University administrators sweating under Zoom’s unforgiving eye

As a number of the symbolic trappings of higher education have come to a screeching halt — including convocations and graduation ceremonies — the value of many high-level administrators is increasingly unclear. With ivory towers and ivy-covered walls long out of reach for many students in any case, universities are now being confirmed as symbols not only of contagion, but of excess and elitism. In some cases, the move to virtual communication has breathed new life into a question that’s been smoldering for years: How many of the expensive administrators populating our campuses are actually necessary? Though they may be taking great pains to continue to publicly perform their roles, so-called virtual dialogues — “town halls,” “forums,” and the like — place them under the microscope of traumatized constituents who also happen to be visually savvy consumers. Not surprisingly, faculty, staff, and students are demanding much more from these astonishingly well-paid leaders than the usual feel-good claptrap.

In the past, presidents, provosts and deans (together with their “vice,” “assistant,” and “associate” versions) have often served as a reassuring presence on campus, especially in difficult times, even if we didn’t always know how they could possibly be earning their exorbitant keep. When we see them up close through webcams, though, in these volatile times, struggling to stay on script in a format that invites and demands authenticity and responsiveness, some are revealed to be poorly performing politicians rather than competent leaders. These glimpses of our elite administrators — some of whom, like Nixon in 1960, seem to be shifting and fidgeting before the camera’s gaze — help peel away remaining illusions about the glory of public higher education. Campus talking points are revealed not just to be idealistic, but, in some respects, a downright lie, especially with respect to fundamental values such as “we’re all in this together.” Assured that the royal “we” will permanently be transformed by the COVID catastrophe, the actual “we” bearing most of the suffering reflects racial and gender inequity, and a basic lack of parity across employee groups.

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Many have been aware of the astonishing gap between rhetoric and action on the part of university officials for years. There is, for example, the shameful open secret of many universities’ failure to attract and retain faculty and staff of color (in direct contrast to their high flown, self-congratulatory diversity rhetoric). There are the entrenched patterns of salary inequities between women and men, as well as between supposedly “masculine” and “feminine” academic disciplines. There are the whole segments of poorly paid gendered staff labor according to which women may be treated as disposable. There are the appalling labor conditions imposed upon legions of adjunct instructors on whom most universities have long been dependent. At the same time, there has been the creation of an elite administrative class of variously titled (e.g., vice, associate, assistant) deans, provosts, presidents and the like with salaries that have come to rival those of greedy corporate fat cats. The hype about universities as hotbeds of liberalism or radicalism notwithstanding, most campuses have been quite content to mirror the stunning inequities of the corporate world.

The pandemic crisis is not itself responsible for shattering the support beams of our public universities. It is, rather, laying bare some fundamental rottenness, and some of this is occurring before the watchful eye of our teeny tiny computer cameras. To take just one example, high level administrators at my university recently participated in an eight-person panel discussion on diversity that appears to have included only one non-white participant. Even though the national call for Black voices, and the outcry against white obliviousness, has perhaps never been louder, it appears not to have occurred to these white administrators to have raised their privileged voices to help proactively create a genuinely multicultural, inclusive event. Though these administrators were almost certainly well-meaning, a resulting impression is that they care more about performing their own racial virtuousness than about facilitating an authentically self-reflective moment for themselves and for higher education. Would such a colossal miscalculation of racial optics have occurred if the event had been of the usual face-to-face variety? Would it have been as visible to so many people?

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As I watch some of these “televised” appearances of university spokespersons desperate to manage the growing discontent of faculty and staff, I am reminded of a caricature of the most decadent years of the French monarchy. Here, nobles attempt to make good will gestures towards the starving masses but end up inadvertently flaunting their privilege and aloofness instead. They aim to appease the masses in the usual ways, but woefully underestimate the discontent, and also fail to appreciate how closely they are being watched. Of course, the populist uprisings that marked the end of this system were, literally, revolutionary, with global reverberations. There is, it seems, only so much people will tolerate once they’ve become hungry enough, and glaring inequalities and obliviousness have been revealed to their frustrated eyes. How might things have played out if French peasants had been able to scrutinize kings and courtiers up close through their own personal webcams, capable of seeing each nuanced facial gesture and of hearing every word of rationalization and excuse?

