of the Ivory Tower:
Institutional Adaptation to Cultural Distance
University of Alaska Fairbanks
The "Domestication of the Ivory Tower" article
was originally written in
1986, and has been updated for publication in summer 2002 Anthropology
and Education Quarterly.
Several years ago, a student and a faculty member in
our off-campus teacher education program went on a hunting trip out
on the tundra of western Alaska. The student, a Yup'ik Eskimo who had
grown up in the area, had completed only a few years of formal schooling
but had successfully worked as a teacher's aide in the local school
and had decided to pursue becoming a certificated teacher. The faculty
member, who had a doctorate and several years of teaching experience,
had just moved to the area as a field coordinator for the University
of Alaska's Cross-Cultural Education Development (X-CED) Program and
was about to begin his post-doctoral training in arctic survival. The
student and the faculty member had worked out a deal in which the faculty
member would help the student overcome some weaknesses in his reading
and writing skills, while the student would teach the faculty member
a few things about living on the tundra.
Everything went fine during the first day out, as the faculty member
followed closely behind his mentor, carefully staying in the track of
the leading snow-machine. By the second day the faculty member had built
up enough confidence in his ability to read the seemingly featureless
terrain that he decided to venture off the track and break a trail of
his own. He had barely started to break trail, however, when he found
himself waist-deep in water. More than a little embarrassed, he gratefully
accepted his guide's assistance in retrieving himself and his snow-machine
from the water, acknowledging his ignorance as his mentor pointed out
the yellowed patches of snow that should have alerted him to the potential
However, the real danger had just begun. Now he was out on the open
tundra with wet clothes and a snow-machine that had become water-logged
and was rapidly being transformed into an iceberg, a fate that he himself
was in danger of suffering. Without delay or explanation, the student
began digging in the snow for a particular kind of tundra grass, and
he urged his wet partner to do the same. After they had dug up a substantial
pile of the hollow reed-like grass, the faculty member searched for
dry matches, assuming they were going to make a fire with the grass.
To his considerable surprise, however, the guide urged him to take off
his rapidly freezing clothes and to dispose of all his wet undergarments.
Though the prospect of standing naked on the windswept tundra did not
appear inviting, he grudgingly acquiesced.
Having disposed of his tight undergarments, he was now directed to get
back into his baggy snow-machine body-suit. Once he was inside the suit,
the student proceeded to stuff the grass in around his body and around
his feet in the wet boots. To his delight, he soon stopped shivering
and, before long he suffered from nothing more than a bit of discomfort
caused by the scratchy insulation and the stiffness of the frozen outer
garment, along with a slightly bruised ego. On his way back home, as
his guide towed the ice-coated snow-machine propped up on a sled, he
wondered what he could possibly teach his "student" about
literacy that would be anywhere near comparable in value to the lessons
he had just learned.
While this incident is more dramatic than most student-faculty interchanges
in our field-based teacher education program, it is not uncommon for
university faculty who work in rural Alaska to find themselves the learner
rather than the teacher. It is uncommon, however, for faculty members
to be prepared to assume such a role and to know how to capitalize on
the unique opportunities that it provides. And it is even more uncommon
for a university system to recognize and give credence to faculty who
are in other than conventional "Ivory Tower" roles. It is
to these opportunities and dilemmas that I will address this paper,
drawing on the experience of over 30 faculty members (some Native, most
non-Native) in the X-CED Native teacher education program who have lived
and worked in Native communities throughout rural Alaska over the past
25 years. Even though Alaska is the focus of these reflections, it describes
opportunities for capitalizing on a field setting that are available
to faculty at any university, regardless of its size or location.
Why put faculty in the field in the first place? Why not bring the students
to the campus where everyone can get on with their tasks without all
the redefinitions of roles and the institutional adjustments that field-based
programs require? Can the university change its modus operandi to accommodate
diverse cultural contexts and still perform the functions for which
it is designed, or must students acquire the "culture" of
the university if they are to partake of its services? What happens
to notions of "theory" and "practice" when faculty
and students become collaborators in knowledge construction and application.
To respond to these questions, I will need to provide a little background
on the educational scene in Alaska.
