Don’t do it for me: encouraging student agency and power

In these first weeks of the summer semester, I’ve begun the familiar dance with students who insist they are committed to succeeding even as they blow past deadlines or submit last-minute scribbling. It goes like this: I email a student, noting a missed assignment and request a reply indicating that they understand where they’re headed gradewise. Alternatively, I add, please let me know if you’ve determined this course isn’t a good fit for you and have decided to drop. My note is polite, straightforwardly reminding them of the circumstances facing them as it reinforces their own motive power: “YOUR actions,” “YOUR decision,” and “YOUR future.”

It’s interesting, then, that the replies I get are often full of either exaggerated self-flagellation — “I’m such a loser!” — or complaints about my “unreasonable” expectations. Such replies may also express an outsized devotion to my class and, perhaps, to the student’s own educational values, despite, ahem, their current poor performance. It’s the sort of passionate reassurance a teenager might provide in a drunken three a.m. call to his worried mother. In such emails, then, it’s my perceived feelings and judgments students are attending to — suddenly desperate to appease or placate me — rather than the uncomplicated situation at hand. Only occasionally does a student simply acknowledge the lapse in performance and share with me her intention to drop or to recommit.

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When faltering students shower me with elaborate reassurance — Yes, they really DO like my class! Oh my, yes, they really ARE learning a lot! And do I know I’m an AMAZING teacher? — it’s like when I run into students on campus the very day they’ve missed a face-to-face class meeting. There’s often a whiff of shame about them as if they’ve just been caught two-timing me. It’s sometimes amusing to watch them scramble and sweat because, of course, I don’t really care as they imagine I do. I certainly don’t care with the fervor of a jilted lover or distraught mother. Nor do I care as an employer being cheated out of sick leave might care.

I do care about my students, of course, and I wish them happiness and success. I don’t, though, walk around with hurt feelings when a student blows off my class, even if she forgets she signed up for it in the first place. Nor do I judge faltering students as having some fatal character flaw, as, say, being fundamentally lazy or stupid. I’m not especially damaged by students who snub my professorial efforts nor do I feel compelled to condemn them. Like a surgeon who performs operations on patients who are both surly and sweet, my teaching motives aren’t usually overwhelmingly personal.

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My real aim in reaching out to poor performers early isn’t to shame or coddle them, but to help them better focus on their own agency, power, and self-worth. Can they notice and embrace the causal relationship between their actions and the ensuing results? Can they better acknowledge their responsibility to themselves, rather than getting mired down in some manufactured sense of obligation to me or their parents or God? If it can become clearer to them how success and self-esteem are often connected to their choices and actions, then it’s probably just fine if they decide to fail or drop. If, though, I permit myself to get tangled up with them in some personalized drama of anger, judgment and resentment, then my failure is even greater than theirs.

Of course, students don’t learn to initiate these tragi-comic performances on their own. Years of socialization nurtures their sense that it’s the personal judgement and reaction of particular authorities that they must manage to earn rewards and avoid penalties. And given how well the approval system often works in the short term, it’s understandable that teachers leverage students’ desire for a pat on the head to get them to learn. But at some point in the maturation process, I think we’ve got to aspire to greater authenticity and integrity. A few weeks from now, I won’t give that flailing, failing student another thought, but if she ignominiously sputters out and peels away, then she may carry the failure of my class with her as a financial and logistical albatross, and as an unnecessary drag on her self-confidence. If, though, she acts out of duty to herself rather than to me, then whether she decides to drop out or buckle down, maybe she can feel the pride and power of steering her own ship.

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.

“Everyone gets an ‘A’!”: Grading as ethics, activism and style

Though we do it a lot, the practice of assigning grades is fraught for many college instructors. Whether it’s because we dislike its hierarchical underpinnings or the fact that some students seem to be systematically disadvantaged by it, the practice of grading can be pedagogically and ethically complicated. After wrestling for decades with my own misgivings about its meaning and role, I’m newly interested in the complicated role that grading can play in instructors’ deepest sense of ourselves, as teachers, and as ethical and political agents.

It’s widely known that some professors invest heavily in the notion of themselves as “hard graders,” a label associated with seriousness, hard work, and uncompromisingly high standards. They are as proud when students complain about their grades as elitist restauranteurs are delighted with complaints about their tiny portions. And it’s surely no accident that these loud and proud “hard graders” are often crusaders for higher education, eager to protect its supposed traditional dignity and integrity. The “hard grader” rhetoric, then, can function both to establish and support the professor’s self-concept and to promote a meritocratic pedagogy and conservative vision of higher education.

