By Emily R. Kessler (M.S. Organizational Change Management, 2016)
TNS Professor Lori Roth Gale and I met in early October to talk about how teaching and learning has changed at The New School since switching to an online presence in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We also dove into her professional experiences outside of the classroom and discussed some of her favorite resources. Following is our conversation. (Text has been edited and condensed for the purposes of this article.)
Please introduce yourself for the alums who haven’t had the pleasure of being your student.
First of all, it is nice to be here and reconnect with people I have known through the years at The New School and even before that time as we are part of one large community.
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool leadership development consultant, and came into the work in the late 1990s. I worked for Columbia Business School where I ran1 their Institute for Not-for-Profit Management (INM), which served nonprofit and public sector organizations, from small community-based organizations to large institutions. I became passionate about this work after briefly pursuing a career in museums and galleries–and then attending business school2 where I learned about organizational behavior. This led to a research position at Columbia Business School, and then INM and Executive Education, where I stayed for 14 years. In 2010, I left Columbia with a nearly completed doctorate in Adult Learning and Leadership, found my path to The New School3, and completed my doctorate4. I have loved teaching at the Master’s level and am now in my eighth year at The New School having taught five courses: The Science and Art of Leadership Development and Organization Assessment and Diagnosis are two practice-based courses. Executive Coaching is another engaged learning course I team-taught with Joanne Killmeyer. I’ve also taught Management and Organizational Behavior and the Advanced Seminar in Management.
What do you love most about teaching at The New School?
I love the emphasis on engaged learning. I can partner with students from a distance while they take on clients, navigate learning a concept, and apply it within an organization in real time, which can be daunting. I brought that same perspective to the Advanced Seminar, helping students write research papers. A lot of our students don’t have much experience with that. I discovered how experiential that journey can be too, and how to make it come to life in a way that’s empowering and affirming for the student. As different as those courses are, they had the same element of engaged learning, learning through experience, finding your voice, and appreciating the gifts that you bring to the work.
That’s interesting. I never thought of the Advanced Seminar to be an engaged learning experience. To me, it seemed like a digression from the practical, client-facing work we had been doing throughout the program.
Yes, initially you’re reading research papers and it feels dry, distant and slow, keeping you at arm’s length. But when you break the ice and get familiar with the voices in that field you feel a sense of connectedness. I encourage students to find authors that speak to them to feel as if you’re in conversation with them. You narrow down the participants in your conversation, pulling in different voices, weaving them together, braiding them. You can almost anticipate what they might say to each other if actually in dialogue, even ones who are generations apart for whom it was impossible. And then you start to feel your sense of place in the conversation. That’s the experiential piece where you can pull up a chair and dive in. (Except of course we do it with a keyboard.)
I’m curious about the state of higher education before the mass disruption of COVID-19. What shifts had you been seeing in teaching and learning over the years?
In talking about these shifts, I need a longer arc going back to when I was a student at the undergraduate level. Back then many of us had a strong drive to learn for the sake of learning, with curiosity about the content and engagement with other students–which may have been the nature of liberal arts vs. graduate school. There was a kind of joy in just learning.
Then there seemed to be a broad trend toward utility and transaction. The cost of education is so much higher than when I was in school. And the debt that students take on to pursue a degree is significant, so there’s an element of the transaction that is purely practical. Students can’t waste time. They’ve got to complete their education and turn it into income quickly.
In my early days at The New School it seemed like the students weren’t as engaged in the readings. I worked hard over the years at finding material that they would find relevant and accessible. But I also knew I was grappling with a broader trend that people read less and take in information in other ways. To that end, I have integrated different types of content, a mix of podcasts, video clips, TED Talks, etc.
The pandemic (as with other crises), has shaken us to our core and prompts us to be less transactional as people in general. There’s a lot of talk about purpose, which changes our relationship to the learning community and the content. My Advanced Seminar was meeting in person just prior to lockdown last March and then suddenly we were on Zoom. We were a support group–a source of strength–to each other, seeing each other through lows, recovery, and coming back into stability again. When that group graduated our celebration was really joyful and tearful.
My current course is OAD5. They’re accustomed to learning online. They know they live in a changed world. Some of them have had their work lives upended and some not, and they are thinking about having more impact and making the most of the time we spend. They’re engaging with their teams and their clients more generously, more optimistically, more purposefully. So, I think we’re going to see yet another change now, at least for a while.
Can you talk a little more about creating an engaging educational experience for your students?
In these times of crisis, I’ve seen how the learning community can impact a person’s well being and growth. Now I can articulate a vision for what our learning community could be–and it is a vision that speaks to people.
