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.

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.

Can we learn something from our excuses for not meditating?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it’s healthy to be ambivalent about online education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.