The Uses and Abuses of Ambivalence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamification: Seductive gold stars and pats on the back

In the third grade, I was rewarded for being the fastest to complete a series of long division problems on the blackboard. My prize, a Flintstone’s eraser, wasn’t even a good likeness of Dino, but I carried it with me for weeks. These days the reward I crave is the happy jingle from my iPad when I’ve completed the daily New York Times crossword. My awareness that I’m only sort of joking when I admit it’s my favorite song helps explain my ambivalence at incorporating similarly trivial rewards into my own classes. Frankly, it’s a little embarrassing to be so eager for such superficial affirmations.

Gamification, using elements of reward and friendly competition to encourage effort and engagement, is both simple and intuitively appealing. That it effectively lights fires — at least in some learners — is clear enough. Nudged onward by the promise of leveling up or of earning a virtual ribbon, we do sometimes perform more diligently and enthusiastically with these dangling carrots in sight. And so I created a badge icon for students who improve their quiz scores, one that automatically pops up on these users’ home pages. I plan to add consistency and perseverance badges as I seek more ways to exploit these easily implemented gamification strategies.


I’ve become willing to experiment with such cheap tactics partly because of my own recent experience as an online student; I was surprised by the tiny thrills of satisfaction I came to anticipate as my badges appeared. And I suspect that gamification has a similarly primal effect, not only on millennial video gamers, but on many of us who earned prizes as children: for the number of books read, a class spelling bee, or a math club competition. But I also know that some experts caution against linking worthwhile activities to crass rewards, noting that, for example, children may no longer color for sheer enjoyment when prizes become part of the mix. While this consequence might not be so worrisome for straightforwardly “outcome-based” courses, it would be anathema for teachers intent on cultivating joyfully authentic life-practices such as close reading and thoughtful discussion.

So, even as I create the release conditions for my virtual badges, imagining my students’ pleasure at receiving them, I’m a little sheepish. Is this all just a tawdry gimmick? Am I trying to bribe these precious human companions with trivial ego boosts, coaxing them to learn material that, as it happens, actually has both intrinsic value and relevance to their lives? Am I reinforcing a consumerist, credentialist view of learning as merely extrinsically valuable, with grades and prizes to be collected in exchange for a diploma and job? They are urgent questions for me because I’ve never meant for my students merely, or even primarily, to learn “information” or discrete “skill sets” associated with my “content area.”

As I continue to explore using badges and other rewards, I remind myself that what I’m up to — leveraging behaviorist elements of learning without sacrificing the ethos of learning for its own sake — is a very old pedagogical conundrum. It certainly didn’t arise with online teaching, even if online modalities have made us more self-conscious about the perils and promises of gamification. In online classes, the affinity of gamification to electronic gaming becomes obvious. And, of course, we all know, or imagine we do, how addictive and empty that activity can be. But, again, some of my most enduring memories as an elementary school student in the 70’s, long before Super Mario or Minecraft, also involved “gamification.” And they are memories that, for better and worse, still bring me vibrations of shame and satisfaction.

As a child, I was motivated by the promise and fear of prizes awarded and withheld, but this probably also compromised my ability to take learning risks because I did not want to be a loser. Gamification, then, is complicated and fraught, and it occurs to me that I should use it more thoughtfully. What if, for example, I invited students to explicitly reflect upon their own perceived susceptibility or aversion to gold stars and pats on the back? Could gamification then become a tool for deeper self-reflection and whole-person development? After all, much of life occurs against a competitive backdrop, a humming swirl of conditional, often arbitrary, ego affirmations and insults. A little more awareness of what’s driving the quest for that promotion, that house, or that anti-wrinkle cream is probably not such a bad idea.

Claiming the right to make beauty: Inspiration, motivation, and basic worthiness

Like lots of the kids around me in my humble Midwestern elementary school, I started playing a band instrument just because. Because the instruments were shiny and mysterious and because it meant being singled out as special three days a week to converge in the lunchroom for a cacophonous 45 minutes. I chose the trumpet because it seemed a magnificent luxury, like something from Cinderella, and because my brother had started playing one a few years before, so I figured my parents had to say yes to me too.

