Tag Archives: Seaman Knapp

Muddling Through: The Great Extension Dilemma

I’ve often joked that the Cooperative Extension concept shares a lot in common with the British.

Britons, namely the English, have always evinced a strong prejudice against applying quick fixes to complex problems.   They prefer to muddle through — to work through problems over time.

So do we.  Extension educators are muddlers.  Like the English, we prefer to work toward complex solutions over time.  We tend to be wary of applying grand solutions too quickly.

As I see it, this is our greatest strength — and one of our most serious weaknesses.

The good news, I think, is that this longstanding organizational trait uniquely positions us to compete in an increasingly wikinomical knowledge landscape — far better than many other public and private players, in fact. We readily share what we know and work with other public and private partners to bring our resources to bear on complex problems.

Collaborative knowledge is as intrinsic to the Extension experience as bats and gloves are to baseball.  We’ve been in the collaborative knowledge business for a long time.  Seaman Knapps’s Terrell, Texas, farm demonstration plots are arguably an early 20th century forerunner of wikinomics.

Need I even mention agricultural field days and 4-H demonstrations of every conceivable kind? Extension’s legacy of shared knowledge would fill volumes.

Here’s the rub: The penchant for working slowly through problems is also reflected in our organization’s development.  There has always been a sort of ad hoc quality to Extension’s organizational structure.

Our organizational structures have been cobbled together to address pressing needs.  It’s been this way from the very beginning, even before formal passage of the Smith-Lever Act, when Seaman Knapp and Alabama Polytechnic Institute President C.C. Thach hastily patched together a memorandum of understanding to govern how the U.S. Department of Agriculture would collaborate with API to carry out Extension work in the state — an agreement that subsequently served as the blueprint for Extension programs throughout the nation.

Yes, it worked reasonably well.  But within the last century, this discursive approach has also contributed to a murky undersanding of our organizational mission within our ranks.  Even worse, the public’s grasp of who we are and what we do is even more tenuous.  And in an era of reduced funding at all levels, this is not a good thing.

This is Extension’s principal dilemma: a legacy that both helps and hinders.

What can we do about it?

More about that later…

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Of Cow Colleges and British Dominions

I’ve been known for invoking some strange analogies in the course of my professional career, but I’ve been an eccentric so long that I’m no longer bothered by the stigma attached to it.

Every now and then, someone, usually associated with the media, will ask me to explain how Extension relates to the overall land-grant university.  I urge them to think of an old British dominion — an observation that typically elicits a blank stare or, in the case of a phone conversation, a long pause.

Actually, the analogy is a valid one. Think about Australia in the early 20th century, years before it went  through its nation-defining experiences of World Wars I and II.  The nation was unmistakably British in many ways.  Australians sang God Save the King, flew the Union Jack and, in their free time, recreated much like Britons, playing cricket or rugby, or, at least, rooting for people who did.

At the same time, though, there were things about Australia that were recognizably Australian — aboriginal culture, the Botany Bay experience, Koala bears, Kangaroos and Australian Rules football, to name only a few.

An Extension Analogy

A similar kind of distinction applies to Extension programs.  In many ways, the Cooperative Extension concept preceded land-grant universities.  Farmers were undertaking Extension-type outreach efforts decades before anyone even thought of developing land-grant institutions as a means of providing formal agricultural and mechanical training to common folk.

Moreover, there was nothing inevitable about the formal institutional tie that currently exists between state Extension programs and their land-grant counterparts.

A Cobbled Identity

The practice of affiliating Extension programs with land-grant universities was based on an informal agreement cobbled together by Seaman Knapp, generally recognized as the father of Cooperative Extension work, and C.C. Thach of Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University).  And underscoring just how informal this agreement was, it dealt with the comparatively banal question of how Extension work through the public schools would be carried out jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and API.  Yet, without this agreement, it’s possible the tie between state Extension programs and their land-grant counterparts would have been far less formal — which explains why even today Cooperative Extension administrators typically follow a separate reporting line than their counterparts in other university divisions.

This is an especially important distinction in Alabama, where two schools with deep agricultural and mechanical institutional roots — Auburn and Tuskegee universities —arguably can claim equal credit for pioneering the Extension mission, not only in Alabama but throughout the nation.

But I think it’s a distinction that should be borne in mind by Extension professionals all over the country. Never forget that the Cooperative Extension mission is as much a social movement with a unique history of its own as it is a university-affiliated outreach program.