Busy, busy, busy! When a professor’s work is never done….

If you’ve ever used a can of spray insulation, you know how the toxic goo expands to fill every hole and crack. It’s like bread dough rising in a time lapse film, still creeping towards you long after you think you’ve sprayed it in place. As I teetered on a step ladder in the searing heat last weekend, watching the stuff grow like a kitschy movie blob, I knew I’d found the right analogy for this week’s post. I tried not to wipe my sweaty brow with a foul, sticky glove and thought, “This is how work can expand to fill every space if I’m not paying attention.”

It’s understandable, of course, that professors get swallowed up by actual and self-imposed overwork given that we are under the scrutiny of a skeptical public and increasingly out of touch university administrators. With a conspiratorial wink, an uncle informed me decades ago when I got my first professor job that it sounded like a “sweet deal.” And I’ve suffered through countless meetings with administrators who reactively push for higher teaching loads, quite certain that we professors just aren’t doing enough. They clearly do not appreciate the amorphous nature of the job, the pressure we are under to permit it to overlap with, flow over, and otherwise obscure the rest of our lives. To make this more concrete, I made a record of my activities on a typical morning last week — snippets below. The pace of my daily routine is especially striking to me when I keep in mind that, in the eyes of a critical taxpaying public, and, increasingly corporatized career administrators, this is the bon vivant, summer vacation chunk of my calendar.

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Many instructors never really leave their work. Their sense of responsibility to students and to the subject area they love, combined with the almost open ended nature of research and the teaching relationship, guarantees that there is always more to be done. Certainly, if lines and limits are to be drawn between our “work” and “life,” this will not come from the time clock, the setting sun, or the factory whistle. By and large, we must draw them ourselves. Being a professor is not unique in this way, of course — many other jobs share these qualities — and this lack of specialness is worth keeping firmly in mind.

That setting priorities and effectively drawing boundaries is hard for most people is clear from the glut of self-help books on this topic. I’ve read and appreciated lots of them, especially those that reveal the deeper questions at play, psychological, and maybe even spiritual ones. When deciding how to spend our time, we must, after all, decide what really and truly matters to us. If it turns out, say, that the very burden of work tasks we complain about actually serves to happily distract us from personal or existential woe, then we must be honest about that. It’s obvious that many privileged individuals who complain of being “busy, busy, busy!” are classic workaholics, with little satisfaction or even sense of identity beyond their career. Some don’t like their personal life much, but find it less wrenching and more socially acceptable to complain about their demanding job than about their husband or exhausting tween children.

Ultimately, then, though professor jobs are not the walk in the park that many imagine, they are also not intrinsically more demanding or diffuse than many other other jobs or activities that routinely swallow up peoples’ lives. Saying no or calling it a day is, for those of us with the luxury of managing much of our own time, as much an exercise in honesty, authenticity and courage as of practical time management. We must learn to tell the truth about why we’d rather send just one more email or grade one more paper, now, tonight. And, as one of my great teachers urges, “to tell the truth about whether or not we’re telling the truth about that.”

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Some of us have tried every trendy time management scheme — the hulking Franklin organizer, the Palm Pilot, or the understated iPhone or Moleskine bullet journal — but if I fear what lies behind all the planning (which often becomes an excuse for yet more busyness) — the silence, the uncertainty, the potentially bottomless mysteries of joy and grief — then nothing will ever really change. I’ll busy my life away with this or that VIT (very important task) complaining all the while — the better to establish my importance to others and myself — until a crisis forces me to make different choices. And if, as a relatively independent, privileged, well-employed individual, I focus only on the supposed grappling hooks that others have imposed on my life, I will overlook the agency that I do have.

I am not, of course, focusing here on the many who must work multiple jobs at the whim of others with little claim on their own time. In fact, I write this post partly in honor of adjunct instructors who piece together their livelihoods from scraps discarded by full-time professors, or stolen from professors and reassigned to adjuncts by jaded, penny-pinching administrators. And I write it in honor of the remaining academic collectIve bargaining units that support professors’ struggle to retain some measure of independence and dignity. We must continue to fight against the trends of increasing teaching workloads — for all instructors — even as we resist the temptation to make our jobs a scapegoat for why we never do whatever it is that matters most to us.

 

Excerpt from a typical summer workday (boring, but requested by a reader!)

I woke at 5:30, fed my dog and cat, and graded the first of four sets of assignments my students do each week (I’m teaching summer school). After 90 minutes of grading, I spent another twenty minutes composing a note summarizing the results of my grading and offering guideposts to my students for what’s coming next. Then I took my dog for a quick walk, showered, and got my books and computer packed up. On the way to the coffee shop where I’d planned to work for a few hours, I stopped to pick up some necessities for later — lemons and chocolate — and then at the hardware store for giant paper lawn bags.

