So Deep!

The word “deep” is one of the ultimate bullshit terms. You want to talk about something pretty ordinary but want to give it a sheen of profundity? Add “deep”!

But every word is a word that has good uses, and not everybody is bullshitting. Deep isn’t always off the deep end. Still, I am wondering what it means in different contexts.

Here, Barbara Holmes talks about “deeply mining the human experience”. She talks about mysticism, the things that are hidden in everyday surface perception. There’s an aspect of intuitive, emotional experience to it, but she also talks about connections to her ancestors (in her experience of Pentecoastal exstasis), to “Africanism’s long-lost past—in the transport from Africa to the Americas that my ancestors made.” Depth is an intuitive awareness and experience of history, a direct connection to it, not as an abstract or scholarly account, but as an experience of oppression and liberation. And it is at the same time a mystic religious experience, a connection to, unity with the divine.

Deep learning, not in the machine learning sense but in Marton’s opposition between deep and shallow learning, is about changing the student’s conceptual thinking instead of, or in addition to, their factual knowledge. Here, depth refers to the complexity of changes that form part of learning: Do we change the whole conceptual framework with which we approach the world, or do we simply add elements to our existing way of thinking and doing?

I wonder if the two ways of thinking about “deep” are connected. We often say someone “deeply cares” about something and mean that there isn’t just lip service paid to something but that the person has a stronger affective and possibly moral commitment to what they care about — something that is part of deeper learning in the sense that it comes with the affective aspects of motivation, which might be part of a sense of connection to others, to history, to the bigger picture of existence. (Still, beware of people who say they deeply care; it’s easy to add a 4-6 letter word to whatever one says.)

New Teaching Toolbox: Engaging Students with the Syllabus

Daisy Breneman and I published a CFI Teaching Toolbox last week. Here it is in all its glory — and in html format. (If you’re at JMU and would like to subscribe to the Teaching Toolbox email newsletter, go to the Teaching Toolbox page.)

So, we’ve all gotten emails (many, many emails) from students asking questions that are answered in the syllabus. Our response is sometimes amusement, sometimes annoyance, sometimes understanding: Why don’t students read the syllabus? Why don’t they remember what we put in the syllabus? Why do they still ask questions instead of checking what the syllabus said? As we all try to ease into yet another pandemic semester by working on our syllabi, this toolbox doesn’t have magical answers or solutions; but, we do hope to offer some ideas and strategies here for getting students to engage with the syllabus.

Maybe the first question to ask is: is the syllabus something WE engage with? Sure, we’ve written it at some point (though that writing process may have made heavy use of Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V). But do WE remember what’s actually in the syllabus? (Andreas here: I do not always remember, and sometimes students remind me of things I put in my own syllabus.) Is the syllabus even worth reading? Kevin Gannon, educational developer, historian, and JMU alum, makes this point in response to a viral story about an instructor who included instructions in his syllabus for how students could find $50—which all students overlooked. Gannon notes that syllabi are often the terms and conditions we all have to accept for a course, “boilerplate” text that’s required for reasons of accreditation and university policy, but mostly of little real-life interest to both students and faculty.  

So, what would a syllabus look like that’s of interest (and use) for us, and for the students?

Continue reading New Teaching Toolbox: Engaging Students with the Syllabus


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.

Your friendly annual control exercise

Death, taxes, and annual reports: the three famous certainties in life. As it’s again the season for certainty number 3, it struck me how control-focused some of these processes are. Line 3 of the reporting document that I just completed today welcomes the reporting faculty with the words “Do NOT” (emphases in the original); the other pages are sprinkled with friendly admonishments such as “are required to” (in bold), “must” (also bold), “MUST” again (this time bold, capitalized, and underlined) when it’s about reporting grade distributions (better not too high!), and so jolly on as the document progresses. The tone is held to the friendly imperative of a Roman centurion, foreign legion. The impression one gets is that of a person really afraid that others are not doing their share of the work or—even worse!—not doing as much as whoever it is who wrote the reporting form.

