Who are you? Divining identity in a brave new world of continuing education

By Morgan Appel, director of UC San Diego Extension's Education Department

The current piece of writing is inspired by a listen to Pete Townshend’s hard-driven and introspective musical query from 1978. It also represents a somewhat well-thought response to prospective students who have requested general commentary on what distinguishes the Education Department at UC San Diego Extension from its counterparts at sister campuses, other public systems (such as the California State University) and at private postsecondary institutions. Regardless of how frequently the question arises, I find myself as director woefully underprepared to answer, grittily offering, ‘well, you know, each program and institution has its strengths and what really matters most is goodness of fit.” Although this lackluster rejoinder is true, and disparaging academic alternatives always comes with a healthy dose of karmic retribution, it has inspired within me a determined need for self reflection. Who are you? Indeed. For the most part, programs offering coursework leading to licensure are rather indistinct from one another, addressing the same standards with conventional college courses. As many attorneys suggest, ‘it doesn’t matter where you get your Juris Doctor, as long as you pass the bar.’ Tell that to Harvard Law School. Intuitively, I understood that the Education Department at Extension was distinguishable from the pack, and supposed that through some supernatural osmotic process, prospective candidates knew it as well. After all, reputations in education tend to be viral and rooted in word-of-mouth.

Although I am keen on the idea of a pithy anecdote or metaphor that somehow says it all, I came to realize that the work undertaken by the Department in teacher education is complex. We aspire to serve audiences around the globe in a way that is intellectually rigorous; forward-thinking and relevant; and ultimately accessible and affordable. At the same time, we believe in flexibility and long-term investment in educators and schools. We believe in adhering to the principles of leading-edge research and proven best practice. Not just reviewing and incorporating research — but in its undertaking by our instructional staff. We believe in differentiated instruction — not just as a matter of pedagogical content, but as a matter of andragogical precept. We believe in fiscal responsibility for ourselves whilst building reciprocal capacity with and not for our partners in PK-postgraduate. Finally, we believe in service to our communities. Not solely in San Diego, but as a globally focused provider of continuing teacher education, our communities across the world — be they in Montevideo or Mission Valley. Could our very Triton-hood unite the world and bring it peace? Are we not the Ultimate Teaching Machine? Do we not Try Harder all the time? Don’t we ‘Just do it’ when need arises?

Well, no. That’s a bit much — and arrogantly derivative to say the very least.

After a bit of manic celebration and resultant confusion, I came to realize that the answers I sought could be found in the seal of the University of California. Fiat Lux. Let there be Light. The pathway is illuminated thus: consider the University of California’s mission:

"The distinctive mission of the University is to serve society as a center of higher learning, providing long-term societal benefits through transmitting advanced knowledge, discovering new knowledge, and functioning as an active working repository of organized knowledge. That obligation, more specifically, includes undergraduate education, graduate and professional education, research, and other kinds of public service, which are shaped and bounded by the central pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge." (http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/aboutuc/missionstatement.html).

Though the Master Plan for Higher Education in California has become a bit opaque over the years, the University’s tri-fold objective of excellence in research, teaching and service cuts through the fog like a hot knife through butter. Try as I might, I was unable to find a course, program or community engagement that did not fit therein. And quite happily, I found that I was not alone in my search for identity — it is a revered tradition in the University. For example, in a quote attributed to the late Clark Kerr, first Chancellor at UC Berkeley and twelfth president of the University of California:

“A university anywhere can aim no higher than to be as British as possible for the sake of the undergraduates, as German as possible for the sake of the public at large-and as confused as possible for the preservation of the whole uneasy balance.”

So in the end, the answer to the question “Who are you?” lies not in crafting an elevator speech, witty slogan or clever catchphrase, but adhering to those three enduring guiding principles that have lit the way for nearly a century and a half. All we have to portend to be is who we are — and I believe that is something I can live with and happily share with prospective students from across the globe.

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