Universities’ skewed budget priorities: When did academics become expendable?

The verdicts about Fall 2020 are rolling in: rising infection rates, sporadically attended face-to-face classes and ongoing pressure for faculty to support students too stressed out or sick to stay on track. For both professors and students, uncertainty is deforming every aspect of academic year 2020-21, including fundamental pedagogies and general possibilities for engaging with one another. Given this historically 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 experience? And with ad hoc 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 have peeled 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 20-21 teaching/learning scenario already guaranteed to be chaotic and ever-shifting, many faculty have been assigned 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 instructor’s time and energy precisely when they most need that focused attention. There is also the devastation of part-time instructors’ livelihoods, 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 clear about the impacts that reactionary budget cuts to academics is having on students in this chaotic year: Overloaded faculty must choose either to abandon critical research and service commitments or to neglect students. Given that, for many faculty, scholarly projects are time sensitive, 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, international faculty and students, and LGBTQ people, precisely 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 assigned increases to my 20-21 teaching load, I am, for the first time in my decades of teaching, declining to work independently with graduate students who have specifically requested my expertise. Like most faculty, I take my responsibility to student learning deadly seriously and so it has been wrenching for me to inform them that the university would no longer support 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 our 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 same energy that makes their classes attractive to students 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 dedicated teacher-scholars for whom student learning is utterly precious. We can’t help but ask ourselves: “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 an unfocused frenzy to “trim the fat” even though, at universities like mine, the unfolding budget reality is much better than the doomsday scenario that had been predicted.

And what a lost opportunity! Rather than marking the end of learning-centeredness, the pandemic might be heard as a call to recommit to it. There may well be “fat to be trimmed,” including within academics, but some panicked universities — addicted to coffer-draining Division I sports and exorbitant administrative salaries — are electing to make 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, is either offline or has been radically curtailed. What do universities have to offer students that could possibly be more important than academics? It is a terrible insult to the students and families now placing such extraordinary faith in universities to get it right that the academic mission seems to be falling so low on the budget priority list.

Universities’ betrayal of online pedagogy during the pandemic

When instructors were suddenly pushed into online teaching last Spring, many online education experts predicted that the long term impact on online education as a whole would not be pretty. Some instructors who had never engaged in systematic online course development — either by choice or circumstances — suddenly discovered that they could, in a pinch, shift their face-to-face classes into video mode without changing a great deal about the course. As the pandemic rages on, many universities now offer a mishmash of wildly different course styles unceremoniously glommed together and offered to students as “online.” Because thoughtful, best practice online education had not yet been widely understood, practiced or respected before the pandemic — many administrators and instructors still assume it’s a faded copy of the “real thing” — the latest flood of online courses is haphazard, uneven and rife for abuse by administrators desperate to produce cheap credit hours.

The situation is looking grim enough at my institution, Western Michigan University, that, after years of making my living and pedagogical reputation from thoughtful online teaching — including in this blog — I am feeling nudged back into the classroom at what may be the worst possible time. This is because courses I have developed and facilitated in collaboration with my university’s capable online experts according to best practice online pedagogical standards — necessitating modest course caps — have suddenly been threatened with a 60% course cap increase. My carefully designed, fully elaborated asynchronous courses — providing both ample daily feedback and a significant writing component — were never designed to be an imitation of face-to-face classes, but to explore and express the rich possibilities distinctive of thoughtful online pedagogy. Anyone who has done this sort of online teaching work understands the extraordinary challenge of creating and calibrating high precision courses that maximize student flexibility while amplifying engagement. No one serious about online pedagogy thinks it is easier than teaching face-to-face.