Despite the new democratizing power and pressure of webcams, the wealthiest and most privileged universities will, of course, continue to be able to hold out, resisting the inexorable forces that are ravaging and rewriting the rest of higher ed. We might recall how some social elites in England continued to enjoy the anachronistic comforts of the Victorian era well into the 20th century. They did not regard them as luxuries, of course, but as utterly necessary to the natural order of things. This is very much to the point as we consider the leveling forces that will continue to sweep through higher ed as the national political tide turns (please!), as demands for racial justice remain urgent, and as more of “university life” is pushed online, much of it permanently. The elite administrative cadres that have come to operate at some universities like aristocrats, strolling across campus in a perfumed cloud of noblesse oblige, are suddenly revealed as obsolete. Exposed before a merciless camera in virtual “forums” that reveal them dancing from one trusty cliche to another, whatever mystique they once projected is being unceremoniously stripped away.

Universities’ panicked budget cuts: When did student learning become a luxury item?

The verdicts about Fall 2020 are rolling in: face-to-face semesters that end by Thanksgiving, many other classes pushed online, and the imperative for faculty to be prepared to switch into distance mode learning at the drop of a hat. For both professors and students, uncertainty is shaping every aspect of academic year 2020-21, including fundamental pedagogies and general possibilities for engaging with one another. Given this unprecedented pressure on learning itself, why do some universities’ budget cutting priorities actually seem to be focused on dismantling, rather than strengthening, structures guaranteed to enhance academic quality and student satisfaction? With knee jerk budget cuts aimed squarely at the solar plexus of teaching and learning, why should universities expect students to stick around or return in the future?

For example, at my institution (the one I know best), in addition to early retirement carrots and sticks that will immediately peel away some of our most accomplished content experts and talented teachers, budgets for part-time instructors — many of whom are, themselves, fully credentialed and experienced instructors — are being decimated. Of course, at universities that have long been dependent on such “temporary” instructors, the direct and indirect impact on students is utterly predictable: In a Fall 20 teaching/learning scenario already guaranteed to be chaotic and ever-shifting, faculty have been warned by somber-faced deans to expect dramatically higher course loads, not lower ones. An obvious consequence, which few seem to be talking about, is that students will be expected to settle for a much smaller slice of their professor’s time and energy precisely when they most need that focused attention. There is, of course, also the devastation to the livelihoods of part-time instructors themselves, some of whom have been unstinting in their loyalty to exploitive institutions that now promise to abandon them to coax more teaching out of already beleaguered faculty.

And let’s be specific about the impacts that reactionary budget cuts to academics will have on students in the chaotic year ahead: Faculty faced with higher teaching loads must choose either to abandon critical research and service commitments or to neglect students. Given that, for many faculty, scholarly projects are time sensitive — for example, I am working on one that connects to the pandemic itself — research cannot simply be postponed until (or if) the university decides to reinvest in academics. Further, though some requirements and deadlines have been temporarily adapted, interruptions to the research momentum of grant funded, or untenured faculty will irreparably damage some careers. In addition, much of the service faculty will jettison to make room for higher teaching loads directly impacts students, including, for example, letters of recommendation, independent studies, thesis advising, and urgent curricular overhaul. As usual, this burden will fall most heavily on already vulnerable faculty and students, including faculty and students of color, and LGBTQ people, at a historical moment when they most need to be able to create and rely upon such community. And for some such vulnerable students, close contact with instructors can mean the difference not only between success and failure, but between life and death.

To take a simple example, having been warned to expect huge increases to my Fall 20 teaching load, I have, for the first time in my decades of teaching declined to work independently with a graduate student who specifically requested my expertise and deserves my attention. Like most faculty, I take my responsibility to student learning deadly seriously and so it was wrenching for me to inform her that the university was no longer supporting my ability to do such “extra” work. Ultimately, of course, though some such activities can surely be postponed, faculty simply cannot abandon all of our many other service and research responsibilities to divert full energy to the classroom and, as is plain for all to see, students will pay the price. Following the no-blood-from-a-turnip rule, even professors gamely determined to do their best will be forced to cut corners and dilute our offerings. And some professors’ morale is so badly shattered by elite administrators who demand sacrifices from faculty that they stubbornly refuse to make themselves, they will be unable to marshal their usual enthusiasm for students. This is, of course, the very professorial passion that has made their classes so popular in the first place.

