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.

The Uses and Abuses of Ambivalence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gamification: Seductive gold stars and pats on the back

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

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


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

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

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

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

Are online classes the fast food of higher ed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s take those anti-college Republicans at their word

Maverick educator though he was, Plato’s Socrates fretted about a new fangled technology known as writing. Relying on quill and papyrus, he worried, could wreck men’s memories and send his beloved Athens into a spiral of dull-witted decline. His concerns seem quaint, even silly, until we consider the recent Pew Center Report suggesting that most Republicans now think that college is bad for society. Certainly, it captures something about the red-blue divide since, at the same time, 70ish percent of “liberals” still think higher ed is pretty nifty.

On the one hand, there’s nothing to see here. Conservatives, especially religious fundamentalists, have long made a hobby of vilifying education, aware enough of its radicalizing potential to pursue radical means to control it. After all, Socrates died for his supposed heresies, to say nothing of poor Tycho Brahe, the long house arrest of Galileo, and the beatings inflicted on enslaved Africans learning to read. There are, unfortunately, endless examples of outraged conservatives silencing intellectuals and creatives in the name of God and country. The current anti-intellectualism in the U.S. too is grounded in a values divide with unbearably high stakes, including attitudes and policies about climate change, the rights of people of color, women, and immigrants, and what it means to be a free citizen.

If this weighs especially heavy on my mind, it is partly because I am a professor from a red town in a red state in a flamingly red region. I am, ostensibly, a veritable case study of the kid who went off to college and emerged unrepentantly and permanently dangerous to society. For anyone who thought I should have married a local boy, become a P.E. teacher (my mother’s early vision for me), and raised a few blond kids, college did, in fact wreck me. From the moment I arrived on campus — supported and encouraged by my father and step mother — worlds opened, intellectually, creatively and socially. Although I avoided the freshman weight gain, college helped me expand in every other respect. New paths led to new roads of experience and perspective that made me and my hometown ever stranger to one another. There was never much chance I would return to it or that it would welcome me if I did.

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The narrative of the Republican far right — with much help from the kajillionairre Koch brothers and their ilk — is that colleges are left-wing cults, inculcating young people into extreme political liberalism and libertine lifestyles. And I guess the supposed divide between the values of small town America and the dangerous “college type” is perfectly realized in me, a lesbian in a Subaru who eats organic, reads a ton — I am a philosopher — and hasn’t set foot in a church since MC Hammer rocked those iconic pants. As a professor who teaches such “politically charged” courses as LGBT Studies and Queer Theory, I am the poster child of what conservatives object to about higher ed today, a threat to their very way of life.

Except that, as an independent-minded critic of unearned social and economic privilege, my hard working father helped radicalize me long before I went off to college. And my uneducated mother’s eclectic and open-minded approach to friends, food and books set me up to embrace the ideological and aesthetic challenges I encountered on campus. Anyone who blames college for ruining me has no idea how annoyingly philosophical and incipiently political I already was before college had its way with me. It’s probably just as fair to say that college made me a more mature version of myself than that it fundamentally changed me. I suspect this is true for most college students though, of course, I can’t say. But it does seem that those extreme, anti-college Republicans both underestimate and overestimate the influence that the experience has on actual young people.

Anyone truly surprised by this “new” anti-college stance underestimates the power and tenacity of America’s grand tradition of anti-intellectualism, its ties to religious fundamentalism, and the impact of economic disparity and the public disinvestment in higher ed (which is, of course, partly a product of anti-intellectualism). When one adds in the concerted anti-college media campaigns of college-educated fat cats, it is a miracle that all of red America is not disgusted by professors like me. And, no surprise, it turns out that it’s mostly the non-college educated Republicans who are so vehemently against it, like those home-bound Americans who insist with great authority that Europe is overrated. The way to get more popular support for college, as for most worthwhile experiences, is almost certainly to make it more available which is, perhaps, partly why so many Republican fundamentalists fight to make it inaccessible.

