Photo: Goddard College clock tower, Ruth Farmer, Program Director, IMA
Becoming a Leader
Acknowledging and engaging multiple views is not an academic exercise. Actually, it’s the point.
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Part One Conversation: Ruth Farmer
Practices: Josh Pollock, Goddard College IMA scholar
Practices: Tiffany Beard, Goddard College IMA scholar
Practices: Bridgette P. La Victoire, Goddard College IMA scholar
Practices: Joanna Tebbs Young, Goddard College IMA scholar
Practices: Eric Dalke, Goddard College IMA scholar
Practices: Sed Dickerson, Goddard College IMA scholar
Website: Goddard’s IMA Worlds of Change Blog
Susan Maier-Moul I’m curious about the sort of notes on the map – the points of your own development during which you figured out how things work in the world.
Ruth Farmer I’m not sure I have figured things out, but I’ve had developmental surges! I got my MFA in a low residency program at Bennington college, the writing seminar. In fact I was one of the first students, I was in the first graduating class, when Liam Rector was the director.
One of the things that I understand as someone who has been educated in traditional schools and in low residency programs is being afraid, being nervous, being excited, feeling isolated, and having a sense of freedom as well.
I understand the conflicting tensions that IMA students feel because I received one of my masters through a low-residency program.
When I talk with students those emotions seem unexpected to them, and that was something I felt was unexpected as well.
Susan So there was, as there so often is in life, an alignment process between expectation and reality. Things did not feel the way you hoped they would?
Ruth I would feel … I wanted to do a low residency program because I didn’t want to be in classes, but then when I wasn’t in class I would feel isolated, until I really started getting into my own work or working with people in other ways, differently from going to class, or having a seminar or whatever.
But it was moving between… a temporary learning community and when I say temporary I mean in the physical sense – we were with each other a few days a year, but I learned so much about myself during those times, and I met wonderful people whom I’m still in contact with.
So going to residencies, you’re smack up against all the activity, the intenseness, it’s a very intensive experience.
Then you go home, and you’re like ok, ho hum, here I am, I gotta continue this work now. And for me, an introvert, it was kind of a relief to be alone for a while, to think my own thoughts in my own way.
But then you sort of shift that dynamic and you get into, well what do I need in order to accomplish what it is that I said I’m going to do?.
What do I need in order accomplish the goals I’ve set?
Susan This is one of those incredibly magic questions that changes our very qualities of bewilderment or even helplessness into being an effective advocate.
Ruth On some level that’s helped me to be a director. I learned the value of questions and formulating my own questions and challenging theories and assumptions, and also working in communities.
You have these challenges, you have to challenge the theoretical foundations of things that you’re studying, for example. But you also have to know what those things are.
So as the director of a program I sometimes find myself wanting to understand, what is it that people say is happening. When I was asked to become the director of IMA, I started asking questions about how the program was run, how it was perceived, what were the primary issues in IMA. I got so many different stories, and many of them completely off the wall. I said to myself, fine. But now I know. And I’m pretty sure I still haven’t gotten all those stories.
Susan But working with the materials changed you, it had a positive impact on your effectiveness.
Ruth Part of being in a low residency program is knowing that you have to ask questions, because you’re never going to find out if you don’t ask anything.
As a student, you don’t have the immediacy of sort of popping in on anybody because you really do have to think about, well who do I need to be with right now, who do I need to ask questions, what kinds of questions do I have?
As a PD this translated into, What assumptions are being made about this program that are damaging it? Or hindering its growth? What assumptions are keeping us from attracting the students that will thrive in the program or that are hindering our ability to work with the students we have? What is working well? Because I realized that the program has alumni and faculty that are very loyal.
Asking those kinds of questions helped me to get a handle on the program, my role, and some grounding to help keep the program moving forward.
Susan It has allowed you to apply the core methodology to making the right distinctions – which is really getting to first base for making effective changes.
Talking the language: shared or exclusive?