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On the other extreme are the professors who are just as proud of being cavalierly dismissive of grades. In fact, you may learn how little they value grading from how very much they talk about it. It’s not that they don’t engage closely with student work, they will be sure to explain, but they have no use for grades and so assign A’s to just about everyone. Here again there are reasonable pedagogical, political and ethical justifications. After all, aren’t grading systems just one more cog in a sexist, racist capitalist heteropatriarchy that reproduces and celebrates inequities and social division? Aren’t grades an expression of ill-gotten and ill-conceived institutional power that oppresses the vulnerable, the dispossessed, the creative? And don’t they ultimately distract students from engaging authentically with the actual course content and so taint learning as it’s meant to be?

Many professors fall somewhere in the middle, ambivalent about the “system,” perhaps, but working with it as we do many other troubling aspects of institutional life. In the scheme of things, after all, grades may well be one of the less offensive practices in higher education. How many professors who highmindedly reject the hierarchy of grades, I wonder, also reject the hierarchy that has them better paid than adjunct instructors by orders of magnitude? At any rate, expressing one’s social activism by rejecting traditional grading is a very particular choice, and not at all the most obviously effective way to rebel against our unabashedly inequitable institutions of higher learning.

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Still, I admit that I’m attracted to the prospect of eschewing grades. What could be more appealing than the promise of self-motivated, sufficiently resourced students, eager to learn for learning’s sake, with self-esteem unencumbered by nasty, reductionistic grading schemes? I offer some ungraded (or very low stakes) assignments precisely because they provide a rich opportunity to develop skills and content knowledge without the sometimes absurd pressure that assessment can exert. But given that our overarching system is built on values and practices associated with letter grades and percentages, what is accomplished by giving everyone an A? Given that grades actually do sometimes matter, and everyone knows this, what is a student supposed to glean from an isolated experience in which they’re offered a critique of grading and then awarded an automatic A?

Short of a revolution that topples the more fundamental hierarchies of higher ed, and some of the larger systems it is nested in, I’m a fan neither of HARD GRADING or of A’s-for-all. In fact, I wonder if some of the problems associated with grading aren’t exacerbated by instructors who regard grades as a prize to bestow or withhold. Grading then becomes, not a more or less natural consequence of student performance, but an expression of the instructor’s individual style and power. And even if the instructor deigns to give everyone A’s, there is a capriciousness to this that may well further erode a student’s sense of agency and responsibility. It may make the instructor feel better, but I can’t see that it does much to challenge the overarching myths of individualism and meritocracy that gave birth to grading in the first place.

Powerful customers and vulnerable instructors: 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 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 the various rules and appropriate fallout associated with politeness — and, of course, this can vary from culture to culture — at least there’s something concrete to point to when we praise or blame someone on this basis. This is probably true of judgements about behavior that is marked as “respectful” or “civil” though these terms too can be abused until they are as vacuous as “nice.”

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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 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 might as well be accusing their professors of failing to be nice. And while every worthwhile instructor will value constructive student feedback, such mercilessly sweeping personality assessments are dangerous. This is especially so since college students have become “customers” and instructors are mostly 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 is determined to be “nice,” then, matters, can vary wildly, and can 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 it is she who is mistaken. If she feels that I am not “caring” or “warm,” then she may well proceed as if her assessment is infallible. The hideous double-bind here is clearly revealed when we consider that absolutely any defensive moves the accused makes may be taken as further proof of her gaping personality flaw. Surely, no truly nice person would argue with someone generous enough to provide feedback about how not-nice she is!

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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 situationally or temporarily empowered others, such as students, may wield such capricious judgments to punish or shame teachers they do not like can produce a toxic, bottom-up bullying situation. There are, of course, all sorts of actual conduct violations an instructor may commit, but these should be describable as instances of unprofessional behavior which are, of course, the basis for serious and actionable allegations in most organizations. Ironically, fuzzy accusations that a professor is not nice, or warm, or caring enough can actually distract from actual behavioral violations, for example, that he fails to properly grade student assignments, replies only rarely to their emails, or exhibits clear signs of exasperation when responding to their reasonable questions.

But the fact that “niceness” has been so heavily critiqued does not keep it from creeping back into our lives, and our educational milieus risk reinscribing the same cliques and hierarchies many of us suffered in junior high school. A narrowly scripted, but not fully specified, set of behaviors is required to gain approval, and success is determined by some relatively, situationally empowered beholders. God help that studious teen-aged girl who is found to be “stuck up,” or lacking in niceness, for once that label has adhered she is probably doomed socially. And god help the professor whose students levy (and publicly share) a similarly damning judgement when she insists they earn their high grades rather than pandering to their desire for easy A’s.

