As another pandemic semester comes around and wreaks havoc with our teaching routines, I’ve found that I have to set some reminders for myself to go back to when the whirlwind of work makes it seem that nothing matters than the next immediate urgency. I didn’t have time to embroider these insights on pillowcases (so much for summer plans). A listicle will have to do:
I’m overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. My students are likely to be more overworked, overwhelmed, and freaked out. Or maybe they’re just doing fine. Who knows? I’ll have to reach out and check in with them—in person, by email, through anonymous surveys, whatever works. Let them know that I care about their well-being.
I’ll have to focus on the essentials in my course: What is most important for students to learn? What are the central, inspiring, compelling questions that I want students to think about? What knowledge and skills should students definitely take away from the class? What things do I cover only because they’re in the textbook? Everybody’s bandwidth is limited this semester!
I love to geek out over new teaching tools and methods, but I’ll have to focus on a few simple, reliable, and effective teaching methods and tools. It is tempting to try out all the Shiny New Things that I come across, but doing so will only overwhelm me and confuse students.
There is so much to read about teaching during a pandemic, and my reading list keeps growing faster than my reading time. Good news: I don’t have to read it all. Or most of it. [Or any of it! adds Emily Gravett]
There is so much advice out there! Not everything works for me: Video lectures are supposed to be up to 10 minutes long, but I noticed that, if I follow this advice, the production process takes much too long. Longer, fewer videos (and less lecturing) may be good enough. More lower-stakes assignments followed by in-depth feedback are better than a few high-stakes assignments, but, with my other professional responsibilities, I simply may not have the time for too much grading or commenting.
Even though I just promised not to overwork, I am still committed to following principles ofinclusive and anti-racist teaching. This is something that I’ll have to go back to again and again, reflect on, journal about, work on.
This semester will be chaotic. How will we adapt to physically distanced in-person teaching? Will livestreaming lectures through a doc cam work? Will there be an online pivot 2.0? Will we get sick? I need to be prepared to improvise; focus on what’s essential (second point above) and what’s simple and reliable (fourth point above); take a deep breath; and adopt, adapt, and improve.
I need to give students input and agency. What questions and topics do they find essential? What are their preferred ways of interacting? What tools do they use to stay in contact with family and friends? In the past, I’ve found that they can tell me what works for them.
I don’t have to grade to provide feedback. In fact, I don’t always have to provide feedback; student peer feedback can be part of activities, for example, in small-group discussions. I don’t have to respond to every single discussion board post (I’ll post this right above my monitor); instead, I’ll provide summary take-home points or observations afterwards in a short video or email.
Maybe the most important point for me to remember: I need to stay in touch with friends, colleagues, frolleagues. Just because, but also to get feedback, advice, and new ideas. And I’ll have to sneak into some of the (free! can you believe it?) programs offered by my colleagues at CFI andLibraries.
What does your own beginning-of-semester listicle look like?
The wild ride that’s this year continues. Let’s hang in there and make the best of it. Best (of all possible) wishes for fall 2020!
As the Black Lives Matter protests revived this summer, there have been increased calls for inclusive,antiracist, culturally responsive, and other teaching approaches that focus on JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion). These are not the same things, and we thought it was worth focusing on these different concepts in different toolboxes (stay tuned!). Inclusive teaching is about “creating equitable and welcoming educational environments for the diverse learners in our classrooms.” The focus of inclusive teaching is to make sure all qualified students are included in the learning community in our classes as equal members, with equal opportunities to learn and to succeed, independently of their socioeconomic background, racial-ethnic-cultural identity, gender and gender expression, sexual orientation, disability status, and the like. While inclusive teaching can be compatible with other forms of JEDI-oriented teaching and should ground the latter, it does not necessarily transform and decenter the curriculum from the Eurocentric traditions that feed the content in many disciplines. In other words, inclusive teaching may attempt to include minoritized students in a class community that is still dominated by white perspectives, institutions, traditions, ways of knowing, and other ways in which white supremacy structures our learning environments (see e.g., Haynes 2017).
