Tag Archives: teaching

Starting in the Classroom: Blended Instruction for Policy Practice

I can definitively say, now, almost 4 years after the university started its experiment with instruction that is part traditional classroom format and part-online, that, for teaching social policy, I totally love it.

I promise it’s not because scheduling class around my practice and my kids’ schedules is easier when we meet only 7 times/semester, instead of every week.

The late nights on the discussion boards and trolling the Internet for new content that I want to introduce (and, still, sometimes, soothing students anxious about the long stretches we have between class periods) sort of make up for that.

No, what I like the best is how much more closely it parallels how social work practitioners engage with social policy, as compared to having access to an instructor like me for 3 hours every week.

Students learn to navigate policy information online, evaluating the respective biases of each perspective, just like they have to in practice.

They build communities of other social workers who can support them through the often isolating experiences of unraveling the layers of social injustice that constrain their effective work with clients. They pivot between untangling root causes and applying salve to the wounds of those injured by our society. They turn their attentions to the ways in which clients experience policy most–in the policies that agencies develop in order to operate within these external parameters.

They find ways to weave advocacy and investigation and constituent development into their direct practice, without overwhelming their days or (hopefully) antagonizing their practice organizations (too much).

And, I guess, that’s our hope for students in any social work policy class, but, again, year after year, my students have returned to tell me how much harder it all gets, when they graduate and no longer have the classroom experience to ‘root’ their social policy studies.

It’s one thing to stay grounded in a dual micro/macro practice approach when you have half a work day, every week, set aside for that express purpose.

It’s quite another when you’re literally on your own.

So, while I don’t consider my responsibility to my students any less in a blended course than one where I’m in front of them every week–quite the opposite–I know that they do experience me differently, and, so I leave a different impression on their social work identity.

It is my hope, and I think, it has been affirmed at least somewhat over these past few years of experimenting, that this instructional format equips my students to take on social policy in the arena where they’ll need to be effective, as policy practitioners.

In the ‘real world’, which is to say, increasingly in today’s context, online.

The best of both worlds, I hope.

Colleague Week: Academics Making a Difference

Here’s another post for ‘Colleague Week’.

Aka ‘academic lovefest’.

Do you ever read someone’s article in an academic journal and think, “I bet she is a really nice person?”


Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, I think, by this point, that I could recognize Jennifer Mosley’s work even in a blind test. She has developed a scholarly voice that is so recognizable, and occupies such a critical place in the field, that I have come to gravitate to whatever it is she’s putting out.

I mean, with titles like “Recognizing new opportunities: Reconceptualizing policy advocacy in everyday organizational practice”, I feel like we must have been separated at birth.

There are several elements of her research and writing that I particularly appreciate, including her inclusion of the actual experiences of service providers and impacted populations, really without fail; her attention to nonprofit organizations’ real constraints in engaging in advocacy (and treatment of them as sophisticated actors making hard trade-offs, rather than novices somehow feeling their way–toward that end, I like this one a lot, “Institutionalization, privatization, and political opportunity: What tactical choices reveal about the policy advocacy of human service nonprofits”); and her inclusion of global perspectives, in recognition of how much U.S.-based charities have to learn from the activist traditions of, in particular, developing nations.

As I navigate a research and publishing agenda in my own relatively nascent academic career, I look to Jennifer’s work for a sense of where I might make contributions, and I rely heavily on her CV for readings for my classes and my literature reviews.

Part of what I value, then, most about her presence in the field is that presence itself, as a reminder that there are other social work academics who view nonprofit advocacy as a legitimate target of inquiry and a prominent dynamic in the profession.

Sometimes macro practice–and the study thereof–can be isolating, but seeing a familiar name in the e-journal citations makes it, somehow, less so.

Colleague Week: Academics Making a Difference

I could call this just ‘shout out’ week, I guess, because I don’t necessarily have a real treatise on these professionals’ work. In some cases, I’m not even sure what I could really add of tremendous value.

But I wrote an email to one of these colleagues last fall, expressing how much I appreciate her writing and her professional voice and her leadership in the field, and she responded saying that it is quite rare, really, for academics to receive this particular kind of appreciation and accolade and, well, since I don’t live close enough to make all these folks quick breads, the way I normally do to thank those to whom I owe a debt, I thought this was sort of the next best thing.

I have used some of Benjamin Shepard’s work here before, about the use of play in organizing.

