Harnessing the power of peer pressure

Many of us internalized the message about the danger of peer pressure early on. When we asked to get a particular brand of shoes or to go to a party because “everyone else” was, our parents snarked, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” The honest answer was probably yes, but the right answer, we knew, was “of course not.” Peer pressure, we learned, was this dark force that, like an evil hypnotist, could lead us to follow silly, self destructive trends, to do what our real selves would not do.

It has taken me many years, then, to recognize peer pressure as a potentially legitimate and useful aspect of classroom life. In fact, the loss of some simple forms of social pressure, including something like peer pressure, resulting from my shift to the online classroom has helped me appreciate its power and utility more profoundly.

First, a few mundane personal experiences that led to some elementary insights:

  • deciding I would shift to a solo yoga practice at home and being astonished at how rarely, and how lazily, I did yoga after that
  • living off the beaten path for a short time and being chagrined to discover how much longer it took me to retrieve my lonely trash and recycle bins from the isolated curb
  • noticing how much worse I would dress on days that online work freed me from having to go to campus or out in the world at all

I used to think of peer pressure — if I did at all — along the lines of the after school tv special. Remember the older kid in the leather jacket urging the middle-schooler to “try it, just one puff”? But it’s easy to find examples of productive social pressure where the threat or promise of others’ eyes pushes us to do better. And so I find myself trying to recreate some basic social accountability structures, especially as many of my students’ appear to ever less motivated by the lure of a good grade.

Studies show that it doesn’t take much social pressure to nudge our behavior. Apparently, even the simple printed and posted image of a pair of eyes results in more people paying for coffee offered to them on the honor system. Surely, then, I can better work positive peer pressure into my online classes?

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Some really simple strategies I already use:

  • requiring students to post some completed assignments to a special discussion board with their name included where others students will briefly comment on them
  • explicitly sharing and emphasizing an anonymous grade distribution after key assignments so that students are more likely to see where their falls
  • having a friendly, low stakes, early assignment that encourages students to include a still image or video of themselves
  • asking students to reflect explicitly on how they think social pressure influences their online performance as compared to their face-to-face classes

None of these rudimentary practices would be worth mentioning if not for the longstanding vilification of peer pressure. And it’s a negative reputation that has been earned, to some extent, given the damage that peer pressure can do, especially to already vulnerable students. But I think it is the potentially shaming aspect of peer pressure that is most noxious. And given that some basic forms of peer pressure are unavoidable, perhaps it is worthwhile to focus on nourishing a healthier version of such pressure while deemphasizing its more damaging aspects? After all, isn’t harnessing the noble power of social pressure part of the point of facilitating group experiences in the first place?

Of course, not all students will perform better against a backdrop of healthy, intentionally structured social pressure. But at least this is a tool that is consistent with the nearly unavoidable human propensity to run just a little farther and faster when we think someone is watching. We can wish it were otherwise, touting our allegiance to a lone wolf ethos that cares nothing for the opinions of others. But the more beautiful, complicated truth is probably that we are social creatures who, for better and worse, can be impelled by the gaze of others into acts of astonishing altruism, brilliance and cruelty.

Glitter and glue sticks: The playful pleasure of preparing new courses

One of the hardest things to explain to non-teachers is what’s involved in creating a new class. Non-teachers may only ever have seen teaching from the student side: lectures, activities and assignments that seem to appear magically, like an elaborate pancake breakfast prepared by Supermom on Sunday morning. Or, they may only recall the deflated professors who lectured from brittle yellow notepads and think that college teaching involves nothing more than cranking on the same rusty water spigot year after year. Given that some professors themselves underinvest in teaching, together with the popular societal view that professors’ jobs are easy, the stage is set to minimize the meaningfulness of our teaching preparation work.

This summer as I radically retool two upcoming Fall courses (one online and one face-to-face), I’m fully immersed in course prep and more aware than ever of its charms and challenges. Certainly, part of why I am so earnest and curious about course creation — from inception to design to implementation to assessment — is my recent rediscovery of online teaching. It has, in fact, pushed me to rethink the looser style of my face-to-face classes, just as my foray into backpacking — with its need for meticulous planning and minimalism — has affected how I regard and organize stuff in my home.