At the coffee shop I ran into a junior colleague who wanted to chat about his upcoming tenure process. After a pleasant half hour with him, I opened my computer and began seeking and skimming articles I’ve collected over the past year for my upcoming LGBT Studies class. As I read, selected and rejected, I tried not to get sidetracked by the mostly fascinating material, but did stop to post one article to a professional social media site I’m responsible for and also emailed it to a colleague at another university. As I sent that email, I noticed an “urgent” message from one of my current students with questions about an assignment that’s due tonight. I responded to her and then returned to culling articles.

About the time the lunch crowd began to arrive, I went to a nearby park to eat outside and enjoy a quick walk while listening to a chapter from an audiobook version of a text I’m teaching in the fall. Next I went to my campus office to finish my morning grading, sort through some student papers from last semester and meet with a graduate student who’s doing an independent study. About 4:00 I raced off to a dental appointment I’d nearly forgotten and then went home to mow the front yard — the back can wait — and put out the trash, recycling, and lawn waste…..

Glitter and glue sticks: The playful pleasure of preparing new courses

One of the hardest things to explain to non-teachers is what’s involved in creating a new class. Non-teachers may only ever have seen teaching from the student side: lectures, activities and assignments that seem to appear magically, like an elaborate pancake breakfast prepared by Supermom on Sunday morning. Or, they may only recall the deflated professors who lectured from brittle yellow notepads and think that college teaching involves nothing more than cranking on the same rusty water spigot year after year. Given that some professors themselves underinvest in teaching, together with the popular societal view that professors’ jobs are easy, the stage is set to minimize the meaningfulness of our teaching preparation work.

This summer as I radically retool two upcoming Fall courses (one online and one face-to-face), I’m fully immersed in course prep and more aware than ever of its charms and challenges. Certainly, part of why I am so earnest and curious about course creation — from inception to design to implementation to assessment — is my recent rediscovery of online teaching. It has, in fact, pushed me to rethink the looser style of my face-to-face classes, just as my foray into backpacking — with its need for meticulous planning and minimalism — has affected how I regard and organize stuff in my home.

Given the exigencies of creating new classes or overhauling old ones, it surprises me a little that I find it so invigorating. But I notice right away that, because I’ve decided on a radical overhaul, I’m back in a student role, in this case a sort of intense, self-curated LGBT Studies summer camp. The exhilaration of reconnecting with the traditional course subject matter, while diving into the latest developments, is intrinsically pleasurable and will also be a catalyst for infectiously enthusiastic teaching. I’m actually eager to share this with students! Teachers who are unable to fall newly in love with the subject they teach, as I have often been, are surely cheated out of one of the deepest pleasures our jobs have to offer.

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Next, I discover that, for me, there is also satisfaction in the almost tactile process of laying out and executing such a complex creative project, from mere idea to concrete realization. The satisfaction of making my ideas come to life by expressing an abstract learning goal through various sorts of well-placed assignments and assessments, is perhaps like crafting a dress or a house. And maybe because I’m independent and intellectually-oriented, there’s something especially gratifying about the rare prospect of helping ideas live and breathe in shared, intersubjective space. That I think of creating a class as a sort of craft, then, is meant to express that, through this activity, I sometimes feel my most abstract ideas sprout legs, don shoes and take off running through the tangible world.

I think the comparison with crafts may be especially apt. On the one hand, part of why the richness and burdens of this creative work are often overlooked by professors is that intellectuals tend not to prize merely technical, practical or instrumental proficiency as we do intellectual insight. Secretly, perhaps, we may envy the skill of the plumber or electrician, even as we not-so-secretly believe we move in higher, more ethereal realms. Course design experts, I am told, often feel devalued by old school profs who are suspicious of what they see as window dressing and gimmicks. After all, for many college profs, including me, learning to teach meant nothing more than learning our discipline. In fact, we implicitly distinguished ourselves from K-12 teachers partly and precisely because we never focused on teaching in that way.

In addition to the elitist elements at play here, I wonder if it’s not also about sexism. When the quintessential educational course creator comes to my mind, it’s the female elementary school teacher. Earnest and bright eyed, she spends her own money and weekends at the crafts store, buying felt strips and foil stars. While most people can talk a good game about how important her work is — forming the next generation and whatnot — by and large, she is regarded as a glorified babysitter. This image stands in deliberately sharp contrast to the (serious, muscular, hard-hitting, deep) university professor. As I prepare for the new Fall semester, then, I wonder if professors’ (understandable) need to affirm our own specialness and status might not keep us from truly enjoying course preparation. As for me, I am discovering that, as I play with the glitter and glue sticks, as well as the big ideas, they are not really so different after all.

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.

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?

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.