Ruth Quite a number of low-residency programs are student empowered – sometimes people say “student-centered,” but I’m not ready to go that far. In IMA, students are empowered. The student really does have to take responsibility, have a direction, know when to seek help, know when the help is actually that, and not steering them completely away from their vision.
My experience as a student in a low-residency program has really helped me in my job as a PD.
And I had to also learn the language of the PD and of Goddard. Some new students have said it very well. They say, “I don’t understand ‘Goddard-speak’.” Well, I had to learn Goddard-speak. Quickly!
Susan So you have an eye on who is included or held out, as well as on assumptions about shared meaning.
Ruth There is a certain way we talk at Goddard that others might not understand. We don’t want to admit it, but outsiders sometimes just don’t understand what we are saying. And that’s ok because we need to communicate in our own way, but we also need to interrogate our assumptions about what we say and what we mean.
I would bet that if you ask someone in another program or even within the IMA, to define progressive education, they would come up with different things. But if we understand that that is the case, it’s a very different thing from assuming that we all have the same ideas.
Susan Language really can be empowering, but I agree that it’s really a very slippery agent. It can become instrumental to glibness or far worse.
Do I need to create my own resources?
Ruth My constant exposure to this over the course of my career has helped me in a way, for my own personal – for my own work.
And how things really work is that you know that you have to have questions, you have to challenge but you also have to know the language, you have to understand whether or not you have help, whether you need to create your own help, how to use your resources, who are your resources.
For example here we’re all in different silos, even though we’re all part of Goddard. Each program is almost in a separate silo. We’re starting to break that down a little bit more than it used to be, but we still are pretty much separate.
Knowing there are other people out there is important and I think that’s another way that my work as a PD parallels the work of a student in the Individualized MA program.
Susan It’s empowering to recognize that.
Ruth Like IMA students, I have peers, people at my same level. IMA students have G1s, G2s, whatever. PDs are all expected to accomplish similar things but never the same thing, just as G2s have certain criteria they must meet. The community is there, although sometimes it doesn’t feel like it because we aren’t physically together very often.
You need to know how and when to go in, to contact your peers.
Develop the ability to shift points of view
Susan You often speak pointedly about resources. What predisposes you to be aware of the need to recognize what resources are in play? And recognize the need for active management of those resources?
Ruth Well, you know I have worked in education in different ways for a long time. My first teaching job was in a community education program. We were teaching students how to become medical transcriptionists and dental technicians and other things like that. I taught English, I taught writing and English and things like that.
At that level it’s a very practical approach to educating people. And even at the level of a graduate program, there’s still there’s something very practical about what you’re doing.
Susan It’s doing the work that you’ve given your life to.
Ruth I’ve been in these different venues. I used to teach self defense, I used to teach anti-violence, I’ve taught in private schools, I’ve been as I said before, at Barnard College as the associate director of the Center for Research on Women I coordinated the Scholar and the Feminist Conference, as well as the Center’s weekly seminars. I was a faculty advisor before I became a program director. I got one of my masters in a low residency program at Bennington, and in fact I have an MFA in creative writing.
So it’s those kind of educational experiences that gave me views into different aspects of education: teacher, administrator, coordinator, taking on responsibilities that constantly shifted my viewpoint.
That is what makes a good director, being able to shift viewpoints.
In fact it makes a really good faculty member in this kind of program. To be able to shift viewpoints because otherwise you’re only sort of looking at what it is you know and the student doesn’t know.
The student doesn’t know what you know. In a program like IMA the student also knows a lot that the faculty person doesn’t know! And that has to be ok.
Susan And it has been designed in from the inception of the program that that has to be a powerful thing, and not a holding-back, not a tussle over authority.
Ruth Right. That has to light up the faculty member. Because otherwise you’re thinking, this person is smarter than I am and how am I going to manage that – and we are not here to manage their education. We really aren’t.
Having those different viewpoints throughout my life has helped me in my current position, but also just being a person at Goddard, even as a faculty member, being able to look at things from different viewpoints. I think that’s something that happens if you are working from a progressive education point of view, one does have to realize that acknowledging and engaging multiple views is not an academic exercise. Actually, it’s the point.
