The Adventurous Academic
Published in TC Today - Volume 32, No. 1
The path followed by TC's new Provost has led him out of his comfort zone and into the community
In an essay on Kurt Hahn, founder of the wilderness adventure organization Outward Bound, Tom James argues against biography that takes a sequential approach to understanding its subjects. People discover a sense of purpose "all at once," avers James, who became TC's new Provost and Dean in July. The center of one's life is revealed "as a gift" that "arranges everything else around it"-'"often in "dark times, when the hero transforms the uncertainties of a crisis into deeply felt opportunities."
James's affinity for Hahn goes beyond mere interest in biographical theory. In 1957, when he was a nine-year-old attending the famous Laboratory School founded by John Dewey at the University of Chicago, James endured his own dark time, breaking his leg in a skiing accident and spending the next three months in a cast. Like Hahn, who as a young man suffered a devastating sunstroke, James had to forego-'"temporarily, at least-'"his love of athletics and much of his involvement in the everyday life of the school. "Going up and down stairs in the school building was impossible now," he writes in "A Dewey School Episode," a recently published memoir. "Suddenly, I was distant from my classroom and classmates, inhabiting another world known only to the disabled."
All was not lost, however. The Lab School, which offered hands-on learning through gardening and visits with smelt fisherman on Lake Michigan, took care of its own. James found himself befriended by one Chucky Ford, the old man who ran the school's athletic equipment supply room. Ford enlisted the boy in designing schedules and systems for deploying balls, bats and other equipment; in monitoring equipment use; and in organizing the storage room. In a moment evocative of his deanish future, James-'"cast and all-'"used his new skills to lead the fourth grade to triumph over the fifth in a school snowball fight, organizing a team of packers, stackers and distributors.
Chucky Ford also posed various life lessons for his young charge-'"for example, asking the boy to calculate the cost of smoking cigarettes every day for the rest of his life.
"Being with Chucky Ford-'talking about things going on in class and also about things not at all connected with the curriculum, and seeing how the whole school worked from the inside, became an incomparable expedition for me," James writes. "A convergence of many adults-'"not just Chucky himself, I suspect-'"figured out how to form a plan of education around the need my unfortunate situation presented. At least in my own personal history, here was a school that discovered the interests of the child, as Dewey had envisioned, and was able to reach those interests through unconventional means if necessary."
In various ways-'"as outdoorsman, teacher, historian and administrator-'"James has remained preoccupied ever since with that same ideal of education writ large. Inherent in his approach is the belief that true learning is synonymous with adventure, demanding risk-taking by both student and school. It is a gut-level view, born of experience, that James has translated into a remarkably coherent administrative philosophy.
"Tom has an astonishing grasp of the challenges in education, from the detailed level-'"how you better prepare teachers, how you convey curriculum-'"all the way up to the role played by the state and federal government," says Robert Shelton, former Provost at UNC Chapel Hill and now President of the University of Arizona, who hired James as Dean of the School of Education at Chapel Hill in 2003. "He literally revitalized and reenergized our school of education, connecting an already superlative faculty with heads of state and demonstrating our relevance to their needs. And because of his scholarship, he had, from the beginning, the great respect of our faculty, not only in education, but across the university."
Here, too, James-'"who wrote a book on Outward Bound in his twenties and has served on the organization's national board of trustees-'"credits Hahn's influence.
"Outward Bound demands that you be ingenious, that you take the initiative and work with others," he says. "I see all of that as inevitable, because the world constantly presents us with challenges, problems and obstacles. We live in an experiential continuum in which our comfort zones are always temporary."
A CALL TO SERVICE
In 1996, James took a major step beyond his own comfort zone, leaving his job as a tenured professor at Brown to become Associate Dean at NYU's Steinhardt School of Education. He was at the top of his scholarly game, known for path-breaking work that included his book Exile Within: The Schooling of Japanese Americans 1942--1945, an exploration of the educational experiences inside the notorious domestic internment camps created by the U.S. government during World War II. He also was Chair of Brown's education department, regarded as one of the best in the country, with a faculty that included the noted school reformer Ted Sizer.