Given the exigencies of creating new classes or overhauling old ones, it surprises me a little that I find it so invigorating. But I notice right away that, because I’ve decided on a radical overhaul, I’m back in a student role, in this case a sort of intense, self-curated LGBT Studies summer camp. The exhilaration of reconnecting with the traditional course subject matter, while diving into the latest developments, is intrinsically pleasurable and will also be a catalyst for infectiously enthusiastic teaching. I’m actually eager to share this with students! Teachers who are unable to fall newly in love with the subject they teach, as I have often been, are surely cheated out of one of the deepest pleasures our jobs have to offer.

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Next, I discover that, for me, there is also satisfaction in the almost tactile process of laying out and executing such a complex creative project, from mere idea to concrete realization. The satisfaction of making my ideas come to life by expressing an abstract learning goal through various sorts of well-placed assignments and assessments, is perhaps like crafting a dress or a house. And maybe because I’m independent and intellectually-oriented, there’s something especially gratifying about the rare prospect of helping ideas live and breathe in shared, intersubjective space. That I think of creating a class as a sort of craft, then, is meant to express that, through this activity, I sometimes feel my most abstract ideas sprout legs, don shoes and take off running through the tangible world.

I think the comparison with crafts may be especially apt. On the one hand, part of why the richness and burdens of this creative work are often overlooked by professors is that intellectuals tend not to prize merely technical, practical or instrumental proficiency as we do intellectual insight. Secretly, perhaps, we may envy the skill of the plumber or electrician, even as we not-so-secretly believe we move in higher, more ethereal realms. Course design experts, I am told, often feel devalued by old school profs who are suspicious of what they see as window dressing and gimmicks. After all, for many college profs, including me, learning to teach meant nothing more than learning our discipline. In fact, we implicitly distinguished ourselves from K-12 teachers partly and precisely because we never focused on teaching in that way.

In addition to the elitist elements at play here, I wonder if it’s not also about sexism. When the quintessential educational course creator comes to my mind, it’s the female elementary school teacher. Earnest and bright eyed, she spends her own money and weekends at the crafts store, buying felt strips and foil stars. While most people can talk a good game about how important her work is — forming the next generation and whatnot — by and large, she is regarded as a glorified babysitter. This image stands in deliberately sharp contrast to the (serious, muscular, hard-hitting, deep) university professor. As I prepare for the new Fall semester, then, I wonder if professors’ (understandable) need to affirm our own specialness and status might not keep us from truly enjoying course preparation. As for me, I am discovering that, as I play with the glitter and glue sticks, as well as the big ideas, they are not really so different after all.

The loneliness of the online teacher

One of the most appealing aspects of the discussions and workshops I’ve facilitated with other online teachers is the sheer power of that face-to-face time. For example, a recent discussion I led called, “Online education, on purpose,” was gratifying as a way to share some tricks and strategies, but even more so for the chance to actually lock eyes with others who spend so much time bobbing around in single-person boats like mine. I like the self-reliance and serenity of online teaching — and know many of my online colleagues do too — but as human animals, we are also nourished by our physical, creaturely time together.

Predictably, one of the great selling points of online teaching — independence and solitude — is also one of its greatest traps. It isn’t just that we may not actually see much of our departmental colleagues, but that even when we do, they are likely not as invested in the online world as we are. In many of our disciplines, teaching online is pretty much a niche affair. This is not, then, just a question of physical isolation for many of us, but of a psychological isolation resulting from this modality still being regarded as specialized. Of course, lots of faculty members already experience some isolation as a department’s sole expert in a content area, but in such cases, face-to-face teaching itself often serves as a source of bonding with otherwise dissimilar colleagues.

In a previous post I noted that some solely brick and mortar professors think I’m a lazy sellout because of my foray into online ed. Meeting up in person with other online teachers, then, is a bit like an AA meeting or a coming out circle. When we connect, it is not just a social nicety but an implicit acknowledgement of one another’s existence and worth. We can freely express our fascination with and commitment to online teaching as Trekkies at their convention can celebrate a passion for the Clingon language. Similarly, we can be honest about our doubts and misgivings — even the deep ones — without fear that this will be used to discredit our future online teaching work or against online ed altogether.

That my analogy combines elements of a coming out circle, a support group, and a fan community is apropos. Too often when online teachers’ need for community is acknowledged, it is oversimplified, with a narrow focus on the straightforward loneliness of laboring by oneself. But it isn’t just any sort of company that will nourish us and ease the ache. Many online professors are pioneers in an endeavor with a still shaky reputation, hovering like tin-foil satellites at the far periphery of their ivy and brick universities. The community we need, then, will provide solace and support, but also help us challenge the very identities we are in the process of establishing.

