Put down your buzzer, this is not Jeopardy.

Put down your buzzer, this is not Jeopardy.

A blog reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic by ALC Educational Coordinator Vic Izzo

Since the “Stay home, Stay safe” order was initiated here in Vermont, I have had the pleasure of spending each morning (and often evening) exploring the wonders of nature with my two year-old son. Our journeys are often a mixed bag. Some days we head out to a lesser-known hiking trail to learn about trees, while others days you might find us inspecting the entrances of ant nests poking out from the cracks in our driveway. Though these nature observations are fun and educational, my son’s most enjoyable outdoor excursions are our visits to our local community garden plots. Now don’t be presumptuous about my son’s predilection for gardening… While he does enjoy helping his dad turn soil, plant seeds, and water our thirsty seedlings, the real reason he begs for “garden time” is the resident woodchip, soil, and gravel “mountains” that he gets to climb unsupervised. With each successful ascent of these “mountains” he raises his arms in the air and begs for my adoration. These literal small victories are undeniably adorable; but more importantly, they have been a healthy reminder for me to appreciate those things around me…to smell the woodchips. To be honest, I barely noticed the many piles of sorted materials until my budding mountaineer scoped them out. I knew the piles were there but I never really acknowledged them or appreciated their significance. They are generally not on my radar and I’m not a two year old…

Vic Izzo’s son triumphantly atop the woodchip pile by the family’s community garden plot.

I recently had a similar revelatory experience during an intriguing ALC workshop led by a colleague from the Rubenstein School of Natural Resources, Dr. Matt Kolan. Matt is the director of the Leadership for Sustainability Master’s Program (MLS) here at UVM.  His work and teaching uniquely examines leadership and education in a holistic and expansive way. Students in the MSLS program actively engage in discussions and projects that explore how power and privilege shape our educational and leadership experiences. During his lecture, Matt pointed out that the dominant model of higher education is built upon a process that selects for rapid and confident responders and rewards those students with positive descriptors such as “fast learner”, “quick processor”, or “confident speaker”. These designations are, of course, quite familiar to me as they are the backbone of many of my best recommendation letters. Never do I find myself writing that a student is a slow learner, moderate processor, or quiet communicator.

As I sat and listened to Matt’s reimagining of the college classroom, I found myself reliving some of my own undergraduate classroom experiences. Vividly I remembered how I approached each class as a contestant on Jeopardy, eagerly looking to prove my worth. From the moment I sat down in class, I was in a race to respond to any question or comment before my competitors could capture the instructor’s attention. In my mind, the entire lecture process was an opportunity to quicken my intellectual skills. Yet, as Matt and others within the workshop unpacked the pitfalls associated with selecting for rapid responders, I suddenly began to see a giant woodchip pile emerge from the periphery of my perspective. Similar to my son, Matt provided me with a new lens, or more precisely, he expanded my view of the world around me. He didn’t reveal anything necessarily complicated or new.Quite the contrary, he simply pointed out a rather intuitive concept: reactionary behavior is not always a beneficial trait. 

Much the same way that our educational systems select for rapid responding students, our businesses, organizations and governmental agencies tend to seek out leaders that exhibit those same fast thinking and quick responding traits. Never has this tendency or bias been more evident than in the current COVID-19 reality. As the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold of our social, political and economic consciousness, so has the thirst for quick responses and reactionary policies. Daily news headlines and articles are chock full of economic timelines, infection rates, and critical examinations of decision making speed. From an academic perspective, I’ve seen no less than three recent grant requests-for-proposals (RFPs) with the word “rapid” in the title and an appropriately paired “rapid” submission deadline. Now, I acknowledge that crises, especially those of this magnitude, often necessitate quick decisions to avert catastrophe. However, it is important to acknowledge that the speed of a decision is rarely directly correlated with a successful outcome. As many of my fellow educators can attest, the rapid move to online instruction in response to the coronavirus outbreak, though (likely) necessary, may not have achieved the outcomes our organizations expected. Our communities are asking, begging leaders in every facet of society to make decisions, give us answers…now. And yet, when those quick decisions, predictions, and/or responses fail, we become angry, disappointed and (ironically) are often left at the trailhead of a longer road to resolution. 

Witnessing and experiencing the pervasive pressure to make quick decisive decisions in my home and work life has left me depressed, frustrated, and introspective. It has also led me to more deeply consider the revelations brought to light by both my son and colleague:

Perhaps it is time to pause.

Perhaps it is time to slow down some of our decision-making processes.

Perhaps we need to call upon those “slow thinkers” to help us.

Perhaps there is a woodchip pile that we are not seeing that can provide us with a better vantage point.  

Perhaps we should all take some time to think a little more like a two-year old.

Read Matt Kolan and Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees paper on the intersections of sustainability, diversity, privilege and power here.

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