommended plan of action.
Clearly, this was a challenging amount of work for a one-credit class. The final written reports from each of the three groups were shared with social work faculty and decision makers.
The following figure was developed to facilitate critical thinking and discussion. The figure employs the ecosystems framework to illustrate how socially constructed models are reflected by each author of required readings for the course. The social work text that is most widely used around the county, Netting, Kettner, and McMurtry (2004), is firmly nested within a problem-focused approach for community change. Other authors stretch this limited paradigm, reflecting more of a strength-based perspective that is more in line with liberatory praxis. The figure also incorporates important dimensions to consider in macro level assessment and intervention.
Image: Macro-practice Graphic (C. A. Hand)
I plan to focus on exploring the use of technology for distance education. It will become increasingly important in an era of increasing costs for fuel and the need to reduce pollution. I am currently taking a course to learn more about distance learning technologies and plan to incorporate approaches at both the MSW and BSW level. This will take time and a lot more learning on my part, yet I believe it is essential to assure access to education for students throughout the region.
The student I recommended was involved in this experiment. The three groups that assessed the potentiality of distance educations developed crucial analyses of existing resources in the state and feasible suggestions worthy of further explorations. I shared their assessments and plans with the FACULTY OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE. The COMMITTEE’s response was the development of policies to limit further faculty innovation without their explicit approval. They chose to put up walls in hopes they could continue teaching with what this student described as “yellowed transparencies they have used unaltered for the past 25 years.”
Of course, there are always ways around obstacles, but I would much have preferred to be part of the exciting process of system transformation. Sadly, it didn’t happen for this department. I wasn’t willing to stick around for the death process that would ultimately follow. Shifts in the larger socio-political context intensified COMMITTEE control and the precariousness of their continued vitality and survival.
Still, I will always wonder what could have been if only THE COMMITTEE had been willing to listen to the voices of students – the people they claimed to serve.
Image: Inclusive Community (Source)
Addams, J. (1961). Twenty years at Hull-House. New York: Signet Classics.
Bellman, G. N. (2001). Getting things done when you are not in charge (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Cooperrider, D. L. & Whitney, D. (n.d.). A positive revolution in change: Appreciative inquiry. Retrieved from http://appreciative http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/uploads/whatisai.pdf on August 30, 2008.
Homan, M. (1999). Rules of the game: Lessons from the field of community change. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
Kaner, S. (2007). Facilitator’s guide to participatory decision-making, (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Netting, F.E., Kettner, P.M., & McMurtry, S.L. (2004) Social Work Macro Practice (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
Quinn, R. E. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.
Quinn, R. E. (2000). Change the world: How ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary results. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.
Quinn, R. E. (1996). Deep change: Discovering the leader within. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.
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