May the devil’s advocate go back to hell: The dangerous appeal of “both sidesyness” in the classroom

For about five minutes in high school, I was on the debate team, having been identified as verbal and assertive by a teacher who urged me to give it a try. I hated it. It wasn’t that I lacked aptitude. The teacher was right: my vocabulary and reasoning skills were decent, and I could stand in front of grown ups and say things without bursting into tears. But I loathed researching issues I hadn’t been drawn to, and could muster no enthusiasm for championing positions I didn’t actually believe in or care about.

It was a disconnect that left me stranded miles away from the smart debate kids whose passion for argument seemed genuine. For me, it felt like being on the school softball and basketball teams all over again. I wanted to win, sure, but unlike my teammates, I wasn’t rendered heartbroken by losses or elated by wins. While I enjoyed athletics for the sheer sake of moving my body and perfecting skill, though, I couldn’t relate to argument as if it were a satisfying sport. This wasn’t, I think, because I undervalued it but because I took moral and political persuasion so seriously. I dismissed the debate ethos as a schtick, as a self righteous preacher scorns ministers she thinks are in it for cynical reasons.

Enter the current crisis of objectivity, what Samantha Bee calls “both sidesyness.” This is the inclination to situate urgently important issues in pro-con terms and draw false equivalences between polarized views about them, regardless of how absurd or disingenuously offered. It’s a pseudo objective posture that grants time and space to positions and players that may have done nothing to earn that privilege. At the same time, it erodes the status of reasonable, well founded views. The best, most dramatic, example may be how climate change science has long been framed as locked in debate with climate change denial. It’s almost as if the most fanatical debate kids grew up and founded news outlets. As if the fate of the planet were not about the urgent truth of the matter, but about performing argument.

To be fair, I’ve probably suffered more than most from “bothsidesyness,” having endured the debate ethos in my philosophy classrooms — and frequently with other philosophers — for decades. This has nearly always been in the form of young white men, some of whom were so enamored of their own argumentative prowess that they threatened to deplete the room’s oxygen. When, instead of sparring, I asked these fellas if they actually believed what they were advocating, or even found it plausible, they tended to look surprised. Didn’t I know that that was beside the point? “I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” they’d tell me, confident I’d never heard of such a thing. Mastering this skill, they painstakingly explained, was what it meant to be a good critical thinker.

Unfortunately, lots of instructors, too, seem to implicitly agree that the capacity to quickly produce well polished arguments and hurl them at one’s opponent is indeed what it means to exhibit higher order thinking skills. Too often, the ego-focused performance of playing the devil’s advocate in a pro-con arena supersedes thoughtful, holistically logical thinking. Students are rewarded for their cleverness, for a facile ability to backfill with rationalizations, rather than for thoughtfulness, empathy, or capacity for nuance. I know first-hand about such rewards because I relied on them during my razor’s edge walk through graduate school in an overwhelmingly male program. Cleverness, counterfactuals, and contrarianism became some of my very best friends.

To be clear, then, I’m aware that sophisticated rhetoric and reasoning skills are important and grant that debate-like expositions may be one effective means of developing them. I benefitted from such training and am among those who believe that the Sophists got a bad rap. And as an analytically trained philosopher, I didn’t just grudgingly learn to dissect arguments, I came to enjoy it. But the inveterate devil’s advocate — that guy (and, yeah, it’s still nearly always a guy) who argues for the sake of argument, has drifted so far from the relevant social and political context, so far from the argument’s existential moorings, that there is often a kind of cruelty to it. If you’re a woman who’s ever faced a devil’s advocate eager to argue with you about rape, you’ll probably know exactly what I mean.

Exacerbating the problem is that we instructors are often so grateful for students who show any inclination whatsoever to give reasons that we may be reluctant to discourage or assertively redirect the cheaply performative devil’s advocate. Sometimes we’re so desperate for students to talk — say anything at all, please! — that we actual welcome his clever repartee. And, besides, even if the performance doesn’t really deepen anyone’s understanding of the issue, it can provide an excuse for showing off our own logical acumen, right? And, as PhDs who have run the full gauntlet of higher education, who is better prepared than we are to defend the devil himself?

Lazy professors, “junior” faculty, and the sexism of calls for shared sacrifice

As we all know, some universities are beating the bushes in search of cash. For example, my university offered eligible faculty one month to sign on to a pretty darn decent retirement incentive. Retirement-eligible colleagues could elect to move on, encouraged to believe they were freeing up resources to help forestall future staff and faculty layoffs. Unfortunately, if predictably, the retirement initiative got tainted early on by a swirl of pre-existing ageist and anti-professor stereotypes: “Senior” professors are dead weight, impeding the futures of vibrant “junior” faculty. Oldsters and middle-agers have not just been presented with an attractive exit strategy, then, but some are effectively feeling nudged and cajoled into it both by threats of inequitably increased teaching loads and unsubtle shaming tactics: Professors are to blame for our institutions’ money woes and we are selfish if we refuse to fling ourselves overboard to save others. Though such calls for sacrifice may not feel at all coercive to the most empowered faculty members, the very notion of institutional sacrifice is shaped by sex and race, making it more likely that women faculty, especially women of color, will feel called to bear the brunt of the pain.