Field-Based Training for Native Teachers
Back in 1970, when we began to offer our Bachelor of Education degree
off campus in rural communities, Alaska had six certificated Native
teachers, only two of whom were teaching in the Bureau of Indian Affairs
and state-operated schools that served rural Native communities at that
time. Most of the few Native people who survived four or more years
at the university were drawn into positions in urban centers, where
their academic skills and leadership aspirations could be put to use
addressing statewide needs. At that time Native people had just emerged
as a statewide political force to negotiate the Alaska Native Claims
Settlement Act as it wound its way through the U.S. Congress. The Act
was passed in 1971, and as a result Alaska Natives faced an unprecedented
period of new institution-building that, in turn, required a massive
effort in human resource development to prepare Native people for the
many new decision-making roles that would emerge.
Early on, the Native leadership identified education as a critical factor
in their development plans, and as a result exercised their newly acquired
political power to restructure the educational systems serving rural
Alaska. By 1976, they had pushed a bill through the state legislature
creating 21 new regional school districts that replaced the BIA and
state-operated systems; they had negotiated a class-action lawsuit and
acquired legislative appropriations to establish 120 new village high
schools throughout rural Alaska; they had lobbied to establish the Alaska
Native Language Center at the university and to mandate bilingual education
programs in all state-funded schools; and they had pressed the university
into establishing a new rural division that included several community
colleges and extension centers to provide on-site services in rural
Alaska. It was in this politically charged climate that the X-CED program
evolved and adopted the posture of an "educational development"
program, rather than the narrower role of a "teacher education"
program, and it was in this context that the role of field-based faculty
In 1970, less than 10% of the Native students who entered the University
of Alaska completed a four-year degree program. Less than 20% made it
past the first year. Although a variety of orientation and support services
on campus have helped to improve these figures over the years, there
are still some inherent difficulties that Native students face when
they move into a university setting, and in many ways, these are the
same difficulties university faculty members face when they take on
a position in the field.
First of all, for Native students entering the university there are
the obvious differences in living conditions: dormitories, dining halls
with non-Native foods, the pub, downtown, and lots of rules and bureaucratic
procedures. While this lifestyle is often quite new for students who
come from rural villages, it is not as difficult to adjust to as are
the different social and behavioral routines of the campus community.
Rigid schedules, impersonal relationships, inaccessible faculty, expectation
of aggressive verbal participation and spotlighting in class, incomprehensible
homework assignments, parties down the hall, visitors from out of town-all
of these can produce serious conflicts and pressures that require considerable
adjustments for many Native, as well as other rural students (C. Barnhardt
1994). But even these adjustments are not as difficult to manage as
the differences in the ways of thinking that permeate a university campus.
The Ivory Tower vs. the
The "ivory tower" symbolizes detachment. The traditional campus
environment is designed to protect faculty and students from "the
real world," or put another way, it is a reality unto itself. It
is a literate world that relies heavily on decontextualized knowledge
and in which this knowledge must be displayed in highly specialized
literate forms. As an institution for perpetuating literate knowledge,
the university has served us well. But, as our faculty member out on
the tundra learned so convincingly, there are other kinds of valuable
knowledge in the world and there are other ways of conveying knowledge
than those symbolized by the image of the ivory tower.
These other kinds of knowledge have been variously characterized as
traditional knowledge, oral knowledge, indigenous knowledge, or practical
knowledge, depending on which body of literature you are reading. Some
of the distinguishing features of such knowledge are that its meaning
and use are context-bound, it usually has utilitarian value, and it
is generally acquired through direct participation in real-world activities.
If considered in its totality, such knowledge can be seen as constituting
a particular world view, or a form of consciousness (Kawagley 1995;
Nee-Benham & Cooper 2000).
Ron and Suzanne Scollon (1981: 100-102) examined what they called a
"Native reality set" and identified four aspects that distinguish
"bush consciousness" from "modern consciousness"
People who live in the northern "bush" country (the Scollon's
were looking particularly at Athabaskan Indians in northern Alberta)
tend to favor a lifestyle with an emphasis on self-reliance, nonintervention
in other people's affairs, the integration of useful knowledge into
a holistic and internally consistent world view, and a disdain for higher-order
organizational structures. The Scollon's point out that this outlook
can cause considerable internal conflict when Native individuals encounter
the componentiality, specialization, systematicity, bureaucracy and
literate forms inherent in "modern" forms of consciousness.
Native students trying to survive in the university environment (an
institution that is a virtual embodiment of modern consciousness) must
acquire and accept a new form of consciousness, an orientation which
not only displaces, but often devalues the world views they bring with
them. For many, this is a greater sacrifice than they are willing to
make, so they withdraw and go home, branded a failure. Those who do
survive in the academic environment for four or more years often find
themselves caught between different worlds, neither of which can fully
satisfy their acquired tastes and aspirations, and thus they enter into
a struggle to reconcile their conflicting forms of consciousness. The
recent articulation of the emic dimensions of this struggle from multiple
indigenous perspectives has opened up intriguing avenues for re-defining
both the uses of knowledge and the associated ways of knowing (Kawagley
1995; Battiste & Henderson 2000; Meyer 2001).