For instance, I’ve stressed the importance of finding authors who resonate for you. Students asked for material that addresses taking up one’s role as a consultant from the perspective of a person of color, or navigating the space of promoting increased diversity, equity and inclusion. There was an author our students loved year after year, Evangelina Holvino6. At the end of the recent spring semester, I wanted to bring a guest speaker and was thinking about people I know (like TNS alumni) that I could easily call. I asked the students who they wanted to hear from and they unanimously shouted “Evangelina Holvino!” I didn’t know her personally, but here I was telling students to think of authors as colleagues and friends, in order to write an authentic dialogue with them. I knew I had to be courageous and write to Dr. Holvino. And to my delight (and no surprise) she was happy to hear from me, and so happy to meet our students. It was the most beautiful Zoom session, as moving for her to see her impact on them, as it was for us. It showed me the power that these opportunities to connect can hold, and to take advantage of them.
I love that story. It never hurts to ask. And in this case you helped deliver a marvelous and valuable experience for everyone.
Were there any learning curves for you when moving the class online aside from learning how to use Zoom’s breakout rooms?
The New School offered a lot of training over the summer and fall. The trend with online learning is shorter segments and video clips. Though I do use video clips to introduce content–ones students can watch repeatedly–I prefer synchronous meetings because students want to be live together in a learning community. I use breakouts frequently to reduce Zoom fatigue. It’s interesting to see bits of our lives on screen. Pets and children walk in and out. Our artwork is visible. There is more intimacy in the virtual space than in classrooms.
You’re describing a lot of positive outcomes from teaching via Zoom. Is there a place for a hybrid model in the future?
Why not. I will stay online for as long as it makes sense. My audiences want it. We’re turning off our phones and being as present as possible. It’s also earth-wise to reduce our commuting. With a hybrid approach we get the best of both, say, by meeting in person at the beginning, middle and end to deepen cohesion. Then meeting online wouldn’t feel like such a compromise.
Switching gears, can you tell us what you’re currently working on outside of your role as a professor?
I do both leadership development and organization development, and specialize in nonprofit organizations. I’m working with the United Nations–they have a variety of leadership development programs for their system and affiliates. Normally people would be coming to New York for this, but now we meet by Zoom from all over the world. I love supporting the missions of UN programs.
Another client is the New York Community Trust. I am a faculty member for their Leadership Fellows Program done in conjunction with Baruch College, which includes a classroom experience and coaching for nonprofit emerging leaders. I’m a great fan of blended programs that help participants apply the learning to practice. I’ve done many foundation-sponsored programs in which we create leadership development training for their grantees that blend classroom and coaching.
My OD work is with large nonprofits facing dramatic change. I normally enter through one department and then expand into other departments as the work becomes visible and accepted as valuable. If the organization is large it takes time to build that level of awareness and trust. Often it takes a blend of OD and LD to help people rise to the change. It’s very gratifying.
What resources/tools/theories/models do you find yourself turning to most often in your work?
The same ones I use in my teaching at The New School.
I come to this work from an organizational behavior and an adult learning perspective. I draw from those authors, their frameworks. For OAD work, I may draw from the Weisbord Six Box model, and Nadler and Tushman’s Congruence model, and William Bridges on Transition. For adult learning I may turn to Argyris and Schön and also Holton & Baldwin on Learning Transfer.
For leadership development, there are models to help develop a shared vision with your organization and promote it among larger groups of stakeholders. For that, I turn to Scharmer’s Theory U and Ancona’s Distributed Leadership. I use Kotter for a definition of leading versus managing and also leading change processes. The adult learning theory helps here as well because you’re helping people find their voice, deepen into who they are, and how they want to apply their leadership in the world.
What currently brings you joy?
I have many colleagues and dear friends through this work whom I’ve loved and who helped shape me as a consultant and teacher. They bring me joy, as does my family and my faith community. Certainly being out in nature, spending more time in parks and less in the subway, and sharing that time with family and friends is really gratifying. I used to paint and have those paintings all around me in my home. Although I haven’t done that in a while I might return to it when I’m working less.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our alumni community?
Building on this question of joy, I’d like to share a sentiment I sometimes say at the close of classes. It is my sincere hope that our students and alumni can use their learning as a source of joy for themselves and others, by fulfilling their sense of purpose through their work and promoting learning for their colleagues and clients. I tell them to move toward joy.
Thank you for your time and expertise!
1 Lori was the Executive Director of the Institute for Not-for-profit Management at Columbia Business School from 1995-2004.
2 Lori graduated from Yale School of Management in 1990.
3 Lori joined The New School as a Part-Time Assistant Professor in early 2014.
4 Lori received the Doctor of Education (EdD) in 2015. Her dissertation is titled: “Stepping Up: a Study of CEO Succession and Strategy Formation in Nonprofit Organizations.”
5 Organizational Assessment and Diagnosis