Just to be perfectly clear, I chose neither band nor this particular instrument because I loved music or the sound of brass. In fact, all the way through high school, I continued to plug diffidently away at the trumpet as if it were any other task, like making my bed or mowing the lawn. At no point — neither in practice at home nor public concerts— do I ever recall being moved by the actual experience of making music. Instead, I played out of habit and because it was something I’d agreed to do, giving it just enough time and energy to avoid totally embarrassing myself.

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I ponder this now, because here in the throes of middle age, I have picked up the trumpet once again. It’s a used student model, very much like the one I had decades ago, cold heavy brass that is both strange and familiar in my adult hands. The scent of valve oil and the chill circle of the mouthpiece against my (still) slightly crooked front teeth propel me backwards in time, reminding me that I am both the same and different from the kid who once ran the chromatic scale with such habitual mediocrity.

Shockingly, after just a few months, I find that, in one important sense, I’m already playing better than I ever did as a distracted kid. Adult-me, it seems, is motivated by an actual desire to make actual music. Though I rarely have an audience, I find myself making an effort to play with heart, drawn to the promise of making beauty with my mouth, breath and hands. The irony is that, having fully embraced the low stakes amateurism of playing the trumpet late in life, I am actually getting good at it, at least by my admittedly low standards. And I know this is because playing has become more about creating meaning than about merely mastering a skill set in order to operate a shiny machine.

My childhood failure to connect to the music-making aspect of playing the trumpet was, no doubt, due partly to a relative lack of cultural or artistic appreciation in my working class home. Like most of the kids around me, I grew up almost completely incapable of taking my creative potential seriously. It pretty much never occurred to me that I might be able to make beautiful music or art, because I simply could not fathom being special or worthy enough to approach these rarified realms. Journalism? Maybe. Poetry? Never. Why open myself to ridicule, then, by exerting steady and sincere effort to achieve something so impossibly far out of reach?

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I am left now with an incisive pedagogical lesson that I suspect most everyone else already knew: In many subject areas, especially those associated however obliquely with high culture, U.S. working class kids may never make it out of the starting gate. After all, admission price for even the bare possibility of genuine learning is a basic sense of one’s own belonging in the grand humanistic scheme of things. And how can those who cannot take themselves seriously as potential cultural creators ever embrace the requisite vulnerability? We must feel sure enough that we belong to throw ourselves into it again and again, failing spectacularly, without being overwhelmed by imposter syndrome or falling into what Tara Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness.”

In short, it’s pretty clear that great pedagogical potential is unleashed when we plug into our own sense of cultural self worth. Though the energy that flows from such cultivated aesthetic self-regard may be no more magical or mysterious than electricity, it can be just as transformative. It can mean the difference between a lifetime of stepping self-consciously and disjointedly from one note to another and one spent making bonafide music. Permission to take oneself seriously as a human creator, then, can nudge the sidelined outsider into the heart of the ballroom, into the chaotic dance with the muses that has long nourished the human soul.

Moving past shame: When regret becomes an ally in the classroom and in life

Admitting that we wish we’d done things differently has come to be seen as a mark of spiritual immaturity. Perhaps as a reaction to the guilt-inducing traditional religions of childhood, many have adopted a policy of embracing whatever has occurred as a way of celebrating the present moment. While banishing regret may be fine as an absolute orientation towards the deepest meaning of life — on this view, what IS is good precisely because it is — on a mundane level, I think regret can be a useful ally.

Regret is especially relevant to me as a professor in the twixt time between the fall and spring terms. I look back on Fall with one eye as I look ahead to Spring with the other. The invitation to ruthlessly inspect my courses, to locate both the gems and dross, the tangled thickets and the open clearings, is too loud to be ignored. But still so close to the beauty and the wreckage of classes I’m just now completing, my vision is both sharpened and distorted. Learning to take a critical perspective on a past that is only just barely past demands that I move quickly away from defensive self-justification and make friends with regret.