It was with these concerns in mind, along with the increasing demand
for Native teachers in Alaska's rural schools, that lead us to establish
our off-campus teacher education program on an experimental basis in
1970. For the first four years, the program was offered to students
on-site in rural communities, but the faculty remained on campus and
provided the instruction through a combination of audiotapes, videotapes,
written lessons, regional workshops, on-site tutors, and summer courses
on campus. The on-site tutors/team leaders, who were experienced teachers,
worked with students in teams of four or more per site, helping to translate
the oftentimes incongruent and contextually meaningless instructional
materials from the university into terms that made sense to students
in a real-world context. Tutors and program coordinators spent as much
time trying to educate the teaching faculty about the students' reality
as they did helping the students make sense of faculty expectations.
The students, who were coping with real children in real classrooms,
and were highly goal-oriented, insisted that their training address
the day-to-day realities they were facing in their schools and communities.
The field-based program, which in practice turned out to be a reality-based
collaborative learning process with all of us functioning concurrently
as students and as teachers, seemed to work. Of the 48 Native students
enrolled in 1970, 36 had graduated by 1974, thus increasing the number
of Native teachers in the state six-fold. Virtually all of them worked
and took on leadership roles in rural communities throughout Alaska,
where they still are today. In the meantime, they have been joined by
an additional 250 similarly trained Native teachers as well as graduates
who have completed campus-based programs (C. Barnhardt 1994). While
these teachers still constitute only 5% of the teaching force in the
state, they have become a potent force in the rural schools where the
turnover rate of outside teachers is so high that after two or three
years, the Native teachers often hold seniority.
More than a fifth of the Native graduates have gone on to pursue masters
degrees (and now several doctorates) at institutions such as the University
of Alaska, University of British Columbia, and Harvard University, with
little apparent disadvantage resulting from their lack of detachment
from the real world while undergoing their undergraduate training. Several
have obtained administrative credentials and are now serving as principals
in their schools-two have moved into superintendencies. However, this
does not mean that these graduates have encountered no difficulties
or discrimination in their subsequent roles as teachers or students,
nor does it mean that they have all been an unqualified success as teachers
or administrators, though their names appear regularly on lists of outstanding
teachers, including six Milken awardees (Tetpon 2000). Their strength
lies in the fact that they have learned to trust in and build upon the
knowledge they acquired through their experiences in the real world,
along with the literate knowledge they gained through the books they
read and the papers they wrote during their training.
The difference between the training of the field-based students and
that of their campus-bound counterparts is that their active participation
in a real-world context has made it easier for the students in the field
to integrate their training experiences into the framework of a "bush
consciousness," an accomplishment which, in turn, has allowed the
students to use their formal education in ways that are compatible with
the ways of thinking and behaving preferred in their communities. Most
reports to date indicate that the ability of these Native graduates
to "tune-in" to their students has had a very positive effect
on the academic performance and social behavior of Native students in
school. The most dramatic impact has been in those schools where Native
teachers have become a majority of the teaching staff. These schools
report not only an improvement in the academic performance of their
students, but also of parent attitudes and general community support
for the school (C. Barnhardt 1982). Native teachers, grounded in their
culture and community, offer a simple, cost-effective solution to many
of the historical problems schools have faced in rural Alaska. And it
has been largely through the opportunities provided by the field-based
teacher education program that this solution is becoming a reality.
Providing Native students with the opportunity to remain in their natural
environment while pursuing their teaching credential has turned out,
however, to be only one step in the process of demystifying the ivory
tower. And in some ways this was the easiest step because there was
somewhat of a precedent with conventional correspondence study and various
forms of technologically-mediated instruction that became available
along the way. The next step, that of placing faculty members in the
community with the students (which took place in 1974), was not quite
so easy and has yet to be fully supported and appreciated by the university,
although it has been wholeheartedly endorsed by rural students and communities.
The primary rationale for placing faculty in the field has been to reduce
the cultural distance and the role dichotomy between the producers and
the consumers of knowledge in rural Alaska. To accomplish this task,
field-based faculty members have had to go beyond their usual responsibilities
of generating and conveying literate knowledge to help legitimize on
an institutional level the indigenous knowledge and skills of the Native
community, or as Jack Goody has put it, to foster "a revaluation
of forms of knowledge that are not derived from books" (1982:214).