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At any rate, this current flare of anti-intellectualist religious fundamentalism does us professors and society great harm. It can result in our being harassed, fired, and much, much worse. But what it cannot do is compel us to reason with it, or, in hand-wringing fashion, to psychologize it in some pseudo compassionate attempt to understand those benighted red-staters. We need not debase ourselves or our critics by second guessing or applying deeper motives to such proud ignorance. There is nothing shameful about ignorance, of course, but I can say with perfect ease that the proudly ignorant should damn well be ashamed of themselves. Though I can strive to understand the climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, and the new crop of flat-earthers as a sort of sociologist or anthropologist might, it is not as one citizen respectfully engaging with another in healthy, authentic dialogue.

The fundamentalists burned Tycho Brahe at the stake, but they could not compel him to make apologies for their murderous behavior. If the Republican fundamentalists wish to scapegoat higher ed, then let’s college types respect them enough to take them at their word. We do them no favors by talking about them or to them as if they were children or fools to be placated. Such pious “understanding,” of course, is the very bleeding heart liberal strategy that they despise. Instead of trying to argue with them about how awesome we are, we should continue to do our jobs well and focus on higher ed accessibility. Those who go to college may not fall in love with the ivory towers and ivy-covered walls, but very few will leave concluding it is professors, or knowledge itself, that is responsible for the rising tide of greed, nastiness and national insecurity.

Ghosts, burning houses, and the challenge of exhausted students

As we enter the desperate final weeks of the fall semester, I find myself acting like Patrick Swayze in Ghost as he negotiates the liminal space between earthly and ethereal existence. You may recall his frustration as he tries to force awareness of his presence on the oblivious humans around him, racing against the clock to save the woman he loves. As an online teacher, I too am basically chucking pennies, stage whispering, and madly waving my virtual arms to keep my students from fading away.

As many of us know, the true challenge of teaching, especially online, is helping students stay more or less connected for the entire fifteen weeks. Attention-span issues arise not just in the context of each reading but also from the sheer drudgery of week-in/week-out tasks. And so we clap our hands in front of their faces. We cajole. We praise. We warn. We entertain and amuse, just about anything to urge them to find just a little more oomph. These are mostly cheap teacher tricks, of course, and I’m not proud of them. At the beginning of the term, I promise myself only to appeal to the nobler side of students’ natures. “I try to help them connect to their own deepest motives for wanting to succeed,” I wrote in an earlier VP essay. And, sure, I do, and, sure, it works. Sort of. For a while.

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But that’s before the victuals start running low, before the snows come and they find themselves floundering just above tree line, no longer sure of the trail or their own feet. Exhausted, they long to burrow into the frigid earth and rest, just for a moment, only for a little while. But because I am the guide who knows that stopping now means certain death, I reach for the Buddha’s parable about “skillful means.” With children happily playing in a burning house, too distracted to notice or care as the flames leap from room to room, it is our obligation, he says, to do what works to lure them out. I can indulge in principled musing about how I must “respect that my students are adults,” that they “are fully capable of seeing and living with the consequences of their actions,” or I can focus on urging them to safety.

I am, then, never more pragmatist as a teacher than in the midst of this perennial, predictable crisis of persistence. And so, though I generally dislike the more manipulative aspects of pedagogical performativity — last ditch antics to grab students’ attention — I write my students these alternately cajoling, cautionary, and praise-filled notes. I ply them with tales of my own struggles with motivation and circumstance, and assure them with a confidence I do not always feel. I have been to the promised land, I preach, and, yes, safe arrival is assured if only they will push ahead just a few more miles.

This semester, I’m shamelessly trotting out a few new/old tricks, one that was suggested by a wise advisor colleague. “Tell them how much they’re paying for these credits,” he suggested. “Sometimes it works.” And so I (almost) shamelessly craft a message to my students that appeals to their pocketbooks, leveraging the very consumerist orientation to education that is so undermining to contemporary higher ed. “You’re handing over a hearty chunk-o-change for these credits,” I will write, “Is this money you’re prepared to squander?” And though I feel a little cheap as I wave my arms to grab their attention, at least I am in good company. There is the Buddha, after all, and, of course, the earnestly undead Patrick Swayze.