At bottom “niceness” is so flexible and vague that it can function almost entirely as a kind of retrospective label to mark 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, in our better moments, we critique professionally insipid personality evaluations such as “nice,” “warm,” or “caring,” they 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, or friendly enough, I can quickly find great support for my judgment, even from folks who don’t know her at all. In fact, agreement about her vague, gender-specific personality failures can bond critics as quickly and surely as smoking an illicit joint together in the high school girls room. It should surprise none of us, then, that some students are eager to demolish their most vulnerable instructors with these same trusty swords.

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?

Fool’s empathy, spiritual posturing, and biting dogs

A new provost making the rounds once asked me to name what I might most hope to instill in students. My quick response was “empathy,” though I recognized just as quickly how cuddly and flaky that might sound. I knew I risked confirming biases about women professors, that we are more like mothers or counselors to our students than serious educators. What I failed to explain well was my sense that real understanding and critical thinking might ultimately boil down to something like empathy, which, as it turns out, is as razor sharp as it is soft and squishy.

In the debilitating wake of the presidential election, though, my confidence in empathy has been shaken. A steady barrage of scolding articles focused on the supposed liberal failure to empathize with the “working class” — which seems to mean small town white people — has nudged my relationship with empathy to the breaking point. After all, empathy’s kindred “feeling with” is a bitter pill when faced with folks who seem openly to want us, or our loved ones, dead, deported, jailed, or pregnant against out wills. Never mind the mundane narcissists and blowhards for whom we serve as mere ego fodder and whose abuse, though less dramatic, is cumulatively corrosive. Sadly, empathy has begun to sound like the self-satisfied, pseudo-spiritual aspirations of the pie-in-the-sky liberal, you know, the guy who doesn’t really have to worry about affordable birth control, being harassed by police, detained at the airport, or run over in a parking lot because he “looks gay.” This is the same guy whose privilege permits a life obsessed with his own comfort and petty grievances while the subjectivities of others never really come into view.

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Because I won’t abandon empathy, either in the classroom or life in general, I’ve been in couples therapy with it for some months now. And I’m beginning to see that this latest wave of willful, brutal, embarrassing national ignorance is another call to grow up. Though I thought I had already learned this, I newly see that there must be a yet more mature, less naive vision of empathy to guide and motivate dealings with difficult others. And it must be a species of empathy that does not assume that either they or I are more evolved than we actually are. It must not, then, be a fool’s empathy, but, rather, one that can flourish even in the harsh light and arid soil of the proudly stupid and unabashedly mean.

Because, of course, sometimes people are nasty, greedy, shortsighted and self-centered, some people chronically so. If we get too caught up in feel-good, kumbaya empathy we may well fast-forward right past our responsibility to hold others accountable. The quest to feel like, and show ourselves to be, compassionate, spiritually evolved beings can overpower our responsibility to discourage assholery. This is clearly a disastrous self-indulgence with respect to students, when, for example, we grant deadline extensions they will never fulfill or are more focused on providing a friendly ear than on being clear about the consequences of poor performance. But it is just as disastrous when we bend over backwards to prove our empathy to people who might actually benefit most from being reminded of the natural consequences of their appalling behavior.

At bottom, if we are too eager to cultivate the image of ourselves as kind, empathetic people, then we are likely to fail others and ourselves. The result may well be not only that we are victimized by rude, or even cruel behavior, but that we become martyrs to it. It’s a faux empathy that has us ceding ground to bullies and tolerating shirkers. Certainly, leaving my front door unlocked does nothing good for the opportunistic thief or for me, even if I persuade myself that I’m not really attached to my possessions after all because, you know, I’m more spiritually advanced than that.

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Similarly, if we see empathy mainly as an instrument for getting others to do as we wish — to follow our lead and be nicer, for example — then we will often be disillusioned. Almost no one admits they are being so manipulative — much of it is probably unconscious — but I’ve certainly found myself surprised and irritated when, instead of following my supposedly magnanimous or equanimous lead, a nasty acquaintance has continued to be nasty. Only my surprise taught me that I had been implicitly trying to manipulate her into better behavior. While it may not be an abuse of empathy to employ it so instrumentally, it’s often a recipe for disappointment.

One of my great teachers warns of how the desire to be and be seen as “spiritual” people can lead us to tolerate and enable harmful others who seek mainly to satisfy the desires of their smallest, pettiest selves. These are the narcissists and bullies who bluster and steamroll, blithely, vengefully unaware of their own key role in the hideous dramas they create. Sure, we can understand that the damage they inflict arises from pain and ignorance, just as an injured dog’s pain may drive her to viciousness. But sometimes we still owe it to one another — and to our institutions, nation, and world — to reach into the deepest, most empathetic part of ourselves and say, “No. Absolutely not. You may not cross this line.” I mean, there’s nothing noble or spiritual in letting the dog bite me. And there’s nothing in it for the dog either.

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.