Warning: Innovation Ahead

Warning: Innovation Ahead

Peter Stokes, Vice President for Global Strategy and Business Development for Northeastern University, broaches an intriguing question in his recent post at Inside Higher Ed: Is innovation just another word for anxiety?

Stokes sets this premise in the context of visits to numerous conferences, gatherings and keynote lectures, all of which, he recounts, “have featured liberal use of the word ‘innovation.’ ” He goes on to muse (paraphrasing Raymond Carver):

I began to wonder what we really talk about when we talk about innovation.

Is innovation, I wondered, just a euphemism for anxiety?

In one small-group conversation I sat in on recently, for example, a colleague observed that when she arrived at her new institution, a meeting was called summoning all those individuals on campus who, like her, possessed the word innovation in their job titles – 90 people attended the meeting, she said.

That’s a lot of innovation. Or is it something else?

Stokes poses some further questions—bold and broad—to frame this broader inquiry, such as:

Should higher education be free?

Can students learn without the direct assistance of faculty?

Are peer grading and computer grading as effective as traditional models of assessment?

Stokes postulates that when we discuss “innovation,” in all of its challenges, benefits and risks, what we’re thinking more fundamentally about is the wariness and fears that go along with any discussion of change—especially the kinds of sweeping, large-scale change that always accompany the concept of innovation. And when we talk about innovation, we’re as excited about its potential for positive results as we are anxious about its possible drawbacks.

Maybe all of this talk about innovation is, in part, an effort to domesticate and tame these challenging and threatening questions.

To resolve this implicit—possibly even unconscious—anxiety, Stokes suggests bringing it to the fore and actively addressing it.

That might help to bring some of these conversations back down to earth a bit, away from the atmospheric fizz of so many PowerPoint slides racing by, and away from the blurry feeling that change is inevitable so any change will do.

Does the shiny, forward-looking and exciting concept of innovation have a dark side for you? Do you respond with enthusiasm at the idea of the new, the advanced and the progressive? Or do you incline more toward keeping Pandora’s Box closed?

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