What resource do people most often overlook?
Susan At The Magazine, we think constantly about how to encourage and inspire people to do what they feel they are here on the planet in this life to do. We want to provide a context for their thinking, a support for them to work toward their aspirations. And we try to just name things that are obstacles, to be clear rather than abstract about that.
In my own life, I learned over the past 15 years what time looks like – I had to get past thinking there was going to be a big chunk of some resource – time or money or intellectual or emotional support – that it just was not going to look like that.
But a one quart measuring cup only takes 45 minutes of a tiny drip to fill up – a resource may not look like much water until you capture it. In yoga, this is really the concept of bandha, of guiding the interaction with the resource.
When I teach I talk about that, I talk about it pragmatically. You are not going to get 2 years off from raising your kids, ok? (laughter) So what about that? What about your dreams? Are they fantasies about getting away from raising kids? Or how can you activate your pleasure in your own life and begin to work toward what you want for yourself?
So Ruth, in your experience, what resource do people most often overlook? It’s available and they either don’t recognize it, or value it or understand it, or even know it exists? Resource or resourcefulness?
Ruth That’s a really good question, and I can’t say that I have an answer to it, I think it varies. I think that people often – I think a lot of times people don’t do something not because they don’t have the capacity to do it, but because they’re wondering “What will people think if I abandon this – whatever this is – if I abandon other aspects of my life?” Ok?
So let’s just say maybe you wanted to start a business and you have a child. And you’re in a job that’s paying, I don’t know, it’s paying you not only a livable wage, but a damn good one, and you say, but I have to work part time in order to put more resources – more of my time into developing this business – people will think you are being irresponsible.
A lot of people might not say it to your face, but they are thinking, “I can’t believe she’s got a kid and she’s da da da” (laughter)
Susan Yes, call that out!
Ruth I’m not even sure it’s a resource, but I think that one of the things that happens is we’re way too worried about people looking at us negatively for decisions that we make.
And they are empowering decisions.
Maybe people don’t think this way anymore, but my generation might think that, if a dad did that, that would be fabulous, that he went out on his own. But if mom does it and she has to go out on her own, which means that part of the time she has to put the kids in with a babysitter then she is somehow being irresponsible.
Susan Our own inner conflict about this is so much more powerful – it’s really what empowers other people’s opinions.
Ruth In terms of naming it, I’m not sure I have a resource – I just feel like part of the resource is the person accepting a decision she has made about her life. I’m not saying that the person should not care what others think.
Rather she should accept that she made a particular decision.
If the decision is that you chose not to do something, own it. Own it as in, I could have done it but I didn’t want to do it because I thought people would think harshly of me.
When you make a choice, own it
Ruth Some people don’t strike out and start a business because they don’t have the financial resources. They just don’t have it. And they haven’t figured out who can help them. I think that’s very real. Their need is very real.
There are people who really do need partnership. I mean solid partnership. Susan, you run a business, but obviously you are in partnership with a lot of different people. You know, on some level. That is built into your work. Some people need partnerships to build their work.
There are so many different resources. Some people need to have someone they are working with from the beginning of whatever it is that they’re doing, whatever project – they need to have a partner with them. That partner might just be the person who says “Oh that doesn’t sound right,” or “Let’s go here and have this meeting with so-and-so.” It could be small or big, but they need that, always – a sounding board. It fosters their creativity to talk with a supportive person.
I’m not sure I can answer the question about what resources they don’t look for because there are so many of them. It really depends on what it is that you’re going for.
Susan Can you give an example from your own life?
Ruth For me as someone who writes and doesn’t write – ok? (laughter)
And lately, more the latter. I’m one of those people who really needs a sounding board. I need somebody to check in with me, especially to say, “Let me see what you’ve been writing.” …
I was working the year before last with a women’s writing project where I had to show up every Saturday with something, ok? Not just work that I revised, but I also had to read my peers’ work and be prepared to make cogent comments. That works for me. It keeps me writing.
