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?

Can You Hear Me? Martyrs at the Altar of Student Feedback

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I learned that I was supposed to want feedback from my teachers long before I actually wanted it. Like lots of academically successful kids, I had a fragile, “fixed mindset” and so was inclined to interpret anything scented with criticism as a demolition of my very being. I knew, though, that I should want feedback, so as a high school and college student I learned to stuff down my defensive reactivity and nod calmly while the torpedoes landed.

Of course, I learned early on to make changes to my work in response to feedback — enough to show I was paying attention — but the critiques, for better and worse, didn’t really land. I came to adulthood then, and developed into a teacher, on uneasy terms with feedback and having only occasionally been constructively impacted by it. This should be a little shocking given the teacher’s supposedly central role in shaping student learning through skillful critical feedback, but I doubt it will seem strange to most higher ed instructors. How many of us who complete the long road to the professoriate are motivated by praise, and in spite of the occasional critiques?

Why, then, does so much pedagogical discussion about critical feedback assume that students (more or less) want it and that professors (more or less) know how to give it? Discussions I’ve seen about feedback (apart from those of education scholars) are almost always practical in nature, bypassing altogether basic questions about why, when, and if it matters. With this in mind, the online classroom, where all or most feedback is indirect, has become an excellent laboratory for me to explore the issue. In fact, my most recent hypotheses about student feedback arose from my stunning discovery that few of the individualized comments I’d so painstakingly written had ever even been opened. I’ve long known, of course, about the gap between the given and received sides of the feedback loop, but the online set up — I can so easily see when they’ve ignored it — makes some of the lessons more indelible.

Some hypotheses I’ve been toying with:

-Most students don’t really want critical feedback and so the inclination will be to avoid it altogether or interpret it in unintended ways. It may, for example, be understood as merely cosmetic and so barely worthy of attention, or as utterly damning and so too overwhelming to face.

-Even the few who are genuinely open to substantive critical feedback, those who will actually read it, are likely to miss the point. Our weakest areas are magnets for constructive critique, but our lack of expertise in these areas is precisely what makes misunderstandings more likely. If we had an idea of what we were doing wrong, we probably wouldn’t have done it that way in the first place.

-Even as some kinds of individual feedback are probably less valuable than we think — for example, that which relates to specific intellectual competencies, content knowledge, or mechanical tasks — others may be more important. For example, personal notes to students acknowledging their overall intelligence, worth, and belonging in the class can be especially powerful, as can general expressions of concern about their well being when their assignments aren’t done well.

-Offering detailed individual feedback to students is deeply tied to many professors’ sense of themselves as competent and dedicated teachers. It’s common, then, for professors to announce with exhaustion and exasperation how much grading they have, or how much time they spend on each paper. It becomes a badge of both courage and martyrdom, but how helpful this blood, sweat and tears actually is to students sometimes seems to be beside the point.

These tentative conclusions have led me to make several shifts of emphasis in both my online and face-to-face classes:

  • First, I try to more deliberately establish rapport, and a sense of mutual responsibility about grades so that students are more inclined to reach out when real questions arise and to do so effectively. If legitimate concerns come up — and I work with them to distinguish “I don’t like my grade” from “I don’t know why I got this grade” — I need to be confident they’ll reach out to me instead of miring down in resentment and confusion.
  • Second, I rely on increasingly detailed instructions and rubrics (which I’ve despised for decades) to mutually reinforce clear standards and expectations. Since the strengths and weaknesses of student work tend to be more epidemic than idiopathic, providing detailed, but generalizable guidelines makes sense. When students have more specific concerns or complaints, the rubric also serves as shared language between us. For example, when they have questions about a grade, I ask them to take some responsibility for helping me better interpret their work by connecting it directly to the rubric. I’ve come to think that developing such skills of self-evaluation — feedback is no longer merely something I inflict upon them — may be one of the most helpful things I do. It can help transform feedback from a rationalization of a grade I’ve given them to an opportunity for self-reflection about a grade they have earned.
  • Third, I try to keep my own ego and guilt out of it. Inspired by the sign in the janitor’s closet, I aim to work smarter, not harder, and so avoid tapping out “individual” comments that merely repeat what’s in both the instructions and rubric. Above all, as best I can, I fight the temptation to become a feedback martyr, sweating and bleeding over lengthy, individualized comments for no good reason. I will probably never be fully satisfied with what I can give my students, especially these distant souls whom I will never even meet, but I will no longer paper over my anxiety about that under reams of supposedly altruistic feedback.