So, who wrote the reporting form? Colleagues of mine on a committee, friendly people in a friendly department, some of whom I count as friends and who definitely don’t intend to play Roman centurion, foreign legion. And the form is actually a good one in the sense that it is clear, easy to complete, provides guidance on what should be reported, what shouldn’t be forgotten, etc. There are worse forms around! (Like the blank page form…)

What strikes me in this and other official processes is the apparent need to assert control, to police, to make sure people are not slacking. What’s the fear behind this need? Is it the pressure from above and outside? (I doubt even the accreditation authorities count the musts and requireds in the form.) Is it the fear to appear superficial or flaky if one’s department does not impose rigorous quality control? (Or is it a feeling of being flaky and irrelevant that’s soothed by being rrrreally strict?)

During the COVID crisis, a number of observers commented on the pervasive controls imposed on students by faculty and institutions, for example in the context of online proctoring. (I am particularly moved by the discourse on the Hybrid Pedagogy page as well as Jesse Stommel’s work on un-grading.) My sense is that the desire to impose control in academia goes beyond the control of students. At first, this seems paradoxical, considering the open-ended work beyond regular work hours in flat hierarchies that characterizes faculty work culture. But besides that comparative freedom enjoyed by faculty (at the cost of an expectation of overwork, I should add), academia is often obsessed with control not only of students but also of faculty (many of whom don’t have the freedom granted by tenure) and staff. Online teaching and working, it seems, may have heightened the institutional need to assert control, as more of out activities have moved away from spaces in which we are immediately visible.

Thoughts on Stommel and Burtis’s latest

Over the last year, as we’ve been collaborating more with our amazing instructional designers at JMU, I have learned more about the connections between, but also different emphases and origins of, educational development and instructional design. I am pretty new to educational development (though, 5-10 years in, depending on how I count, when am I supposed to stop saying this?), and this learning experience was very much welcome.

One of the instructional designers whose work I found particularly important over the last year, especially as we pushed back against overeager supporters of online proctoring, is Jesse Stommel. Today’s piece, written with Martha Burtis and titled “Counter-friction to stop the machine”, is a welcome “provocation” (as the authors call it) and good food for thought as we start processing what the heck happened over the last long year and consider what we need to do (and avoid doing) to have some justified hope in higher education.

Read the thing, and the follow-up pieces that are promised. Here I’d like to comment on two points by adding something that I think is compatible and worth the consideration. Stommel and Burtis note the paradox that faculty are assumed to be at least competent in-classroom teachers coming out of grad school, even though most of them have no formal instruction in teaching whatsoever, while online teachers are assumed to be clueless as to teaching and need close control by instructional designers and other “support staff” (who in turn should have the respect and status of faculty). (I appreciate that at my institution instructional designers HAVE faculty status.) Why are classroom teachers assumed to be competent? Stommel and Burtis write:

The answer likely lies in a number of assumptions about teaching that have been baked into our institutions:

1. Good college teaching derives from emulation; faculty can become good teachers because they can (and will) emulate how they were taught. We assume college faculty were taught “well” because they ended up with the terminal degree in their field.

2. Good college teaching derives from good college learning; faculty can become good teachers (again by osmosis) because they understand what it means to be a “good learner.” They can translate their own experiences into courses that turn students into “good learners.”

3. Since faculty were, by and large, taught mostly in traditional face-to-face contexts, we assume they can only emulate and translate within that modality.

4. Online and hybrid learning are “other” and unfamiliar because they’re not how most faculty learned; its presumed faculty need to learn a new language of teaching or have it translated for them.

The teacher-by-osmosis theory. And now I forgot what point I wanted to make. Oh, here it is: I think an additional paradox produced by this kind of reactionary “I am a doctor I know how to teach thank you very much” view is that scholarship is considered a public matter: we publish it, we problematize it, we ask puzzling questions, we expect criticism to which we can respond, etc. etc. Teaching, on the other hand, is considered to be almost private, part of our employment record. It is bad manners to speak of it in anything but positive terms, we don’t disclose where we get stuck, we definitely don’t want others to criticize what we are doing. As a result, while we have robust (though far from perfect, see reviewer 2) discourse in our scholarship, our scholarly discourse about teaching and learning has ways to go. Of course, I’m not being new or original here (see e.g. Huber and Hutchings call for a “teaching commons” in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning), and I’m also not completely correct: I do appreciate the willingness of many of my colleagues to openly engage in conversation about their good and bad teaching experiences, though this happens typically in faculty-only conversations, not in public. And, again, while in-classroom teaching is such a kind-of-private matter, this is not so in the online environment, where, as Stommel and Burtis note, institutions and accreditors expect much more intrusive control of what faculty do.