But there are other pieces that I have discovered more recently and enjoy tremendously, including an article on social work and community gardening as environmental activism, a sort of case study on mixing direct services and social action, in the life of one transgendered activist, and some Huffington Post articles (on my life list!) on Occupy and direct action in New York City.

One of the coolest things about those Huff Post pieces, in my opinion, is the byline. It’s really gratifying to me to see an “Assistant Professor of Human Service at New York School of Technology/CUNY” writing about the planning for Occupy street protests, in a popular press publication.

It’s colleagues like these who I think deserve more attention and commendation. They’re demonstrating every day (in some cases, literally!) that academics don’t have to stay within the walls of the academy, that there is a role for analysis and theory in grassroots movements, and that progressives of all professional persuasions should join common cause.

I’m proud to call these folks colleagues. Hopefully our paths will cross someday, at a conference or on the streets.

Attention to process

I will have several posts in the next few weeks with insights from Decisive, a book that had so many sticky notes in it when I was finished that it would have been easier, probably, to mark the pages that I didn’t think I needed to highlight.

I’m starting with this, a finding from some of the academic literature (mostly from the business world) reviewed in the book:

When it comes to producing solid decisions, process matters more than analysis, by a factor of six, in influencing the quality of the outcome (p. 5).

Essentially, how much we know–about the issue at hand, and even about ourselves and our own biases–does not matter nearly as much as the process we develop to guide us towards our conclusions. In part, this is because even knowing our limitations isn’t enough to correct for them, and because we can never know everything that we need to know, in order to independently arrive at the best result.

Process matters, for helping us to identify the range of best options, for ensuring that we incorporate others’ perspectives as needed, for encouraging small failures that facilitate innovation while minimizing risk.

We get better decisions, all else held constant, if we work those decisions through a better decision-making process.

And that, I believe, has profound implications for government policymaking.

The fall semester just started, which means that I’m teaching policy classes again, charged with helping social work students to not only understand how policy is made in this country, but, at least on some level, to believe in that process, at least enough to want to work through it, and to improve it.

But the truth is that much of my students’ impressions about our policymaking structure is correct: we really shouldn’t leave the most important decisions about how we want to live and what we want to value, as a nation, to a process that we jokingly refer to as ‘like watching sausage being made’.

We shouldn’t be surprised, after all, to so often get bad results from such a bad (read: too much influence of money, too short a timeline of measuring impacts, too polarized in terms of district boundaries) process.

But, and I think this is fundamentally important, too:

Process matters not just for shaping the kinds of outcomes that result, but also for influencing how people feel about a decision.

We call it “procedural justice” for a reason and, when people perceive that a process is bad/unfair/illogical, they don’t feel as good about the decision that results, even if they would otherwise prefer it.

And that makes me wonder, could we restore engagement in government, even if people disagree with the outcomes, by improving the process through which those decisions are arrived?

Could that motivation be enough to compel some critical changes (maybe changes to Senate rules, certainly campaign finance, districting), in ways that more base desires to shift advantage to one side or another have failed?

We’re social workers. We ‘get’ process.

What would it take for us to have a policymaking process worthy of our democratic ideals?

And what difference would it make?

What we can(‘t) ignore

My summer course, Poverty in the Global Economy, started this week.

Perhaps unlike most faculty, I really like teaching in the summer. I feel like students are a little less tense about grades, maybe, in June, and the longer class periods allow us uninterrupted time to study topics in detail.

And I appreciate the opportunity to journey with students, pushing their knowledge beyond their comfort level and, more importantly, helping them to integrate these new understandings into their social work practice.

It should be another rewarding month.

One of the books that I read as I prepared this particular course was Creating Room to Read, the founder’s memoir about leaving his corporate job to start a global charity focused on increasing literacy in the developing world.

One of the reflections that struck me was this:

There are social problems–crippling, devastating, completely unjust social problems–that we don’t really even see.

Like 200 million girls not going to school, largely because they are girls (p. 21).

And that has me thinking about visibility and proximity, about why global poverty is such a literally foreign concept to my students, even when they are fairly familiar with much of the U.S. social policy context, and about what it means for our chances of combating these social ills, this fact that we don’t really perceive them.

It can’t be, I don’t believe, just an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing. Not for my students, many of whom are very concerned about homeless veterans or victims of sex trafficking, for example, even if they don’t have much personal contact with those populations.

It can’t be pure access to information, since we have more information at our disposal, about global poverty or anything else, than we can possibly comprehend.