When students refuse to follow our orders and advice

According to the quirkily wise Byron Katie, when we get angry with others, it is often because they have failed to fulfill the function we have assigned to them. We operate with an implicit master script, she explains, that can include quite specific ideas about how THEY are supposed to act. Not surprisingly, we may become irritated, even incensed, when they deviate from the plot line, even though THEY may not agree they’re bound to our plan or even be aware of it. No where do I find this account more relevant than with students, especially when, like now, I am feverishly preparing a new class. One way I now understand my efforts to meticulously craft a new syllabus and painstakingly word my assignments is that I am, effectively, trying to nudge students into doing what I want.

What a revelation it is to learn that we really can’t make other free agents do our bidding even when it is actually in their best interest to follow our orders or advice. We all know this, of course, but we often fail to assimilate this fact, especially in contexts such as teaching, parenting, and management where there are obvious power and responsibility imbalances. This explains why so many “bosses” start out asking nicely — as if they are actually requesting — but quickly transform into barking autocrats. A managerially sophisticated veneer initially compels them to proceed as if they work with underlings rather than over them, but, in reality, these bosses simply expect others to fall into line. We teachers too often make a nice show of being committed to student agency and pedagogical equality, but when it comes down to it, we still expect students to quietly accept our authority.

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I am not suggesting that it’s somehow wrong when we instructors operate this way — a healthy dose of manipulative pedagogical hierarchy often gets the job done, I think — but, of course, general expectations of student obeisance are simply foolish. Our students, like our friends, insurance agents, lovers, and political representatives — ultimately do as they damn well please. Their behavior may be rude, self-sabotaging, brilliant or mystifying, but it belongs to them. And, just so, though I may be pleased, irritated or indifferent in reaction to them, my responses belong to me. In fact, it is often only when I realize that I am supremely irritated by someone that I recognize I had quite specific expectations of them in the first place.

Even if I remain quite convinced that my advice to students is spot on, it fascinates me that I can become so prickly at their failure to follow it. And I can’t help but notice other teachers too who claim to radically respect student agency and autonomy even as they take it quite personally when students don’t obey them. I’m not, of course, suggesting that it’s bad or wrong to become irritated when someone fails to meet our expectations. When, for example, I pay an airline to carry me expeditiously to the West Coast and they summarily overbook me out of a seat, my irritation is utterly justified as we normally use that term. I may even be able to skillfully leverage my irritation to manipulate a better outcome, to cajole, threaten, or otherwise make things go my way. And sometimes too, perhaps much of the time, it makes pragmatic sense to shape our language and reactions so that students are more likely to choose the paths that we have selected for them.

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But when they don’t follow orders, when they blow past deadlines, arrive late, or insist on repeatedly submitting 200 rather than 500 words, I need not take it personally. In doing what they wish to do they are, in fact, expressing a quintessentially human capriciousness that is, if not to be celebrated, then to be respected. And I can respect their autonomy best simply by letting them face the consequences of whatever path they have chosen rather than taking it personally.

Certainly, I am a much happier person, and probably a better teacher, when I am able to take responsibility for my irritation at their apparent defiance. And from this wider perspective it can even be kind of amusing when they ignore my carefully prepared instructions and do whatever they felt like doing in the first place. It is, I think, a microcosm of what life “does to me” all the time. Just as, despite our frantic best efforts, our dogs die and our beds refuse to stay made, I cannot bend reality to my will, no matter how I may wail and stamp my feet. But it is perhaps also quintessentially human of me that I reserve the right to moan and groan in protest from time to time nonetheless.

There’s something about you I just don’t like: the tyranny of “not nice enough”

Despite my affection for a long ago high school principal who, with a thick Oklahoma accent, urged us simply to “be nice,” it isn’t a term I have much use for any more. There’s often a suggestion that “nice” means something like “insipidly boring,” “smilingly false” and that it connotes some measure of cluelessness. There’s some awareness too, that nice has race and sex-specific associations such that people of color and white women are generally pressured to “smile and be nice” as white men are not. These sexist and racist implications are noxious, of course, and add weight to the conclusion that “nice” is perhaps irredeemable. Unfortunately, “nice,” and some of its vapid stand-in cousins, still play a powerful underground role in shaping academic contexts.

