Reflections on the Notion of "3M Currency"

The night they offered me the job at UBC, I knew I would be a second-class citizen for the rest of my life. “We’re hiring you for your teaching,” Peter Larkin told me on the phone, “but we’ll fire you for your research. And don’t you ever forget it!” I never forgot it. How could I? But I learned to live with and understand it, and eventually turned it into an advantage.

On the strength of my experience designing and delivering courses from middle school to graduate school, I had fallen into one of the best places in the world for research in my discipline of ecology. I had learned my classroom manner and pedagogy before I arrived at UBC. But I learned my science on the job, running from behind to catch up. How could I forget that if I did not become a world-class scientist by tenure time they would fire me? That was a fascinating period of my life, to say the least.

I reveled in the ecological research community at UBC, which was a wonderful place to do science. My own research group became vibrant within that community, and for nearly 30 years, we discovered fascinating things about hummingbird biology and published them in the world literature. Because the research environment (if not the educational one), openly embraced and respected ignorance, I felt quite at home there, as long as I ignored the spectre of tenure. Gradually, I learned to do science well enough to keep my job, but I never forgot that I was not a “real” scientist. I was a teacher, first and foremost, but that wasn’t quite good enough.

I squeaked through tenure and promotion with a warning, but became ‘stuck in grade’ at Associate Professor and stayed there for 19 years. I was refused promotion to Full Professor twice because of the marginal quantity of my research. Although I continued to receive cost of living increases in salary, I was barred from the more significant career progress increments and merit pay. As my first letter of refusal from UBC President David Strangway put it, I was unproductive in the eyes of my employer and my career progress was officially deemed to be over. One consequence was that my pension fund compounded more slowly than those of my colleagues. Another was that because Associate Professors carry less clout than Full Professors in academic decision-making I had less influence, even on decisions about curriculum and pedagogy, than I would have had otherwise. As a boy, I learned from graffiti along the highway that “the wages of sin is death”. It became increasingly clear as I aged that the wages of strong commitment to teaching in research universities is second class citizenship and second class income, compounded for life. It feels horrible to say it this way, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that teaching is sinful in academe.

As a sinner with strange values, I was relatively isolated from my peers in terms of education. I was isolated even in the small-scale world of the first year biology program, because until much later it was difficult for us converse about intellectual growth. We had little shared language to speak about teaching and learning, and we assumed different things about how learning occurs and how best to foster it. More than once I was asked to leave committee meetings for repeatedly asking difficult questions about pedagogy that were considered to be (and were), disruptive. In that environment it was difficult to speak of anything but subject matter content, and content was the last thing I thought we needed to discuss. For most of my peers, it was intuitively obvious and therefore unquestioned that teaching involved a one-way flow of information from professor to students, that students were and should be passive recipients of that information, and that assessment of learning required only the provision of opportunities to recall it. This is just the way it was in academe: a professor’s job was to profess. It followed that to teach well required only that we perform well in exposing students to the right kinds of information. But I didn’t believe it, and I did less lecturing than anyone expected me to. But my students learned well and enjoyed themselves, and I felt successful in teaching even while I was criticized strongly by my peers for the way I pursued it.

Many interesting things happened in my courses in the first 16 years, including wonderful collaborations with teaching assistants in an upper level human ecology course for non-majors. But my pedagogical isolation from my peers continued. In fact, every time peers evaluated my teaching for promotion, tenure, or local teaching awards, at least one evaluator criticized my teaching strongly. One of them, a teaching award winner, even asked me in front of my students to explain why I had wasted his time, since he had come to evaluate my teaching, not my students’ ability to work with each other in groups.

Then, in 1990, a new Dean of Science appointed me as one of five individuals from five departments charged with inventing an interdisciplinary first year science program. Although we spent most of our first year defending disciplinary viewpoints and the political positions of our departments, the two-year process literally changed my life and that of my institution. In the end, we proposed an intensive 21-credit program for science “keeners” in which four research professors from the core science disciplines and three more PhD scientists would work together in the classroom to present science as a coordinated and integrated whole. This planning team became the first Science One teaching team. It was a wonderful surprise to discover that with a critical mass of commitment to education drawn from the large pool of an entire Faculty, we had created a learning community that fully included students; the experience transformed all of us and transformed our institution.

After teaching in Science One and in two other programs that sprang from it for a decade, I was nominated for a UBC Killam Teaching Prize and a national 3M Teaching Fellowship in 1999. In each case, prior experience of peer evaluation of my teaching led me to expect the nomination to come to naught.