Such a responsibility requires that faculty members respect indigenous
knowledge and can help students to appreciate and build upon their customary
forms of consciousness as they develop their own distinctive teaching
styles in the context of a school. Put another way, it means being careful
not to train out of our students those very capacities, or the "Nativeness"
that we want them to bring into their role as teacher.
The significance of this legitimation or validation function was driven
home to me a few years ago when I visited a rural community to attend,
along with two resident field faculty, a regional development strategy
conference organized by one of the most successful Native corporations
in Alaska. The president of the corporation, a Native shareholder who
had held that post since the corporation was formed in 1971, spent two
days discussing with his Native constituents and various agency personnel
his recent successful lobbying effort with the U.S. Congress and his
negotiations with the state government and a multinational mining corporation
to develop a world-class lead-zinc mine within the corporate region.
The plan for developing the mine reflected a great deal of political
and business savvy and a highly sophisticated understanding of the social,
cultural, and economic implications of large-scale development. The
agreement with the mining corporation was a model of careful balance
between conventional profit-oriented economic considerations and protection
of the traditional subsistence lifestyle of the region. By all measures
but one, this person was an effective, knowledgeable and respected leader.
The only measure in question was his own estimation of himself.
The next day, at 9:00 in the morning in the middle of a blizzard, this
same 50-year-old Native leader was the first "student" to
show up at an introductory undergraduate class on rural community development
that we were offering at the local community college. He should have
been teaching the class. Instead, he was sitting there listening to
us faculty neophytes discuss development theories and models that he
had long since tested out in the real world. But he lacked a university
degree, and that somehow left a question-mark over the validity of his
accumulated knowledge and expertise. With our limited experience, we
were not in a position to teach him much that he did not already know,
but as "university professors" who had descended from the
ivory tower to participate, however briefly, in his world, we were in
a position to help him validate his grounded knowledge by putting it
in the context of our book knowledge. Through this process, we greatly
expanded our own store of useful knowledge.
Oftentimes it is in the act of teaching that we ourselves learn the
most, and in the act of learning that we become the most effective teachers.
Nowhere can such symbiotic relationships be more fruitful than when
we work together with our students to test theory against practice in
a real-world setting. Field-based faculty are in an ideal position to
take advantage of just such opportunities. By doing so, they move beyond
the usual detachment and presumed objectivity of conventional purveyors
of university knowledge and become an integral and contributing part
of the developmental processes in the community.
In rural Alaska, where social issues are close to the surface, institutional
structures are still evolving, cultural traditions are varied and rapidly
changing, economic problems are endemic and severe, and new kinds of
knowledge and skills are sorely needed, it is incumbent upon university
faculty and the institution as a whole to become actively involved in
the life of the community, not just in the guise of public service,
but as collaborators in the search for new solutions that will build
upon, expand, and give credence to all forms of knowledge. It is to
help facilitate such a development process that lead us to place university
faculty members in the rural communities of Alaska.
We have found, however, that placing faculty members in a field setting
does not in itself achieve the goals outlined above. There are also
the issues of how prepared the faculty members are to capitalize on
the field setting, and how willing and able the institution is to support
and reward the faculty members for services rendered outside the hallowed
halls of the ivory tower.
Faculty Member as Fieldworker
The most effective faculty members in our field programs have been those
who have been able to engage themselves and their students in a process
of sense-making and skill-building by actively participating in the
world around them. These faculty members use books and pencil and paper
(and now computers) as a means to add breadth and depth to the students'
understanding, but not as the sole source of knowledge. They engage
the students in tasks that allow them to integrate various forms of
knowledge and to apply and display that knowledge in a variety of ways.
Together with their students they develop new knowledge, following an
inductive process that builds from the students' background and therefore
allows the students to develop their own emic perspective. At the same
time, these faculty members use literate forms of knowledge to acquaint
the students with other perspectives. They measure their students' achievement
through the students' ability to effectively perform meaningful and
contextually appropriate tasks. They expose students (and themselves)
to the ambiguity, unpredictability, and complexity of the real world
and thus help them to become equipped to find solutions to problems
for which we may not even have a theory yet.