As universities continue to prioritize exorbitant administrative salaries and jaw-droppingly expensive athletic programs in the midst of this crisis, they become ever more unrecognizable to humble teacher-scholars like me for whom student learning is utterly precious. I can’t help but ask myself: “If I were going to build a new university from scratch in Covid times, in a blisteringly competitive enrollment environment, where would I start? What would I invest in first and most?” It would, of course, be high quality student learning and the faculty research and scholarship, advising, and library support necessary to sustain it. As the pandemic strips away layer after layer of expendable university offerings and extras, the core academic mission — the excitement of cutting-edge knowledge, research opportunities and close work with faculty experts — should loom larger on universities’ radar than ever. Instead, however, at some universities, it is academics that is being treated as a luxury item in this unfocused frenzy to “trim the fat.”

The worst part about all this may be that it is unnecessary. In fact, rather than marking the end of learning-centeredness, the pandemic might be heard as a call to reprioritize it. I don’t doubt that there is “fat to be trimmed,” including within the professoriate itself. But some panicked universities — addicted to Division I sports and fat cat administrative structures — are implementing budget cuts that hit academics first, hardest, and longest.This is despite the fact that much “extracurricular” and bureaucratic programming, such as college athletics and all sorts of ceremonial events, will most likely be offline this Fall, and, perhaps, well into the future. The irony of it all is that universities have never been under greater pressure to prove to students that time and money spent at their institutions is worth it. In the midst of unemployment, at a time when students and their families are placing extraordinary faith in universities to get it right, what a terrible insult that student learning has fallen so low on the budget priority list.

Pandemic 2020: The danger of making online classes too convenient

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 even as the pandemic has made them more necessary than ever?

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, even before the pandemic, online classes became 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. How will the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement be impacted by an upcoming school year that is all, or mostly, online?

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 and in very particular terms with respect to this precious moment of social upheaval? This will be anathema in institutions that are defensive about the legitimacy of online ed, but if we are confident in its value, and confident in young peoples’ passion for social justice, 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 out camping 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. Even asynchronous online classes, which are generally preferable for lots of reasons, can require students to commit to a consistent learning practice, rather than become tempted by a more binge approach.

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Like many contemporary college students — especially those with demanding work lives — some see education as a discrete experience to be molded around an 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 about regular group deadlines 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, helping to create a subtle sense of community so necessary in these times of social distancing.

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, even in this Covid-19 era, acknowledge and respect our students’ need for safety and convenience without becoming McTeachers?

The dirty work of academia: Why do so many university administrators refuse to teach?

At some point, lots of deans, provosts and presidents stopped identifying primarily as faculty colleagues focused on supporting academics and embraced the role of elite business manager. This shift is, of course, reflected in the astonishing CEO-like salaries commanded by many of these folks as well as the increasing distance they place between themselves and the hands-in-the-soil work of being a professor: research and teaching. Many university administrators have come to function like distant factory bosses who emerge from air conditioned offices from time to time to stroll between the machines, awkwardly quipping with workers, and then summarily issuing orders to speed up the production line. That these specialized academic managers and foremen might dirty their own hands by descending into classrooms, labs or library archives is such an absurdity that my recent proposal to administrators at my institution that they might help teach in this tempestuous coming school year fell on deaf ears. It was, I guess, as if I’d suggested that the CEO of Disney consider cleaning up the vomit on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

My proposal was simple enough, meant both to help shore up instruction in the wake of layoffs and to address the growing crisis in faculty morale, including a sense that admin is increasingly out of touch. If we are to take seriously both the spirit of shared sacrifice and the imperative to provide students with the best possible classroom experience, I wrote, shouldn’t we do more than simply push additional labor onto already beleaguered faculty (as seems to be the plan right now). With so much campus activity suspended by the pandemic, many, perhaps most, of the usual campus events and responsibilities that occupy administrators’ time are unlikely to take place in the coming year. Why not refocus their energy back into the classroom? Since the university may, in fact, be able to promise students nothing more than an academic experience this coming year — with athletics, cultural events, and other activities indefinitely sidelined — shouldn’t each of us be prioritizing academic teaching and research?

