Are online classes the fast food of higher ed?

Famous quotes remind us that education is an almost sacred endeavor meant to transform individuals and society, and not merely to reproduce the status quo. When we teachers sit in classrooms generating sparks and watching fires take hold, it’s easy enough to believe in education’s awesome power. Maybe we also get to overhear a student’s conversation about their internship at the youth center, or see “end campus rape” buttons on their tattered backpack. In person, there may be lots of signs demonstrating a student’s commitment to the life, culture and values associated with higher education. Is it possible that online classes are inherently less transformative precisely because of how neatly they fit into students’ lives?

I’m sure that college redrew the lines of my own life largely because of how it disrupted me, intellectually, psychologically, and physically. When my eighteenth summer ended, I packed up my underwear, tennis racket, and paperback thesaurus, and headed off to a new life. The ostensible locus of the move was, of course, books and classes, and many of my courses were excellent, but it was being uprooted and tenuously replanted that rocked my world. If, instead, I had taken Intermediate French at my hometown community college, would I have become friends with a biracial Algerian? And what if I’d taken the class online instead, from the privacy of my suburban Midwestern home? Though I did not, as it happened, study French for long, my love of language and my cultural curiosity took deep root in my college years.

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Of course, online classes are so wildly popular precisely because they fit within students’ existing lives and habits. And this creates access for critical populations, employed parents, those charged with elder care, hungry minds in prisons or on military bases. On the other hand, this seamless fit into students’ lives softens education’s potential to shake things up, to provide students not merely with credits or certificates, but to crack open their very worldview. In this respect, then, online ed skews conservative, which is, perhaps why so many political conservatives are enamored of it. After all, how often does an online class result in Junior hanging out with her new hippie friends on the quad? Instead, she may well remain plugged into a full-time job, tapping out online discussion posts in hermetic isolation. She “makes time” for the class as best she can, squeezing it into the few remaining nooks and crannies of an already structured life.

Obviously, the right online course at the right time can point a student in a new direction. But I think online classes are more likely to really matter if we actively cultivate their disruptive potential in some ways even as we dutifully supply convenience in others. For example, why not foreground the advantages and disadvantages of online ed in our syllabi, early lectures, discussions, or other material? What if we help students ponder the price they may be paying for convenient learning? This will be anathema in institutions that are defensive about the legitimacy of online ed, but if we are confident in its value, as I am, then we can be forthright about its weaknesses.

And what if we also refuse to make classes too convenient? One of my new students shared her decision to take all online classes this term because she knew she would be on the road for several weeks. I explained that, while my class is asynchronous, it is not self-paced. It is, rather, “a loosely choreographed group experience,” not so very different from a face-to-face class in terms of its requirement for consistent “attendance.” In short, I resisted her assumption that online education is meant to be squeezed into one’s schedule as an elective afterthought.

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Like many contemporary college students — especially those with demanding work lives — she saw education as a discrete experience to be molded around her existing life rather than as a journey meant to upend it. For lots of good and bad reasons, college classes are often seen as a mere credential, or as a luxury, to be pursued in one’s leisure. My student’s pushback helped me articulate how and why I value shared group learning. For example, in discussions, students must grapple with the same issues at a similar place in their developing intellectual arc. And my many communications with students as a single group reinforces the notion that we are connected and accountable to real others.

In a way, then, though I appreciate online ed’s convenience, I also aim to cultivate reasonable inconvenience. We often come to value something, after all, by carving out an honored spot for it in our lives. This is a premise of spiritual practice, of course, and helps explain why there are temples and mosques and churches. And it’s why I keep a tidy writing desk and work regular hours even when I am directly accountable to no one. The value work has in my life, then, is established and maintained partly through the space and time I create for it. It is like the difference between thoughtfully cooking dinner at home or grabbing fast food at the last minute and gobbling it down in the car. Can we, I wonder, acknowledge and respect our students’ need for convenience without becoming McTeachers?

Can we learn something from our excuses for not meditating?

Partly because I sometimes write and teach about Buddhism and mindfulness, people are inclined to tell me about their experiments with meditation. And it almost always begins with “I’m really bad at it” or, “My mind just won’t stop,” or, “I tried but I just can’t sit still.” Almost always they volunteer rationalizations that feature guilt, and also imply that they themselves are almost uniquely unsuited to the practice because they are so freakishly impatient and busy headed.

And while they may be claiming to be especially bad at meditation, it’s still an assertion of specialness, and one that may have special appeal for academics. Many professors, after all, adore thinking, and so being bad at meditation can become a kind of boast, proof of one’s insatiable tendency to critically assess. It’s a rationalization, then, that can help shore up one’s mundane, ego-based identity story — a self-understanding that includes personality and profession — the very tale that a consistent meditation practice might eventually lead one to scrutinize.

To be fair, we Western academics also operate in a broader societal context that encourages and prizes constant busyness and endless mental chatter. It will probably surprise no one, then, that Buddhist meditation was long described by Western critics as a form of escapism for lazy quietists. In a capitalist, rationalist milieu that places a premium on constant mental and physical “productivity,” what can it mean to be a faithful meditator except that one is content to sit on one’s ass and zone out? To supply reasons why one doesn’t meditate, then, may function both as a quintessentially intellectualist badge of honor and an implicit endorsement of American capitalist virtues.

Although I disagree (of course) with the tired, colonialist caricatures of Buddhism, I’m not here to sell meditation either. If fact, outside of classrooms explicitly featuring the topic, it’s something I hardly ever discuss. I find that sitting meditation supports my own sense of peace, efficacy, and well being. But partly as a result of meditation, I’ve become unwilling to assert that this is true for others. I notice, though, that many non-meditators themselves describe meditation as something they should be doing, making excuses for avoiding it stand out in sharper relief. What does it mean to offer rationalizations for not doing something that no one is monitoring and that one has no obligation to do? Our relationship to meditation, perhaps especially when we put energy into describing how we avoid it, turns out to be kind of interesting.

Could it be that the real action lies less in meditation itself than in learning to hear the stories we volunteer about why we do or don’t do this or that? After all, if there is a point to meditation, it is probably the promise of increased awareness that leads to greater peace, equanimity and self-knowledge. On this score, it is perhaps more important to become cognizant of the rationalizations we use to fortify our habitual identities — including that of being a “non-meditator” — than to meditate for the sake of being a good meditator. Paradoxically, though, meditation may well be the most efficient path for learning to actually hear the endless verbal storms that ravage our minds and often pour unbidden from our mouths, including, perhaps, the excuses we make for why we don’t meditate.

Refusing to despair: Constructive action in the midst of overwhelm

In an age drowning in gratitude slogans on the one side and cynical knowingness on the other, many of us are struggling to find our voices when it comes to optimism, hope, and the sheer necessity to carry on. As our national catastrophe continues to blossom like blood in a swimming pool, we are called upon repeatedly to turn and face it — for the sake of ourselves, our students, and our world — in ways that are constructive and authentic. It’s a challenge that has many of us rethinking our usual commitments to realism, positive thinking, and social responsibility.

And so I have joined those who insist that despair is not an option, though some have been troubled by this directive. One annoyed Virtual Pedagogue reader wrote to me explaining that, when it comes to depression, “one cannot simply choose to be happy.” I know about depression, but she helped me clarify that the sort of despair I have in mind is mainly of the political and ethical variety, rather than one’s individual, affective life. And if we conflate our individual emotional reactions with the political and ethical responses we choose to enact, then we may well be doomed. So many of us, after all, whether clinically depressed or not, are teetering on the edge of emotional overwhelm.

But isn’t it cheap, unconvincing and dishonest to present a social face that is anything other than an accurate reflection of my private, individual feelings? If I am a bundle of hopeless misery, then doesn’t authenticity require me to move and respond from that place? In a world that has paved over individuals’ feelings of sadness, anger, and grief, especially those of women and people of color, recovering the ability to name and express such emotions is undeniably powerful. And individual feelings bravely shared have, of course, helped foment social change.

But this is obviously only part of the story, and we are no better off fetishizing individual feelings — as if they were sacred and infallible—than we are squelching them. The simple fact that I feel something, even over a long period of time, does not mean that that is the Truth of the situation, or even that it is the fullest picture of my truth. An overemphasis on individual experience, then, especially one suggesting that such feelings are somehow beyond my own cognitive scrutiny, makes slogans like “refuse to despair” sound invasive and false.

But refusing to choose the road of despair is not the same as choosing to be cheerful or to be inattentive to one’s own emotions. I can have many quite unhappy times as an individual but still remain firmly committed to constructive action. I can also choose whether to share my individual feelings so as to encourage isolation or to build connections that help galvanize social resolve. Refusing political despair, as I see it, means refusing to commit to a path of quietistic, narcissistic sadness to whatever degree I am able. And while some aspects of our individual emotional lives may well be beyond our control, for many of us, it is perhaps not so much as we sometimes imagine. Our quite appropriate respect for mental health challenges — our own and those of others — shouldn’t obscure the (sometimes small) ways we can cultivate socially and politically constructive emotional responses.

I recognize the power and integrity of emotions — I love that we are biological and affective creatures — but I think we also have a responsibility to do what we can to shape and influence our own emotional responses, especially habitual ones, to misfortunate and difficulty. We are, after all, social creatures who, like antelope in a herd, respond to and rely on cues from one another. I may hole up from time to time to wail and weep, then, but, even so, I will continue to insist that despair is not an option. Not now. Not ever.

Hard-luck students and the professors who save them

It’s often in the earliest days of the semester that students share some of their greatest tales of woe with professors. Some want to add an already full class and so labor to persuade us of their dire plight. Others, pre-worried about their grades, aim to sock away some sympathy credit for a rainy day. I’ve always found such personal revelations — coming, as they do, from relative strangers — to be jarring. This is, perhaps, partly because I am not inclined to share so quickly, even when it may be in my practical self-interest to do so. But I also think this all-too-common practice of individual student pleading, and ad hoc professorial granting reinforces an unhealthy dynamic.

I appreciate and love that my students are whole people. They’ve got jobs, families and endearing quirks, as well as bad memories, financial trouble, and, often, mental health diagnoses. Perhaps it is not even accurate to identify them as students. They are, rather, richly textured individuals who have temporarily taken on this student role for complicated reasons unique to them. Partly because institutions’ one-size-fits all prescriptions and policies don’t address particularity very well, the power of dispensation and indulgence often falls on instructors and front-line staff colleagues. We surely must, then, take seriously the personal experiences of our students. But how can we do it in a way that routinely avoids the pitfalls of ad hoc favoritism? And how can we keep from being condescending, and ultimately undermining to the very students we seek to help?

For example, in a recent introductory level class, I assigned three small paperbacks to supplement material available online, which, all together, cost about twenty dollars. And, as is typical, I was approached by a student with a list of heart-tugging reasons why she couldn’t afford college text books. I reminded her that there were electronic copies of two of them available through the library and made sure she knew how to access the library website. She left unhappy, though, because, as she explained, “most of my other professors just loan me a copy.” I didn’t want to be insensitive to her life challenges — I have no reason to doubt her account of personal hardship — but nor did I want to support this, for me, increasingly icky, shadow economy in which students with the extroversion and eloquence to share experiences of suffering exchange it for textbooks and other favors.

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This common practice of professors hearing and then reacting to individual students’ accounts of suffering reinforces precisely the very hierarchical power relation that many of us claim we want to challenge. It also risks letting our institutions off the hook at the very moment they should be bending over backwards to address the structural inequities that impact students’ lives. When I feel compelled to pick and choose students to whom I will grant special favors, I am “being responsive” — so far so good — but I am also singling them out for special treatment. This is not at all what compassionate instructors intend when they provide extra advantages — extra time, extra credit, free books, etc. — to a vocally hard luck student. But it seems to be only the students with the wherewithal and skill to recount their personal tribulations (to a virtual stranger, mind you) who receive such favors. It’s a bargain that strikes me as, well, a little creepy, as if instructors are rewarding students for performances of suffering.

With this in mind, I guess I still think the best plan is to focus on providing advance structure to our courses (and our universities) that makes reasonable room for the reality of human suffering and serendipity without routinely resorting to practices that are arbitrary and personal. This is, of course, a goal of offices such as disability services. If we really want to help, we must actively seek structural, systematic solutions to the structural, systematic problems that unfairly limit our students’ lives as individuals. With respect to the textbook example, we can, when possible, assign books with lower prices, put copies on library reserve, petition for lower prices from publishers, and advocate for a university-wide fund to assist needy students.

As so many professors now do, we can, when possible, build in extra time for assignments for all students to avoid having to make a special dispensation in response to a particular personal tragedy. Other mundane practices, such as having students drop their lowest quiz grades, also show respect for the fickle exigencies of everyday life. But given the ubiquity of such pedagogical flexibility these days, instructors may need to explicitly explain to students that these are, effectively, advance accommodations. We need to help sensitize students to the fact that these measures are meant to attend to their individual needs, but in a way that preserves equity.

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Of course, the habit of seeking personal favor and dispensation runs deep so we should not be surprised when students and, perhaps, some colleagues and administrators, resist. Higher education has, quite simply, evolved into an environment in which students have been encouraged to plead and professors have been primed to grant or withhold, often in lieu of the institution meeting its responsibility to address systematic disparities. Perhaps the dirtiest (open) secret is that some instructors enjoy the high of riding in on a white horse to rescue this or that student from the jaws of an otherwise unfeeling, impersonal, elitist institution. Certainly, I know instructors who are proud of being “responsive” to just about any request for dispensation. For them, no “favor” is too great and I get it.

In a university environment in which many professors feel angry and impotent on behalf of both our students and ourselves, it can be satisfying to be the socially conscious, compassionate professor who is “student centered” and pulls strings to advantage those we perceive as disadvantaged. And before professors will be willing to rethink our approach to hard luck students, we will need to tell the truth about this. That being able to ease the pain of individual students feels good, that it’s a rare reminder of our own power and status, regardless of its long-term consequences or viability with respect to our students and universities.

How mindfulness can help you procrastinate more!

As summer ends and deadlines close in, I, like lots of professors, am tempted to twist the basic principles of mindfulness out of shape, to use them not to come into greater contact with reality but as a trick to avoid it. It goes something like this: Though I really do know that it will not be too painful to complete once I get started on it, I push time sensitive work to the bottom of my list again and again. Eventually I come to dread even small tasks. The faux mindfulness dodge — which I’ve indulged in more than once — encourages me to analyze my feelings of aversion, to fan them into full visibility, to take them as seriously as the work itself that is waiting to be done.

IMG_4819But even when I frame my work aversion in high toned psychological or spiritual terms — as “taking my feelings seriously,” or somesuch — it is, at bottom, nothing more than a more palatable procrastination technique. As avoidance techniques go, it sounds more sophisticated than abandoning my work responsibilities in favor of shopping or of scrubbing the grout, but when I am more deeply mindful, when I am more honest, I see that it is the same thing. Forays into genuine mindfulness practices have left me with real tools and techniques to honestly face life, but they have also provided me with some high falutin’, New Age tinted scripts for more complicated forms of procrastination.

At a discussion on campus a while back, an audience member asked the panel to share favorite tools and techniques for completing tasks efficiently. A doctoral student, she was surprised at how consistently her dissertation could slip to the bottom of her priorities. I shared my experience with what I’ve come to think of as The Package, a small box that I had been charged with delivering to the post office some years ago. It sat there day after day, I described, for weeks, taunting me with its unmet need and my own incipient failure. Though my car and legs worked fine, and though I had the six dollars for postage, The Package became my nemesis, and led me both to elaborate self-examination and self-recrimination. My problem was instantly solved, though, I explained, when I invested the seven minutes necessary to get off my ass and mail the damn box.

The graduate student chuckled gamely at my little story and then repeated her request for anti-procrastination tools and techniques. The conversation veered to subjects such as how to better sync calendars and what time to get out of bed each day. It was, I thought, like when I read books about quitting smoking rather than quitting smoking. I used the very tools meant to overcome my addictive bad habit as delay tactics to permit me to continue doing it. Apparently, as reasonable creatures, we humans are also rationalizing creatures, shamelessly willing to put even the most noble spiritual practices into the service of our immediate whims and cravings. Because let’s face it, elaborate calendars and organizing systems have served at least as much to help postpone work as to facilitate it.

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The Uses and Abuses of Ambivalence

As I grow older, I’m better able to accept that living well requires making choices between imperfect alternatives. This more pragmatic orientation also feels more mature — think of a toddler who refuses any treat that falls short of ideal — and it also helps me appreciate how I’ve misused ambivalence in the past. As valuable and unavoidable as some ambivalence is, I now see that some of what I’d attributed to admirable, intellectually honest uncertainty probably had more to do with fear.

Of course there are different kinds of ambivalence and some matter more than others. For example, because I’m merely a coffee addict and not a connoisseur, when offered the choice between light or dark roast, I usually say “whichever’s freshest.” I’ve learned to say this rather than admit I don’t care because a bald expression of ambivalence can paralyze the cafe staff. Because they know and care about coffee, such naked ambivalence must seem irresponsible or disingenuous. “How can you not care?” they must be thinking.

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Ambivalence like this is pretty trivial unless the choice is thought to be expressive or constitutive of one’s identity, i.e., “I’m the kind of person who only wears black.” This is a kind of lifestyle identity politics that’s based on allying oneself with this kind of music, or clothing style, or football team rather than that one. When identity is, implicitly or explicitly, thought to be at issue then too much ambivalence can seem like a wishy-washy abdication of one’s very self.

Before I uneasily embraced online education, I was swirling in ambivalence that I couldn’t fully articulate. I was, in fact, more likely to voice my really substantive (ethical, political, social) misgivings about it than my more mundane concerns. In retrospect, though, I see that my merely practical worries drove my aversion to online teaching at least as much as my deeper misgivings: Would I be overwhelmed by the amount of work? Was I too set in my ways to master the technology? How would I meaningfully connect with students without the crutch of my charismatic schtick?

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My ambivalence about the substantive issues hasn’t really changed: I am still as deeply troubled by how online education enables an increasingly corporatist higher ed even as it provides invaluable access for some students. I still hate that I am contributing to a more impersonal, interchangeably modular, version of education, even as I am proud of my new efforts to engage with students in this flexible, open-ended virtual space.

My ambivalence is genuine and important, and I live with the tension of it as I more or less happily go about my online work. It is a low grade discomfort that informs my choices and practices but which does not disable me. Clearly, I did not need to wait until I had moved past my ambivalence to embrace online teaching, but nor did I need to pretend that those mixed feelings had been resolved. In fact, I think my ethical discomfort is healthy and points to problems within higher ed, a system with failings that, though I am implicated in them, also need to be reckoned with. It would be a disservice to my integrity and to my vocation if I were to paint my criticisms pink and become a mere cheerleader for online education.

On the other hand, I wonder where I would be headed had I remained aloof from online ed out of respect for my supposedly noble ambivalence. I am reminded of a former senior colleague who, in the early days of email, proudly refused to use it. He had all sorts of important, and probably legitimate, gripes: It was too impersonal, too ambiguous, too informal, and so on. But it was evident that his aversion was also rooted in his fear of being unable to master this new game, and being an anti-email crank came to define him. I’ve always hoped that his righteous confidence turned out to be warm company, because as email continued its inexorable march, he became increasingly isolated from his students and colleagues.

“Shut up and teach!” The fear of being too political in the classroom

Taking care not to be “too political” or “too ideological” helps maintain a superficial peace at thanksgiving tables and in classrooms, and is probably a necessary part of sensible social self-regulation. But such self-censorship can also disempower those most vulnerable to political vicissitudes and neuter our teaching effectiveness. Not coincidentally, it is almost a truism that “mere political differences” should not impede friendship, family love, collegiality, or the dispensation of one’s professional duties. And yet it is clear that what is, for some, a matter of life and death urgency, can indeed look like “mere politics” to those who benefit from, or are only distantly impacted by such matters.

The question of how political to get in the classroom is one faced routinely by thoughtful teachers at all levels. To what extent is it our educative and moral responsibility to face critical contemporary issues head on? And when does a teacher’s silence or “neutrality” devolve from being a tool to facilitate respectful, candid discussion to a tacit endorsement of positions that are racist, xenophobic, or just plain nasty? And how often are we tempted to police ourselves, to err on the side of caution, avoiding these “political issues” for fear of being singled out by students or conservative gatekeepers as having ventured into unsuitably ideological territory?

If there has never been a more urgent time for teachers in the U.S. to ask these questions, it is precisely because the normal boundaries of secular democracy have already been beaten into whimpering submission. The distinction between religion and state, vitriol and argument, and truth and falsity, while always fuzzy in U.S. public life, is blurring to a degree that may be unprecedented. And what adds salty insult to injury is that those most shameless about violating such lines, for example, the white supremacist kleptocratic theocracy now steering the ship, are the quickest to cry foul when they sniff out a supposed boundary violation.

It is, then, precisely those who have most enthusiastically injected personal morality into political policy that object most strenuously when others speak in ways that reflect this overlap. That, for example, abortion has been framed in the U.S. in such dramatically political terms, rather than as a personal, medical choice, is a quite deliberate result of conservative extremism. And, of course, once an “issue” has been successfully constructed in such terms, discussion about it is easily interpreted as always already political. Most of the battle has been lost, then, when so much that is basic to our well being, and that of our students — for example, the shape of our families, our ability to access clean water and medicine, our freedom to buy Starbucks coffee or wedding cakes without being harassed or refused — gets labeled “political” by those also committed to policing the bounds of appropriate discourse.

We teachers might, then, want to focus less on whether or not the topics we’re discussing are, in fact, political or ideological, than on the very deliberate, and political strategies according to which these themes have been politicized in the first place. With politicization itself as their most insidiously political tool, conservative extremists can effectively commandeer all classroom discussion. It’s a pretty simple recipe: My “think tank” pours energy and money into anti-choice, anti-gay, or anti-immigrant initiatives, buying politicians and campaign ads, and then censors those who dare disagree with our position on the grounds that these others are inserting politics where it does not belong. Controlling access to the very conversations that might be used to engage with these life and death concerns is a masterful stroke by conservative extremists precisely because it keeps so many moderates and progressives from speaking for fear of fear of being seen as “ideological.”

We progressives want to be tolerant, of course, and this laudable aspiration comes to be used against us by conservative extremists who understand quite well how invested many of us are in our ethical self-concepts. But by implicitly agreeing to honor the lines of tolerance and civility adopted by these extremists — and it is a double standard of the highest order — we effectively tie our own tongues. It isn’t, then, just that we may have both a political and moral duty to discuss critical issues, but that we have an even more basic responsibility to challenge where they have drawn the lines of politics and ideology in the first place. As usual, our easiest choice will usually be to remain silent. And, as usual, such silence will translate into a crescendo of support for conservative extremists who, with practiced, spittle inflected righteousness, will continue to shout at us as they have for years: “Shut up and teach!”