Now I do write every day but I don’t finish a lot of stuff every day. Some people need that deadline, some people need due dates – see that’s a resource – someone saying “Hand it to me.” (laughter)
Under those circumstances, those writers will shine because they know that every Friday at noon they have to have a completed piece. And it’s there, because they aren’t failing to write because they don’t have anything to say, they’re just not writing because there isn’t someone in their lives saying “Hand it to me.”
Working with the process is part of trusting the process
Susan We have found with our writers – The Magazine is in some ways a cooperative writing project – we have found with all of us that writing together has been not just sort of BFF meaningful, but substantive for each of us. Everyone’s work just keeps getting better.
Ruth Some people are very skeptical of cooperative writing or of co-learning. It might feel unrealistic to assume that people can teach you without lecturing or being “the expert” in the field that you are studying. When Goddard students question this method of learning, we often say “trust the process.”
Susan Yes. But what I learned really at Goddard that sets it apart from the abstraction of “the process” is you know, there really is an operative process. And it may be functional or it may be dys-functioning, and you don’t have to prostrate yourself to this passive acceptance of dysfunction.
At Goddard I learned what my farming grandparents understood: you tinker. You don’t set things up and let them run if you want to eat. You tinker and it’s a lively intelligent part of your everyday work.
You tinker with the machinery constantly to keep it working. You adjust what you are doing in term of several aspects of realities, you observe the elements and respond, not because, you know responsiveness is beautiful, but because you are growing something you want to eat, to trade for other things you need, you are growing what you need to live. There is real beauty in that. It doesn’t require us to provide it with wishful thinking.
Ruth You know tinkering is an interesting concept. There is something mechanical about most folks’ understanding of the term that probably would make academics uncomfortable.
However, there is a bit of tinkering going on: you try something and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t; as in, you have a research question that you think could be answered using particular methodologies and find out that you can’t answer the questions in that way. Or that you have preconceived notions of the answers and don’t see other paths opening before you.
Sometimes your questions/issues/answers/methods are still present but have changed shapes. You have to be able to step back and recognize the discoveries you’ve made, be able to bask in your brilliance!
What resource do people most often overrate?
Susan Your sense of direction is clear and other people reading about how your path has unfolded for you – that’s powerful for other people to take in. We’re hoping people realize, Hey I could model that behavior, I can live my ideals, too.
So in support of that, I wonder, do you find there’s a resource that people overestimate? They think that’s what I need, if had that I could succeed, when really, it has nothing to do with attaining their desired outcome or their dream?
Ruth In colleges, people think that the teacher, the faculty member is the resource.
I think that faculty members are a resource. I don’t mean to say it like they are not useful, because they are. But I think that students often expect a faculty member to change their lives. I’ve seen some really disappointed people, who really think the faculty person should have done something for them.
So I think that that resource is over estimated, and estimated in an unfair way. Let’s put it that way, an unfair and unrealistic way.
The other thing is the whole idea of the naming of the diploma, at some level. I say that because it’s been a real recent phenomenon. People are sort of like, if I have these particular words on my diploma, then I can get a job.
I don’t think so.
But I’m willing to talk to you about it. You know, that’s what people – when you’re in an economy where things are really sort of scary, you look at things in a different way. So people are often concerned about what the diploma actually says.
Susan Is there any reality to that or any – I suppose I’d call it disingenuousness – in that?
Ruth There are those folks who really are concerned that if their diploma doesn’t declare a particular thing that they’re never going to get a job. Or they’re not going to get the job that they want.
Be active to make your education investment pay off
Susan Is that how it really works in the world – getting hired? Is that really the thing to put energy into?
Ruth In my experience as someone who has hired people over, and over, and over, I have known certain committees, and even just skimming CVs and resumes – people think about, they try to figure out how they can articulate their needs so they can bring you in – or they can articulate their needs so they can keep you out.
That’s how it is, you know.
That’s a real cynical way of looking at it -
Susan Yeah, but it’s the pragmatic piece of it -
And actually, that’s really valuable. I think that’s a really wonderful thing to say. I mean, it’s the truth.