Specifically, constructive regret requires that I be:

  • secure enough in my identity as a competent teacher that I can afford to have been mistaken about this or that; insecurity about my basic ability will lead me to defend and justify rather than honestly scrutinize;
  • invested not just in improving this or that particular skill or product, but in growing as a whole human being. Then, the motive towards general excellence can become habitual and irresistible; if I am satisfied with coasting dumbly along, either as a teacher, or as a moral, intellectual animal, then I won’t be motivated enough to make deep, lasting changes in any part of my life, including my teaching.

If I can make room for constructive regret in my teaching life — if I can see that that one assignment, the one I really loved, turned out to be a flop — then maybe I can also have a freer, more responsible relationship with the people and events that make up my whole life. If I can see failures — large and small — as messengers, and avoid identifying with them, then I can take better advantage of regret. Seeking and finding my own missteps and shortcomings — like consulting a map at a rest stop — can increasingly become a neutral habit rather than a shaming interlude that I avoid at all costs.

The pitfall of regret, then, is that it can so quickly become an implement for ruthless self-flagellation. One’s personal history and insecurities rise up so powerfully that the prospect of being vulnerable to self-examination becomes intolerable and so, instead, one moves fluidly into self-justification and rationalization. “I had to do it that way, because…” we tell ourselves, instead of authentically reflecting on the details of our motives or the consequences we set into motion. Rationalization becomes as automatic as a gag reflex, neutralizing the natural curiosity that would have us inspect and learn from our past.

There isn’t much that we do, whether in our classrooms or our larger lives, that absolutely had to be precisely the way it was. In most cases, we had viable alternative routes. Whether it’s about permitting a student to make up a quiz or speaking harshly to the person we love most, we can usually have done otherwise. And though we cannot, of course, know absolutely what the future would have been, our limited capacity to anticipate the consequences of our actions should, I think, sometimes lead us toward regret. How can we, I wonder, become more at home in the lively, tense knowledge that we could have, and perhaps should have, done it differently?

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Are online classes the fast food of higher ed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just be thankful you’ve got a faculty position”: the abuse of gratitude in the academy

We know we’re supposed to be grateful. It’s a year-round pressure that culminates on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve: to count our blessings, look on the positive side, and remember how very fortunate we are. It’s even become a sort of medical prescription, with mental health professionals claiming that gratitude is the key to happiness, long life, and success. I don’t doubt it, but I also recall Karl Marx’s warnings about apparently anodyne feel-good ideologies that function like opium to help keep workers, including professors, cowed and complacent.

Even before the puddle of cranberry sauce dries on my plate, then, I think about how injunctions to be grateful, including those that come from oneself, can become fodder for quietism and bland self-satisfaction. When I consider, for example, the salary hit I will take as the result of huge increases to my insurance, I vacillate between relief — my situation is still much better than that of most people in the U.S. — and anger. How long am I supposed to suck it up and smile as my standard of living is eroded so that fat cats can get even fatter? Am I to compare myself only to those worse off than I am to avoid feeling, and being perceived as, elitist?

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This gratitude double-bind is familiar, including to those of us in higher ed. On the one hand, we are aware enough of how tough times are to be grateful for full time faculty jobs. After all, this is an environment in which endangered faculty positions are being hunted down and casually ground into cheap instructor labor. And we mid-career professors watch with horror and sadness as newly minted PhDs continue to roll off the academic assembly line with little prospect of finding jobs half as secure as those we enjoy. We watch as the dignity of our profession is stripped away and, unless we are utterly obtuse, we can’t help but feel gratitude for our own good fortune.

But we are rightfully critical too, and aware of the distance between where public higher education is and where, in a prosperous, enlightened society, it might be. We wince and gnash our teeth at polls reporting that Republicans blame higher ed for the nation’s woes, and we see the writing on the wall. Whatever the future of public higher education holds in store, it is hard to believe it will survive in a form most academics would recognize or prefer.