Here, I’d like to summarize a few of the key principles of inclusive teaching that form the basis of a reflection tool that two colleagues—Ed Brantmeier at CFI and Carl Moore at the University of the District of Columbia—and I developed a number of years ago. “The tool” is not exactly a cookbook for creating inclusive courses, but it does raise a number of questions that are important to consider as we try to make our classes more inclusive. When we created the tool, Ed suggested making a distinction between course context, course subtext, and course text. Let’s take a look what these can practically mean for our teaching:
Apologies for my German here, but I am verdammt scared and verflucht angry. We could have spent the summer ramping up our online teaching skills (and some of us have), and institutions could have spent extra resources to support professional development (and professional developers) for that purpose. And now, as it is still not safe to open classrooms to dozens of students at a time, we could do what’s best for the health of all and learn online. Instead, institutions have spent money on plexiglass shields and cameras for classrooms that will host shitty not-so-ideal masked and face-shielded “teaching” behind plexiglass, with students sitting at appropriate distance from each other, in the flow of aerosolized air that’s hopefully well filtered by whatever air conditioning system the institution can afford. Some institutions have already bitten the bullet and are making the emergency shift to online 2.0, others are holding out.
And I am not sure it didn’t have to be like this, given the current political and economic environment. I actually do think that administrators, as well as faculty, are trying to do the best they can. They’ve probably all had the hardest summer of their career, hands down. They’re good people, trying to do the right thing. And many will likely get people killed.
What got us into this mess? I do think it has something to do with what our institutions of higher education try to achieve, their purposes. And these purposes clash. Now, I am going a bit out on a limb here, honestly. I am not a scholar of higher education, and I am sure that my thoughts would be more sophisticated and less naive after an immersion in the relevant literature, though I’ve read a bit—Cathy Davidson’s The New Education comes to mind. Apologies to all scholars who find me awfully uninformed. But it’s my blog, and I can cry if I want to.
So, in my not-to-deeply-read naïveté (thanks, autocorrect, for the fancy spelling!), the contradictory purposes of colleges: Why not call them learning, assisted living, and elite formation? And in the current crisis they’re clashing. The phantasy of assisted living and the reality of elite formation are winning over learning at many institutions right now.
What I personally found attractive when I got involved in academia was the intense focus and depth of intellectual exploration: the long days in the library, the debates over the operationalization of variables, the close reading of texts, that sort of thing. In this sense, universities are biotopes for scholars. But also for less advanced learners: Universities offer the opportunity for young (and older) people to encounter different disciplines, ways of thinking, and—going beyond mere thinking towards affect and auto-motor work—different approaches to live, the universe, and everything. You may get trained as a dietician, but you’ll also have the honor of taking my introduction to US government, or a physics lab, and you may take an exercise class and become part of a club that organizes facilitated discussions…
This gets me to the second aspect of university life, as a residential institution for undergraduates. True, not all students are in their late teens and early twenties, but many are, and not all undergrads live on campus, but even those who do not live in dorms are usually pulled into structures and processes that regulate their lives. In an extreme case, many universities and colleges become half-way houses or assisted living facilities for adolescents: They leave home, usually for good, but receive assistance as they learn how to live on their own, how to make friends, handle conflicts, and so on.
I know, it’s tempting to leave it at a few snarky comments about institutions’ emphasis on dorms and cafeterias and landscaping. But, honestly, there’s much potential for learning going on. Students may spend 15-20 hours in the classroom per week, but many are on campus 24/7, and residence assistants, club advisors, psychological counselors, writing center faculty, and other student affairs professionals become their teachers. Plus, you learn a whole lot simply by interacting with others who have different backgrounds than you, come from different places, take different classes, and the like—especially if you live in the same dorm. (Of course, on-campus living comes with a list of side effects, such as the risk of alcohol abuse and sexual assault that many institutions struggle with.)
I am not sure that learning is the rationale (or only rationale) of on-campus living, though. For many middle-to-upper class families, college has become a way to shush the kids out of the house once they turn 18ish: They don’t really have to live on their own yet, they are taken care of, but they’re out of the house and placed on a class-appropriate trajectory. And they may learn something along the way. On-campus living has become a major source of income for universities, particularly with government support drying up. For many schools, beautiful campuses and fun activities are more important to attract students than academic quality.
Third, institutions of higher learning are places that form and reproduce elites, through selection but also through network formation and acculturation. The type of institution from which you get your degree shapes your social and professional success. Just getting into an Ivy or Oxbridge signals that you are either really smart or really upper-class. And the institutions reproduce elites, as they create a social environment of mostly elite adolescents. Going to college with the “right” crowd helps you form life-long relationships and networks with people of the “right” class. It’s not surprising that the most influential type of affirmative action in college admission is the preference for the children of alumni. That’s how status is reproduced.
Elite formation, or at least status maintenance, is not only pursued by elite institutions. Different institutions cater to different social groups, strata. There are upper middle class institutions, predominantly white institutions, etc. etc. Preference for “legacy admissions” maintains the social identity. And many institutions are divided over this goal (or maybe it’s only a practice): The demographic future of the country is not white-upper-middle-class; members of social elites are not necessarily as intellectually promising and academically dynamic as students from social backgrounds that are not traditional to an institution. And, of course, many faculty and higher-education professionals care deeply about social change: They want to provide opportunity to people who do not belong to the upper and upper-middle classes, to members of minoritized and oppressed groups. They enjoy the intellectual richness of a truly diverse student (and faculty) community. But the elites pay the bills.
I’d like institutions of higher learning to focus on learning, intellectual pursuits, deep investigation, important problem solving, formation of whole persons, etc. etc. But often these goals clash with the need to fill dorm rooms and to cater to “legacies.” Why? Higher education has been essentially privatized with declining state support. On-campus living and dining has become a major expense that needs to be paid; the school spirit that legacy parents teach their children helps fill the dorms and cafeterias. And this, in turn, provides jobs for a whole range of white and blue color workers: janitors, cooks, groundskeepers, and so on.
And now we’re stuck. If we do the educationally (and medically) right thing and go online, we lose the income that’s needed to maintain the physical university spaces. And the government won’t provide the finances to hold us over for the year as higher education is viewed as a private interest, not the public good* that it in fact is. If we do the educationally (and medically) right thing, scores of workers will lose their jobs and health insurance as dorms and cafeterias are closed. And the government does not provide the welfare and health care support that would be needed to help those workers survive another year until campus can be opened again.
It has become a truism to say that the current crisis has brought a number of social problems to a head. Like all truisms, there is some truth in this one. The current crisis shows how unsustainable our social system has become, how inept our political system has become, but also how unsustainable the current business model of many institutions of higher education has become. Higher education has to be recognized for the public benefits it provides: an innovative, civically engaged public, a dynamic economy, employment for local communities, spaces for people to come together and learn from each other, and more. If we want to maintain those benefits, we’ll have to change the business model.
*Yeah, yeah, public choice folks: Technically, universities aren’t public goods because people can be excluded from them. So, club goods for most. But they also produce tons of positive externalities, and those can be truly public goods (ever heard of the internet?).
Reflecting on this past spring semester, I think a good way to think about our sudden move online is in terms of punk ethics and aesthetics. I suspect that many of us, in the middle of our online “pivot,” could identify with Denise Mercedes, guitarist of the legendary if under-recorded Stimulators: “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to pick up a guitar and here I go.” We aren’t Khan academy. Our class videos are not polished. Our discussion boards, quizzes, and assignments are created in a hurry, not tested for validity and reliability, and may have to be adapted in response to student questions. But many of us try to be honest and authentic, remain true to ourselves even online, connect with the students, are available and empathetic, make connections, know that we were in the same boat as many students: scared, overworked, bored, distracted, overstimulated, homesick, itchy to get out.
I’ve never been part of the punk movement; I was too much of a nice kid, to be honest (and wouldn’t a nice kid be honest?). But I came of age during punk’s heyday. (At first, punks seemed scary young people—older than me, though—with safety pins stuck through their skin; but when I got to know a number of them later on, I was struck by how many were in fact rather gentle souls.) I think punk had an influence on all people growing up in the 70s through the 90s who had an open mind for social change and for alternatives to what one was supposed to do by the authorities: three chords could go a long way if employed effectively and with a message; creating things yourself, even imperfectly, was better than buying shiny but shitty stuff; social rules were there for the questioning, particularly if they led to injustice; direct emotion, even anger, were important in opposition to those injustices; rational argumentation alone does not suffice. In a situation like today’s, in which our lives are deeply disrupted, our social connections are more important than ever, our abilities to adapt, multitask, and improvise are stretched to the limit, and our social inequalities are ever more clearly matters of life and death—in this situation, we can learn quite a bit from punk.
And it wouldn’t be academia if there weren’t a literature on Punk Education (one collection of essays is aptly titled Punkademics, another, Punk Pedagogies). There is at least one academic journal dedicated to punk. I particularly like Estrella Torrez’s chapter on “Punk Pedagogy” (which is in the Punkademics volume, made openly available by the authors with the request to ask academic libraries to buy print copies). Inspired by her own punk past as well as Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Torrez talks about education as “a fundamentally empowering, liberating, and healing cycle of reciprocity between teacher and learner” (2012, 133). As other punk scholars, Torrez notes that her approach to teaching aspires towards a Do-It-Yourself ethos that eschews consumerism and commodified materialist lifestyle; opposition to conformity; opposition to teacher-learner hierarchies; “equity, rebellion, critique, self-examination, solidarity, community, love, anger, and collaboration” (136). I use the word “aspire” here, as Torrez also emphasizes the willingness to dare—and to fail (connecting nicely to other arguments about learning through failure).
This is fairly heady stuff. There’s also a lot to unpack, considering the fact that there has been plenty of bigotry, misogyny, white supremacy, etc. in punk. Accounts of punk frequently ignore the role of women and black people/people of color, as do accounts of, say, the feminist Riot Grrrl counter-movement. Rebellion does not always include (and does not always equal) critique, solidarity, love. As Torrez notes in her account of coming of age in the punk movement, “This once liberating and liberated space where education had occurred had instead become a site for schooling, a socializing space to train youth to be more punk than the next kid” (132).
As an academic, I love diving into the rabbit hole of social theory. But in the spirit of learning from punk, I thought it might be useful to translate some fo Torrez’s punk principles (always remembering that there’s diversity and disagreement, and an internal contradiction between “punk” and “principles”) into what they mean for my own current online teaching situation:
DIY: Avoid excessive technological sophistication and instead focus on how we can learn with the tools that we know and like to use. What are our three chords that directly get down to business? Three technological tools may well be one too many. (Interestingly, this recommendation chimes with what online meeting pros say.) Also: Use only tools that the students have access to and know how to use as well (or can easily learn how to use). In the end, we want to forget about the tech and focus on the substance.
Imperfection: This ain’t no fucking yacht rock here. Important thing is that it works, that it’s important, and if not, that we learn to make it work and important the next time around. In other words, do not edit your “ums” and “ahs” from your online lectures; don’t sweat it if you cannot get the Zoom breakout rooms to work; say, “screw it, this didn’t work” and come up with another way to learn on the spot.
Interrogate commodification: If possible, use open materials, whether they are open textbooks or materials otherwise available on the open web. But also, and maybe more importantly, make the use, commodification, and manipulation of ourselves online a theme with students. What do we permit Google, Facebook, etc. to do with us as commodities and advertisement targets?