Ruth Unfortunately it is. So I can say, I have this MA in blah blah, or MFA or doctorate or whatever, and if people don’t need you or don’t want you, it doesn’t matter. Ok? Or if your cover letter or project doesn’t move the committee, they won’t care what your diploma says. They simply won’t. The words on the diploma, in that sense, are overestimated by students.
I think a lot of times students want to be sure that the colleges help them in their professional careers, to move forward, and I don’t think that’s unrealistic.
Goddard doesn’t do a very good job of that. A lot of other colleges have at least a career counseling or career services department that will help people to sort of think about where they want to go next. That’s a resource. I think that if anybody depends on that resource, they are not going to get where they need to go.
Susan I’d love to see where everybody went when they graduated. It might help people think for example about how to even write a cover letter to help them get the job they want to get, just based on how other professionals have leveraged their degree from Goddard.
Ruth I know that there are plans to do more research into where Goddard alums are, what they are doing. I know where several IMA alums are and what they are doing because they keep in touch. It is anecdotal information where as real research is needed. Alumni are featured on IMA’s Worlds of Change blog.
There are plans to complete a research project creating a database of alumni. We need to know where Goddard alumni are now and what they are doing. We also need to know how their Goddard experiences helped them in their professional and, even, personal lives, since these are usually so intertwined. This is particularly important for IMA. It goes back to the question asked earlier – Why would anyone want to acquire this particular degree? For some, an IMA degree has helped them in their current professional lives; for others, it has led to new careers, new lives.
You asked me about the public image of IMA. I wish we could convey this more concretely in our outreach – that students’ lives have been changed as a result of attaining an IMA degree.
Susan If each of us was able to give a paragraph on what’s been the best way to leverage Goddard in the career path we’ve had – I mean you know, leverage or apply or make use of the Goddard-ness of it – those paragraphs would be compelling to me. I’d want to look at those.
Ruth I would, too. That’s something that I’ve been really curious about. Actually, I read your student files and I wondered, How did she get from there to here?
Goddard and progressive education
Susan What about Goddard’s legacy in progressive education. When I see everything that is changing in 21st century realities of work life and financial pressures on both individuals and institutions, it seems to me that progressive education has a blend of sanity and creativity that’s hard to match.
Ruth This also goes back to something you said about the public image, one of the things I keep coming up against in terms of Goddard in general and definitely the IMA. It’s like the education community’s best kept secret.
Susan I have to confirm that, and it’s strange in a way. I really cannot remember ever having said I went to Goddard without the other person knowing Goddard – it’s there, everyone knows it. And yet, no one seems to know anything about it.
Ruth People are not talking about Goddard, like they might have been doing years ago. And I say “might have” because I don’t really know. Goddard has several reputations. One is as a place on the cutting edge, a place where people are really thinking about significant issues. Because that is the point, because you’re intended to do that, folks in the Goddard community take it for granted. We don’t necessarily go around saying, “We’re cutting edge at Goddard.” Folks from other institutions do go around saying that.
Susan It really dilutes the meaning, or actually, that usage appropriates the concept.
Ruth They use terms like progressive education even in very traditional settings. They claim progressive pedagogy that isn’t taking place or isn’t done with any kind of integrity.
Goddard has been invisible in this pedagogical dialogue.
You know, when I tell people that I direct a program at Goddard College, I often get the response “Oh, I thought they had closed.”
Again, I come back to, there’s something in terms of our own public image that we have to step out and stop being so modest. And I think that part of it is that the college has either been hunkered down for awhile, or just been really modest, or just has been thinking that people actually know. And no, they don’t know.
Susan This is such a mismanagement of the investment of the students, who really have given their intellectual capital to the mission of Goddard. But one of the reasons I’m here speaking with you is your contribution is an important change, and your work is one harbinger of the arrival of other change agents.
Ruth We have a new president, Barbara Vacarr. I don’t want to misrepresent her, but my own experience of her is that’s one of her missions, to make sure that Goddard College builds community, goes into partnership with other communities: the immediate community, central Vermont, but also with other liberal colleges. Liberal and progressive colleges. Particularly in Vermont, but nationally as well. We want to get back in dialog, have allies, contribute to – and lead – the conversations about progressive education.