Gamification: Seductive gold stars and pats on the back

In the third grade, I was rewarded for being the fastest to complete a series of long division problems on the blackboard. My prize, a Flintstone’s eraser, wasn’t even a good likeness of Dino, but I carried it with me for weeks. These days the reward I crave is the happy jingle from my iPad when I’ve completed the daily New York Times crossword. My awareness that I’m only sort of joking when I admit it’s my favorite song helps explain my ambivalence at incorporating similarly trivial rewards into my own classes. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing to be so eager for such superficial affirmations.

Gamification, using elements of reward and friendly competition to encourage effort and engagement, is both simple and intuitively appealing. That it effectively lights fires — at least in some learners — is clear enough. Nudged onward by the promise of leveling up or of earning a virtual ribbon, we do sometimes perform more diligently and enthusiastically with these dangling carrots in sight. And so I created a badge icon for students who improve their quiz scores, one that automatically pops up on these users’ home pages. I plan to add consistency and perseverance badges as I seek more ways to exploit these easily implemented gamification strategies.


I’ve become willing to experiment with such cheap tactics partly because of my own recent experience as an online student; I was surprised by the tiny thrills of satisfaction I came to anticipate as my badges appeared. And I suspect that gamification has a similarly primal effect, not only on millennial video gamers, but on many of us who earned prizes as children: for the number of books read, a class spelling bee, or a math club competition. But I also know that some experts caution against linking worthwhile activities to crass rewards, noting that, for example, children may no longer color for sheer enjoyment when prizes become part of the mix. While this consequence might not be so worrisome for straightforwardly “outcome-based” courses, it would be anathema for teachers intent on cultivating joyfully authentic life-practices such as close reading and thoughtful discussion.

So, even as I create the release conditions for my virtual badges, imagining my students’ pleasure at receiving them, I’m a little sheepish. Is this all just a tawdry gimmick? Am I trying to bribe these precious human companions with trivial ego boosts, coaxing them to learn material that, as it happens, actually has both intrinsic value and relevance to their lives? Am I reinforcing a consumerist, credentialist view of learning as merely extrinsically valuable, with grades and prizes to be collected in exchange for a diploma and job? They are urgent questions for me because I’ve never meant for my students merely, or even primarily, to learn “information” or discrete “skill sets” associated with my “content area.”

As I continue to explore using badges and other rewards, I remind myself that what I’m up to — leveraging behaviorist elements of learning without sacrificing the ethos of learning for its own sake — is a very old pedagogical conundrum. It certainly didn’t arise with online teaching, even if online modalities have made us more self-conscious about the perils and promises of gamification. In online classes, the affinity of gamification to electronic gaming becomes obvious. And, of course, we all know, or imagine we do, how addictive and empty that activity can be. But, again, some of my most enduring memories as an elementary school student in the 70’s, long before Super Mario or Minecraft, also involved “gamification.” And they are memories that, for better and worse, still bring me vibrations of shame and satisfaction.

As a child, I was motivated by the promise and fear of prizes awarded and withheld, but this probably also compromised my ability to take learning risks because I did not want to be a loser. Gamification, then, is complicated and fraught, and it occurs to me that I should use it more thoughtfully. What if, for example, I invited students to explicitly reflect upon their own perceived susceptibility or aversion to gold stars and pats on the back? Could gamification then become a tool for deeper self-reflection and whole-person development? After all, much of life occurs against a competitive backdrop, a humming swirl of conditional, often arbitrary, ego affirmations and insults. A little more awareness of what’s driving the quest for that promotion, that house, or that anti-wrinkle cream is probably not such a bad idea.

Deep Revision or “Why It’s Fun to Play in the Sand”

The Tibetan monks who spend weeks stooped over elaborate sand paintings, perfecting each razor line of crystals, only to suddenly sweep it all away, know what they are dong. Their casual destruction reminds us that our projects, along with life itself, are provisional, like waves rising and falling in the sea. Why then is revision such a difficult skill to teach and such a challenge to fully embrace?

