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Paul Speer, Ph.D. on Strengths, Opportunities, and Challenges of the Department of Human and Organizational Development


May 9, 2016
Paul Speer, Ph.D.

In January, Paul W. Speer, Ph.D., became chair of the Department of Human and Organizational Development (HOD) at Peabody College.  A member of the Peabody faculty since 2001, having joined by way of Rutgers University, Speer’s specialization is in community organizing; empowerment theory; and community change.  In short, everything that makes HOD so unique.

Speer received his doctoral degree in psychology from the University of Missouri – Kansas City. He is a past fellow at the Center for Nashville Studies, the Vanderbilt Center for the Study of Religion and Culture, and the American Psychological Association’s Society for Community Research and Action.  He is the author of 10 book chapters, 45 refereed journal articles, and has delivered over 50 academic conference presentations.

He sat down recently to talk about HOD’s strengths, opportunities, and challenges.

 

Question: What are the things you really like about HOD? The things that really excite you?

Paul Speer:  At one level I really like the more applied elements to HOD [that are] part of the undergraduate and graduate programs. They look at how to engage knowledge and think about its application. We create a classroom environment where students are reading about theory and about a particular knowledge base, and then they are challenged by real dilemmas that they will have to solve once they’ve graduated and are in the workplace. There’s great challenge and excitement in the application process, and that’s very appealing to me.

I’m also intrigued with the multidisciplinary foundation of the department. At the undergraduate level we are most heavily drawing upon applied social psychology. But it is much broader than that. We are looking at political science … at developmental psychology … at sociology … at geography and economics and the same is true at the graduate levels. We are trying to look through an interdisciplinary lens in our approach to real world issues. And when you talk about our applied work, there is this very strong connection to the Nashville community. That is a critical element of the kind of work we do – connecting outside of the ivory tower.

 

Question: How would you say HOD fits with a college of education?

Paul Speer: Most conceptualizations of a college of education are about teachers in a classroom. But education is so much broader than that. How do organizations and businesses change and evolve? How do they learn new ways of doing things? Organizations are collectivities that are actually learning and changing. So that’s a rubric and a framework that we apply very actively.

At an even broader level there is so much thinking about the implications of globalization and the evolution of capitalism in our current interconnected global context. There is a lot of theory trying to understand where our economy is going because we are all on the same economic train, but what we know is that changes in economics, politics, technology, demographics, environmental degradation and so on will force all of us – as individuals and collectives – to alter much of what we now take for granted. This means that students getting a college education today need to understand this is just a start. HOD is committed to developing lifelong learners – the dynamism of our world demands that, and being part of a College of Education is a great fit for us.  

 

Question: Are there organizations that you are particularly proud to be affiliated with, or organizations you would like to see more involvement with?

Paul Speer: Our internship office has hundreds of organizations where our students can do their internships. There are so many exciting and interesting organizations students are working with – record industry groups, banks, policy centers, health care settings, and community organizations – so it is hard to single out any one group.

There are many, many organizations around Nashville we’re proud to be collaborating with. As one example, the Nashville Civic Design Center does fantastic work in Nashville on urban design, neighborhood development, and regional planning. They recently completed a book on urban design and community health in Nashville – a project many students contributed to. We’ve had students for many years doing internships with the Civic Design Center. I recently got an email about an HOD graduate who did her internship there, and had a fantastic experience. After graduating she worked for a similar organization in Raleigh, and then worked at an economics research institute on urban planning issues, and she recently was promoted to Director of Development for a Business District in the Washington DC metropolitan area. It is a thrill to work with so many wonderful organizations, and even more so when we see the trajectories our students follow after their engagement with these organizations. 

The Internship Office here is always looking for new opportunities for students. If someone comes in and says “I want to look at firms that are doing robotics around healthcare” then they will find firms like that in our database. Or we will go out and try to find such an organization.  The organizations must fit our criteria for allowing genuine engagement of the student in work projects. That is, we don’t want to send a student somewhere to get coffee and make photocopies.  Students, in addition to filling a work role, must be provided the opportunity to add value to the organization they’re interning with, and that requires organizations that are willing to allow a college junior or senior analyze them, make suggestions, intervene within the organization, and measure intervention results. That is exciting to see within students, but I’m always impressed by the value organizations seem to derive from having an HOD student interning with them.

 

Question: What are some of the things that come to mind when I ask you to talk about threats and challenges to the department?

Paul Speer: For me the question is are we really preparing students to be good citizens and productive workers and satisfied human beings in the work we are doing? Part of what is important to us is continually asking “are we getting that breadth of knowledge that we need?” HOD is a liberal arts degree. People have to have a basic understanding of our economic system. Do they have a sufficient understanding of that? Do they have a sufficient understanding of science and history?

One strength we have is that our curriculum is always being revisited and revised. At our core we educate our students to place them in contexts where they are stretched and have to solve difficult problems where there often isn’t a right or a wrong answer.  A lot of students want clear answers, but we are working to develop thinkers who can see multiple perspectives on a single issue, and to develop a basis for weighing evidence and perspectives to come to a decision. And the answer today may be different from the answer tomorrow.  But in terms of the concerns as we move ahead, we’re always grappling with keeping abreast what is most important to understand and follow in our dynamic, changing world.

 

Question: Are there any specific projects you are really excited about?

Paul Speer: There are too many interesting things to keep on top of. We have faculty working with students in so many areas – helping develop and assess the impact of ‘recover schools’ – High Schools tailored explicitly for youth with serious additions, engaging local faith communities in the prevention of HIV/AIDS, working with indigenous communities displaced by the expansion of global trade infrastructure in Panama, and working with cost effective and impactful interventions for dealing with homeless families. It is all very exciting.



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