The ageist aspects of this may be readily visible, i.e., the notion that the careers and livelihoods of older people should somehow matter less, simply because, well, they are older. It’s a view mirrored in society at large every time it’s suggested that the death of an adult, especially an elder, matters less than that of young person. At universities, ageist and anti-professor stereotypes combine with the familiar trope that tenured professors are complacent layabouts. Because of this stereotype, it is easier to get people to believe that it is aging professors, and not millionaire administrators or elite football programs, that are draining the institutional coffers. The notion that “older” faculty can and should solve university budget crises by sacrificing themselves could only emerge at the intersection of offensive stereotypes about both older people and professors. And this idea gathers force in a university environment that already leverages the disproportionately well developed sense of social responsibility felt by women, perhaps most especially, women of color.

Part of what makes the current “sacrifice the tenured professor” rhetoric so problematic is that it exploits structural inequities marked by sexist and racist inflected expectations of self-sacrifice. For example, partly because of many universities’ chronic failure to retain and properly advance faculty of color (women and men) or white women, a disproportionate number of untenured faculty are likely to be people of color, both women and men, and white women. A likely racist and sexist impact of layoffs that target the “last hired,” then, is that women and men faculty of color, and white women will more likely feel the pain of these budget cuts. Such threats may include opportunistically increased teaching loads — making it harder to ever earn the security of tenure — as well as job loss itself. Provosts, deans, and chairs know, of course, that it is a particularly precious group they have chosen to focus on when they implicitly invoke the vulnerability of these untenured colleagues. It is a strategy that mirrors what’s been happening so frequently in Washington with a president who routinely targets vulnerable groups in order to extort funding from bleeding heart liberals in order to then “save” these same vulnerable people.

Based on ample past experience, administrators could predict that those who feel compelled to leap to the rescue will be more likely to emerge from a particular subset of senior faculty. These are the usual suspects, the reliable contingent of women, especially women of color, who have been counted upon year after year to to perform the institution’s “caring labor,” e.g., unpaid advising, mentoring, and endless diversity work meant to improve the optics of universities’ handling of racial and gender “issues.” The provost, dean, or chair announces with a heavy heart that untenured colleagues may be made to suffer unless “senior” faculty are willing to accept unjustifiably large teaching loads. But who can reasonably be most expected to step up to the plate? It is surely not the most privileged, best paid white male professors, those who likely feel the most entitled to their positions, salaries and ample time for research. Isn’t it more likely to be those who are already underpaid and overextended, those who’ve long been expected to prioritize others’ needs before their own? In this crisis, as before, women’s socialization towards caring, service, and sacrifice will be used against them. Further, faculty members who may already have the most reason to doubt their value and belonging in the ivory tower will likely answer calls for sacrifice that more entitled colleagues may be able to tune out entirely.

Underlying all of this is a disingenousness that deserves to be highlighted. My university, for example, continues to employ the usual cadre of exorbitantly priced administrators (and unprofitable, mindblowingly expensive Division I athletics). And it is these same administrators who now summarily lay off poorly paid staff employees and exhort “lazy faculty” to “tighten your belts” and “do more with less.” Despite their positions of extraordinary power, privilege, and wealth, such administrators depict faculty as responsible for forestalling the supposedly otherwise inevitable tragedy facing “junior” colleagues. The temerity of variously named presidents, provosts, and deans, some of them rich as Croesus, implying that tenured faculty are the problem — many of us earning quite humble salaries — and not they themselves, is stunning when you think about it.

In this essay, I’ve used the term “junior faculty” reluctantly. Untenured colleagues are not, after all, children, and continuing to speak about them this way, as if they had no adult agency or voices of their own, further disempowers them. Also, they are a heterogeneous group just as tenured professors are, some with far more privilege than others. In the end, though, any university’s decision to expect tenured faculty to save “junior” faculty is a classic divide-and-conquer management trick meant to bring the professoriate to its knees. So long as universities continue to prioritize elite administrators (and Division I athletics), why should anyone believe that the sacrifices of tenured faculty would actually be redirected to faculty or staff central to the academic mission? At my university, faculty have been absent from substantive budget deliberations for so long it would be unforgivably naive to trust administrators to make good on such supposedly humanitarian bargains. In any case, the practice of taking aim at a group of vulnerable people, whomever they are, in order to force concessions from caring others is very nasty politics. It is a tactic appropriate to bullies and demogogues, but, one imagines, far beneath the dignity of enlightened university leaders.

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.

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.

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.