Neither of this is a good state of affairs, obviously: Controlling-meddling does not foster good teaching, nor does lack of scholarly discourse on teaching. Which gets me to my second point: As someone who has done some observing and thinking about the roles of instructional designers and educational developers, I think part of what we need IS more collaboration and overlap between designers and developers. We need expert scholars on designing learning systems, structures, experiences, practices. And we need people whose work is focused on supporting (not sure “developing” is the right word here) faculty as educators: as professionals who combine disciplinary deep work with teaching, with leadership, with making their expertise useful to their various communities, with with with. We need people who combine these qualities and qualifications, but most of all we need authentic collaboration between the two disciplines to create the needed kind of applied educational discourse that encourages experimentation, offers room for failure, gives critical feedback, helps faculty (and staff) avoid burnout, advocates for institutions that are good for humans—the whole community of practice packet that we’ll need.

(I am writing this as part of the #100DaysToOffload project because I don’t want to give a shit about whether this is polished or not.)

Lemme just write 100 blog posts in, well, we’ll find out, years

I’ve decided to join the #100DaysToOffload fray. Let’s see if I can make it: The idea is to write and publish 100 blog posts in a year. I came across it on Doug Belshaw’s blog, who thankfully set a good bad example by breaking the rules and taking more than one year to complete the challenge. This is encouraging, since I am not sure I’ll be able to stick to the rules. (I may also have problems counting all the posts, but that’s another issue.)

Why the heck am I doing this? For one, as my friend Alison would say, writing is a good thing. And I’ve found that I enjoy writing these days, especially if it doesn’t follow the strictures of academia. For two, writing, and developing a writing voice, has been on my annual plans, or what I take for annual plans hereabouts, for years. This is one way to work on it. For three, it’ll be fun.

I particularly like that Kev Quirk, the creator of #100DaysToOffload, emphasizes that blog posts don’t have to be long screeds. Short screeds work just as well! This suits me: As I noted in a recent post, I plan on writing more short, off-the-cuff, less-researched pieces, to get back to writing an actual web-log, and not some bessay or barticle or, gasp, bbook!

So, right-ho! And since I’m going to break the rules, I’ve started writing some of the 100 posts before I started #100DaysToOffload. Here they are:

  1. A blog? Or bessays?
  2. Civic dialogue is not unconditional
  3. Reflections at the end of a pandemic academic year
  4. The paradox of value neutrality in our teaching

The paradox of value neutrality in our teaching

At least in political science (I suspect also in other disciplines), there is a common ethic of political neutrality, at least in teaching. This makes overall sense: we don’t want to indoctrinate students but help them learn about politics and form their own opinions and political identities. In mainstream political science, at least, such a neutral stance is also taken: We just study what happens, we’re descriptive, not prescriptive. Of course, critical theorists have debunked such pretend-neutrality as a particular status-quo oriented value bias.

I suspect that other disciplines have similar written or unwritten neutrality norms. A few years ago, my institution adopted a (very laudable) program in ethics education that offered a range of approaches (they were called "key questions") and engaged students in using these questions whenever they encountered ethical decisions. The questions did not favor any particular ethical outcome; in fact, any decision could usually be justified by at least one of the key questions. Value neutrality! (This is partly justified with a reference to ethical dilemmas, in which no outcome is clearly good or evil. I should add, though, that the perception of a dilemma seems, at least occasionally, to be contingent on our highly individualistic "Western" value system, which is more accepting of openly amoral choices as long as someone comes up with a forcefully presented defense of them.)

What I find paradoxical about value neutrality in our teaching is that we take this stance in order to help students develop their own values, political views, identities; but by pretending that we are value neutral, we privilege NOT having values. In other words, we want students to make well-reasoned, carefully considered value choices while performing the roles of those who eschew value choices.

Obviously, who are we shitting? Not our students: they know that we hold values, and they imagine what they might be. I don’t think we are helping them become good, moral human beings by pretending we are moral and political blank slates.

Reflections at the end of a pandemic academic year

My friend and colleague Emily Gravett asked me to contribute to this semester’s final edition of the CFI Teaching Toolbox, a series of short email articles that she edits (and many of which she writes). Her prompt consisted of the following questions:

  • How am I doing?
  • What have I/we learned from the pandemic?
  • How will we transition back, thinking about summer and fall?
  • What challenges and opportunities can I identify in this transition?
  • What do I/we need to move forward?
  • What lessons do I want to carry with me?

The point was not to answer all of these questions, though I think I touched in some way on most of them. To see the responses of my colleagues, check the toolbox link above at some point on Thursday if you are not subscribed to the toolbox email newsletter.

Since you’re asking how I am doing, I’ll respond as I usually do these days—I’m doing OK. I have a well-paid job; I live in a spacious house; I can get out to forests and parks; I can work from home (saving on my commute made me more productive) and protect myself pretty well from COVID. But underneath all of this is a sense that things are falling apart, that society is tearing at its seams. I am worried about the colleagues, friends, and family who are sick. A good portion of the population is unwilling, for ideological and ego reasons, to bear even minor costs that would protect others. Some of the most prominent politicians and media personalities fuel such destructive, selfish behavior. And through all of this, we get constant news of all kinds of police shootings, all kinds of racist attacks, mass shootings. Our society seems broken. And then I remember that maybe it just appears to me, a white, well-to-do, educated middle class guy, that society used to be overall whole, things were good. For Black people, for example, America has been broken from the beginning (N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth metaphor is quite fitting).

Where do we go from here? I look forward to interacting with people “in the flesh” again, though I think we will be keeping more distance for a while. (Small groups suit me better than large crowds, personally.) We’ve added tools to our teaching that we’ll keep using. But I hope we will learn more deeply from our long pandemic year: That education can’t just be about knowledge but requires ethical formation. That teaching includes leaving a society to the next generation that is more just, caring, and sustainable. That the individualist, competitive model that we’ve followed for centuries has met a point of failure that requires foundational rethinking of what we are doing, and how. That innovation is not the result of more gizmos but consists of strategies to build a better society and become better humans.

Civic dialogue is not unconditional

The other day a valued colleague (Carah Whaley, the assistant director of JMU Civics) posted a link on Twitter to an article by Joseph Bubman basically criticizing the civility agenda.

It’s a short piece that’s worth reading. Bubman argues against an approach to “bridge building” that views the political crisis in the US today as the difficulty between the two parties to “cross the aisle” through dialogue, unity, and civil discourse. Such a neutral stance is not appropriate in the current situation:

If we want to increase public safety and prevent political violence, we must move beyond dialogue for the sake of dialogue, and address the causes of violence. We should tackle those causes through collaboration across divides, but still exclude spoilers who support violence to achieve political ends.

Instead of promoting civil dialogue, Bubman calls for “address[ing] drivers of conflict” such as misinformation and political violence. We can come up with more such conflict drivers: racism, interference with democratic processes, policing and incarceration as “solutions” to social problems, etc. etc.

Reflecting on this article, two things strike me.

First, I really like civil discourse. All things being equal, I love the open conversation, the discussion across political differences, the exchange of arguments, sometimes thoughtful, sometime less so. I am not good at it and often just listen and think about what others have said, taking my time to respond. (I owe some colleagues responses to political emails from months ago. They will come!) And even “dialogue for the sake of dialogue” is something I agree with.

Other things are not always equal, however (to cite Justice Brennan in his Teague v. Lane dissent.) Civil discourse under the threat of violence from one side is not only not desirable, it is not civil discourse. Civil discourse does not just happen because we want it but is built on a set of conditions, some of which are necessary: respect for the humanity of the other side, honesty in our arguments and in our use of facts, and obviously the absence of violence.

This doesn’t make civil dialogue to be undesirable. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t carve out places where we can have dialogue—but it may not include actors that are dishonest, poisonous, or latently violent.

Second, I tend to be itchy about arguments of the “do this, not that” sort. Bubman has a helpful table in his article that contrasts what he rejects and what he recommends. While this is a useful summary, it can also lead to righteous word-smithing without substantive change of depth of reflection. Mind you, I don’t think Bubman goes there, but I see the possibility that righteous busy-bodies will try to quell disagreement with calls to addressing drivers of conflict instead. Often, both is possible.