On the surface, the change from scholar to administrator was a surprising one. Tall and soft-spoken, with a tendency to speak in beautiful, fully formed sentences, James comes to the academic life by pedigree. Both his parents were teachers, and his father later became Dean of the education school at Stanford and then the first president of the Spencer Foundation, where he was succeeded by the brilliant education historian and former TC President Lawrence Cremin, a longtime friend. The younger James knew Cremin, as well, lunching with him on occasion as a graduate student at Stanford when Cremin spent a year there at the Center for Advanced Study of the Social Sciences.
Yet for all of that, James seems more deeply rooted in his childhood experiences such as earning his Eagle Scout badge and church service projects like rebuilding people's homes after floods.
"I loved the life of scholarship-'"of the mind, and in particular, of writing-'"and my years at Brown provided me with everything I needed to do that work at the highest level," he says. "But it left something undone and unfulfilled. I was looking for a context in higher education where I could help refocus the profession on learning and the needs of young people-'"and where I could be in contact not only with the difficulties but also the great diversity of our society."
James' questing spirit at that time is captured in a description of him that appears in journalist Ron Suskind's book A Hope in the Unseen. The book tells the true story of a young black man from inner-city Washington who during the 1990s made it to Brown University where James was his advisor. In a scene after meeting with another advisee-'"a Latino student whom he believes is succumbing to pressure to assimilate into Ivy League culture-'"James ponders how he can make college a more welcoming experience for young people who aren't to the manor born:
Later that afternoon-'Tom has a free moment to poke along the aged cedar shelves lining one wall for a book he's been thinking about.
He sits back down with Joining the Circle: A History of Jews at Yale and flips through some favorite parts about how certain professors at Yale in the 1920s and 1930s reached out to ostracized Jewish students, ushering them into Yale's pristine hallways-'
-'It wasn't entirely a one-way street. Ultimately Yale had to bend to accommodate new ways of thinking and learning from a more diverse student body. It was a dialogue, a push and shove. And it's going on today, as black, Latino and Asian kids try to match their cultural perspectives with rigid standards of merit that predate their arrival.
Tom admires those old Yale professors and desperately wants to fill a similar role for outsiders of his own time, students who, he thinks, carry a heavier burden with skin color than their predecessors ever faced with their less conspicuous ethnicities.
A POLICY OF ENGAGEMENT
There is still something of the Eagle Scout about James, but it's a quality that has nothing to do with naivet. Instead, it's more a kind of freshness-'"a refusal to be world-weary-'"that has served him well in breaking through the cynicism that can hamper change at large institutions.
"TC is a huge place where you can't lead just by talking to folks in the hallway, and Tom comes with a lot of institutional leadership experience in a very big system," says Craig Richards, Chair of TC's Department of Organization and Leadership, who was James's classmate when they were both doctoral students at Stanford. "He understands that this is a place where you have to lead leaders-'"department chairs, division heads, associate deans-'"a whole infrastructure. We also have health care, nursing, psychology-'"things not typically found in schools of education-'"so the challenge for a leader is to have a broad understanding of education-'"education as life, as Dewey and Cremin saw it-'"and Tom truly has that."
At NYU, James encouraged his faculty to focus on what he calls "problem-based research"-'"work that was "important to their disciplines but also to the social environment of New York City-'"an effort that included creating new professional development programs in partnership with the New York City teachers union. At UNC Chapel Hill, he took the school of education on a path of wider engagement that transformed it into a catalyst for educational debate and change throughout the state. The process of change began on the most basic level, among the school's faculty members themselves.
"When I came in, there were about 65 faculty members broken up into 24 different units," he says. "It was a very flat academic structure and had no center. Each faculty member was part of at least three or four different entities."
After spending about half a year getting his feet on the ground, James wrote a paper that he circulated to the faculty in which he proposed an intellectual "commons" for the school of education-'"a conceptual structure modeled on the physical commons of towns in Britain and New England where all members of the community could graze their animals.
"I drew a circle and defined our commons as a goal of teaching and learning, with three additional circles around it-'"human development, educational leadership, and curriculum and culture." These weren't departmental entities, he says; rather, they were areas designed to be interactive rather than insular. "The goal was to promote disciplined inquiry and scholarly debate and to continually expand the knowledge that shaped all our efforts to prepare educators and improve education. The language I used to introduce it focused on throwing open the doors and windows of schools of education to dialogue and collaboration."