Field faculty and their students are in a position to test the established
paradigms of thought and allow the self-organizing principles of complex
adaptive systems (Prigogine & Stengers 1984; Barnhardt & Kawagley
1999a; Axelrod & Cohen 2000), to produce new kinds of emergent structures
and adaptive strategies that extend our understanding of the world around
us. They have the opportunity to develop explanatory frameworks that
will help us establish a greater equilibrium and congruence between
our literate view of the world and the reality we encounter when we
step outside the walls of the ivory tower. However, not all faculty
are willing to leave the security of the university campus with its
differentiated and protective structure of academic disciplines and
venture into the uncertainty of the world outside. Even those who do
often hesitate to make themselves vulnerable to challenges to their
authority and beliefs, and instead, protect themselves behind a veneer
of academic aloofness and obfuscation (Smith 1999).
One of the characteristics that distinguishes faculty members who do
make use of a field situation from those who do not is an interdisciplinary
academic orientation. Faculty members whose background indicates that
their interests and perspective are not tightly constrained by the boundaries
of a single academic discipline (or established professional field)
tend to maintain a similar openness of perspective in the field situation
and thus are able to be more responsive to the conditions around them
than those faculty who carry a predefined and fixed complement of academic
baggage with them (R. Barnhardt & Kawagley 1999b). Flexibility,
adaptability, and a tolerance for ambiguity are essential qualities
for success in a field faculty role.
Another strong predictor of success in a field faculty position is prior
fieldwork and/or applied experience. Regardless of the discipline, faculty
members who have extensive previous experience doing fieldwork, particularly
if it included intensive immersion in a cross-cultural situation, are
able to enter into the field faculty role with much less difficulty
and to quickly capitalize on the symbiotic educational opportunities
that it provides. They are already well versed in the role of learner
(researcher) and have little difficulty adding to that the role of teacher.
Those faculty members who are predisposed to the role of teacher often
find it difficult to submit to the role of learner. Faculty members
(and teachers) who can bridge the gap between the ivory tower and the
real world are better prepared to assume a leadership role in the reconciliation
of educational theory with practice, of learning with teaching, and
of reading books with survival on the tundra (R. Barnhardt 1998; Harrison
Culturally Responsive Educational
The successful placement of faculty in a field situation requires adjustments
on the part of the individual faculty member, but it also requires some
adjustments on the part of the institution employing that faculty member.
These adjustments on the part of the institution tend to be much harder
to achieve than those of the individual. The University of Alaska has
yet to fully come to grips with the special circumstances under which
field faculty must carry out their responsibilities. Problem areas include
mechanisms for participation in faculty deliberations and decision-making,
criteria for promotion and tenure, expectations for scholarly productivity,
evaluation of teaching effectiveness, and accessibility to campus resources
and support. Over time, however, through a combination of developments
from within and outside the institution, the University of Alaska has
begun to make peace with the distributed nature of its programs and
operations, and in a recent accreditation review, was encouraged to
see its multifaceted make-up as an asset rather than an impediment.
For their part, Native people in Alaska have learned enough over the
years about the inner-workings of higher education institutions to no
longer be intimidated by them, and are now actively re-shaping the way
the existing system operates to make it more responsive to their cultural
and educational aspirations (Kirkness & Barnhardt 2001). Where the
mainstream higher education institutions appear unable to make the necessary
accommodations, Native people have taken the initiative to create their
own institutions in the form of Tribal Colleges, five of which are currently
emerging on the educational scene in rural Alaska. Likewise, the original
graduates of the X-CED program have accumulated sufficient experience
with schools to see new possibilities for how the K-12 system can be
reconstituted to better address the unique cultural considerations that
come into play in Native communities, recent accountability regimes
notwithstanding (Lipka 1998). These indigenous initiatives have now
evolved to the point of Alaska Native educators (teachers and Elders)
developing their own "Cultural Standards" to address those
areas of educational need not included in the generic state standards
for students, teachers and schools (Assembly of Native Educators 1998).
All of the above work has drawn heavily on many fields of study with
both a practical and theoretical bent, not the least of which has been
educational anthropology. The many variations of cultural analysis that
are reflected in the realignment of educational structures and practices
outlined above derive in large part from the research traditions and
"ways of seeing" that have emerged over the past 30 years
under the banner of the Council on Anthropology and Education (Wolcott
1999). The strength of these traditions in the Alaska context has been
their adaptability in both form and function to accommodate the emergent
properties of an ever-evolving complex adaptive educational system and
cultural milieu. It has been through the interplay of teacher, learner
and researcher across diverse cultural contexts that new constructs
have emerged and new educational opportunities have been generated-the
ivory tools on the tundra have begun to blend with the literate traditions
of the ivory tower. Hopefully, both will continue to benefit from the
Barnhardt is a professor of cross-cultural studies and director of the
Center for Cross-Cultural Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks
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