Unfortunately, administrators who never understood or appreciated the distinctive promises and challenges of online education in the first place have few qualms about increasing teaching loads in the midst of the pandemic. In fact, unrestricted by constraints of classroom size and availability, it is evident that some now see online classes with dollar signs in their eyes, a bottomless opportunity to generate cheap credit hours. The new head of my department, for example, openly disdains the notion that online pedagogy should be a factor in the determination of course caps. She has suggested that she feels no particular ethical, pedagogical or practical constraint with respect to the determination of online class size. And she is not alone. For many administrators — who may have never created fully elaborated online learning opportunities themselves — online education is not a modality with its own logic, integrity and distinctive challenges, but merely a more convenient, generic, and tepid version of the “real thing.” That being the case, what difference should it make if the names of 20, 40, 60 or 100 student names appear in one’s online class roster? Besides, shouldn’t professors like me expect to pay a price for the convenience of sitting around all day in our pajamas?

What an odd sensation to be sitting in my home office in the midst of this raging pandemic increasingly persuaded that it’s time for me to get out of online teaching and back into the classroom. The irony is, as I have explained in various essays here on the Virtual Pedagogue, I was never an online education fan. Until about six years ago, I too believed it couldn’t be more than an inferior version of my face-to-face classes. Ultimately, though, I embraced the challenge of this new modality both because it felt like an important contribution I could make to my department and because my university’s online education experts persuaded me that I could do it without losing my pedagogical credibility and integrity. Without the assurance of a reasonable online teaching load — including modest course caps — I would never have made the leap. I had heard enough about online mega-classes built around poor quality video lectures and objective exams to know I wanted nothing to do with that. Though I can certainly understand that it may not be possible for some emergency versions of online classes to aspire to creative pedagogical heights — there is surely a place right now for “video courses” — it is a terrible mistake for universities to abandon distinctively online pedagogical values because “emergency.”

In fact, the perverse twist of the situation is not lost on anyone in the online education world. Just when higher ed most needs to embrace the reality that online education is a complicated endeavor that deserves time, energy, investment and respect, some universities may actually be regressing. Just as our sick and struggling students most need and deserve a variety of high quality, engaging online experiences, some schools are making that newly difficult. If, as appears to be the case, my university is willing to embrace a mass production model of online education, I want nothing to do with it. And if administrators expect to maintain student enrollments while offering such inferior products, they should remember that our students and their families are savvy consumers with zillions of options to feed their hunger for higher education. How long do we expect them to pay sit-down restaurant prices for drive-thru window fare?

The betrayal of shared governance in the university’s darkest hour

Imagine starting out at the trailhead of a thousand-mile backpacking journey and making a pact with a companion to share burdens, concerns, and to treat one another as respected partners. You set out knowing that if one of you runs short on water, the other will share; if one sprains an ankle, the other will slow their pace too. If the snows come early you will huddle together despite the tedious misery of frozen toes and unwashed bodies. You set out confident that, no matter how bad it gets, decisions will be made collaboratively. In fact, the power and promise of this initial pact is rooted precisely in the presumption that, at some point, things may get very bad indeed. Ethically mature individuals know that such commitments are fully realized, not in times of ease, but when tested by frayed nerves, supply shortages, and danger.

This analogy helps explain the heartbreak many of us feel as some universities have stopped collaborating with faculty, staff, and students in the midst of the pandemic. We have not only been left scrambling to deal with budget secrecy, top-down program “restructuring,” and devastating layoffs, but also to absorb the stunning disappointment of discovering that what we thought were respectful partnerships with university administrators were an illusion. At some universities, shared governance now stands revealed as a managerial ploy to increase compliance and good will, made at a time of relative prosperity, when such promises cost little.

And so we watch open-mouthed as decades-long policies and practices are swept aside under cover of “emergency.” We wait in nail-biting silence as deans rush to compile lists of “expendable” employees and “unnecessary” academic programs, according to criteria that they need not share, debate, or even plausibly explain to the campus community. Even life and death decisions, such as whether or not to invite students and employees back to campus, seem to emerge as if from the royal chamber. All those decades of managerial sweet talk about the value of student, staff, and faculty input are erased as a paternalistic frenzy sweeps through the ivory tower.