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Sadly, none of the administrators to whom I directly addressed my proposal even acknowledged receiving it, though scores of faculty members with whom I also shared it responded with great enthusiasm. Several faculty colleagues even called it a “a great idea” underscoring how radical the notion of being a teacher-administrator has become. Apparently, many administrators have so fully embraced the notion that their role is to stand on the sidelines, scrutinizing and judging faculty research and teaching without, you know, actually doing it themselves, that my proposal seems utterly preposterous. With some important exceptions, it seems, public university higher administration has evolved into its own separate professional class, which, like its corporate role model, comes with its own MBA-inspired uniforms, silly jargon, and the imperative to maintain distance from working grunts. That is, of course, unless rubbing elbows with the hoi polloi is part of a scripted performance of noblesse oblige. The sheer fact that many administrators wax so poetically about student-centeredness and vibrant intellectual engagement, while having forever turned their backs on their own classrooms and research labs, speaks volumes. At some point along the way, the academic labor of teaching and research seems to have become menial dirty work — no wonder so much teaching has been dumped onto poorly paid part-time instructors — with the increasingly corporatized script of today’s elite administrators specifying that they keep their hands squeaky clean.

Just in case anyone assumes that my proposal was such a disingenuous howler that it did not even deserve a reading, I’ve included it below. And in my narrative I also anticipated some likely objections to it, for example, the trusty truism that administrators are SO VERY, VERY BUSY, you know, unlike the rest of us. I suggested that foisting more teaching onto faculty, while the teaching skill and energy of administrators languishes, would subvert instructors’ attempts to prepare for the as yet unknowns and ongoing upheavals of Fall and Spring teaching. Further, because many students are disoriented by the pandemic, they will need even closer faculty attention. Finally, as noted above, many of administrators’ usual responsibilities will dissolve if, as is almost certainly the case, most campus activities are prohibited or restricted. If our university’s true goal is to enhance instructional quality and student experience, I concluded, then my proposal should be taken seriously. However, if the true aim of administrators were, even in part, to punish faculty perceived to be “lazy” by speeding up the teaching credit production line, then my proposal should be summarily rejected.

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As I said, though the administrators to whom it was addressed did not reply, my proposal resonated with lots of faculty. This is not surprising, especially when I consider how the idea of getting administrators back into the classroom occurred to me in the first place: As I worried about how my own department might deal with quite specific threats of a workload speed up in the fall, it dawned on me that one of the very few people on campus who might be able to retool to teach a popular, but specialized, course that I developed and teach is the professor-dean of my college. Given her strong background in, and publicly expressed commitment to gender equity, diversity, and science, combined with her reputation as an effective teacher, it occurred to me she might even be eager to return to the classroom this Fall in the spirit of pulling together to prioritize academics. I concluded by offering that “I would be happy to help her prepare to teach ‘Race, Gender, and Science,’ and also hear her suggestions for improving the course.”

The response? Crickets. Not only are some administrators too busy-and-important to directly participate in their universities’ purportedly core academic missions, some are, apparently, too busy to even entertain the possibility that they might do so. This would probably be far less troubling to me, and many other faculty, if we hadn’t already been nursing suspicions and misgivings about this whole elite administrator schtick. I mean, if our universities are transformed into ghost towns as this pandemic lingers, students and professors having been driven into exile by “sensible budget cuts,” don’t you half expect this cadre of VIPs to still be wandering around in suits and ties hawking their strategic plans? Let’s tell the truth: Politicized and corporatized bosses, managers, and football coaches elbowed academics off stage years ago. The fact that, in 2020, so many administrators refuse to do the very same work that they harangue faculty to do more and more of, the very work, mind you, that they too trained to do, should surprise no one. After all, how many fast-food CEOs will ever touch, let alone consume, the greasy burgers their workers are paid a pittance to churn out?

 
The proposal in a nutshell: WMU’s Students First Teacher-Administrator Initiative

Slogan: “At Western Michigan University, faculty, staff and administrators join forces to guarantee student access to the academic expertise and attention they deserve!”

Summary: For both the fall and spring terms of AY 20-21, all presidents, provosts, deans, and chairs (including vice presidents, vice provosts, and associate or assistant deans) will prepare and teach no less than one course for the department(s) that can best make use of their particular instructional expertise. Further, no regular faculty member shall be subject to having their regular teaching loads raised until the untapped teaching labor of administrators has been distributed. Administrators who, for objectively compelling reasons, are unable to contribute their teaching labor, will take temporary pay cuts or voluntary furloughs to free up funds to compensate term or part-time instructors who can responsibly provide course coverage in their place.