One of the problems with “nice” is its near boundlessness. It often functions as a sweeping, catch-all adjective to be trotted out when we either aren’t able, or don’t wish, to be more specific about why we’re embracing or rejecting someone. This becomes clearer when we contrast “nice” to “polite” which usually suggests some specific perceived behavioral violation: he fails to reply to my quickly chirped “good mornings” or she ignores a special favor I did. While we might reasonably disagree about “politeness,” at least there’s something concrete to point to when we praise or blame someone on this basis.

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Many of the articles warning about biased student evaluations take issue with such vague, subjectively-based personality assessments. Significantly, professors of color, both women and men, and white women, are often judged according to racist and/or sexist stereotypes. Of course, these judgments may be expressed in general, supposedly innocuous terms: she wasn’t “approachable,” he was “too intense,” she wasn’t “warm.” But when it comes down to it, they often sound like accusations of a failure to be nice, and such mercilessly sweeping personality assessments are dangerous. This is especially so since college students have become powerful “customers” and so many instructors are part-time contract workers. In fact, it’s hard to overstate the power of student complaints in this era of blisteringly loud, instant communication combined with a shamefully vulnerable contingent faculty labor force.

What “nice” means can vary wildly and function as a locus of informal power because it is determined solely by the feelings of the judge(s). If the judge decides I am not nice, then it is my responsibility to shape up, to improve my performance. I am at her mercy and nothing would be stronger proof of my deficit of niceness than for me to insist that, in fact, I really am nice and she is mistaken. If she feels that I am not “caring” or “warm,” then she may proceed as if her assessment is infallible. The hideous double-bind here is clearly revealed when we consider that absolutely any defensive moves by the accused may be taken as further proof of her personality flaw. Surely, no truly nice person would argue with someone generous enough to provide feedback about how not-nice they are!

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The supposedly infallible and amorphous character of judgments about others’ niceness helps explain why they have been officially abolished in many professional contexts. That others may wield such capricious judgments to punish or shame those they do not like can even produce a mobbing situation. There are, of course, all sorts of actual conduct violations an instructor may commit, but these should be describable as identifiable instances of unprofessional behavior. Ironically, fuzzy accusations that a professor is not nice, or warm, or caring enough can actually distract from identifying actual behavioral violations, for example, that he fails to properly grade student assignments or reply to their emails.

At bottom “nice” is so flexible and vague that it can function almost entirely as a kind of catch-all label for someone we just don’t like. As adults, of course, we can’t openly reject others on the grounds that they don’t gush over our cute puppy photos or that they fail to laugh loudly enough at our jokes. But even as we critique insipid personality evaluations focused on niceness, they may still get plenty of uptake. If I decide that the woman working as a cashier or nurse or letter carrier — or senator or judge or political candidate — isn’t nice, or warm, I can probably find support for my judgment. In fact, agreement about her vague personality failures can quickly bond critics with one another. It should surprise no one, then, that faculty members continue to be threatened by these same trite and trusty swords, at the judgmental mercy of students, administrators, and sometimes their own colleagues.

This plastic uke: The virtue of mediocrity

I play the uke almost every day. I’ve been doing this for almost a year now, but probably not for the reasons people think. I do it because I’m not very good at, because, being not very good at it, I get to enjoy the process of becoming less bad at it. I do it because my typically habile fingers turn into sausages on the clear nylon strings and because this hamhandedness transforms me for a few minutes, into a student, a learner, an eager newbie. I do it as a lark — because my cheap plastic uke is sweet and silly and fun — and because being this bad at something others do with such astonishing ease helps make me a better teacher.

Like so many academics, I have spent time in Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset category, one of those learners who operates as if ability were a set part of identity — natural talent — rather than a new friend to be welcomed in and nurtured over time. For such people, Dweck explains, persistence can be especially challenging. We try something, suck at it, and because it doesn’t come easily, assume we lack the gene for it and move on. For us — and there are lots and lots of us in academe — there is little joy in casual amateurism. If your ego is badly bruised by the inevitable false step or off note of the novice, then why pursue new activities for fun? And remaining so safely competent, we can, of course, forget what it’s like to be unskilled, uncertain beginners.

My relationship with the uke symbolizes and exercises my desire to become comfortable with being inexpert. Of course, we’re all accustomed to leaving things in the hands of more and less capable others — the auto mechanic, the dental hygienist, the jumbo jet pilot — as a matter of survival. But the uke represents my chosen foray into playful amateurism, a place where I must rely on skilled teachers to inspire me and and show me the way. And, just as importantly, I recognize and name my own internal resistance, including my ego’s near constant craving for a quick hit of self-esteem, as I reach for my four-stringed friend. Each day the uke invites me to do something I am not good at, and know I may never be good at it, but to put in the effort nonetheless, simply because this is what I have chosen to do.

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And perhaps most importantly, I come to remember that becoming an expert is not, and cannot, precisely be the point, not of playing the uke, practicing photography, learning Spanish, or of life. There will always be others better at everything I do than I am, except, of course, as Mr. Rogers taught, of being ME. And it is a tonic reminder to face that, contrary to American fantasies of being NUMBER ONE, a WINNER, and a true CHAMP, the point is not for one to be the best at every activity one deigns to undertake. Nor should it be for our students.

Can I embrace mediocrity and failure without abandoning hard work and ambition to improve? I think I can and I have the uke to thank for the insight. In some sense I now engage in healthy magical thinking. I make the commitment to repetition that learning the uke requires. I pick it up each day as a matter of course, give it a quick tune and then ten or fifteen minutes of this or that lesson. I do not, for the most part, stop to ponder my level of improvement, or fantasize either about how I will or will never be a virtuoso. I just pick the damn thing up and bang away at it, trusting, in the background, that the spirit of repetition will carry me through. My real success, then, is in developing a kind of “grit,” much more than becoming a great musician. It is not, in fact, so different from how I go about cleaning my house, maintaining my bicycles, or writing this blog.

I do get better at it, of course, but my improvement is more a byproduct of the mundane habit than the goal. I am not, then, that person who aspires to be good at the uke but simply one with a daily habit that involves this little guy. And it impacts my teaching. These days I focus much more on encouraging my students to develop unsexy, repetitious practices than on fanning the flames of their incipient and erratic brilliance. Some would say that the point is to see life as a marathon and not a sprint, and that is part of it. But for me life has become not even a marathon but a kind of meandering walk in which it is the rhythm of both the steps and stops — and not whether one runs or crawls or even “finishes” — that count. If there is a finish line, then I do not think much about it. The joy these days is in the journey but in the “failed” parts of the journey just as much as the successful ones.

For the first few years I lived in this house, I watched a a rangy, craggy old gentleman inch his way around my block with a walker each day, sometimes followed by an equally arthritic and grizzled black Lab. Their regularity and tenacity were somehow spellbinding. I came to see, not a failing old man, curved and pathetic in his final years, but a living representation of how to persevere. All our talk of objectives, goals and outcomes is well and good — and for teachers there is tons of such rhetoric — but it would be an insult to describe the value of this man’s walk in such terms. He didn’t get better — he just stopped coming one day — but it is with both admiration and gratitude that I remember him now.

Avoiding those two-star reviews: Teaching in the age of empowered consumer critics

Universities have evaluation forms for everything. The student evaluation process has taken on a life of its own and, at many campus events, we’re handed an evaluation form along with our program. Just the thing to set the mood to openly embrace the experience we’re about to have, isn’t it? It’s ironic that, even as the serious study of effective evaluation techniques has come into its own, we should be choking on a glut of superficial critique.

It’s not just the sheer quantity of evaluations that’s so noxious, but that the results are increasingly indistinguishable from cursory Amazon customer reviews. Whether we are students, moviegoers, product evaluators, voters, or disgruntled workers, more and more, we are framed and treated as consumers whose primary power resides in our, often petty, judgments. It used to be that whole sitcom episodes — our comedy standards were lower back then — could be built around the trope of the ruthlessly picky restaurant critic. The restaurant staff would scramble to prepare for his visit, triggering a slew of zany mishaps.

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But now most of us have endless opportunities to play the bit part of that unforgiving critic. A single consumer can now upend things for a seller, such that the most vulnerable businesses will, like Jack Tripper from Three’s Company, twist themselves into pretzels to appease. This was confirmed for me when a seller I’d purchased from called me ten minutes after I’d submitted my complaint, and then emailed me to follow up, and then emailed me yet again the following day just in case. His vulnerability to the whims of my keyboard resulted in customer service gyrations that were a caricature of “responsiveness.” Something analogous happens in the classroom, of course, in that instructors, especially the most vulnerable ones, but, these days, really, any of us, can be derailed by the tenacious complaints of a single student, however vague or superficial. We are constantly managing our reputations, desperate to avoid those one-star reviews.

Such consumer power is obviously to be celebrated, and some of those Amazon reviews are amazingly thoughtful and informative. In a nation (and world) largely at the mercy of big corporations, individuals need to embrace and use this power for good. But it has a real downside too. “Everyone’s a critic,” is another (not-very-funny) 20th century comedic trope, and it is true. We have been habituated to approach our experiences and other people through a myopic tunnel of petty judgement. Do I like her clothes? Her voice? Is there enough extra toilet paper in the bathroom of this restaurant? Did the museum attendant smile at me and make me feel welcome? Was the corner of my UPS box dented?

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We often seem to feel, not just entitled, but even required, to actually share our petty opinions with the teacher, the purveyor, the world! We are, after all, first and foremost, consumers, and isn’t this what consumers do? Don’t we, in the U.S at any rate, expect a kind of deference and subservience from those we are paying to provide goods and services? And hasn’t higher education largely become just another consumer purchase? When I first noticed that students were functioning as critics with readings they were asked to discuss — “It was dry and boring; I liked the other one better.” — I was thrown off. While it has always been a challenge to get students to engage substantively with texts, these students, in offering their “critic’s” opinion, thought that they were engaging critically.

And the worst consequence may well be that we cheat ourselves of rich experiences, the stuff that makes up our lives. When we approach the movie, the instructor, the restaurant server, or the coworker, primarily in consumer critic mode, we are primed to notice and pounce on flaws and mistakes, errors or quirks that need not have been seen as impacting the quality of the performance, or the work. It’s obnoxious, to be sure, and it also drains these experiences of their mutuality, their depth, and their integrity. Constantly in Amazon reviewer mode, we fail to meet people or experiences on their own terms, open to what they might mean and become to us, or to how we might be changed by them. We become, like the student who, when asked to provide feedback to his professor says, “I hate how she wears her hair.”

Goodbye, 2020. The endings that define a professor’s life

The cyclical rhythm of the academic year is one of the greatest perks of being a professor. Many of us still know the buzz of possibility when summer ends and the campus parking lots begin filling up again. The winter break, too, brief as it is, can be as restorative as a deep, purifying breath. The poignancy of the fall semester’s ending is enhanced for me, no doubt, by the darkening days leading to and from the solstice and into uncharted seas. I suspect that even the most cynical among us can hear the whispered promises each new year brings.

As a unit of time, the semester has great power even though its parameters are arbitrary. Whatever rationale the academic calendar may once have had means nothing to most of us now. And, of course, despite our fealty to semesters, we routinely violate their boundaries by working with students on long-term projects, as well as our own ongoing service commitments and scholarly work. Summer teaching too, especially when done online, disrupts the familiar stop-and-start school year rhythm. Most of us are not, it is clear, rigidly wedded to traditional academic rhythms and could not flourish in our jobs if we were.

And it’s also not true that we are on break in any normal sense. I gently bit the head off the last person who asked me if I had big plans for my winter “vacation.” The truth is, that though last semester’s grades have been submitted, I’m busily retooling my courses for next term, revising a paper to submit early in the new year, and fielding questions and requests from previous and upcoming students. There are all sorts of deadlines and due dates that have no respect for the fact that I am on “break.” But even so, there is this peaceful sense of closure, of a chapter ending in my professional life, that most workers never enjoy.

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I suspect that this stop-and-start rhythm may also help account for the effective teacher-student relationships many of us form. I can give my students fifteen weeks of more or less steady energy, and expect them to pony up some in return, partly because our time together is well-bounded and brief. For better and worse, it is often easiest to lend one’s best self to a new acquaintance with whom one is merely taking a short journey than to, say, a life partner. The pressure that the semester’s looming, inevitable ending places on the participants, an ending that is always visible on the horizon, can nourish the productive intensity of the classroom experience.

A school term can perform this framing function, I think, whether it’s a “good” semester, full of energetic and capable students, or a “bad” one in which things never fully click. Surely there’s some broader lesson in impermanence and detachment here? How, I wonder, can we move into each new term, with hands more fully open, embracing the knowledge that, whatever else these upcoming months bring, it will all end? Whether we and our students love and respect one another or are mutually repelled, soon it will be over. Surely, in light of this benevolent, merciless constraint of time, I can offer my full presence and attention, right? And, besides, isn’t the school term just a microcosm of the structure of time that bounds and gives shape to our very lives?

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It is no wonder, then, that, for fortunate professors like me, these thrumming beginnings and solemn denouements form the basic architecture of our professional identities. It’s a rhythm that mirrors the habitual relief of falling into bed each night and the hopeful possibility that can nudge one out of bed each morning. This drip-drip-drip of time is almost comforting in its honesty, and the response it invites from me is just as straightforward: I am to accept the weight of yet another snowy Midwestern winter as I clear my desktop and my driveway in these waning days of 2020. As I move forward, my left foot finds the oblique, diffuse light of the future while, for a long moment, my right one remains in the shadowy past.

I wish I were fool enough to believe that this unwritten, upcoming calendar year might magically wash away the grinding horror of our national circumstances, not to mention the stains of a remarkably difficult year for me personally. But though 2020 brought difficulty and disruption, I do not want to rush through its ending. Instead, I choose to bask in this caesura, this animated liminality, like a hibernating frog on a muddy pond bottom. And I dare anyone to repeat the tired accusation that professors are eternal schoolchildren, never having matured enough to enter the “real world.” What could be more real, more elemental and momentous, than letting go and starting over again and again and again?

Universities’ administrative elites seen through Zoom’s unforgiving eye

As a number of the symbolic trappings of higher education have come to a screeching halt — including convocations and graduation ceremonies — the value of many high-level administrators is increasingly unclear. With ivory towers and ivy-covered walls long out of reach for many students in any case, universities are now being confirmed as symbols not only of contagion, but of excess and elitism. In some cases, the move to virtual communication has breathed new life into a question that’s been smoldering for years: How many of the expensive administrators populating our campuses are actually necessary? Though they may be taking great pains to continue to publicly perform their roles, so-called virtual dialogues — “town halls,” “forums,” and the like — place them under the microscope of traumatized constituents who also happen to be visually savvy consumers. Not surprisingly, faculty, staff, and students are demanding much more from these astonishingly well-paid leaders than the usual feel-good claptrap.

In the past, presidents, provosts and deans (together with their “vice,” “assistant,” and “associate” versions) have often served as a reassuring presence on campus, especially in difficult times, even if we didn’t always know how they could possibly be earning their exorbitant keep. When we see them up close through webcams, though, in these volatile times, struggling to stay on script in a format that invites and demands authenticity and responsiveness, some are revealed to be poorly performing politicians rather than competent leaders. These glimpses of our elite administrators — some of whom, like Nixon in 1960, seem to be shifting and fidgeting before the camera’s gaze — help peel away remaining illusions about the glory of public higher education. Campus talking points are revealed not just to be idealistic, but, in some respects, a downright lie, especially with respect to fundamental values such as “we’re all in this together.” Assured that the royal “we” will permanently be transformed by the COVID catastrophe, the actual “we” bearing most of the suffering reflects racial and gender inequity, and a basic lack of parity across employee groups.

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Many have been aware of the astonishing gap between rhetoric and action on the part of university officials for years. There is, for example, the shameful open secret of many universities’ failure to attract and retain faculty and staff of color (in direct contrast to their high flown, self-congratulatory diversity rhetoric). There are the entrenched patterns of salary inequities between women and men, as well as between supposedly “masculine” and “feminine” academic disciplines. There are the whole segments of poorly paid gendered staff labor according to which women may be treated as disposable. There are the appalling labor conditions imposed upon legions of adjunct instructors on whom most universities have long been dependent. At the same time, there has been the creation of an elite administrative class of variously titled (e.g., vice, associate, assistant) deans, provosts, presidents and the like with salaries that have come to rival those of greedy corporate fat cats. The hype about universities as hotbeds of liberalism or radicalism notwithstanding, most campuses have been quite content to mirror the stunning inequities of the corporate world.

