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Traditions of the calling

by Andrew Taylor

My post yesterday was about exposing and challenging mental models as a first step in learning, and as a first class in our MBA in Arts Administration. But as some of you noted in your emails and comments elsewhere, that model isn't quite complete enough.There's a world of difference between a 'theory of doorknobs' as described in the earlier post, and a 'theory of selling a performance,' or a 'theory of the governing board,' or a 'theory of contributed income.'

The 'theory of doorknobs' is fairly robust and equally distributed in the world. We each have a pretty good one, that gets us by most of the time. The same cannot be said for even basic 'best practices' in cultural management. And this is particularly true for students of Arts Administration. Even though my students come to the MBA with at least two years of full-time experience, and usually three to five years, they don't yet have established models of how 'things get done' in every aspect of cultural enterprise. And they don't yet have robust internal models or theories of management practice that we can call forward to explore or challenge.

And, in fact, this is true among the entire field of arts professionals...we learn from those we work with, who likely did the same. So, robust and reasonably effective methods (implicit as they may be) are patchy at best from manager to manager, from community to community.

Educator and consultant Donald Schön called these bundles of professional practices 'traditions of the calling.' And he spent much of his career exploring how professionals could do their work in practical ways, while learning continually to make that work better. He called that 'reflective practice,' and it's exactly what we strive for here in Wisconsin.

But the fundamental challenge remains: How can you foster both a deep and applied understanding of how things currently get done in a professional field, while also deeply questioning those standards of practice? Do we spend a first part of the education offering a survey of professional practices, and then the second part deconstructing and debunking those practices? Do we teach the traditions alongside their criticism and redesign?

I'm working this year to realign that balance in the way I teach, and in the sequence I follow. I'll keep you posted on how that goes.