The worst of it may well be not just that well-paid administrators have been prepared to throw others overboard in a panicked attempt to deal with the crisis, but that they are enabled by well-placed apologists, including some faculty members, who urge the rest of us to stop complaining. Shared governance, they explain, echoing administration’s self-serving definition, doesn’t mean what we think. A university is a businesses, after all, and its presidents, provost, deans, and chairs are the CEOs and managers charged with making the trains run on time. We were out of place to have ever expected collaborative decision-making to be a real thing. When it comes right down to it, some frightened coworkers now tell us, universities are like fast food joints: If the manager orders you to scrub out the deep fryer, you should do it without question, suggestion, or complaint. And be grateful you’ve still got a job.

But the majority of us are not ready to concede that shared governance can so easily be tossed aside. We watch as administrators close rank, as university public relations and marketing machines go into overtime, as critical financial information is withheld. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with students, staff, and faculty colleagues and refuse to accept this grim corporatism as the new normal. For one thing, at institutions like mine, faculty have contractually guaranteed rights to participate in many aspects of decision-making. So long as we are willing to assert ourselves, rather than accept belated scraps of consideration, we will turn the tide. What a colossal institutional failure, though, for loyal employees to be forced into legalistic squabbles to have these long relationships accorded a modicum of basic respect. After all, formal policies and legal contracts are meant to underwrite and guarantee healthy professional engagement, not to stand in for basic personal and professional ethics.

Even though we can — and must— fight contractual battles, then, much damage will have been done. To many employees, those decades of assurances about the value of their expertise and feedback now seem like a smarmy come-on. With the shallowness of ethical commitments to shared governance now out in the open, it is not only the future of faculty and staff that is at risk, then, but our past as well. Our very sense of what our careers have meant — these professions and universities we have poured our lives into — threatens to collapse in the midst of institutional dissemblance and betrayal.

Though we are disappointed, hopefully we have learned a lesson. As cynical as it sounds, we must accept that our most reliable companions on this winding, treacherous trail, are not the well-heeled, glib-tongued leaders who have promised to go the distance by our side. Our true allies are, instead, whatever policies and procedures we have at our disposal and the potential power of collective action to enforce them. If we have learned nothing else, let us have learned this: To get it in writing and hold feet to the fire as soon as pretty promises and ceremony — including neutered “task forces,” “action teams,” or other committees — replace actual shared decision-making.

Some will say that this cynical conclusion is unfair to administrators who, after all, are doing the best they can. But having the determination to enforce the legal and ethical aspects of shared governance is good for the entire campus, including, in an important sense, for administrators. Shared governance helps preserve a balance of power that discourages any of us from being as selfish, greedy, or shortsighted as we might otherwise be. We do others no favors by permitting them treat us dismissively even if times are tough and they are desperate, frightened, and well-meaning. It is, in fact, in the very midst of this conflagration of uncertainty and fear that collaborative partnerships matter most. There is, then, nothing more hopeful, respectful or constructive — or more in keeping with deepest values that define “university” — than for faculty, staff, and students to demand the immediate restoration of authentic shared governance.

Three Resolutions for More Mindful Teaching

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Anyone who’s tried mindfulness strategies knows that, though though they are trendy, they aren’t very sexy or dramatic when actually practiced. Whatever benefits accrue are usually small and cumulative, revealing themselves like tree buds opening in an unusually cool spring. If life is a roller coaster ride, then mindfulness practices help us notice the feel of the cold steel safety bars across our laps, and the whiff of nervousness and cotton candy in the air. Through mindfulness practice we learn to pay non-judgmental attention to the buzz of expectation in the creaking, ratcheted climb, and to become as curious as we are terrified at the dropping sensation in our guts as the free fall begins.

When it comes to enhancing our lives, mindfulness turns out to be as useful as zippers, can openers, and sturdy boots. If we merely fetishize the idea of mindfulness, though — devouring articles about it and praising it from afar — it sits on the shelf like a curio. As a longtime student of mindfulness who is easily distracted by the abstract, I’ve resolved to more explicitly link basic mindfulness practices to my upcoming semester of teaching. More specifically, the three simple resolutions I describe below are meant to support my attention to some basic inputs and experiences — feelings, really — as they move through me, instead of fast forwarding to habitual conclusions and reactions. Introducing even this tiny gap of attention could lead to teaching that is a little wiser, more effective and creative. But, at the very least, I will be a a little more awake during the journey.