The pandemic crisis is not itself responsible for shattering the support beams of our public universities. It is, rather, laying bare some fundamental rottenness, and some of this is occurring before the watchful eye of our teeny tiny computer cameras. To take just one example, high level administrators at my university recently participated in an eight-person panel discussion on diversity that appears to have included only one non-white participant. Even though the national call for Black voices, and the outcry against white obliviousness, has perhaps never been louder, it appears not to have occurred to these white administrators to have raised their privileged voices to help proactively create a genuinely multicultural, inclusive event. Though these administrators were almost certainly well-meaning, a resulting impression is that they care more about performing their own racial virtuousness than about facilitating an authentically self-reflective moment for themselves and for higher education. Would such a colossal miscalculation of racial optics have occurred if the event had been of the usual face-to-face variety? Would it have been as visible to so many people?

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As I watch some of these “televised” appearances of university spokespersons desperate to manage the growing discontent of faculty and staff, I am reminded of a caricature of the most decadent years of the French monarchy. Here, nobles attempt to make good will gestures towards the starving masses but end up inadvertently flaunting their privilege and aloofness instead. They aim to appease the masses in the usual ways, but woefully underestimate the discontent, and also fail to appreciate how closely they are being watched. Of course, the populist uprisings that marked the end of this system were, literally, revolutionary, with global reverberations. There is, it seems, only so much people will tolerate once they’ve become hungry enough, and glaring inequalities and obliviousness have been revealed to their frustrated eyes. How might things have played out if French peasants had been able to scrutinize kings and courtiers up close through their own personal webcams, capable of seeing each nuanced facial gesture and of hearing every word of rationalization and excuse?

Despite the new democratizing power and pressure of webcams, the wealthiest and most privileged universities will, of course, continue to be able to hold out, resisting the inexorable forces that are ravaging and rewriting the rest of higher ed. We might recall how some social elites in England continued to enjoy the anachronistic comforts of the Victorian era well into the 20th century. They did not regard them as luxuries, of course, but as utterly necessary to the natural order of things. This is very much to the point as we consider the leveling forces that will continue to sweep through higher ed as the national political tide turns (please!), as demands for racial justice remain urgent, and as more of “university life” is pushed online, much of it permanently. The elite administrative cadres that have come to operate at some universities like aristocrats, strolling across campus in a perfumed cloud of noblesse oblige, are suddenly revealed as obsolete. Exposed before a merciless camera in virtual “forums” that reveal them dancing from one trusty cliche to another, whatever mystique they once projected is being unceremoniously stripped away.

Administrative Crackdowns on “Appropriate” Faculty Expression during the Pandemic

(An essay by the “virtual pedagogue” published on the AAUP’s Academe Blog this past Friday)

I was sitting in my high school French class the first time I got called to the principal’s office. I don’t recall what the “controversial” newspaper story was about, but we student journalists explored issues such as drunk driving, race relations, and graduation requirements. I don’t even remember if I had actually written the offending article, but I was the editor, so off I went to absorb the principal’s stern warning to stick with more “appropriate” subjects. Some months later I was called to the district superintendent’s office across town and offered the same “friendly advice.” Fortunately, my high school newspaper advisor had taught us a lesson I’d already learned from watching my father all my young life: sometimes speaking out was not just my right but my duty. The lesson applied, too, when, a few years later, the Kansas City ACLU asked me to testify on behalf of a new cadre of student journalists at my alma mater facing ever more assertive administrative crackdowns.

Continue reading at the AAUP’s Academe Blog.

Mission critical thinking: Preparing students and ourselves for catastrophic times

Most liberal arts professors have known for years that the greatest good we can do for many of our students probably isn’t to immerse them in the advanced esoterica of our particular disciplines but to help develop their critical reading, writing and thinking skills. In the disastrous age of MAGA, I have begun to more fully appreciate this lesson: Part of my job is to help prepare students to locate and respond to catastrophic social, political, and ethical problems, only some of which we are now even able to fully imagine.

“Critical thinking,” that darling term we educators have been kissing and cuddling for decades, no longer cuts it when we face the full horror and possibility of what we are collectively facing. In past decades, “critical” has signaled ways of thinking, reading, and writing that occur from a questioning and investigative mode, a disinterested evaluation of facts, logical relationships between claims, and the biases of all concerned, including oneself. This is all to the good, especially the importance of challenging claims that happen to suit one’s preexisting expectations or preferences. Certainly, we would all be much better off if “critical thinking” of this sort could dislodge the irrational mob-think and craven consumerist claptrap that passes for much of current social and political discourse.

Teaching critical analysis as a fairly narrowly cognitive approach is evidently not enough, though. What we need is a reclamation of “critical” that is bolder, more dramatic, and far more socially and emotionally urgent than any we may have ever before used. In short, we must train students and ourselves to function as intellectual and psychological EMTs, prepared to move into the disaster zone with the skills, judgment, and nerve necessary for both triage and long-term, sustainable healing and repair. We need proactive, brave, pliable first responders who are also long-term strategic solution-seekers capable of evaluating and rearrange the big picture. The “critical thinking” values that must underlie our teaching work today are “critical” in the sense of “mission critical” and of “critical condition.” The symbol for this might include a pen and inkwell, but also a blood red armband and a sturdy multi-tool.

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This more urgent, red-alert version of critical thinking obviously must include much of what has always mattered about this traditional skillset, including close reading, basic logic, the analysis of evidence, and evaluation of perspective. But it must place greater explicit emphasis on qualities of individual motivation, self-care and character development, including the cultivation of:
– a healthy combination of confidence, humility, self-efficacy and self-reflection
– an unwavering commitment to empathy and compassion that does not slide into paternalistic pity or overwhelmed quietism
– a bias toward positive, productive action in the service of deep communal values, including for example, participatory democracy and racial equality
– an ability to make tough, real-world decisions in the face of incomplete information and general uncertainty
– the courage to go against the grain, to swim upstream from groupthink while still respecting the legitimate needs of the community

Even this cursory, general list serves as a cautionary guide for me: As a feminist philosopher, I have for decades emphasized a cognitively based, moderate notion of critical thinking that has reflected both a (perhaps naive) confidence in human reason and a (legitimate) concern about alienating students. I have, then, often ended up focusing on tweaking reading, writing and thinking skills, careful not to be “too normative” or “too directive” with respect to the social and emotional values surrounding these supposedly “neutral” cognitive standards. I haven’t avoided real world issues — this would not even possible in the courses I teach — but I have sometimes highlighted the intellectual “toolbox” aspect of critical thinking in order to sidestep the messier social and ethical facets that give cognitive values sense and power.

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For better and worse, I know that I am not the only instructor who has been dancing carefully among the demanding arms of cognitive, emotional, social and ethical competence. Unfortunately, there is extraordinary pressure on professors to treat students like desperately needed, precious, fickle, customers. Further, the long, determined march from tenured to contingent faculty has eroded the secure ground from which some faculty can be expected to engage in difficult dialogues. It is surely no accident that the academic freedom necessary to engage in authentically holistic critical thinking has been hacked away by conservative extremists at the very time it is most urgently needed. Regardless, we can no longer afford any semblance of the fantasy that liberal arts professors are debate coaches meant to lead students through “what if” puzzles to achieve oblique insights or incrementally improved logical skills. The most privileged of professors, at least, surely, might rethink our relationship to “critical thinking.”

So, though I still push my students to wrestle constructively, directly and intellectually with texts — this humanistic work matters! — I engage with them in ever more practical, particular, personal, and socially urgent terms. And I am more prepared than ever to acknowledge my astonishing ignorance, because, like so many well trained, smart professors, I have been caught off guard by the scale and doggedness of the retrograde cruelty and naked greed of conservative extremists. And so I commit as much to the pedagogical power of empathy, ethical sensitivity, and self-empowerment as to more specifically cognitive values. This isn’t a self-esteem based pedagogical gimmick, but, instead, a matter of necessity: It will take the empowered, compassionate, creative strategizing of all of us — young and old — to MacGyver our way out of this mess.