Kim reimagines innovation as a group-think

By Letter to the Editor, by Andrew Causey

President Kwang-Wu Kim’s State of the College address, presented to the Columbia College community on April 18, was a careful blending of innovative plans and practical considerations about the future of our school. As I have pondered the address during the past three weeks, I am moved to write with cautious optimism in response to what I heard.

The president’s unrestrained embrace of our mission statement’s intent to “educate students who will communicate creatively and shape the public’s perceptions of issues and events and who will author the culture of their times” is, I believe, a call for all of us in the college community —administrators, faculty and staff members, students and parents—to realize that it is education which enables the creative shaping and authorship mentioned. Students are not pursuing their goals alone. Rather, it is the college community, working together, that helps them develop their voices and talents with innovation and panache.

Columbia’s community, with sharp thinking and planning, will be the power that creates our shared future. Faculty reading this will perhaps share my joy at being included in the conversation again! What I took away from the president’s address is that by joining together, we can bridge any differences in goals or disciplines. Looking ahead, we will all continue to our ongoing efforts to create true interdisciplinarity, a talent we educators have been actively practicing at Columbia for decades to come, and one which we will continue to explore and perfect for decades. Like President Kim, many of us can foresee a future where the whole community will develop ways to build those links between our separate passions, perhaps by first removing aging structures that have hindered efforts in the past.

Columbia College is home to us because it allows and encourages each of us to actively pursue our diverse talents, often in what other colleges would consider disparate, even conflicting fields or interests. Strong administrative support for the shaping of interdisciplinarity as we see fit will soon permit us to show just how connected and innovative an educational project can be.

The president also spoke about how important it is for workers in the Columbia community to remember that the college is not just here to employ us. This reminder that we are not simply here whether our job is to teach or keep the college running smoothly, whether we are here for a limited time or for decades  for wages and a vital sense of community security. We are hired to “own” our serious responsibilities and obligations in developing a strong creative educational community. As Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism teaches us, the words belong to no one, and there is no alibi…we all are jointly responsible for whatever emerges from among us.

I was heartened to hear the suggestion that departments and majors should continue to construct praxis-based models of social innovation and to teach examples of business thinking and entrepreneurship in the classroom. Fortunately, many instructors are already a step ahead, teaching not only methods for marketing creative works but also theoretical underpinnings of why buyers buy, how calculated risks are made and what to do when a plan fails.

My own students in anthropology find out how important it is to gain access to the sign systems and rhetorics of the powerful, why understanding the postmodern condition is vital to positioning their creative work, and also why their futures will be more secure by knowing how profit and capital articulate in our economic system. Explaining and exploring such concepts, of course, requires not only sophisticated technologies, but also the simplest of academic and educational contexts—face-to-face discussion in a classroom. The future challenge for the Columbia College community will be to know which is needed, when and where.

The president’s address leads me to believe that Columbia can once again become a venue for discovering what it means to be integral members of an arts, media and creative communication community. What I am left with is this: All of us need to return to the questions that once propelled the school. What is Columbia College here to accomplish? Who owns it? Where and how will we guide it?

As President Kim moves on to what he called “the external ring”—funders, alumni and college promotions—in the coming year, he will take with him stories and vignettes of his experiences seeing the diverse faculty teach, the talented staff facilitate, and our bright students learn together. This is the evidence he needs to prove that the Columbia College Chicago community’s unique vision and mission to its faculty, staff and students will perpetuate stories of success in the future.