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Resolution #1 expresses my plan to pay better attention to how particular teaching activities impact my mood. Over the years, I’ve tended to accept that certain tasks are intrinsically grueling and must simply be powered through. Grading online discussions falls into this category for me. In fact, my dread of it leads me to try to push through it as quickly and numbly as I responsibly can. This coming semester, though, I plan to pay precise attention to the negative feelings as they arise before my reactivity and avoidance kick in. Is it a bodily tightness? A sense of being trapped? Boredom?

The investigation might not lead me to make any changes, of course. I might simply conclude that grading discussions is a misery to be endured and keep trying to ease the pain; I’m fine taking a little Novocain if that’s the best I can do. But if I can rouse my curiosity about my animus toward this loathsome task, there may be something to discover. It occurs to me, for example, that the poor quality of many of these discussions makes me feel like a failure, a sensation I would definitely prefer to ignore.

Resolution #2 is to notice my feeling responses to informal student feedback, for example, in critical or affirming emails to me or asides made to other students during group work. For most of us much of the time, the leap from a perceived criticism to the arising of defensiveness can seem automatic. For example, I’m sometimes moved to what feels like instant irritation and the need to self-justify when students complain about the reading assignments. Can my feelings point to my implicit, perhaps false, assumptions about what their complaints mean? Am I taking them personally? Why? My goal isn’t to pander to students’ superficial gripes but to be open to real information that can help me either adjust or feel more confident about staying the course. In any case, clues are wasted if I zip blithely past them, supplying my own habitual rationalization as soon as I feel threatened by criticism or puffed up by praise.

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Resolution #3 involves reflecting on my feelings about my teaching work as a whole, about how it fits into my overall ethos, values and life goals. Because I’m a professor of gender and women’s studies, my work is explicitly tied to social justice. But for me too the risk of nihilism and complacency is real, and at times I’ve been unable to see my work making a dent or, alternatively, been a little smug about its significance. My commitment this semester is to better notice the sensations of excitement or flatness that arise when questions of larger purpose arise. For example, in recent months, I felt nervously hopeful at the media emphasis on fake news. Taking my incipient excitement seriously led me to explicitly connect some upcoming course activities to the critical skills our country is clamoring for. The changes, while not dramatic, have been motivated by my awareness and acknowledgement of my own feelings. Whether or not such awareness typically leads to visible changes, being honest about feelings of guilt, pride, and purpose in our work can certainly lead to greater sense of intentionality about it.

When I take the sometimes invisible step of noticing, then meaningful improvement and appreciation become possible. For busy teachers, offering the same classes over and over again, the entire semester can become as routinized as a morning commute. We’re suddenly at the destination without knowing quite how we arrived. And, of course, this isn’t the worst of it. The current hunger for all things mindfulness attests to our fear of passing through the whole of our lives on autopilot. As tempting as sexy, dramatic quick fixes are at the new year, what I describe is both more banal and important, a practice of being genuinely present to ourselves. When all is said and done, I will have piled up a startling number of hours grading student work. If this is how I am to use my life, then, at the very least, I want to take responsibility for having done so, even if I ultimately choose to sleep through some of the most tedious parts.

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?

Entitled and out of touch: The danger of anti-professor stereotypes in the pandemic

The stereotype of university professors as entitled babies who are oblivious to the “real world” takes on new urgency as the pandemic rages. Encouraged for decades by well funded conservative extremists, it’s become pretty standard for pundits and politicians to dismiss professors as spoiled, elitist, and selfish. Not surprisingly, it’s a stereotype that many university functionaries, including administrators, have accepted as well. Worse still, some professors have themselves come to internalize it, thereby discouraged from asking questions about anything “administrative,” including apparently hasty top-down decisions that may bypass our contracts or cripple our institutions’ academic viability.

