REAL professors and the devaluation of online teaching

I routinely meet people who denigrate teaching online. Often, it takes the form of a dismissive boast about how easy such teaching work is and is expressed as casually as they might share how infrequently they vacuum. Their lives, I’m meant to understand, are overflowing with much more important activities. Such interlocutors, who may or may not know about my own interest in online teaching, typically express, in exaggeratedly cavalier fashion, that online courses pretty much teach themselves and are more of a nuisance chore than a vocation. It’s a measure of how far I’ve fallen into the online rabbit hole that I sometimes respond with unsubtle sarcasm. I say something like: “I guess most things are pretty easy if you don’t care about doing them well.” If I’m especially grumpy, I may even describe a few such activities:

  • lawn care. Super easy if you don’t mind tons of weeds, bare patches, and litter piled under the bushes
  • child rearing. Why do so many parents waste precious hours on dental visits, trips to the playground, and regular affection?
  • cooking and eating. Take a can of beans, add a microwave, and the food practically jumps into your mouth. Couldn’t be easier.

Of course, at a research-intensive university, openly poo-pooing teaching serves an important function. It signals one’s seriousness as a scholar and, as it happens, is tons easier than actually creating scholarly work. In the professorial food chain, then, teaching online is near the bottom, right beside ordering textbooks or serving on yet another strategic planning committee. Part of how insecure professors prove to others and to themselves that they’re SERIOUS SCHOLARS is by explicitly devaluing the parts of their job that don’t directly relate to that VERY IMPORTANT vocation. Hence, when someone with reasonable teaching loads waxes loudly about the “time-suck” of teaching, I simply hear them asserting their social and professional status as a REAL PROFESSOR.

Still, in a higher ed climate in which research-oriented professorships are the exception, it is pretty well impossible for most professors to pretend that teaching has little to do with their true professional identity. Enter online teaching which can now occupy the lowest rung on the teaching hierarchy. Because it is a supposedly inferior version of an already devalued activity, the REAL PROFESSOR may well feel compelled to malign online teaching even if he chooses to do it. He’ll make damn sure that everyone knows that, for him, teaching online is a lark, a sort of joke or scam that he is wise to or in on. In fact, if you want to quickly lose the respect of your fellow professors, profess a genuine interest in and sincere commitment to online teaching.

So, then, I’m left with a few requests for any professor types discussing online education, whether it’s your teaching work or mine:

  1. Please stop suggesting that it’s easy, i.e. “a quick buck,” or that it’s “self-teaching.” When you flippantly insist that it’s easy, I hear you boasting about how badly you’re doing it.
  2. Please don’t try to “help me out” by translating my genuine interest in online teaching into some activity that better fits into an elitist professorial worldview. Don’t, for example, explain away my interest as ironic, knowing or cynical as if you’re desperately groping for a way to redeem me as a REAL PROFESSOR like you.
  3. Please seek healthier ways to boost your professional confidence and satisfaction. You long to be a famous scholar at a top research institution and, instead, pour much time into undermotivated undergraduates. Though I’m sorry your career dreams haven’t (yet) fully blossomed, denigrating teaching makes you sound like an elitist crank. If you really don’t want to teach online, avoid it if you can. If you think it has corrosive elements, then lobby against them. In any case, please consider abandoning the chronic snarking, especially if, like lots of the loudest anti-onliners, you’ve never even taught an online course.

There are, of course, lots of factors that really do undermine university teaching — both online and face-to-face — for example, institutional reliance on contingent instructors and students who’ve learned to think of themselves only as customers. But the predictable consequence of REAL PROFESSORS who denigrate online teaching as they do a half-assed job at it is that their attitude becomes self-fulfilling. When otherwise good instructors make less effort in online classes or avoid teaching them altogether, yes, of course, the classes will be crappy. If online classes are treated as fast food education, then, like the meal prepared with a can opener and a plastic spoon, there can be no surprise about the quality.

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