We’ve probably all played the revision game with students, and maybe with ourselves, in which requests for real transformation are diluted into mere tweaking. A submitted work, because it has been submitted, can feel essentially done, even if it was only initially intended to be a first draft. My experience with undergraduates in writing intensive general education courses, in college writing courses, and even with graduate students, is that actual revision is an attitudinal orientation most don’t achieve. My focus here, then, is not on particular strategies for revision — there are many brilliant, readily available ones out there — but on the deeper power of revision per se. My aim is indirectly practical, though, since a great obstacle to fully engaged revision is a lack of will. It’s hard to get too excited about revising when the only apparent payoff is a slightly better grade on a paper that no one will probably ever read again.

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I flesh out a more expansive notion of revision by imagining the difference between making a marble bust and a sandcastle. Eventually, the bust will be declared finished, for all sorts of reasons, including time and material constraints. At some point, further chipping away seems more destructive than creative. There is, then, a more or less natural limit, inherent in the activity itself. With sand as medium, though, the completion point is more arbitrary. I call it a day because of sunburn, or hunger, or because the tide is nipping at my ankles. Sandcastles are fun precisely because of the abundance of material, the low stakes, and the intrinsic and endless revisability of the whole endeavor.

A comparison between digital and film photography also enriches my sense of what revision might be. As anyone who’s done both kinds of photography knows, the difference is much more interesting than one of mere technological means. As when working with marble, part of the joy of film shooting is connected to its material limits. The discipline forced on the photographer by the nature and cost of the film and processing hones artistic vision and technically mastery. On the other hand, the nearly magical flexibility of digital, of being able to instantly and recklessly shoot a zillion frames, is also a creative boon. Although these activities look alike — one is just sculpting or taking pictures — there are interesting distinctions, and ones that mirror academic work.

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Except for some intentionally-focused writing courses — creative writing comes to mind — many instructors suggest that the term papers or other class projects are products meant to result from skills and knowledge gained during the semester. The paper becomes, then, a kind of artifact of the class experience, not unlike a lumpy ashtray made in a junior high shop class. It’s different, though, when, instead, the paper is seen as a kind of excuse for deeply engaging in the processes of revision and reflective thinking. Then, the final “product” matters but primarily as a gauge and heuristic for facilitating careful reading and thoughtful reflection. I could see this more clearly when I realized that many people run in organized marathons not just to achieve the obvious goal but for the rigorous training motivation the race provides.

Just as some especially fit people can successfully complete marathons without really being transformed by weeks or months of training, so too some skillful students can submit technically fabulous term papers, relative to their peers, without stretching themselves intellectually. By focusing on the process rather than the product, then, I am then more likely to help both the best and worst students improve. It’s not that the product doesn’t matter — it is, of course, part of how we measure the effectiveness of the process — but when it becomes the overriding focus, the opportunity to develop an ethos of revision can be missed.

I say “ethos” here, rather than “skill,” because I think the true power of revision isn’t just that it can help students become better academic writers, readers, and thinkers. Rather, the critical self-reflection required for genuine revision is connected to the deeper self-scrutiny associate with living an authentic, examined life. Asking questions of one’s paper — Why did I think that? Could my claim here be wrong? Am I actually saying what I mean? Did I misrepresent that author’s point? — can become a portal into considering one’s way of orienting to others and to the world. In other words, academic revision can become a point of access to the delicious ongoing revisability of our very selves.

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“But it’s too hard!”: the challenge of lazy student readers in an age of distraction

In one my favorite young adult books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the main character, Francie, a girl growing up in an Irish tenement in New York City, cuts her reading teeth on Shakespeare. I was forced to read Hamlet in the eight grade and have always been struck by that image of a little girl being first read to from Shakespeare, and then reading and loving it herself. This past year, I’ve often struggled to muster enough attention to read potboilers, let alone Macbeth. And I continue to watch with curiosity and concern as my students struggle, both with reading challenging material, and with the notion of intellectual struggle as such.

Last week, for example, several students reported flat out that a podcast I’d assigned — in which two graduate students discuss the myth of historical progress — had left them utterly at sea. “Too hard,” one stated. Another said, “I have no idea what they’re talking about it. I hope other students have more luck with this than I did.” All who shared thoughts like this presented them matter-of-factly, as though providing a brief product review. Instead of hearing their remarks as mere complaining and being irritated by it, I’m making an effort to look closer.

First, there’s the students’ self-assigned authority with respect to identifying what does and does not count as appropriately difficult material for a class of this level. Second, there’s the lack of any hint of self-reflection suggesting that the quality of their own efforts might be playing a role. Such blithe student confidence is surely not all bad. I recall being knocked into a tailspin of self-criticism when, as an undergraduate, I was required to read a notoriously cryptic work by Wittgenstein. I don’t want my students to be driven to tears of failure, but I also can’t deny that I was pushed to work harder despite the fact that I wanted to stomp on this little treatise for having insulted my intelligence.