From there, James sought new links throughout the university, across a range of disciplines. He launched strategic collaborations with UNC's various science departments, with the broad aim of educating science teachers. Working with faculty leaders, he helped UNC to create a national center for rural education research, funded by the federal Institute of Education Sciences. Led by two principal investigators who were tenured professors in the school of education, the center brought together a network of more than a dozen faculty members throughout the university.
James also pushed for greater collaborations with state legislators and policymakers, and sought to ensure that faculty and students were getting funded to do research and interventional work in communities around the state.
"The questions I put on the table for our faculty were, -'Will schools of education still be around in 25 years?' -'If we want the answer to be yes, what must we do to become an important force for improving education?' -'How we can be on the front edge?' And my view was, we were the state's flagship institution, so it made sense for us to be out there, connecting with boards of education, the legislature, the districts, the different regions of the state, the community-based organizations. We tackled questions like urban education, parent engagement, teacher professional development, and migration into the state, which was an immense frontier, because of all the states in the country, North Carolina has had the greatest percentage increase in Latinos during the past 10 years."
Back on the internal side, James also worked on improving the institution's capacity to do research connected with practice. On his watch, the education school created more incentives for research and provided more money for travel and graduate assistantships, which in turn boosted funding for doctoral students.
"You have to do two seemingly opposite things with research faculty," he says. "First, you have to give them the freedom and support to pursue questions of genuine importance in their fields-'"work that will really advance the state of knowledge. And second, you have to urge them to connect with the world, to help people learn more fully in their lives, because that's what education schools were set up to do."
It's clear that James' desire to do more of that kind of work was a major factor in his decision to come to TC.
"I think of when Teachers College started, back in the great migration at the end of the nineteenth century, with the tenement houses and the economic upheavals, and how much work there was to do," he said when his appointment was announced. "I feel that we're again at a beginning.
"I also believe New York City reflects the opportunities and problems of our civilization in their most concentrated and intense form. If we can engage that human prospect through education in New York, our work truly can be of national and world-wide significance. There is nothing more important than that challenge, and Teachers College is right in the middle of it."
When James talks about his priorities for TC, enhanced dialogue and collaboration top the list. "Faculty in areas such as teacher preparation, psychology, technology and health remain widely dispersed throughout the College," he says. "Our health disciplines, in particular, are too isolated. They have a lot to say about how all kids are educated, and they should be included in the main dialogue."
He stresses that he is not suggesting that the College plunge immediately into a formal reorganization of its departments.
"I've seen plenty of reorganizations that failed, and any reorganization creates new problems even as it solves old ones," he says. Instead, "I want to start by putting myself, under Susan Fuhrman's leadership, in deep dialogue with all faculty. I think she and I both feel we have a complementary set of intellectual interests and strengths. I believe that together, we have more to say than we do separately. And that's true of all of TC. There are so many lenses and tools here for learning and contributing more to the advance of human growth and well-being, but we need to combine them in new ways and get people here talking to one another more than they have in the past."
In a sense, James began that process one day last February when, as a finalist for the position he would ultimately win, he stood in shirtsleeves in the private dining room downstairs at TC, facing a group of students. A representative from the Student Senate had come prepared with a long list of questions, and he wasn't pulling any punches.
"How will you make sure we create the kind of diversity on our faculty that reflects the make-up of the urban school population we're trying to serve?" said the student.
"Well, I was born in rural Wisconsin, where everyone looks the same," James said, drawing a laugh. "But seriously, the key is to focus the work of the school on issues that concern people of color. When you do that-'"when you demonstrate that kind of commitment-'"you attract top faculty and students of all backgrounds."
The questioner nodded, but pressed his case. "Bilingual education as a policy in the U.S. has been pushed out in favor of demanding that kids from other cultures make rapid transitions to English only. What's your view?"
All eyes swung back to James. "Asking a Portuguese or Chinese kid to learn algebra in English would be like asking me to learn it in Farsi," he said.
The dialogue had begun.