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Gratitude, then, like so many spiritually tinged notions, is double-edged. On the one hand, it is a vitally necessary and beautifully human impulse. Surely there is no one more miserable or pathetic than one who constantly complains, the perennial victim who is unable to access any sense of appreciation or agency. But in the quest to be that optimistic, spiritual person, it can be tempting to settle permanently into the narcotizing arms of gratitude, especially when others are urging us to “lighten up” and “count your blessings.” We desperately need, though, the sort of vigorous social protest that often emerges from visceral, contagious dissatisfaction.

If I am to be grateful, then, let me be fiercely, and not complacently, so. Let my gratitude for my own good fortune galvanize me into fighting for the same benefits for others that I now enjoy. Let me freely express my discontent and desire for a better world, impelled by appreciation for what is beautiful and good in my life, and not to be shamed into silence by fear that I will be seen as just another whining, overindulged academic.

Selling the university to student customers: The elusive fantasy of bespoke education

At lots of struggling universities these days, part of the new game plan for attracting students revolves around the values of flexibility, choice, and individual preference. The notion that each student is unique, with gifts, challenges, and whims that ought to be accommodated is consistent with what a contemporary, consumer oriented social ethos seem to require. And I will not raise my voice against such a noble ideal.

Too often, and for far too long, young people have been slotted into institutions, majors, jobs, and even sexual identities, in ways that discourage exploration and experimentation, and ultimately stifle growth. Reshaping the university so that it encourages greater individual variation, including self-designed majors and flexible graduation goals, seems all to the good. And if students and their families arrive with fistfuls of tuition dollars to purchase the newly promised freedom and individual attention, fine.

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Except, of course, that this bargain isn’t entirely on the up-and-up. The student-centered, personalized education model remains elusive at large, bureaucratic institutions. Student advising and counseling offices are understaffed. Online classes may accommodate students’ pajamas and busy work schedules, but most have assignment deadlines more or less like their face-to-face counterparts. Further, at universities like mine, core education requirements continue to push students along fairly scripted paths. The Titanic simply wasn’t built to allow a few passengers to take side trips to explore uncharted coves or deep sea chasms.

University marketing materials may feed the fantasy of one-on-one student engagement with research-active faculty, but students are more likely to encounter overtaxed adjunct instructors. Many of these folks barely have time to floss their teeth let alone lie around on the quad debating Plato’s Republic. Fully employed tenure-track or tenured faculty too face increasing demands as our numbers dwindle and bureaucratic service demands increase. The pressure to respond to the endless, growing stream of students’ accommodation requests, mental health crises, and the proliferation of academic progress reporting alone can become overwhelming. In short, campus “look books” sell the image of unharried, student-centered professors even as long term disinvestment in the professoriate guarantees that we exist as an increasingly endangered species.

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Students quickly discover that much of the individual treatment and focused attention they were promised by the campus sales team doesn’t mean that their instructor will know their name or find time to meet with them after their shift ends at Target. The slick promises don’t save students from form letters, inscrutable across-the-board fees and charges, waiting in lines like “everyone else,” or being accountable to all sorts of deadlines. Small liberal arts colleges may be able to pull off the boutique educational experience, but larger institutions seem to have conformity and batch processing steeped into their bones. And, evidently, many universities simply have no intention of putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to making good on those feel-good promises.

And so the mad rush to attract an ostensibly shrinking body of students threatens to devolve into a bait and switch scheme worthy of fly by night used car lots. When students actually arrive on campus with demands for accommodations and special consideration they have been promised, overtaxed professors, advisors, counselors, staff, and adjunct instructors will be left to tell them the truth: This mid-tier directional university you have selected is far less like a bespoke tailor shop than a Nordstrom Rack or TJ Maxx. There is quality to be found, to be sure, but don’t expect it to be hand selected, gift wrapped, and placed lovingly in your lap.