For decades, then, professors have been getting the message that they are barely tolerated by many in the state capitol, and by variously titled chairs, deans, provosts, and presidents who, increasingly, assert their own managerial identities by differentiating themselves from us. Faculty members who are occasionally privy to administrative conversations often express surprise and distaste at the degree to which supposed faculty obliviousness and incompetence feature. It starts to seem as if many administrative-types don’t merely believe anti-faculty stereotypes but also bond with one another over them. There is perhaps no more effective way for rookie administrators to perform their new bureaucratic identity than to join in the familiar banter about impractical, coddled, and lazy faculty.

In the midst of higher education’s pandemic response, then, is it any wonder so many university administrations plow ahead with critical decisions, making little effort to substantively collaborate with faculty? After all, haven’t professors exempted themselves from the right to participate by virtue of being self-exiled prima donnas who care far more about their arcane research than balance sheets or the public good? Is it any wonder that even those of us who are the object of these stereotypes may still feel shamed and silenced by them? “Maybe it’s true,” we may think. “Perhaps a professor of English (or geography or music or mathematics) has no business speaking up given the life and death urgency of the moment.”

Except, of course, that the dismissal of professors’ voices is mostly based on an impressive pile of half-truth and hooey. Yes, some small percentage of U.S. professors come from elite backgrounds, land plum positions, and go on to live and work in “splendid isolation from the world.” In most cases, though, professors are actual flesh-and-blood people. Often, we have taken on staggering student loan debt and struggled for years, working as waitresses, census takers and retail clerks in the increasingly desperate hope of snagging tenure-track positions at humble regional universities in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Kentucky.

When we join these institutions, we are required to fully immerse ourselves in increasingly bureaucratic university service, provide individual attention to understandably beleaguered students, and research and publish in our areas of academic expertise, many of which are not arcane in the least. We spend our workdays teaching, lobbying for critical research equipment, making cold calls to prospective students, working through piles of accreditation forms, and writing tons of student recommendation letters. This, mind you, is if we are one of the lucky ones. For the majority of instructors, who are adjuncts or otherwise undervalued academic laborers, work demands and anxieties are usually far greater.

Only vanishingly few of us, then, ever catch a glimpse of anything resembling an ivory tower into which we might retreat with quill and parchment while kingdoms rise and fall around us. We are, rather, members of the communities in which we live, often small towns where we buy our groceries, fall in love, get mammograms, and send our children to school. We anguish along with our neighbors about gun violence, climate change, access to medical care, and the opportunistic fascism and viral pathogens sweeping through our nation.

Yes, the vast majority of instructors in higher education are privileged by race and class, a reflection of the unacceptable stratification that deforms all of U.S. culture and society, and not just higher education. Only when compared to the most shamelessly exploited members of society — especially the essential service workers now required to put their lives at risk for peanuts — do professors, as a whole class, appear to be an especially entitled, elite group. It is no accident that, with respect to pay, status, and the other factors that insulate a group from the pains of the world, professors are rarely compared by critics to CEOs, hedge fund managers, or even university administrators. Evidently, there is something especially appealing and effective about scapegoating professors and other educators for the hideous erosion of the American middle class.

It has long been clear that U.S. professors have been targeted for derision and elimination by conservative extremists. Just as evident is the fact that anti-professor stereotypes are rooted in the assumption that, while folks in private business, technology, medicine, entertainment, and sports might deserve some degree of prestige and pay, professors and K-12 teachers generally do not. This is in no small measure a result of concerted conservative efforts to exploit the longstanding American love affair with anti-intellectualism. In the U.S., it seems, it has never been especially difficult for unscrupulous plutocrats to funnel populist outrage toward books and those who love them.