When I won the local award, my Dean asked me to be reconsidered for promotion. But a few minutes’ discussion revealed that our Faculty was not yet ready to recognize my accomplishments in the practice of pedagogy (as opposed to publication about practice) and I refused. A couple of months later, I learned I had won a 3M Teaching Fellowship. Soon, my Provost (formerly the Dean who had commissioned Science One) called me to his office to convince me to be reconsidered for promotion. His argument that the university needed a “poster boy” for reform of promotion and tenure procedures was difficult to refuse, especially since he did understand my real strengths and promised to support me fully from above if necessary. The next year was intense and public, partly because a colleague from another science department made some very disparaging, very public statements about undergraduate education to which I had no real choice but to respond. Our comments eventually reached Vancouver’s major newspaper. That article included both the conflict between research and education that our comments represented, and the related story of my non-progress through the promotion and tenure procedure. This embarrassing process did lead to my promotion, and it did result in substantive changes in promotion and tenure procedures. There is no doubt that my 3M award played a key role in that transformation.

The three-day 3M award gathering at Montebello was wonderful in many ways. It was amazing to experience deep personal connections with so many others who shared my values, my experiences, and my dreams of an undergraduate education that works. Although the simple ceremony on the last evening was amazingly low key relative to its impact on me later, it was something of a turning point in my life. On the face of it, all that happened was that a 3M representative gave each of us a “diploma”, a painting, and a box of 3M products. But something he said was a kind of time bomb that went off on the plane back to Vancouver. He presented it as something of a joke that 3M Teaching Fellows receive no monetary award; only a trip to Montebello, excellent food, an opportunity to commune with like-minded fellows, and “3M Currency”. He didn’t explain what 3M Currency was, but hinted strongly that it was extremely valuable and suggested that we not squander it. He laughed and we laughed with him, but I really had no idea what he was talking about.

The next day on the plane, I meditated on the notion of 3M Currency. Because I am ignorant about finance, I knew I was on foreign territory in my meditation, which led me to consider the problem in metaphorical terms. I began with “currency”, which I understood to be a medium of accounting of value. In my hummingbird research, for example, we considered the amount of energy harvested in a given time a currency for evaluating the success of foragers, and imagined strategies to be directed to maximizing this currency. This reminded me of the hint that 3M Fellows could either squander their currency or invest it wisely, and I wondered what I could do to allow my 3M Currency to compound in value over time. I already knew that people had responded to me differently as soon as they learned of my award. But my meditation revealed something more important: the ear, the eye, and the openness of mind that the award engendered in nearly everyone around me could render my own actions key if I conducted myself appropriately. I was responsible for the compounding of value, to myself and to the system I worked in. Before the plane landed, I was committed to being much more intentional and strategic in my work than I had ever been before.

At the beginning of my contemplation, I had considered “3M” more or less irrelevant to my understanding of 3M Currency, it being merely the name of the company that funds the Fellowship program. Later, I integrated what I knew about that company into my understanding. There can be no more valuable attitude for a scientist than to be open to his or her own ignorance, and the 3M tradition of celebrating and rewarding magnificent failures is a great metaphor for budding scientists as they develop their personal learning strategies. An important example relates to a key element of the cultural environment that develops in my courses, in the programs I helped to create, and in all effective research programs. To learn well as scientists, we must embrace our own ignorance and learn to express it publicly without embarrassment, and at the same time learn to respect and encourage the same attitudes and actions in others. We must speak so clearly about what we don’t know that it can guide us to questioning, to knowledge, and to understanding. And we must acquire the habit of listening deeply and responding respectfully to this kind of speaking by others. The metaphor applies not just to students and professors, but to corporations, universities, and other social entities with the capacity to learn from experience. In this way, the vague, abstract notion of 3M Currency evolved into a powerful framework for intentional, transformative action in my work in education, and I learned to use it effectively.

One of the wages of my investments was a bootstrapping of my 3M Teaching Fellowship into the CASE/CSAE Canadian Professor of the Year award in 2002, and to other honours that stemmed from that. In effect, the second national award greatly increased the interest rate on my 3M Currency and revealed many opportunities to influence faculty development and institutional change, at UBC and many other places, that I could not have imagined even a few years earlier.

In particular the credibility that came with my awards afforded ready access to Deans, Department Heads, Vice Presidents, and the Provost, in addition to faculty in all disciplines, to promote a major innovation at UBC. We had known for years that in spite of the success of the programs we created, we lacked understanding of a wide range of fundamental issues in teaching and learning, and therefore also lacked a strong basis for strategic reform of education. During a year of intense conversations with many individuals and groups, I experienced a growing openness of the entire campus community to the idea of a new research Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. I’m sure largely due to the power of 3M Currency, that research institute is now a reality. Its budget allows it to fund a few research projects each year, it has begun to publish reports in its Working Papers series, and it has already attracted a significant gift from an outside donor.

I have no doubt that the 3M Teaching Fellowship program and other ways of recognizing quality in teaching are social investments of very high order. Not only does this recognition acknowledge a few of many worthy individuals in a rapidly evolving educational system, but as I have attempted to illustrate here, it powerfully influences the course of that evolution.
A version of this paper was published in the book XXX.