Why?

This summer, I meant to update my professional portfolio. Obviously, as in all years, not much has come of it. But I am slowly getting some words on the, umh, page? Here is a draft of an updated introductory purpose argument (with some need of polishing and refinement): Why do I think my work is important? Why do we need educational development?

I think that academia has an important role to play in answering humanity’s existential questions: How can the world’s 7.8 billion people be fed? How can we prevent wars (at the very least those of genocidal proportions)? How can we prevent and cure illnesses that shorten our life spans and reduce our quality of life? How can humans build and maintain societies and polities that respect human rights and true self-determination? Also: What is a good life? What makes us human? Civilized? You get the idea.

COVID-19 has brought some of these questions to a head: Besides questions of how best to prevent and cure coronavirus infections, the pandemic forced us to ask what our duties of care are for our fellow human beings, whether individual liberty interests take precedence over the health of our neighbors, whether governments and media companies are allowed to spread, or have the duty to prevent, misinformation and conspiracy theories, and more. In sum, the question of societal and economic collapse raised it’s not-too-pretty head. (I argue here that our answers and solutions do not look good.) Climate change will raise a whole series of similar existential questions: What do we really need for a good life? How can we make sure everybody has the ability to lead a good life? How can and should we transform society in the face of major ecological transformations and disruptions? How should rich countries handle migration? How can migrants organize to survive and find a good life? And. So. On.

Academia has tools and experience to address many of these questions, such as careful, detail-oriented investigation, close reading, well-structured interviewing, but also big-picture data analyses, STEM research, professional applied work, and so on. Academia supports creative work that helps people develop their imagination and empathy, refreshes their humanity, helps them understand how they relate to each other. Sometimes, academic work seems so detail-oriented that we forget the real-life impact it may have—just read the titles of academic journal articles. But what we do, what many of us do, does make a difference and often addresses the existential questions humanity faces.

Educational developers play an important role in helping academics do this work. For one, teaching is an important part of how academics make a difference, and educational developers help academics be great teachers. As teachers, academics not only grow the next generation of researchers, scholars, professionals, etc., many of whom will employ what they learn in a range of contexts, but they also learn from their interactions with students—for example about how “lay” people think about their area of expertise, or what outsiders or novices to a discipline find important. In some instances, important disciplinary work is the result of student-faculty collaboration in (and outside) the classroom.

But educational development is not just teaching support. For example, many educational developers create programs that help faculty be productive scholars even with comparatively high teaching loads. It’s not just about helping faculty be great teachers, it’s about being great teachers AND productive scholars. In my own work, the “and” is central. One of my main goals is to help faculty integrate teaching, scholarship, service, and other professional activities into a career plan and work schedule that enable them to be successful and achieve professional milestones such as tenure and promotion. This is done in a range of ways, whether it’s in form of a yearlong academy for new faculty that focuses strongly on career planning, or in creating workshops to increase peer-mentoring skills among more senior faculty, or through workshops for mid-tenure packet writers, or in one-on-one mentoring meetings or consultations (don’t ask me what the difference between the two is!). We want faculty to be great teachers AND productive and creative scholars, and educational developers are central to making this combination happen.

Talking about my own professional situation for a moment, I find that my work is particularly important at the type of institution where I work: A regional, fairly large (about 20,000 students), comprehensive state institution that is putting an increasingly stronger emphasis on research and scholarship. It’s a reasonably selective but affordable institution for undergrads, who tend not to go into post-graduate academia but turn to fairly high-level professional positions where many make a difference. (Graduates have been executive directors of the Virginia Democratic and Republican parties, staffers for members of Congress, White House photographers, etc. The current mayor of Richmond is a JMU graduate.) In other words, teaching can have an impact. At the same time, research and scholarship is often more practice-focused than at R1 institutions, though foundational research is conducted as well. Among the top graduate programs at the institutions is a PhD program on assessment studies. There is applied research on physical education and exercise programs for children with disabilities, or on mentoring of young people from low-income families in the community, high-level scientific research by and with undergraduate students, and so on. A professor emerita has established a vibrant dance program for people with Parkinson’s. In such an institutional environment educational development is especially called for to helps faculty combine high-quality teaching and high levels of research productivity, and it can make a difference in an environment that very practically things about how academic work can make a difference in people’s lives (something that the institution frames under the umbrella term of “engagement”).

There is one more aspect of the work of educational developers that is important to me. Traditionally, and currently, faculty work has been the domain of individuals who achieve truly heroic achievements through the single-minded pursuit of academic (mostly research) excellence during long hours of work, often in competition with each other. Academics are known not to have “a life” and definitely no weekends. Those who can fit themselves into this work pattern tend to be men—single without children or with families where partners do much of the house and child-care work. Exceptions confirm the rule, so to speak, but the COVID pandemic has been especially hard on faculty who have withstood this pattern—predominantly though not exclusively women and single parents. This leads to the exclusion of smart, creative, and productive contributors to the academic project, in favor of people whose decisive characteristic is that they can spend the time at work that others can’t. The result is sub-optimal in terms of academia’s capacity to address the problems that need to be addressed. In my view, educational development has to play a role in enabling academic institutions to be open for true inclusive excellence, for the inclusion of the whole range of smart, creative, imaginative, productive scholars. And, as educational developers and academics, we also play a role in enabling our institutions to sharpen their understanding of academic excellence to include factors such as care for others, ethical behavior, ability to collaborate, and other qualifications that are often not viewed as part of what constitutes academic rigor.

How amazing! We’re totally screwed!

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best of modern science and global entrepreneurship. Within a year, highly effective vaccines were developed and distributed, at least in the rich countries. The vaccines have fairly low side effects and are effective at staving off infections and, most importantly, serious infections. A triumph of science, entrepreneurship, and, by implication, academia.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the profound flaws of modern science and global entrepreneurship. While the vaccines against COVID were available in the rich countries, this was not the case in poor countries. And in the rich countries, especially in the United States, large portions of the population are refusing vaccination, preventing societal immunity and leading to the spread of COVID-19 variants. They are enabled by ideology and misinformation spread, in part, by politicians and media personalities who, also, frequently mobilize against mask wearing, a low-cost measure that provides an additional protection against all kinds of respiratory illnesses, not only COVID. Even media who do not intend to spread misinformation stoke the vaccine hesitancy as they frame pandemic statistics in a misleading manner, out of statistical ignorance. Our scientific and economic systems are great at technological innovation and efficiencies, but we fail at the social, moral, and communicative aspects of dealing with a pandemic.

It’s almost a cliché that the COVID-19 pandemic is a dress rehearsal for the catastrophes associated with climate change (UN Secretary General Guterres was not the first nor the last person to use that metaphor). If it is a dress rehearsal, things are not looking good. While science and technology have an important role to play, the main problems that we’ll face are social, political, and moral. For example, how will rich states respond to migration from states in which many lose the ability to survive? What roles should borders play in a post-warming global society? Or, how can societies (or post-societal groups of people) adapt to changing circumstances caused by environmental and economic destruction? How will we live off an earth that produces less—how will we distribute what there is? Will we reduce what we use? Or will we play a global game of deadly hungry hippo? How will we set priorities as to what matters to us—when to share, when to fight, when to die?

These are hard questions, and science won’t be able to provide answers. Philosophy, sociology, political science, and similar disciplines will be needed. Academia, especially the social sciences and humanities, will be central, as may be the professions (what will hospitality mean in a post-warming society? how will caring look like?). But the work will have to go beyond academia, to include practitioners, community organizations, religious groups, and others on the ground, shaping society.