Two of the things that I like most about Ashford’s annual Teaching and Learning Conference are that travel is always a piece of cake and that I never have to over pack to anticipate the climate and how everyone else will dress. Conferences, at least when done well, provide refreshing energy and perspective for me and the work that I do.
Leading up to this year’s conference, Ashford University is in the midst of even more change than usual. Smack dab in the middle of one of these big changes we had an early Midwest snow the week before Halloween. There was an abundance of mumbling and cursing from many (myself included) about this, but the white blanket on the ground gave me the opportunity to spot and observe a fox in the woods behind my house. My family and I moved over the summer, and this was the first time I had a chance to see one outside of our new home. Fox spottings in this part of the Midwest aren’t common, especially since they are purposefully stealthy creatures.
Throughout the years when I have had what seems like more than a chance encounter with an animal, I like to see what themes and meanings have been culturally associated with it historically. The fox, while sometimes thought to be a trickster, is all about adaptability, cunning, awareness, and navigating change. Like this conference, my fox sighting was a reminder to keep an open mind and try to see from as many perspectives as possible in addition to my own.
On my drive into work the day that TLC started, the fox crept back into the forefront of my awareness. I was listening to an audio version of David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World when the author brought up the ancient concept that people typically fall into two buckets: foxes and hedgehogs. Jonathan Derbyshire (2019) summarized Epstein’s point well:
To borrow a distinction due to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus and made famous by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Epstein came to see that he is a “fox”, not a “hedgehog”. “The fox,” Archilochus wrote, “knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Berlin thought intellectual history could be carved up, more or less neatly, between hedgehogs and foxes — between thinkers who seek to press the world into the mould of a single, overarching vision and those who pursue multiple, often contradictory, ends (para. 3).
The world, undoubtedly, needs hedgehogs for some situations. Epstein makes the case throughout his book, though, that the fox mindset is the one that will triumph in our day and age. The Jacks and Jills of all trades are, generally speaking, bound for more success than tunnel-vision hedgehogs because they have little bits of knowledge about a lot of things instead of in-depth knowledge about one or two areas. Foxes are also better able, and more comfortable, to tap into experts around them when they encounter unfamiliar territory.
So, what is it that this fox who has been following me around trying to tell me? First, I will take it as a confirmation that my wide-ranging, though sometimes seemingly scattered, tendencies can be a strength. I am also choosing to interpret it as a sign to take full advantage of the offerings over the next few days to learn a little bit about a handful of new ideas to add to my repertoire.
Derbyshire, J. (2019, August 2). Range by David Epstein – How Not to be Outfoxed. Financial Times.
Faculty Support and Development Manager, Classroom Experience
Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning