The wisdom of being a hopeless professor

Sometimes we professors feel as if we are dumping the precious contents of our life force into a gaping void. We do our research, prepare diligently for classes and spend hours hashing out difficult concepts with just one of our many students. A professor’s lament, and it is perhaps as old as the profession itself, is that we are usually left without a very full picture of how our work impacts students or our disciplines over the long haul. Some professors respond by orienting to the future with plucky optimism, adopting faith that their efforts will surely leave tangible results down the line. I prefer, instead, to embrace the insecurity of not-knowing, to teach and write without hope, not nihilistically, but radically rooted in present reality as much and as often as I can manage.

In the U.S., to question the desirability or wisdom of hope is tantamount to outing oneself as un-American. Hope is the great motivator, we are assured, without which we cannot possibly expect to act with vigor and deep purpose. As a ray of light breaks through the clouds, or the comatose patient finally blinks her eyes, hope is held up as the answer for everything from cancer to climate change. That Barack Obama embraced and leveraged the trope of hope so successfully in his campaigns is to the point. A presidential candidate whose very existence challenged a reactionary, racist status quo cloaked himself in the innocuously appealing, downright patriotic trappings of optimism, and it worked. The loathsome MAGA slogan is a reminder, though, that hope can also be rallied to harm and exclude.

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And it is some of the very facets of hope that make it work in slogans — its potentially insipid, numbing, soothing quality — that also make it worrisome. Hope is right up there with thoughts and prayers on the efficacy test, and it is often what one cleaves to during moments of greatest quietism. It is, perhaps, not the worst attitude in the world if one has a loved one (hopelessly) lost at sea, but far less appropriate in situations that invite, or admit of, intervention from us in the here and now. At its most innocuous, then, hope is nothing more than an expression of one’s preferences about the future. But when hope takes on a quasi magical status, as it so often does in conversations influenced by fundamentalist Christianity, it risks becoming a childish distraction from reality, one that, like Santa Claus, is created and maintained to make us feel better as we, perhaps, do nothing to reevaluate or adjust course.

This is not an objection to optimism, then, but, rather, to the pie-eyed version of it that has one teleporting into the future by way of magical thinking, usually leveraging assumptions about the inevitability of moral or intellectual progress. In such cases it strikes me as a quintessentially immature orientation that can lead us to make excuses for present failures or mediocrities. The comforting trope that, as a scholar and teacher, I plant seeds that will eventually come to fruition is one that I have certainly relied on in dark times, but I don’t regard these as my finest, most authentic moments. I am far more proud of the times I have confronted the existential bleakness — “What if nothing I ever do ultimately makes one iota of difference to the planet or to humanity?” — and still found a way to continue my work with enthusiasm.

In my best moments, I find optimism in the present, a sturdy-booted, minimalist version that emerges from facing the reality that is rather than one created by my fears and solipsistic fantasies. And with respect to teaching and researching from the current moment, whatever future outcomes I may wish to manipulate from engagements with students or ideas is secondary. The paradox is, of course, that very often it is only from this commitment to the present, with its lack of emphasis on consequences, that quality future results can emerge. It’s no wonder that such radical presence is difficult to achieve; we are creatures of time, after all, and in some ways the present itself only makes sense to us by reference to past and future.

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Though hope may be useful as a stopgap measure in desperate times, then, it is ultimately a shallow basis on which to build one’s ethical or professional platform. I avoid those Hollywood movies about charismatic, brilliant professors, then, in part, because I find the romanticism of hope they are premised on to cheapen the slogging, consistent labor that actually propels mature teaching and research. The fact that we must choose to make meaning, moment by moment, and do not find it waiting at the end of a rainbow is, for me, the most meaningful aspect of the work that we do.

I no longer imagine, then, that, as a teacher, I toss bottles containing precious messages into the sea that one day, someday, will be plucked from the rocky shoals by receptive hands. Instead, I see myself standing in the desert, pouring all that I have into the arid night, knowing full well that it will almost certainly evaporate before it hits the sand. Because creating meaning in full awareness of my part in this Sisyphean drama strikes me as essential to being a human being, a human professor. If I can manage to do my work in the full knowledge that it will all come to dust, as it surely will, then, by my own reckoning, I will have achieved a greatness worth celebrating.

The delicious minimalism of teaching summer school

Like lots of women in my demographic, I’ve been swept up in the minimalist lifestyle craze. At my house, the term “KonMari” — a reference to decluttering guru Marie Kondo — flows naturally as a verb and we speak of “sparking joy” — a key Kondo notion — with barely a hint of facetiousness. Teaching online, as it turns out, provides yet another platform to enact the various guilty pleasure associated with organizing and purging. Teaching online in summer — with its sharply defined time constraints and austere, tight spaces — is an even more concentrated version of this oddly addictive bourgeois challenge.

Almost everyone is tempted to whine about summer school because 15-weeks worth of class may be stuffed into seven, or even five, with the first and last weeks further compromised by add/drops, final exams or the Fourth of July. It’s intensified, too, by the fact that our summer students are often a little more highly strung — working full time, and sometimes needing just this one last class to graduate. All in all, almost everything about summer academic term feels different. It can be grueling and surreal, with nearly every aspect sculpted or distorted by having been slenderized, condensed and sanded down.

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And since summer students earn the same credit as regular-term students, they must be able to expect the full package and not some half-assed, watered-down shadow class, which puts even more pressure on instructors. It’s also why the analogy to minimalism feels apt. Transforming a full-semester online class into a short, summer version is something like moving from a standard-sized house into a tiny one in that:

  • Ideally, the experience of moving from more to less should feel chosen; anyone who feels forced by circumstances — a lost job, a fire, whatever — into radical downsizing will resist and resent it, and likely make themselves and others miserable. Anyone who is truly bummed out by the prospect of cutting their precious class in half should run for the hills if at all possible. For minimalism to be a joyful, constructive experience, its apparent constrictions must be freely embraced or it will just feel like deprivation. This aspect of choosing to go without is, of course, part of what marks lifestyle minimalism a bourgeois (pre)occupation!
  • It helps to reframe the shift from more to less, from, perhaps, excess to necessity, in converse terms. So, for example, those who downsize to a “capsule wardrobe” (a carefully curated, small number of well-loved clothing combinations) discover that the loss of options may actually register as an increase, with less time wasted on pieces that are ill-fitting, worn, or that one no longer likes. Paradoxically, the discipline of a restrictive framework may bring greater freedom. And it may help us better distinguish between the essential and the superfluous in pedagogical contexts as well when we push the just-okay, or merely habitual, assignments aside so that the critical work has more space to shine.
  • Whatever sense of loss remains from the culling process should be honestly faced. Most North Americans who embrace minimalism — and, not surprisingly it is wildly popular with we consumption-oriented North Americans — will have to chuck a lot. Through some combination of donating and discarding, we will shed layers, mounds, and boxfuls of stuff, some of which probably once provided a sense of comfort and security. The idea, then, is to embrace the delicious lightness of downsizing without minimizing whatever grief emerges for what is left behind. Similarly, though we may find satisfaction in the new, spare, clean lines of our summer classes, the amputations leading to this streamlining can hurt a lot.

Ultimately, the comparison between summer school and minimalism is meaningful because re-relating to the stuff of our lives, whether in the form of our homes, our intellectual creations, or our collectible spoons, is a major existential theme. When I’m radically redesigning my courses, I might as well make use of the opportunity to learn some pretty deep things about myself: What am I especially attached to and, why, really and truly, am I holding on so hard? Whether it’s those spendy red boots that never fit right, or that apparently clever assignment that never gained traction with students, it’s worth examining one’s sticky points. When it comes down to it, after all, it will all be about learning to let go, right?

On being a feminist, pragmatist professor who embraces labels

My students hate labels, or so they tell me: “Why do we have to put everything in boxes?” they ask. It’s one of the points about which they seem to all agree, right up there with individual freedom, color blindness, and cute puppies. I often like labels, though. In fact, I have a label maker. And I began to indulge my penchant for labels about the same time that my students agreed labels were bad. I am, then, for now at any rate, quite content to label myself as a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor.

My students — almost to a person — profess to hate labels because they see them as constricting, and, of course, they can be. Being labeled by others as a slut or a jock in the ninth grade can come to define a kid to the exclusion of deeper, more nuanced identities, affinities, and aptitudes. And it’s surely no accident that it’s this oppressive definition of “labeling” that students focus on and then (sort of) reject.

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They have learned that tolerance (in which we all just “get along” in a melting pot of insipid bliss) depends upon a rejection of labels. And reactionary conservative extremism reinforces this misunderstanding through its shallow critiques of “identity politics,” according to which I am an entitled whiner if I insist on living as a self-identified “lesbian.” In short, the very idea of labels has gotten a bad rap and been willfully misused.

But labels are indispensable and can serve liberatory and expressive aims. As I sit here, I see them all around, dials on my stove that denote high and low flame, and a Sharpie squiggle on a repurposed peanut butter jar marked “half-caff” (very important). They help create temporary order and can often be altered at will for either playful or serious purposes. I can peel off and restick labels, change my canister of oats to quinoa just like that. From this point of view, labels are not essentialist identifiers of fixed natures, but practical, shifting markers that can make life both easier and more fun.

It is in this spirit that I’m quite happy to say “I’m a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor.” The words point to features of my aptitudes and inclinations that connect to social justice, and ethical and metaphysical minimalism. Once can infer quite a bit about the sort of teacher, scholar, and interlocutor I will be with only these labels to go on. But, of course, it is part of the point that the labels I have taken up, at least in the classroom, are open-ended, leaving much to the imagination, both of others and of myself. Other labels, by contrast, that also accurately apply to me, limit me in the minds of others which is, of course, precisely why it can be so powerful sometimes to announce ourselves too as gay, or agnostic, or socialist or vegetarian or some other label that might challenge the preconceptions of those around us.

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But labeling myself isn’t something I do only, or even primarily, for the sake of others. Naming myself as a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor is a shorthand way of reminding myself of some of the basic, sometimes aspirational, values that guide my professional practice. When I stick these labels on my forehead, neatly printed from my Epson machine, I am announcing a commitment that I have to certain pedagogical, intellectual, and ethical values that both I and my students can hold me to. And, importantly, such labels can encourage students to be curious; “What exactly does it mean to be a pragmatist anyway?” I can feel them wonder as they look at me.

I am, then, in favor of reclaiming labels, of embracing the undeniably useful and even playful quality of them. The trick, of course, is to move away from the Judeo-Christian image of God-the-Labeler supplying identity to objects and beings as he names each one “in the beginning.” I am, then, offering a pragmatist, feminist approach to labels to explain why I am comfortable calling myself a pragmatist feminist. When it comes right down to it, in any case, I have noticed that most students are still quite committed to labels even as they decry them. Many still declare themselves as Christian, as tolerant, and, increasingly, as gender fluid. And there is perhaps no label to which contemporary students are likely to be more attached than that of being beyond labels.

When students wreck my fantasy of how awesome I am

A wise teacher once told me that when we get frustrated or irritated with others it is often because “they have failed to fulfill the function we have assigned to them.” In these waning weeks of the semester, as pressure escalates and tensions rise, I have ample occasion to ponder my own irritation. As the meager weeks tick by, and possibility once again morphs into constriction, it is almost irresistible to blame others and myself for whatever failures have begun to take shape.

Enter an email to me from a struggling student the other day expressing an anger so barely contained, it landed just on this side of civility. So viscously did it boil with muted rage that I began searching for the previous, more measured, expressions of frustration (or cries for help) that, surely, must have preceded it. But no. Though her message suggested she had been vainly beating her head against my door for weeks, this was her first missive. She had not, in fact, responded even perfunctorily to the multiple concerned emails I’d sent her in the first weeks of the term. Frankly, I found her irritation, both the scale and timing of it, irritating.

In the service of my campaign to avoid empty loops of guilt, defensiveness and resentment, I seek value in moments like this. Can I move past mere venting to something constructive? My approach is both to try to be curious about what is happening and to avoid taking it too personally. It’s a deceptively simple strategy because it first requires that I find breathing room between myself and whatever sparks of emotion are pouring from my ears. If I can’t find at least a little distance between others’ insults and who I think myself to be, then all is lost.

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When I am able to step back, the student’s irritation is easy enough to conjure up and understand. From day one she has found my class to demand more consistent attention than her other online classes, and for weeks now she has been getting grades she does not like. Though its difficulty is carefully calibrated with terms laid out explicitly in the syllabus, she expected my class to be more casual, self-paced and rote than it is. She expected to succeed doing what she’d previously done in similar classes. My class was supposed to further bolster her self-image as a good student for whom learning comes easily. Her irate message to me was actually the latest installment in an internal conversation of deepening frustration she’s been having with me for weeks. What names has she been calling me in her head? I don’t want to know.

But, of course, I imagine that I do know, and it stokes my own internal rant about these struggling students who seem to blame me as they ignore almost every bit of advice or instruction. They add insult to injury, or so I persuade myself, by waiting until the last weeks of the semester to reach out to me. My indignation reveals my own implicit expectations: My students should be polite and appreciative of the opportunity to learn with me, responsible enough to read and follow basic instructions, and willing to take some responsibility for failure. They should make me feel better, not worse, about myself as a teacher. Though most students most semesters meet these expectations, each and every semester — for 30 years now, mind you! — some students never have. Why, then, do I persist in holding them?

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To clarify, there are two senses of “expectation” at play here, one of which expresses something like gentle hope or preference. It’s what I mean, for example, when I say I expect students to address me by something resembling my actual title. But a more pernicious, rigid sort of expectation rises up when we actually come to rely on an unfolding reality to match our already established mental picture of it. Consider the naive picture many of us form at the beginning of the semester: Students will arrive on time and we will complete our grading with clockwork regularity, the scent of newly sharpened pencils filling the air. Often, hapless students and professors do not merely feel disappointed, but duped and disillusioned by a present reality that does not match the previously painted picture of it.

Of course, such fantasy-based expectation all but guarantees that we will assign roles to others that they will inevitably fail to fulfill. Our disappointment, then, will be palpable and deep, for we will not merely have unpleasant situations to deal with but must repeatedly countenance these willful others who wreck our dream of who we are and what our professional lives are supposed to mean. In failing to fulfill the roles I have assigned to them — some of which they did not actually agree to and may not even know they have — students really wreck things for me as I do for them. Small wonder we get angry and irritated with one another out of all proportion to what’s actually happening here and now.

Ghosts, burning houses, and the challenge of exhausted students

As we enter the desperate final weeks of the spring semester, I find myself acting like Patrick Swayze in Ghost as he negotiates the liminal space between earthly and ethereal existence. You may recall his frustration as he tries to force awareness of his presence on the oblivious humans around him, racing against the clock to save the woman he loves. As an online teacher, I too am basically chucking pennies, stage whispering, and madly waving my virtual arms to keep my students from fading away.

As many of us know, the true challenge of teaching, especially online, is helping students stay more or less connected for the entire fifteen weeks. Attention-span issues arise not just in the context of each reading but also from the sheer drudgery of week-in/week-out tasks. And so we clap our hands in front of their faces. We cajole. We praise. We warn. We entertain and amuse, just about anything to urge them to find just a little more oomph. These are mostly cheap teacher tricks, of course, and I’m not proud of them. At the beginning of the term, I promise myself only to appeal to the nobler side of students’ natures. “I try to help them connect to their own deepest motives for wanting to succeed,” I wrote in an earlier VP essay. And, sure, I do, and, sure, it works. Sort of. For a while.

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But that’s before the victuals start running low, before the snows come and they find themselves floundering just above tree line, no longer sure of the trail or their own feet. Exhausted, they long to burrow into the frigid earth and rest, just for a moment, only for a little while. But because I am the guide who knows that stopping now means certain death, I reach for the Buddha’s parable about “skillful means.” With children happily playing in a burning house, too distracted to notice or care as the flames leap from room to room, it is our obligation, he says, to do what works to lure them out. I can indulge in principled musing about how I must “respect that my students are adults,” that they “are fully capable of seeing and living with the consequences of their actions,” or I can focus on urging them to safety.

I am, then, never more pragmatist as a teacher than in the midst of this perennial, predictable crisis of persistence. And so, though I generally dislike the more manipulative aspects of pedagogical performativity — last ditch antics to grab students’ attention — I write my students these alternately cajoling, cautionary, and praise-filled notes. I ply them with tales of my own struggles with motivation and circumstance, and assure them with a confidence I do not always feel. I have been to the promised land, I preach, and, yes, safe arrival is assured if only they will push ahead just a few more miles.

This semester, I’m shamelessly trotting out a few new/old tricks, one that was suggested by a wise advisor colleague. “Tell them how much they’re paying for these credits,” he suggested. “Sometimes it works.” And so I (almost) shamelessly craft a message to my students that appeals to their pocketbooks, leveraging the very consumerist orientation to education that is so undermining to contemporary higher ed. “You’re handing over a hearty chunk-o-change for these credits,” I will write, “Is this money you’re prepared to squander?” And though I feel a little cheap as I wave my arms to grab their attention, at least I am in good company. There is the Buddha, after all, and, of course, the earnestly undead Patrick Swayze.

Am I Part of the Problem?

Probably most of us who love working in higher education are also critical of it. But the shifting intersections between universities and big business, public disinvestment, and the now common view of students as customers have all brought new urgency to our worries, guilt, and grievances.

With this in mind, the ambivalence many feel about online education may be obvious: Is online education merely enabling or exacerbating some of the worst trends in higher education? With the machinery of higher ed racing ever faster towards cheaper, interchangeable instruction, have I become part of the problem? For example, unlike most online teachers, my labor is not inexpensive — I have the increasingly rare luxury of being a tenured professor on a campus with a strong faculty union — but I am enabling an on-the-cheap infrastructure, one in which offices, classrooms and on campus amenities need not be calculated in at all.

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Asking tough questions about online education against this bleak backdrop seems like an ethical necessity, especially for those who, like me, have the privilege and relative security of tenure: How can I justify participating in, and benefitting from, a system that aims to cheaply reproduce educational credits? Isn’t higher ed reproducing a caste system in which privileged kids, mostly white, enjoy an enriched physical experience, complete with attentive professors, ivy covered walls, and intramural activities? Meanwhile our online students hustle to complete their discussion posts during breaks from their jobs at Chipotle and Walmart.

We tell ourselves, maybe, that we’re providing a special service to students who might otherwise have no access to college, and this is undoubtably true in some cases. Many of my students juggle jobs, family responsibilities and heavy class loads, a teetering balancing act that online convenience makes possible. But while it matters that some students benefit in exactly this way, their frenzied lives are are also partly caused by an ailing system. Why in the world is college so damn expensive? Why aren’t child and elder care more affordable? Why aren’t classes offered at times more convenient to working students with families? My point is the fairly obvious one that public higher ed is limping along within a social system that exemplifies values and priorities that aim to thwart it.

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Because the broader social context is part of what makes online education an attractive or necessary option, I wonder if we online teachers don’t have a special duty to question the role and value of online classes even as we provide such options to our harried students. It’s not that I think online education is inherently inferior to face-to-face, but surely working class students should not be forced into it. If we want to do our online work with integrity, then, we must not become defensive about online classes, but should actually encourage our colleagues and students to question it as well, even as we diligently serve our students within its limitations.

This is not a satisfying solution, but I’m not sure we can do much more than encourage and engage in higher ed activism. After all, the outsized emphasis on online education (which makes online ed an easy target), is merely one symptom of higher education’s decline. We also hear its gasps in the ever increasing number of courses taught by shamefully-compensated part-time instructors. It is not, then, as if our hands are somehow clean if we insist on teaching only in our physical classrooms.

Dear online student: I know what you did last semester

One of the most useful, and creepiest, aspects of teaching online is the sheer quantity and variety of surveillance we teachers can exercise. Although the technology is imperfect, I am more or less privy to detailed facts about how much time, if any, students spend on each assignment, including quizzes and exams. It’s a touch of omniscience about which I have mixed feelings, partly because my students seem not to understand, or, perhaps, to care about, how closely they are being watched.

A student I’ll call Jeff, for example, recently sent me the usual “I have no idea why I’m doing so poorly” email, underscoring his mystification with, “I’m working far too hard in this class to be earning such a low grade.” When I looked at his stats, I could see that he’d only opened two of the seven links to access the material and that he’d spent a total of six minutes (out of the allotted 40) to complete the unit quiz. In other words, he had just barely sauntered in during this unit, but still felt empowered to trot out the righteous “sweat and suffering” trope.

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When I relayed his stats to him, I assured him that, in my online classes, there is an almost perfect correlation between the amount of time students spend on it and the grades they earn. I asked him to reply confirming that he understood that succeeding would require consistent, sustained engagement with the material. I was sorry, but not surprised, that he didn’t respond, both because I want him to succeed and because my curiosity was piqued as it often is when folks make assertions that appear to be utterly contradicted by readily available facts.

It is, perhaps, naive of me to resist the obvious conclusion that Jeff was lying: Does he really believe that 16 minutes of effort in a two-week unit represents dedicated labor? That seems unlikely. But his was such a colossal, discoverable falsehood, I have to wonder. Is it possible that a present-day, traditional age college student could be so oblivious to the snooping power of technology? Have the fine arts of lying and excuse-making simply failed to keep pace with pedagogical spyware, or are some students’ expectations of what hard labor means really so different from those of previous generations?

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I’m far from the first to wonder if the online realm has shifted notions of academic honesty so sharply that, increasingly, we really aren’t all operating in the same ethical landscape. We see it with plagiarism in that the utter ubiquity of information, so easily redigested and pastiched, makes it exceedingly difficult to take seriously “authorial ownership.” Some students have always violated such norms of “intellectual property,” of course, but didn’t they used to seem to understand that they were breaking rules? Perhaps it’s not, then, that millennial students have less academic integrity than previous generations, but that the value of ideas, words and information has plummeted. Words seem now to exist like jellybeans in a community bowl, and it feels different to grab an extra handful now and then than to swipe a bag from the grocery store.

And similarly, the ease, isolation and anonymity of working and communicating online seems to be straining the norms of how students communicate with professors such that the boundaries between truth and falsity, and accuracy and exaggeration become blurrier. Of course, face-to-face students have also lied, slanted, and hyperbolied. Grandmas have been dying and dogs have been blithely munching on homework since the dawn of time. But half-truths and excuses take on an even more wiggly and pernicious quality in the online environment, I think, where words flow so freely and students may never meet their teachers’ eyes as they advance preposterously false claims.

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I can’t simply say, though, that online students are lying more to their teachers. Rather, intellectual and communication norms seem to have stretched. For some students, merely clicking on a link to an assigned article and skimming the images means having read it. It’s an equivocation I am also frequently guilty of in this age of distraction. Some students are, then, sincerely stunned when they utterly fail my fairly basic reading comprehension quizzes. So too, what I think of as, at best, exaggerations of speech, and, at worst, bald lies — “I worked for hours….” or “I studied all night” — can, I suspect, feel like regular speech acts in a communication environment in which “LMAO,” “dying!” and exploding emojis punctuate so many messages.

And I can’t help but connect all this to the erosion of communication norms on the national scene. How can I possibly be surprised if electronic utterances are regarded as so ephemeral and ubiquitous that one need feel little responsibility for them? Why shouldn’t our students, like so many around them, lose the intimacy of connection between what they say and who they feel themselves to be? Perhaps it’s not all bad. Maybe my students will never know the sickening wave of shame of having accidentally sent an unfortunate email. But the silencing of such internal alarm bells also deprives us of our usual means of encouraging personal and academic integrity. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, our pedagogical surveillance tools may have reached full flower precisely when students no longer care about being fact-checked.

In upcoming VP essays, I describe some of the tactics I’m using to shift the conversation with my students back to one in which more traditional parameters of reality and honesty operate. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below, on the VP Facebook site, or by email to virtualpedagogue@gmail.com: How much do you use the stats tool in your online platform to track students? Do you feel creepy doing it? What is your sense of how students are relating to notions like authorship and intellectual authority? Has something shifted in how students relate to notions like truth and falsity or am I just getting cranky?