Professors in the pandemic: The painful truth about how much universities actually value teaching and learning

At the university where I work, the directives and decisions trickling from on high are dire and draconian. Even the best budget forecasts present a grim scenario. We must all sacrifice. The viability of our institution, and of higher education itself, depend on our ability to make anguishing choices now. I do not doubt the urgency of current circumstances, but when I talk to faculty colleagues at my university and across the nation, we’re asking the same question as always: When it comes time to hack and saw at university budgets, why do so many institutions fail so utterly to prioritize academics?

Because the academic function of higher education has faced amputations for years, faculty are now perfectly primed to ask: Why do supposedly non-essential extras — including unprofitable, wildly expensive Division I sports programs — seem always to rise higher on the safe list than the instructors, advisors, and support staff that make teaching and learning possible? University responses to the pandemic, including cuts to instructional staff, rub salt into a long festering wound as, once again, athletic programs and administrative excess are mostly left off the table.

It should hardly be surprising that, in a nation that has long nursed anti-intellectual resentments, the academic portion of universities has been portrayed as the real drain on university budgets. After all, conservative extremism has managed to vilify public school teachers while celebrating greedy billionaires, so it’s hardly a challenge to scapegoat supposedly whiny, entitled professors. When times get tough, then, it has become quite natural for university administrations to penalize those closest to the academic mission. Of course, in addition to being steeped in the same anti-intellectual miasma that has gripped much of the nation for decades, administrations often face extraordinary pressure from football-loving conservative governing boards to “trim the fat.”

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Amid all the apparently self-evident calls for sacrifice, how easy it is to forget that university science training and labs make it possible to study and treat disease. And that it is years of university study that has permitted us to model and predict epidemics, to properly use ventilators, manage critical supply chains, to respond rationally to economic crisis, and to rebuild urban and rural infrastructure. So too, our research and teaching help our society refine its understanding of social and political evils, for example, white nationalism, environmental racism, structural inequality, and the like. In addition, focused work in creative fields has expanded human sensitivity and imagination, helping us to envision innovative futures and to honestly and courageously face the human condition, in both its beauty and horror.

While many will applaud this laundry list of why universities matter, when it comes time for sacrifice, where will the knife actually fall? To quote a wise old friend: “The boyfriend who tells you he loves you, but treats you like an afterthought or burden, doesn’t love you.” As devastating as this pandemic is, then, it’s also an opportunity to revisit questions about core university values and priorities. And when we examine our institutions, let’s bypass their high flown mission statements and elaborate strategic plans. Let’s ignore the pretty rhetoric of chancellors, presidents, provosts, and deans altogether. This is a terrible time in many respects, but it is the very, very best time to discover how much we’re actually worth to well-paid administrators who have been serenading us for years with assurances of how much we, and our departments, matter.

I do not think there is a single faculty member, advisor, or librarian who expects to be exempted from the consequences of this crisis. But we are also keenly aware of who has been marked as safe, and the order of those being pushed down the gang plank. Under cover of urgency, universities will, no doubt, succeed to some degree at fulfilling longstanding budgetary wishlists, e.g., reducing “academic bloat” through reorganization and elimination schemes they’ve fantasized about for years. Whatever happens next, though, may we never forget that we are seeing the truth that lies beyond the rhetoric. Each time you drive by your university’s two-million-dollar football scoreboard, remember that bad boyfriend, the one who insisted you were his sun and moon but could never manage to remember your birthday.

Mission critical thinking: Preparing students and ourselves for catastrophic times

Most liberal arts professors have known for years that the greatest good we can do for many of our students probably isn’t to immerse them in the advanced esoterica of our particular disciplines but to help develop their critical reading, writing and thinking skills. In the disastrous age of MAGA, I have begun to more fully appreciate this lesson: Part of my job is to help prepare students to locate and respond to catastrophic social, political, and ethical problems, only some of which we are now even able to fully imagine.