Lifecycle and institutional identity
Susan Networking is practically a reborn experience these days. It is in many ways similar to game theory – there’s a positive vibe about how to collaborate, how to talk about what you bring to the table and the internet makes it possible to locate your community almost as though it were a diaspora.
There are people who value what you value. There are new cultural forms and new possibilities of cultural distribution. Goddard’s expertise with progressive education will be a welcome partner skill in many venues if you seek them out.
Ruth Goddard’s name should be on people’s lips in a positive way. Because some people still think of Goddard as “Oh that hippie school” whereas Goddard hasn’t been that hippie school for over twenty years.
Susan I find an institution’s internalized image can be a problem, too and really eat up energy. It’s important to understand and acknowledge the life cycle – the personal development if you will – of an institution, and not get bogged down in a story the same way that people can get bogged down in a story they tell themselves.
Ruth We want to be constantly in conversation. For me, for IMA, in a college that has been somewhat invisible, IMA has been nearly invisible until maybe a year or so ago.
As a new director, I pointed out that the program is invisible to the public and within this college. I asked outreach and enrollment folks: What are you going to do about it? Then I asked How can we do something about this? Because I wanted to reinforce that outreach is a team effort. It is not something that any one program director can accomplish alone. The institutional advancement staff and the enrollment and admissions staff have been very cooperative and supportive. IMA is not invisible anymore.
Susan It’s the only place I could go to do what I wanted to do.
Ruth People don’t get that though. IMA needs alums like you to articulate why this was the only place you could do what you wanted to do.
We talk within the college, a lot, about pedagogy we haven’t been doing as much talking to other educators, other academic leaders and other colleges in the way that showcases what we do well. What we’ve been doing well for many, many years. That shedding of a particular image has come slowly, but I think that people are ready for it. Alums’ stories would help us to clarify our thinking about Goddard pedagogy.
Susan These days people are reevaluating educational options. The timing is great.
Ruth I think there once was an attitude that if students are not in a classroom they are not gaining an education. Even nowadays, when there are lots of online programs, face-to-face teaching is privileged over other models. Goddard is often confused with distance learning or online learning, and is sometimes dismissed by those that don’t respect those models.
Also just the assumption that that’s not a valid model.
Susan You know, take a deep breath and just give us that, on line versus low res, and sort of sum your vision of the IMA at Goddard, because I think it would be a wonderful way to bring our whole conversation home.
Ruth People confuse Goddard with an online college, which it is not. Even if it were, the idea that students cannot learn unless they are sitting in a classroom with the teacher weekly or several times a week is an outdated view of education. This viewpoint assumes that everyone learns in the same way, or that students are not capable of organizing their learning except under direct, and constant, supervision by teachers. We need to rethink these ideas, understand that there are many valid educational models. Also, technologies are readily available that were not, even 10 years ago. Teachers and students can meet through electronic mail and videoconferencing.
Even before this technological revolution, Tim Pitkin (Goddard’s founder), and others at Goddard, realized the value of the intensive, low-residency education model. In the IMA program, intellectual exchanges during workshops, advising meetings, workgroups, in the dining room and in the dorms inform and energize students’ independent studies, as well as faculty teaching. Most of the IMA faculty have been with Goddard over ten years and are also working elsewhere in their respective fields. They model the commitment to life-long learning that we expect of our students.
IMA is not for everyone. In general, low-residency programs are not suited for all learners. The same can be said for other modes of learning. Some students thrive in face-to-face classes, while others might be intimidated or bored. Colleges often advertise online courses as ideal for adult learners who are too busy to take classes. However, this model is best suited for students with strong time management skills, comfort with technology, and the ability to work independently.
The Individualized MA program combines face-to-face teaching and learning during residencies with independent study. Between residencies, packet work, process letters, and response letters keep faculty and students in dialogue with each other, helping students to develop academically and personally. My experiences with low-residency, individualized programs, as student, teacher, and IMA director reinforce my belief that this is an excellent way to learn.
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