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It’s certainly not that I was smarter or of deeper character than today’s college students — I am sure of this — but, rather, that I had a different relationship to texts than is common today. This shift impacts what we can now expect from student readers and, almost certainly, from one another as well. I notice, for example, that when I need information or insight, whether it’s about communitarianism or cast iron skillets, I search and skim online, not until I find the best source, but until I find one that is good enough, and that also requires little time or effort from me. Exertions of reading and comprehension that used to feel simply normal now feel unreasonable. Like my students, I tend to blame, not myself, for a failure of attention, but the writers of the material.

These challenges of reading in an age of ubiquitous distraction upend our most fundamental notions of reasonable intellectual effort and accountability. Little Francie Nolan read Shakespeare not because she was smarter or more curious than I was, but, in part, because she had few other options. The result was that she developed a particular relationship to these rich texts, and, more importantly, a relationship to the notion of intellectual difficulty itself. How, I wonder, can we work with our students, not just to force feed them complicated texts, but to appreciate this as an opportunity to connect to their own wherewithal? I address the issue with them head on, encouraging humble confidence as they approach work they find daunting, but I am keenly aware that I’m spitting into the wind.

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As usual, then, I am focusing on the one intellectually complacent person I can sort of control: myself. I’m making new efforts to notice when, instead of settling into my comfy chair to digest hearty fare, I reach for the equivalent of intellectual potato chips, snarfing them down compulsively and with little real satisfaction. It is certainly not only my students who have been captivated by the lure of the disposable, easy read and, with it, the lazy delight of pat conclusions and facile critique.

This week I will, as I have done so many times during the past decades, return to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, both to discover new insights from this dense, enigmatic treatise and also to reconnect with the panicked, but exhilarated, undergraduate I once was. Back in the late 80s, I stayed up all night wrestling with that little book. I didn’t win that battle, but I did develop a respect for my opponent and for my own intellectual resources that has shaped who I continue to be as a reader and a thinker.

Guns in schools: The worst best argument for online education?

Most of my current students, I realize, have never ever attended school without the background fear of being summarily mowed down. While they finger painted, practiced their clarinets, or stood at white boards working through math problems, they did so having internalized the entirely plausible threat of being maimed or murdered where they stood. It takes the discourse of trigger warnings to an absurd new level when classrooms themselves have become symbols of PTSD.

It isn’t as if U.S. schools have ever been uniformly safe, of course. For marginalized students in forgotten communities, there is a long history of violence, danger, and uncertainty. And even privileged students at well funded schools may deal with sexual violence and bullying. But this is different, both because of the scale of its impersonal ferocity, and because this murderous fad is so explicitly enabled by our own government. It has, effectively, been open season on schoolchildren for as long as my current students have been alive.

It’s a tragic context that lends a perverted twist to my musings about the power and appeal of online education: Will the heightened fear of campuses on lockdown make students grab even more eagerly for course credits they can earn from the relative safety of their homes? Will concerns about gun-toting classmates further dampen classroom conversations about social injustice, politics, or ethics, making it less and less important to address one another face-to-face?

How many of our students, already destabilized by financial and mental health issues, not to mention nagging worries like climate change, the rollback of LGBT rights, and a potential war with Korea, will lean more towards online classes as a way to hold some anxiety at bay? And how many parents, having wearily sent their kids into potential killing fields for years now, will encourage their adult children to attend college from their bedrooms? It is certainly easy enough to imagine online education increasingly becoming a refuge from intolerably unsafe campuses.

Such a possibility points to the true size of the horror because, of course, it is not just schools that have become government sponsored abattoirs, but also public gathering spaces as such. We are murdered at gay nightclubs, outdoor concerts, peaceful protests, and in churches while we pray. We die in parking lots, theaters, and on softball fields. The precipitous erosion of safety in public schools, then, is merely part of a broader trend in which public spaces are desecrated, made uninhabitable by white male violence so banal it is rarely even identified as such.

How shameful that the burden to create change has been left to children who are fed up with being murdered and mutilated at their desks. And how glorious if, under their fierce leadership, we might begin to reclaim not just our schools, but the vitality and intimacy of our shared public lives.