“Critical thinking,” that darling term we educators have been kissing and cuddling for decades, no longer cuts it when we face the full horror and possibility of what we are collectively facing. In past decades, “critical” has signaled ways of thinking, reading, and writing that occur from a questioning and investigative mode, a disinterested evaluation of facts, logical relationships between claims, and the biases of all concerned, including oneself. This is all to the good, especially the importance of challenging claims that happen to suit one’s preexisting expectations or preferences. Certainly, we would all be much better off if “critical thinking” of this sort could dislodge the irrational mob-think and craven consumerist claptrap that passes for much of current social and political discourse.

Teaching critical analysis as a fairly narrowly cognitive approach is evidently not enough, though. What we need is a reclamation of “critical” that is bolder, more dramatic, and far more socially and emotionally urgent than any we may have ever before used. In short, we must train students and ourselves to function as intellectual and psychological EMTs, prepared to move into the disaster zone with the skills, judgment, and nerve necessary for both triage and long-term, sustainable healing and repair. We need proactive, brave, pliable first responders who are also long-term strategic solution-seekers capable of evaluating and rearrange the big picture. The “critical thinking” values that must underlie our teaching work today are “critical” in the sense of “mission critical” and of “critical condition.” The symbol for this might include a pen and inkwell, but also a blood red armband and a sturdy multi-tool.

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This more urgent, red-alert version of critical thinking obviously must include much of what has always mattered about this traditional skillset, including close reading, basic logic, the analysis of evidence, and evaluation of perspective. But it must place greater explicit emphasis on qualities of individual motivation, self-care and character development, including the cultivation of:
– a healthy combination of confidence, humility, self-efficacy and self-reflection
– an unwavering commitment to empathy and compassion that does not slide into paternalistic pity or overwhelmed quietism
– a bias toward positive, productive action in the service of deep communal values, including for example, participatory democracy and racial equality
– an ability to make tough, real-world decisions in the face of incomplete information and general uncertainty
– the courage to go against the grain, to swim upstream from groupthink while still respecting the legitimate needs of the community

Even this cursory, general list serves as a cautionary guide for me: As a feminist philosopher, I have for decades emphasized a cognitively based, moderate notion of critical thinking that has reflected both a (perhaps naive) confidence in human reason and a (legitimate) concern about alienating students. I have, then, often ended up focusing on tweaking reading, writing and thinking skills, careful not to be “too normative” or “too directive” with respect to the social and emotional values surrounding these supposedly “neutral” cognitive standards. I haven’t avoided real world issues — this would not even possible in the courses I teach — but I have sometimes highlighted the intellectual “toolbox” aspect of critical thinking in order to sidestep the messier social and ethical facets that give cognitive values sense and power.

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For better and worse, I know that I am not the only instructor who has been dancing carefully among the demanding arms of cognitive, emotional, social and ethical competence. Unfortunately, there is extraordinary pressure on professors to treat students like desperately needed, precious, fickle, customers. Further, the long, determined march from tenured to contingent faculty has eroded the secure ground from which some faculty can be expected to engage in difficult dialogues. It is surely no accident that the academic freedom necessary to engage in authentically holistic critical thinking has been hacked away by conservative extremists at the very time it is most urgently needed. Regardless, we can no longer afford any semblance of the fantasy that liberal arts professors are debate coaches meant to lead students through “what if” puzzles to achieve oblique insights or incrementally improved logical skills. The most privileged of professors, at least, surely, might rethink our relationship to “critical thinking.”

So, though I still push my students to wrestle constructively, directly and intellectually with texts — this humanistic work matters! — I engage with them in ever more practical, particular, personal, and socially urgent terms. And I am more prepared than ever to acknowledge my astonishing ignorance, because, like so many well trained, smart professors, I have been caught off guard by the scale and doggedness of the retrograde cruelty and naked greed of conservative extremists. And so I commit as much to the pedagogical power of empathy, ethical sensitivity, and self-empowerment as to more specifically cognitive values. This isn’t a self-esteem based pedagogical gimmick, but, instead, a matter of necessity: It will take the empowered, compassionate, creative strategizing of all of us — young and old — to MacGyver our way out of this mess.

Can we learn something from our excuses for not meditating?