But the tensions and exigencies of the pandemic make it ever clearer that it’s not just conservative extremists who use stereotypes to justify vilifying and marginalizing professors. It is also a growing cadre of professionalized university bureaucrats for whom professors’ supposed impracticality and pampered entitlement rationalize our exclusion from critical decision-making. At best the scenario that unfolds in one in which faculty are hapless children with wise and benevolent parents. At worst, we are self-centered nincompoops who must be flattered and manipulated into accepting policies that we have had no voice in creating. If, in the midst of crisis, we consent to such treatment — perhaps persuading ourselves that university administrators really do know best — will we ever again be allowed to sit at the big table with the grown ups?

Professors in the pandemic: Getting intimate with our fears about online education

When I originally began The Virtual Pedagogue some years ago it was to explore my own ambivalence about teaching online. Though the circumstances were far less dramatic than the crisis we now face, my initial experience as an online teacher fifteen or so years ago was also rushed and born of necessity. Predictably, it left such a bad taste in my mouth that it wasn’t til many years later that I felt any inclination to dip my toes in those waters again. Happily, my more recent experiences were far more positive and, over the past five years, I’ve taught many of my courses online while also reflecting on my experience in papers like this, in workshops with colleagues, and here on The Virtual Pedagogue. With most instruction now being pushed online, this seems like a good time to reconsider issues I’ve been ruminating about for a while from my limited perspective as a tenured, mid-career liberal arts faculty member. Not surprisingly, most of my concerns have turned out to be reducible to fear, in one form or another, which does not, of course, make them any less legitimate.

The first fear is systemic. In fact, it is huge. It is that, in agreeing to teach online, we are participating in a fast-food model of education that enables crass corporatism and hastens the demise of our brick and mortar institutions. As I discuss in many places here on the VP, there is, undeniably, cause for concern, but I see it less as a function of the technological shift than of the extreme inequality shaping higher education in the U.S.. To be sure, online education must not become the default modality for the poor while privileged students and faculty at elite institutions continue to hold debates in lovely ivory towers. The challenge is real and entrenched given that, for many vulnerable students, who may have multiple jobs, mental or physical disability, and child or elder care responsibilities, online classes are the only feasible access point to college. Though it may be tempting to identify online education as the culprit, then, the real enemy is even more daunting: structural barriers that fundamentally limit the options that students have about the kind of educational experience they will have.

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Especially for more senior faculty members like me, online educational technology itself can also be intimidating, especially given the proliferation of auxiliary bells and whistles that we may feel pressured to include in our classes. Many of us know what it’s like to have been brought to our knees by a computer program at some point — be it Quickbooks, Photoshop, or our university’s online advising system — and we may have little inclination to seek out more such demoralizing experiences. This may be especially true with respect to teaching which, for some of us, may be the one arena in which we feel utterly competent.

It is undoubtedly true that poorly utilized online technology can be clunky and unwieldy, serving to distract more than to enable learning. But if one focuses on the basics — and what this means will vary a lot from discipline to discipline — it is no more intrinsically difficult than other programs or apps that most of us routinely use, for example, while we shop, communicate with long-distance grandchildren, or download audiobooks from our public library. And though some learning discomfort is unavoidable, anyone who still refuses to engage with online technology at all — even to supplement their courses — is, at this point, more like that telephone-averse butler on Downton Abbey than a hero fighting for traditional education. As time and technology march inexorably onward, at some point one becomes less of a lovable curmudgeon and more of a cranky Luddite.

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Perhaps the most insidious fear, and the one I explore most frequently here on The Virtual Pedagogue, is the threat that online teaching can represent to our deepest identities as competent, respected, valued professionals. Though it’s not something we professors usually like to admit, there can be tremendous ego satisfaction in traditional face-to-face classroom performance. After all, we have been assigned the featured role in a pedagogical drama, one that many of us have, over decades, honed to perfection. It is no wonder that many of us have come to relish and rely upon the adoring faces of students as they bask in our brilliance.