So is it a function of the scale the problem and the scope of our potential response, and how we avert our eyes from that which we find overwhelming? Is it a willful ignorance, not because we don’t care but because we are trying to cope with limited resources and an abundance of pressing needs? Is it a self-conscious desire not to intrude upon others’ realities, in an effort to avoid harmful paternalism? Is it an emotional allegiance to those we perceive as being ‘like’ us, and a greater distancing from those we do not?

One of the foundations of this summer course is the idea of interdependence and the reality that we are affected, in ways immediately visible and distantly imagined, by these problems we studiously ignore. From terrorist attacks to infectious disease to environmental strains to shared prosperity and the promise of gender equality, what we don’t attend to elsewhere has a way of coming home.

My students and I will spend our June not ignoring those 200 million girls, or the women who die in childbirth, or the highly unfair trade rules that the United States negotiated for itself.

We’ll fix our eyes on what is often unseen, listen to voices seldom heard, and attend to action regularly left undone.

What are you doing this summer?

Crowdsourcing Week: Implementation Campaigns

More crowdsourcing!

Today, I have a request for the crowd that is more explicitly focused on my teaching, instead of my consulting practice.

So, think of your contributions as feeding the next generation of social work policy professionals.

I appreciate you in advance, of course.

One of the things I stress with my policy students is the importance of the entirety of the policy change process. Creating social change, of course, isn’t just about legislative advocacy; we spend quite a bit of time talking about change within the judicial arena, with administrative agencies, and in larger community/societal attitudes and policy conversations, too.

But, even when we are talking specifically about changing legislation as a vehicle for policy improvement, that doesn’t mean just the period between bill introduction and celebratory signing ceremony. Instead, it has to start much earlier, when we’re formulating policy ideas and building a base and connecting with potential allies and negotiating alternatives.

And it has to far outlast the drying of the ink on the executive’s signature, if we want our policy changes to actually root, and to actually have an impact.

And I think my students really get that, conceptually. They nod their heads a lot, and they ask smart questions in response to the articles that we read about the process of policy implementation, and advocacy around the same.

But, when it comes time to give them examples of organizations’ and groups’ advocacy campaigns around implementation, I struggle. There are great case stories about organizations working with elected officials to change laws. My students eat these up, because they’re real, and they make the process real for them, then, before they get out into the field.

But so much of the policy implementation process happens behind closed doors, literally and figuratively. Organizations are not often in the news for implementation victories, even though influencing the staffing levels and qualifications, and the due process procedures to which clients have access, and the eligibility rules that drive access to benefits, and the definitions about what will be provided and in what ways…all of that can matter just as much as getting the law changed in the first place.

Recently, the protracted battles around implementation of the Affordable Care Act, including the promulgation of thousands of pages of regulations enacting that long and complex legislation, have provided good context to make these implementation issues real for my students. Certainly the ACA has been a very good example of the truth that:

Implementation Matters.

But I need more.

I need examples of advocacy campaigns around policy implementation, particularly (being choosy, here!) where the advocates’ primary purpose was not legislative change, in the first place, but changes to administrative or regulatory policy, which implements legislation.

I would love stories about why advocates chose this as the target, how they constructed a campaign, what levers of power they used, how they mobilized necessary constituents, how they secured the information they needed, how they evaluated their successes.

I welcome case studies of implementation efforts that are successful in achieving the stated goal, and those that fell short in some ways, because we can certainly learn from both. It would be wonderful if folks have examples where I can contact the key players involved, but I’ll also take anonymous clippings, as instructive illustrations.

Crowd, can you hook me up with some good implementation stories?

Inspiration for the Journey

On this last day of February, this is my last post (for now) about my plans for the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course.

I’m ending the semester with a sort of ‘sending off’.

One of the hardest parts of advocacy practice–in my life, and, I believe, in the lives of many social work practitioners–is sustaining oneself for the journey.

It’s not just about preventing burnout, although that is, of course, important. It’s also about finding a sort of group of colleagues–a team–even when, in many organizations and fields of practice, there are relatively few social workers and/or relatively few practitioners engaged in advocacy practice in a concerted way.

It’s about finding sources of inspiration to give perspective during difficult fights. It requires the ability to center oneself on an animating vision–the world as it should be–without giving up in despair when we fall so short of that ideal. It requires taking care of oneself without retreating to the exclusively private sphere.

It is, of course, a very tall order for a 2.75-hour class period.

I’m going to show some film clips and share some poetry and have them do some journaling. We’re going to utilize some online forums to connect ourselves. I will, as I do every year, offer myself as a mentor and cheerleader.

There may be tears.

