Showing Appreciation

In conversations with several people over the last few days, the theme of appreciation has been among the most prominent. Questions like the following are difficult to answer, and in fact don’t seem to lend themselves easily to the application of general ‘rules of thumb:’

  • How do I recognize those vital individuals who work tirelessly behind the scenes, contributing to the success of an organization or event, and who are uncomfortable with public form of acknowledgement (the exceptions to the ‘praise in public, criticize in private’ rule)
  • How do I show appreciation for things my partner does that I could not begin to reciprocate in kind?
  • How do I motivate my staff to continue to perform despite limits placed upon my ability to promote or increase salaries?

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user!...]
[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user C!…]
People don’t leave jobs because of money. They leave because of poor management, which is to say that they leave either because they are not fully utilized (a problem of unrecognized potential) or because their work is going unnoticed (a problem of unrecognized activity). Assuming that salaries are reasonable, the best way of ensuring employee retention is a positive work environment in which ability and activity are recognized and encouraged.

The same principle of appreciation applies in education. Tinto (1975) has convincingly argued that Social Integration (through informal peer group associations, semi-formal extracurricular activities, and interaction with faculty / personnel) is the most directly associated factor when predicting what he calls ‘persistence.’ In other words, a student who feels appreciated at their college, by their peers, teachers, and administrators, is more likely to persist despite other factors like poor grades or dissatisfaction with other more institutional aspects. On the other hand, an otherwise successful student (i.e. a student with top grades) who is not successfully integrated into a social group is likely to voluntarily withdraw.

Appreciation is important. In fact, I would argue (provisionally, or course) that financial rewards are meaningful only to the extent that they are (1) expressions of appreciation, and/or (2) perceived as a means through which to achieve additional appreciation. When viewed through the lens of appreciation, a powerful yet unquantifiable driving factor (a factor that is powerful because it is unquantifiable), open information phenomena like open access journals, open source software, and creative commons begin to make sense.

In his book, The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind (available to read online HERE), James Boyle discusses several paradoxical effects of copyright and patent law. In particular, he observes the fact that, although patents and copyrights are ostensibly in place in order to encourage innovation, the lengthy and increasing terms actually have the opposite effect (by blocking the use of a great deal of material for the sake of future creative efforts). The glorious thing about open access initiatives, creative commons, open source, etc., is that they demonstrate that the profit motive is not in actual fact necessary to encourage innovation. In fact, ‘distributed creativity’ models have proven so effective that they are being increasingly embraced by major technology companies.

What is remarkable is not merely that the software works technically, but that it is an example of widespread, continued, high-quality innovation. The really remarkable thing is that it works socially, as a continuing system, sustained by a network consisting both of volunteers and of individuals employed by companies such as IBM and Google whose software “output” is nevertheless released into the commons. (187)

What, then, is the motivation for innovation and creativity here. Of course, when looking to Google and IBM, the profit motive is anything but absent. From the perspective of the larger community of authors in open source programming communities, however, the primary motivations appear to be two-fold. First, there seems to be an intrinsic motivation: there is something about programming that is game-like, that absorbs individuals in a task because of a pleasure derived from solving a problem for its own sake. There is something about the mere acquisition of mastery, apart from external rewards, that feels good in itself. Second, however, there is also an extrinsic motivation. But this external incentive is not for profit, but for recognition. Through creative commons licensing, authors give up potential financial rewards in exchange for an acknowledgment of their efforts that is transmitted through every iteration of its use. It may seem tautological, but a creation that is used is a useful creation. In other words, the fact that a program or piece of code (or song, or blog post, or book, or…) is put to use is a sign that it is valuable and that, in turn, the author is valuable as well. Even if the author is not thanked directly, but merely acknowledged, the use of some piece of intellectual property is itself an implicit gesture of appreciation. What we have, then, is an alternative economic model, an economy of appreciation that seemingly has all the social benefits intended by copyright law (encouraging innovation), without the unfortunate intellectual hoarding and orphaned works that we see as a result of copyright law in practice.

How can we establish an open economy of appreciation in the classroom? Too often, instructors lean too heavily on grades (the classroom equivalent of the cash economy) in order to produce results. “Perform this exercise / show up for class / participate, or else I’ll dock marks.” The problem with grades, however, is that they have a tendency to produce compliance rather that creativity. The key, then, is to structure class time and assignments in such a way as to maximize intrinsic motivation while also cultivating an economy of appreciation, wherein students can freely encourage one another, recognizing each other’s contributions to a common project (or range of projects) in a way that can be praised and further built upon. Assignments like digital storytelling projects and blogs can be powerful means by which to encourage this type of environment. Developing these assignments with a view to cultivating appreciative environments, however, is hard work, just as the development of the infrastructure necessary to encourage open source code sharing and a creative commons took (and continues to take) a lot of hard work. As we are beginning to see, however, the potential benefits for community and innovation are tremendous.

Boyle, James. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Tinto, Vincent. “Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research.” Review of Educational Research 45, no. 1 (1975): 89-125.