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

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

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

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

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

Super Mario in a one-room schoolhouse: The myth of a singular college experience

I have mastered my shield and sword become familiar with the labyrinth. More confident than ever, I sneak up behind an ogre, weapon drawn. But in the split second before I strike, the creature steps backward, knocking me into a chasm I’d taken great care to sidestep. The fizzling, “game over” music that accompanies my death mocks me. I have been hacked, zapped, and crushed to death, and, each time, I have tried again, determined to complete this sequence. This time, though, I save and quit, eager to play something easier. But five minutes into the “relaxing” tedium of a new game in which I scoop up gems while summarily dispatching lethargic foes, I have had it. I have gone from feeling demoralized by the challenges of the first game to annoyed by the childish ease of the second.

My fickle petulance in the face of such shifting levels of challenge invites me to think about the critical role that “appropriate difficulty” has in creating satisfyingly rich learning experiences in general. Of course, successful video game designers have mastered the nuances of manipulating obstacles, rewards and pacing to create engaging challenges. They know how to offer guidance that does not devolve into handholding, and small, consistent rewards along the way such as new weapons or abilities. In short, they create a world in which patient hard work will be rewarded.Though they may sometimes be very difficult, these challenges still feel ultimately fair. Because conscientious video game designers must so closely consider individual user engagement, they can provide key insights for instructors and students of all sorts. How many of us have stewed in the frustration of classes that felt rudimentary and plodding? And haven’t we also been left floundering in our own stupidity by courses pitched too far over our heads?

As a professor at an increasingly open access, mid-tier public university, calibrating difficulty is a task I find more daunting each year. While my strongest students’ level of preparation seems to be about the same as always, the college-readiness of everyone else is more and more of a mixed bag. My introductory classes are a motley blend of motivated readers, writers, and problem solvers combined with folks who lack basic skills, resources, and persistence. In recent years I have even begun thinking of myself as a plucky teacher in a one-room rural schoolhouse, charged with simultaneously facilitating grades K-12. I must stoke the fire and help the young’uns learn their letters while still ensuring that the older kids are pushing through their geometry problems. In short, I must be sensitive to individual ability and opportunity but in a fairly uniform environment.

It’s a principle that seems to underlie successful video game design as well in that they are typically aimed at cultivating individual interests and abilities, focusing on self-paced success and exploration. Games with mass appeal create a single world in which noobs can progress in their dawdling way while hard core gamers leap along, experiencing facets of play of which novices might never even become aware. In short, it is the layers of possibilities for individuals — of both reward and frustration — that allow one and the same gaming experience to be appropriately challenging and satisfying to a wide range of players. Such game design is possible only because no one is pretending that players will, should, or could leave with the same “results” or rewards; certainly, the success of the game does not depend on all players gleaning the same “benefits.”

By contrast, the notion persists that college classrooms can and should aim for the same reproducible outcome for each student, though this goal has perhaps never been more elusive at non-selective publics. And, though, of course it has always been the case that individual learners’ outcomes vary wildly, universities have also continued to prioritize assessment methods that treat our classes functionally and our students as interchangeable variables. The professor’s success continues, by and large, to be measured by the degree to which she impacts students across a narrow set of uniform assessment goals/outcomes despite the fact that professors at open access publics are increasingly being called upon to facilitate one-room schoolhouses.

Instead of continuing to pretend that there is one definition of college-readiness and a singular college experience, we would be better off acknowledging that, by and large, many of our college classes are, at best, like Super Mario Odyssey, a game that attracts and entertains a remarkable gamut of players, from small children, to bored subway commuters, to deadly serious gamers. A casual player with sluggish reflexes might while away many satisfying hours, exploring here, butt stomping there, but unlocking only a tiny fraction of the game’s secrets and leaving many of its rewards unclaimed. In a way, it may not even make sense to say that the noob and the skilled gamer are playing the “same game” though they are operating in the same facilitated virtual space.

To be sure, I am appalled that our public education system has been so stratified along economic class lines for so long that is a simple fact that lots of students arrive at college not at all what we like to call “college ready.” But even as we fight for saner, more egalitarian K-12 public education policies, we must deal with the astonishing mix of abilities, motivations, and resources streaming into our college classrooms. After all, our universities have a pretty good idea what these students’ capabilities are and have accepted their tuition payments, invited them in, and made lots of promises. Rather than wringing our hands over the impossibility of teaching across such a broad range of ability, maybe we can imagine new ways for Mario to progress, whether he bounds, rolls or crawls. The reality is that, whether I like it or not, I have been charged with lighting the wood stove, clapping the erasers, and preparing to die again and again and again.

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.