How often, when we extol the “fire,” “energy,” and “magic” of the classroom, might we actually be referring to the ego satisfaction that we ourselves derive from students’ attention and praise? I think this is not necessarily because we are shallow or narcissistic, but, rather, a perhaps inevitable consequence of engaging in this sort of intensely human labor. For many instructors, the physical university, with its hallowed halls and ivory towers, is a beloved backdrop that allows us to enact hard-won, lovingly cultivated identities that seem to require the nurturing attention of students. The loss of that sea of shining faces can feel like an erasure of our professorial identity altogether, as though we have been replaced by a mere machine.

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While there are, of course, lots of good reasons for prioritizing face-to-face education — I will never write a love letter to online only institutions — it is critically important to get deeply honest, especially with ourselves, about what, precisely, our fears and misgivings are about online education. This is especially urgent now that, for most of us, online teaching has suddenly become an unavoidable reality rather than a mere pedagogical possibility or abstraction. To be sure, some of our complaints about online education may turn out to be intrinsic weaknesses of the online modality itself, but some, surely, are based on other fears and anxieties.

How much of our discomfort about online education is really about our anger, fear and sorrow over economic injustice, anti-intellectualism, public disinvestment in higher education, and the radical communication shifts that have fundamentally reshaped human relationships and institutions? Whatever happens next in the development of universities’ relationship to online education — and this is a train that left the station long ago — faculty must be in the driver’s seat. But we cannot guide this process wisely and effectively if we are not relentlessly honest with ourselves about where our fears and misgivings about it lie.

Below are links to a few of the many posts on this site that explore questions about online education:
Are online classes the fast food of higher ed?

Are online teachers lazy sellouts?

Is anybody out there? The loneliness of the online teacher

Telling the truth about online education

The sweet ego boost of teaching face-to-face

Plunging into online teaching: It’s not what I thought it would be

Online teaching: The joy of tedious planning

Could online teaching be a path to enlightenment?

 

 

Plunging into Online Teaching: It’s not what I thought it would be

The first time I taught online was over a decade ago when I got pulled in like a tug of war contestant into a mud pit. A mid-career philosophy professor, I was a good teacher, a popular teacher, content with my pedagogical approach and buoyed by the energy of the face-to-face classroom.

I approached the challenge of online teaching like a translation problem: how to interpret my existing course into a virtual one. Back then there weren’t many online education resources to save me from this error, but even if there had been, I doubt I would have paid much attention. My real weakness was that I didn’t fully get that my classroom teaching represented a particular modality, one with its own accidental logic and underlying values. I couldn’t fundamentally rethink my strategy — lecture, discuss, exam, repeat — because it all seemed too basic and fundamental to deeply question. It’s no surprise, then, that this first foray into the virtual classroom was less than successful. I left with my ego bruised, feeling bad for my students, and resentful that I’d been nudged into participating.

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Fast forward and I am now deeply immersed in online teaching. Instead of fighting the waves, and tightening my grip on long-standing pedagogical habits and commitments, I am beginning to relax into the unfamiliarity of it. I can accept, at least sometimes, that this is not merely a shadow version of being a “real professor,” but, rather, a fundamentally different enterprise. I had been like the traveler unable to appreciate new vistas until she recognizes the biases she carries with her. I couldn’t see what online teaching had to offer until I could view my traditional teaching values and practices from a distance. At some point, I began to recognize my habitual way of teaching as involving particular, and changeable, assumptions, values and strategies. I still hold onto some of my traditional ways, and there are others whose loss I will probably always mourn. But for all of that, I am moving forward.

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I won’t sugarcoat this. My experiences with online teaching and my feelings about it are complicated. But the project of engaging with it is one that has transformed not just my teaching, but also my relationship to change itself. In ways I painstakingly explore in this blog, I am not only a better online teacher than I used to be, but I think I’m a better teacher period. Certainly, I am less ego-focused, less change-averse, and less nostalgic than I used to be. While I’m not an uncritical cheerleader for online education — I still rail against its worst tendencies — I have warmed to it enough so that it is working for me and my students. And even if I never taught another online class, I would still be enriched from having looked back on my pedagogical values and commitments from the shore of this new virtual land.

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.

Maybe it’s healthy to be ambivalent about online education

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.