And, I’m hoping to crowd-source it a bit.

What sustains you?

What examples are inspiring to you? What do you do to take care of yourself? How do you stay connected with peers? How do you keep going during difficult times?

What advice would you offer to my students, as they begin their own advocacy careers?

What lights would you offer for their journey?

Flipping Frames

My students’ favorite class period, usually, in the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course, is when we talk about framing.

Everybody loves reading Lakoff, right?

The fun part for me is watching their realization develop, as they consider the roots of what they have always held to be ‘true’, as, instead, socially constructed and shaped by the language we use to talk about the concepts the words represent.

We talk about how often we find ourselves slipping into language, and buying into frames, that do not fit our values. Even though we can’t afford to shore up a competing frame.

We talk about ‘tax relief’, and about how it makes no sense to talk like that.

And, as they get it, they peel away the frames that shape our thinking. They reject frames that clash with the visions we hold.

Together, we reclaim language, refuse to accept language that misrepresents or demonizes vulnerable populations, and assert new ways of talking about issues.

We talk about how talking differently can lead to thinking differently, and about how we can lead the way to new potential solutions by changing the mental cues that our words evoke.

This isn’t about blaming the media for spin, or pretending that there are magic phrases that can galvanize the public around our way of seeing the world. Instead, it’s about understanding the cognitive link between language and beliefs, and using that brain science to our advantage, in the literal war over words.

In small groups, students practice ‘flipping’ frames. They analyze how a particular policy or problem is framed today–like tax policy, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment, homelessness, or the Affordable Care Act–in policy discourse/public media, and generate alternative ways that they could be framed.

Then we assess what it would take to assert this alternative way of thinking about these issues. We talk about how we might begin this process of transition. I use examples from advocacy debates today, like the work DREAM Act youth have done around pushing media outlets to abandon use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe undocumented immigrants, about how language can drive policy.

For many of them, it’s the first time that they have really thought about how what we say, together, shapes what we think, and about the insidious ways in which language determines what is seen as a ‘problem’ and which solutions are seen as ‘feasible’.

It’s satisfying, then, when they send me media clips, by email or through social media, even years later, pointing out how language around gay rights has shifted, or questioning why we’re all talking about a ‘fiscal cliff’.

We know, from research about the powerful intersection between language and thought, that we are what we say, to a great extent.

So we have some frames that need to be flipped.

Advocates’ Autobiographies

My favorite assignment, from all of my classes, is one that I use for the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course.

Students write their ‘advocates’ autobiographies’, narrating their own stories about how they came to their commitment to social justice. Social work students, in my experience, are often asked why they decided to study social work (a question, and a subsequent conversation, that sometimes bothers me, because it can come across as part of the ‘why would anyone want to be a social worker?’ lament, which just feeds the narrative of powerlessness that social workers should repudiate. But we much less commonly trace the multiple influences that take us towards an identity as ‘advocates’, only some of which may overlap our professional journeys.

In past years, my students have shared stories about raiding their pantries for canned goods in grade school and learning that we must want more than leftovers for those who are in need; about witnessing injustice and, even at a young age, startling those around them with their passionate and informed responses; and about becoming frustrated with 1:1 interventions and craving more systemic change.

Some of them have come to be advocates from a place of relative privilege, others, after having suffered considerable injustice themselves. Some, of course–given the overlapping inequities and multiple oppressions that make up our society–have known both paths.

I share some of my own advocate autobiography, which includes dressing up like Mother Theresa in first grade, even though my Dad tried to convince me that the other kids wouldn’t be in costume, and filling an entire composition book with my ‘lists of worries about what’s wrong in the world’ when I was about 9. I tell them about a coincidence found me proficient in Spanish when I was in graduate school, at the same time that the immigrant community was growing in size and prominence in St. Louis, Missouri, and about how my Protestant guilt, I guess, provoked me towards immigrant justice instead of the work I thought I would do, with older adults.

We talk about how there is no one ‘right’ or ‘true’ path to advocacy; it’s one of those things where, I believe, the end matters more than the means.

But it’s important to know your story, to claim it–not to romanticize it; this isn’t about turning ourselves into martyrs, but about understanding that who and where we have been will shape the lens through which we see the world, and the struggles in which we engage.

So, in the interest of expanding their world and growing their circle, will you share a snippet of your own ‘advocate’s autobiography’? Is there a moment that shaped your journey? How do you trace your progression from ‘then’ to ‘now’? And what do you imagine, for how the rest of your narrative will unfold?