“I am still learning –
how to take joy in all the people I am,
how to use all my selves in the service of what I believe,
how to accept when I fail and rejoice when I succeed.”
— Audre Lorde
I have been thinking a lot of about value and how we measure it recently. As we move into the next phase of the Maple League as an academic consortium, we have been having more and more conversations about what do we value and how do we know we are having an impact? When my term as Executive Director ends June 30, 2023, how will I know if I leave the consortium better or worse off for my participation? In this time of transition and succession, I have been thinking about how we value things in the academy and the systems we have put in place to measure them.
The systems we design and deploy to measure something’s value – of people, programs, plans – fundamentally shapes the organizational systems. Terms like “data-driven innovation,” “benchmarking,” “academic analytics” and “dashboards” are increasingly prevalent in discussions about what and how we do things. KPIs (key performance indicators), ROIs (return on investment), QA (quality assurance) are all tools various sectors use as assessment. Ostensibly, performance metrics can measure the efficacy of strategic plan at the macrocosm level all the way down to the microcosm of a classroom teaching strategy.
Measuring what we do as we go is essential to transformative processes; whether they contribute to a culture of accountability and fiscal responsibility or inform evidence-based policies designed to improve results, assessment is fundamental to learning.
And yet. Metrics expose tensions between what we say and what we actually do.
What happens when we cannot measure the impact of our efforts? What happens when we do not have adequate tools to meaningfully assess how and what we learn and lead? And, most dangerously, what happens when we use faulty metrics to make decisions about how to fund programs or institutions?
I have struggled to capture ways of sharing the ineffable. The transformative, often invisible, but nevertheless deep shift to mindsets, perspectives, and behaviours are palpable and yet nearly impossible to measure with any degree of accuracy with our current instruments.
Indeed, once we start to measure things, we often encounter complexity and confusion just as we strive for clarity and pattern. Indeed, the “Richardson effect” is paradox whereby the more accurately you try to measure some things, the more complex they become. The more closely you measure the coast of Britain, for example, the longer it gets.
As Physicist James Bridle summarizes: “Instead of resolving into order and clarity, ever-closer examination reveals only more, and more splendid, detail and variation” (Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence, 2022. p. 102).
Percy Bysshe Shelley, in Prometheus Unbound, writes: “The deep truth is imageless.” For Shelley, acknowledging that something is unknowable doesn’t make the pursuit of knowledge futile; rather, the value lies in the struggle itself, and is what makes us “good, great and joyous, beautiful and free” (Epilogue).
Physicist, philosophers, and poets are all fascinated with the same principle that “the truth is always stranger, more lively and more expansive than anything we can compute” (Brindle, p. 101).
One of the most powerful elements of the Maple League is that, at its heart, it is a research question. It is a curiosity-driven approach that asks, can universities re-wire mindsets and perspectives and behaviours to collaborate? Can we be better together? Where and how does innovation flourish, and can we design more intentional systems to support it?
The strength too of the Maple League is that we live in these questions, and we ask them at every table. Questions free us from the tyranny of being right and moves us into spaces where we can get it right – whatever right might resemble. German poet Rainer Maria Rilke urges us to live in the questions for which we do not have the answers:
"Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer" (Letters To A Young Poet).
I hope that these reports capture glimpses of the ineffable – of the transformation of humans helping others slow down when things get urgent in order to surface the systems. Together, when we have the space to pause, we are often able to practice divergent thinking to see the shape of complex problems more clearly. These colleagues and clusters have built intentional communities of trust where together we are willing to unlearn and re-learn by living in the questions. This is difficult and complex work that, more often than not, surfaces uncomfortable truths or broken system; staying with the trouble is hard work, but doing it together can help us rumble through the discomfort into new spaces where we can re-imagine authority and expertise that is more inclusive, more diverse, and more equitable. Working between and across four systems allows us to the similarities – and also the differences, so that by taking a systems approach, we can create a rising tide that raises all four of our boats.
~ Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities