I’m not a cheerleader, but I play one in the classroom

A fully credentialed, experienced university professor, I shouldn’t have to play the role of cheerleader in my online classrooms. After all, I respect that my students are adults who freely choose my classes knowing that they are responsible for whether or not they ultimately succeed. It shouldn’t be my job to stand on the sidelines urging them into the game and then on again to victory when their energy ebbs. But the simple fact is that if I don’t encourage and nudge, an unacceptable number will, in the proper lingo, “fail to persist.”

The ease and invisibility with which online students can casually peel off and blow away is one of the greatest challenges of online classes, at least with undergraduate general education courses. So while I never explicitly signed up for the pom pom and ponytail route, because I want more students to succeed, I gamely make the effort anyway, by:

  • beginning the semester with a warm up assignment that pushes them to connect to their deepest motives for taking my course
  • proactively reaching out very early in the term to fading students to voice my concern and confidence in their ability to succeed
  • including encouragement even in incidental email messages to individual students, e.g., “looking forward to seeing more of your good work!”
  • sending group messages and virtual “badges” congratulating those who’ve remained plugged in. I also share some of my own struggles and strategies with finding life/work balance and invite them to share their own in group discussion
  • signing off with simple, positive messages even in casual news items, e.g., “What a pleasure to work with such smart, capable students!”

It isn’t just cheap flattery. Only rarely do I genuinely doubt a student’s basic capacity to do this mid-level undergraduate work. Rather, like a coach, I’m urging them to access their own wellspring of passion and initiative, to push through the sheer tedium, boredom, isolation and distraction that can make online classes especially rough going for so many.

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Yes, I sometimes feel a little silly and resentful during my most rah-rah moments. This really isn’t what I had in mind all those years ago as I wrestled with my comps and navigated my dissertation defense. But as a university professor in the here and now of 2017, it feels increasingly urgent to me that my students recognize and access their own basic wherewithal. And they certainly can’t fulfill their intellectual promise if they don’t learn to show up in the service of their own goals and commitments. I will be a cheerleader, then, not because I think that’s my job — it is not — but because it’s the only way I know to get the job done.

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.

Is online teaching a path to enlightenment?

My greatest challenge with online teaching has had little do with the obvious difficulty of adapting to the technology. Sure, the first couple of times I bushwhacked my way through, wrestling with features like the maddening grade book set up, drop box restrictions, and feedback release conditions. There are, to be sure, a million and one logistical curve balls to be negotiated, complicated workflows that must be etched into one’s brain because they will never make intuitive sense. But, by far, online teaching’s greatest challenge and opportunity for me has been as a venue for self-scrutiny and reinvention. Perhaps this is just a long way of reiterating that I’m fascinated enough by the link between mindfulness and online teaching to write a blog about it.

So, while my posts are rooted in my practical experience as an online instructor, they are not primarily about online teaching as such. As I explained to a reader recently: “My interests come down mainly to three things: self-reflection, intentionality, and conscious transformation.” Far from being a grueling slog, then, I find online teaching to be tinged with pleasurably narcissistic introspection, like the indulgence of taking a personality quiz in Psych 101. And I’ve learned I must cultivate this kind of curiosity about teaching work if I am to continue to be good at it year after year. Studying my experience of teaching through the lens — microscope, telescope, and kaleidoscope — of mindful self reflection keeps it alive, authentic and interesting to me. This apparently practical business of teaching online, then, is, is, for me, a wormhole into a realm that is satisfyingly and sometimes unnervingly psychological and spiritual.

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I’m Buddhist (and existentialist) enough to see that the bare facts of impermanence and death both sculpt and contort our lives. I accept that, in large measure, we carefully construct our ultimately rickety professional and personal identities to serve as bulwarks against angst and despair. No wonder, then, that the seismic changes in higher education have often felt like assaults against the professor’s very sense of self. Whatever the societal devastation being wreaked by the ongoing devaluation of higher education — and it is catastrophic — it has also deeply rattled those of us who have formed our identities within its walls. It took me ages to develop the expertise and poise of a compelling, effective classroom professor. What an insult to have this stripped from me in the name of progress! Teaching online, then, isn’t just a tech heavy, but otherwise benign, modality shift. For many of us — teachers and students — it can radically displace our basic sense of competence, worth, and purpose.

It’s an open secret, of course, that losing the plush or dreary comfort of one’s identity can become a doorway to richly transformative, previously unimaginable futures. I write these posts, then, not primarily as an online teacher offering practical pedagogical advice, but as a professor leveraging the changes in my profession to nurture personal growth. Online teaching is, after all, merely one potential vehicle to where most of us really want to go, a place of service, sure, but one that also satisfies a deeper hunger. If there are a thousand ways to kiss the earth, then here in this futuristic, sometimes dystopic, present, teaching online is surely one of them. If we overlook this invitation, though, then we are like the guests at a great banquet who, having eaten their fill of appetizers in the foyer, never make it to the feast at all.

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.

Dear students: We are not the wind beneath your wings

In the story I’ve often told about myself, teachers rescued me. It’s a poignant narrative that includes strains of Mister Rogers, Judy Blume, and To Sir With Love. There I am as a grubby youngster, shy as a sore tooth, and later as a brooding teen and dilettante undergrad, struggling to find safe landing spots. Teachers and professors saved me, I’ve often said, but as a professor myself who has worked for decades with both slickly prepared and teetering students, I know it isn’t true. No one saved me. No one could have.

It is not surprising that my narrative depends on the intervention of someone else’s enthusiasm and apparent enlightenment, for these are the models I’ve been steeped in: the idealistic white music teacher who braves urban chaos to save the local youth with tubas and flutes, and plucky Christy who disappears into the hills of Appalachia, wielding only soap, reading primers and good cheer. The fact that movies and tv shows based on such tropes are so enduring is a reminder of how desperately we cling to these narratives of pedagogical redemption. Paradoxically, though, such tales can also undermine agency, create false reassurance about personal tragedy, and inure us to gross social inequity.

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When we indulge in the image of the almost supernaturally charismatic, energetic teacher, we nourish hope of the magically happy ending, a fable in which an angel touches one’s cheek in the bleakest moment of the darkest night of the soul. In a flash of insight, one is born anew, with fresh purpose and passion. It is romantic, quick and clean, like being baptized or unlocking a secret code. It’s nothing at all like picketing damn Betsy DeVos, dreary day after dreary day. And it is a much more uplifting story than the one about Shakespeare’s sister or Einstein’s first wife.

On her way out of my office last week, a former student paused as she shifted her backpack, “You have changed my life,” she said, eyes shining. I thanked her for her kind words and told her, just as sincerely, how working with her had been meaningful to me. But I also found myself recalling that, to a marathon runner in late August, the guy handing out waxy paper cups of tap water is a savior. I know because I have been that runner. And I also know that grateful, meaning-starved people have built elaborate religions over lesser gestures. I get it. Isn’t it delicious to believe that when things fall apart, someone — a very special someone — might come along and save the day?

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If we want to believe in pedagogical salvation, then fine. Let us strive to be like Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society, or Dumbledore with his piercing eyes and immortal phoenix.* We can certainly leverage the trope of redemption or enlightenment to nudge our students into accessing their own resources. But I think we should be careful how, in our most self-scrutinizing, honest moments, we actually conceive of what we are doing. It is my job to challenge, encourage, and support students, and to do so in a way that is caring, consistent, and reflective of my commitment to social justice. At my very best, this is all I have ever had to offer.

I want students to be aware of whatever social support they have, to be sure, but I never want them to forget that their success is largely due to their own motive power. Being legitimately appreciative of help from others certainly does not require imposing a mystical, romantic salvation narrative that may cheapen their own sense of agency. And the sheer fact that so many teachers and professors become addicted to the savior/guru schtick should give us all pause. Haven’t we all known professors who cultivate loyal mini-herds of rapt students who traipse after them year after year? These are small cults, yes, and they sometimes have positive results, but they are still cults, with much of the creepiness that that entails.

It is not, then, mere humility that has me deflecting over-the-top praise. It’s nice to know that I have sometimes been assigned a powerfully symbolic role in others’ stories. But I also know what can happen when the aura dims and they see that I am, like them, nothing more than an utterly regular person. That’s when our fans and acolytes will blame us for their disappointment and disillusionment, and why not? If they see us as the wind beneath their wings, then it becomes our fault when they crash land, just as K-12 teachers are blamed for the systemic failures of public education. And then what? I guess I will be replaced by another savior, a fire-eyed guru with the power to entertain and inspire, the real deal this time, someone who will never ever let them down.

*And then there’s the dearth of examples featuring women and people of color; a white male teacher might be seen as a savior, while others’ teaching work is made invisible by sexist and racist stereotypes about mothering and emotional labor. How many talented, engaging teachers are overlooked entirely because certain qualities are simply expected and devalued in women and people of color?

Pedagogy decluttered: On becoming a more minimalist teacher

I’ve decluttered the hell out of my house. Those ratty socks, unloved shirts, and broken lawn chairs are gone, gone, and gone. Though my simplifying journey is still underway, the benefits of doing more with less, of streamlining both the stuff and processes of my life couldn’t be clearer. Naturally, then, I’ve turned my minimalist eye to teaching, creating, I hope, more air and space for what is most essential in my work with students.

The actual practices I describe here aren’t new or innovative, but I hadn’t previous framed them in minimalist terms. Considering them this way — as a sort of pedagogical application of the Kon Mari method — helps me to make sense of, and better integrate, my teaching values with those shaping the rest of my life. As a North American woman in her fifth decade, I am perhaps typical of my demographic in my desire to free up space — both literally and figuratively — rather than to fill it, to seek experiences rather than stuff, and to do more with less. It is an impulse that, for me, at any rate, is ethical and spiritual, as well as aesthetic and practical, and so it’s no surprise that it has leaked into my thinking about teaching.

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I notice, for example, that I’m increasingly eager to impose an order and structure on coursework and course design up front that severely reduces the need for daily decision-making along the way. Like wearing a sort of uniform each day — which I also do — having the class details laid out in advance saves me from having to fuss, dither, and scramble on a daily basis. My online class, in particular, is set up to run like clockwork, so that, barring catastrophes, I know precisely what I and my students should be doing each day. And our work occurs in a repetitive cycle that creates a breath-like rhythm that (I hope) allows us to focus on substance rather than the minutiae of instructions for clever, new assignments or changes in the order of readings.

I also see that I spend less and less time churning out expansive written feedback on individual student work. Rather than scribbling out detailed paragraphs on exams or essays, my process is increasingly spare and stylized. So, for example, I rely more on thoughtful rubrics or grading worksheets that include specific criteria, forcing me to be clearer about expectations up front. And, of course, thought it requires work in advance, it saves me time and grief during the busy flow of the semester. Though I’ve used rubrics for a while, aware of both their limitations and perks, I now see them as analogous to a capsule wardrobe. This practice of creating a painstakingly curated small collection of clothes, rather than limiting our choices, can, it seems, help free us up to focus on higher priority matters.

My final observation arises as I continue to minimize paper usage in terms of the number of handouts I supply, work to be submitted, and physical texts I assign. This is partly an influence of my online teaching, in which physical paper plays almost no role, and also resonates with my efforts at home to eliminate messy paper subscriptions, bills, receipts, etc. Some of my satisfaction results from the supposed environmental and money-saving aspects, of course, but minimizing paper also fits better with an aesthetic in which unnecessary props and accessories are cleared away. And, of course, the practical benefit of being able to access class texts or student assignments without schlepping a heavy backpack, is magical.

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I know that such streamlining practices come with a cost. Adhering to a cyclical schedule of assignments entails a loss of spontaneity, and relying on stylized feedback structures like rubrics can feel impersonal. Having a structured, planned living situation, too, has its disadvantages. I find myself eating a lot of boiled eggs and wearing just a couple of black shirts because of my commitment to routine. Though it’s not for everyone, for me, adding such bits of structure creates flexibility in other areas. As the famously routinized Kant argued, imposing form and discipline can, paradoxically, increase the quality of one’s freedom. In the time I’m not fiddling with my clothes, I can walk, rather than drive, to work. Because I wasn’t up half the night scrawling comments on term papers, I am well rested when I connect with students, rather than resentful and grumpy.

Still, I am not proselytizing — I don’t think minimalism offers the best framework for teaching (or living) — nor do I think there’s one right way to be minimalist. Some of my fondest memories as a college student include explosively spontaneous professors who seemed barely affected by clocks, calendars, and no smoking signs. What I can report with confidence, though, is that minimalism is doing for my teaching what it does for my life. As my hiding places are cleared away, I am encouraged to be more honest with myself about how I spend my time and energy. With fewer opportunities for the seductive, distracting busywork that claims our hours, our days, and our lives, I occasionally get a glimpse of something that might really and truly matter.

What if classroom discussion is overrated?

It’s a near-truism of education that giving students ample opportunity to discuss, primarily with each other, is important. This sharing of perspectives is supposed to both solidify their understanding and develop a sense of community. I confess, though, that I’ve long been skeptical about the boosterism for discussion. From what I can tell, many discussions are so poor that the time might be better spent being lectured to, reading, or just napping.

Most of what I hear from colleagues who are discussion fans is based on students’ enthusiasm. “They really get into it!. Everyone talks!” What I usually think, but don’t often say, is “but what were they talking about? How, if at all, did that talking facilitate real learning?” In other words, I’ve long suspected that ebullient classroom chatter, such a feel-good boon to both students and teachers, gets confused with genuine, pedagogically valuable dialogue. Though my worry is about discussion in general, I think its problems are amplified in the online environment for reasons I explore in an upcoming post.

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It’s worth pausing to consider what’s supposed to make discussion so important to learning in the first place. Because I’m a philosopher by training, I have been more conditioned to think of dialogue as pedagogically sacred than most. And though I am a recovering philosopher, I think there are good reasons why the Socratic method is the paradigmatic dialectical learning process. A skilled, passionate, knowledgeable interlocutor can nurture students’ intellectual development. Disciplined, professor-led discussions are often effective precisely because the teacher has traveled this road many times. She has a map and a destination in mind. Although there are lots of legitimate critiques of this approach — the hierarchical power relationship comes to mind — lots of students become better thinkers by way of it.

There’s another, more common, sort of discussion that gets confused with the Socratic version. It is more flexible and open-ended, and more closely related to consciousness-raising practices than to Socrates, even though many teachers who practice it almost exclusively claim that their method is “Socratic.” This looser sort of discussion prioritizes students’ experience, aiming to empower them personally and intellectually. It’s an especially good practice for teachers who value, as I do, the development of marginalized voices. For some of our students (though not at all for others), a barely-bounded classroom discussion becomes a precious opportunity to give voice to fears about sexuality or experiences of persecution. Because education is both personal and political, such discussions are important.

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That said, I think we do damage when we lazily conflate these two kinds of discussion. When we speak of discussion — people talking at and to one another — as an unqualified good, we forget that only some kinds of discussion work for some purposes. It is all too easy to be fooled by the volume of students’ chatter into believing that something meaningful is occurring. We are probably especially susceptible to this delusion because of how hard it can sometimes be to get students to pipe up at all.

There are, of course, lots of strategies to facilitate effective discussion of all sorts, both face-to-face and online, but my focus here is much more basic: What if, in brutally honest fashion, we question the value of discussion as we have been practicing it? Though students would often prefer to talk to each other than to us — and we would often prefer that they do so as well — how much of it has really mattered?

One thing I know for sure: The fact that I and my students may feel great when they proclaim their feelings, experiences and preferences — and this is usually what they are most passionate about sharing — doesn’t mean I haven’t just wasted their time.