Why I don’t promise my students “information” or “material”

Despite many of our longstanding efforts to discourage it, lots of students relate to their education in tangibly consumerist terms. If they’ve been absent, we might be requested to “please send me what I missed” with the expectation that we will be able to hand over the “material” as if it were dry cleaning or a chunk of Costco cheese.

As a liberal arts professor grounded in women’s studies and philosophy, I have never really been a purveyor of information. Of course there are facts to be learned: the historical eras of particular thinkers, the relative order of politically and intellectually critical events, and so on, but my classes are less informational than intellectual and aesthetic. As with most liberal arts courses, my overarching objectives are to understand, appreciate, contextualize, analyze and empathize. “Getting the information” is important, sure, but in the way that removing one’s clothes before showering is important.

Perhaps partly because of test-centric K-12 histories, though, many students struggle to make the leap to work that focuses more on the relationships between events and ideas than (merely) on the discrete data points that define them. In tried and true liberal arts fashion, I make efforts to model holistic thinking, for example, by demonstrating how a concept’s meaning depends on its relationship to other concepts. And, more generally, I give the process and values of thinking itself center stage sometimes, especially in upper level classes.

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Of course, at least some of this attachment to “getting the information” reflects a consumer mindset. Students want to get their money’s worth and “information” or “material” sounds like a quasi-tangible consumer good as the mere experiences I’m hawking probably do not. I confess that I loved leaving my college economics class each day with an increasingly hefty binder of tidy notes. It was a stark contrast to my philosophy or poetry class where we might spend 65 minutes wrestling with the notion of free will or the fear of death. Then my notes tended to be sparse, cryptic, and laced with doodles.

In online liberal arts courses, the challenge to move beyond the information dump expectation is especially acute partly because intense, freewheeling discussions can be hard to create virtually. Even well-constructed, well-facilitated online undergraduate discussions can turn out to be faint approximations of the “real thing,” though, of course, it’s important not to overestimate the quality of the face-to-face versions. So if students aren’t leaving the classroom, pulses raised, deep questions haunting them as they walk away, then what are they leaving with? What “goods” are they meant to be taking away from their online classes? If it is mere “information,” then can’t they get that on their own?

The temptation to think of online classes in more “informational” terms may be greater than in face-to-face courses precisely because “information” feels (sort of) objective, quantifiable and concrete. When we buy things, online or in brick and mortar stores, we are used to, well, getting things. We might not be as happy with them as we’d hoped, but at least we know what we’ve paid for. Contrast this with the purchase of an experience or service, say, admission to a baseball game or a massage, where we might be left with nothing more than a bad memory.

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This bias in favor of tangible purchases, combined with the ephemeral nature and ready access to online information, underscores why many online liberal arts classes should probably be explicitly and conscientiously connected to deeper, more ineffable educational and intellectual values. We might, for example, be especially diligent about:

  • modeling the thinking that brings us to conclusions, rather than merely emphasizing conclusions. For example, instead of a lecture, we might record or film a conversation with a colleague about a key point;
  • putting basic information and facts in a pre-module, emphasizing them as the raw materials to be worked with and not the real stuff of the unit;
  • replacing passive, consumer-oriented verbs such as “absorbing,” “taking in” or “assimilating” with active verbs like “digest,” “wrestle with,” engage with,” and the like.

The internet is busting at the seams with easy facts so mere information had better not be the primary value that online classes purport to add. What we are offer, then, must be explicitly, proudly and loudly marked as being of a different order altogether.

It kind of makes sense that many students initially regard college as if it were a trip to Target for Q-tips and laundry soap. After all, our institutions sneak in requests for money at every turn, and the national conversation about higher ed has been largely ceded to corporatist consumerism. In this milieu, a student’s emphasis on bang for the buck may even be healthy. But maybe we can shift the analogy just a bit, from, say, a big box shopping excursion to a (slightly less crassly consumerist) tour, artistic performance, or field trip. An emphasis on experiential value rather than the acquisition of more “material” is, at least, a step in the right direction. Otherwise we online teachers are likely to be seen as hucksters, trying to sell expensive glasses of sea water to people who are already happily wading in the ocean.

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