Teaching for social justice: Our classes shouldn’t be competitions for who is better and who is worse. They should be communities in which we learn from each other and in which we support each other according to our needs. At the very minimum, this means that we have to remove hurdles to learning based on disability, socio-economic status, vulnerability to micro- and macro-aggressions, type of pre-college preparation, access to WiFi, mastery of punctuation rules, and the like. But, more ambitiously, our teaching should be what bell hooks calls “a counter-hegemonic act, a fundamental way to resist every strategy of white racist colonization” (2). This is an ambitious goal, especially for somebody like me—a white guy working at a predominantly white institution—but it can be translated into specific steps that we can take, as well as knowledge and skills that we can learn.
Undermine teacher-learner hierarchies: Of course, we’re the subject-matter experts, but the students are the ones who learn. Work together! What are students’ interests in the topic? What is important for them? How can they shape the curriculum, the course structure, the goals, the activities, the assignments? (I know, this is basically Learner-Centered Teaching, right?)
Let there be drama: Learning is not only cognitive but connected to emotions—we know that. Punk emphasizes emotional transparency, particularly the expression of passion and anger. Passion and anger are also central, I think, for students to understand why something that they’ve possibly never thought about is important. And students need to learn to express what they are passionate about, what angers them. Referring back to my note about social justice, it’s worth noting that the suppression of anger as part of an imposed civility requirement can be unjust, for example as we discuss racist discrimination. As an instructor, I have to learn how to respond to emotion and anger in the classroom, help channel it into directions that lead to learning, and protect vulnerable students.
Community, love, care: I find it interesting that Torrez lists community and love, and I’ve added care as a third that I think cannot be separated from the other two and makes them work in education. Particularly in the current situation, as we interact at a distance, we have to devise strategies to care for students in our classes, to build community, and to make sure they experience the loving support that they need in order to learn in scary times. And, as a male prof, I have to make sure to take on the care work that is often, and without recognition, dumped on faculty with less power—often female faculty and/or faculty of color, often in insecure positions.
Self-examination and critique: As tenured faculty in a 12-month faculty development position, I have quite a bit of institutional stature and privilege. Critiquing injustice has to include self-examination of my role in it and how I can work to move higher education towards justice. More generally, this is connected to using meta-cognition, self-assessment, reflection in my own work, but also in my work with students: How can they use self-examination to learn? How can they use reflection to deal with life under COVID-19? What are their experiences, and how do they matter?
Failure: One thing I love about Torrez’s essay is that she includes a narrative of how she fails in implementing punk “principles” in one of her classes. This obviously connects to other recent (and not-so recent) conversations in higher education (see for example the failure c.v., and—Lord have Mercy!—the idea of a growth mindset). But the approach is a bit more radical: We fail. We can expect to do so. Things often don’t work out. So be ready to get up and try again. I think we can’t hear this often enough these days: We are not set up to succeed in our work, in the current situation. In fact, we’re set up to get sick. And we have to pick up our pieces and do what we gotta do. Or not.
Since academia is so concerned about excellence, one more thing: There’s excellent punk. See Denise Mercedes in this later videos, with the revived Stimulators, in what must be her 50s:
(I revised this blog post on July 22, 2020, as I created an abbreviated version for a CFI Teaching Toolbox.)
The end of spring classes is now several weeks in the past. By this time the train has moved on and we are in the midst of another round of tasks that will eat up the summer: I (foolishly) promised online workshops on online Team-Based Learning and discussion boards; I have two week-long institutes on faculty portfolios to facilitate; I will support faculty who are applying for state-wide awards; and I’ll have to prepare this year’s new faculty orientation program, which probably will be online in some shape or form. And on top of this I’ve been pulled in to help a colleague with little tech preparation to run an online four-week course, adding 1-2 hours to five days of the week until the middle of June. And I should probably prepare a report on the assessment data that I collected last year about our New Faculty Academy. Good thing that I cannot leave the house!
So, how did the spring semester end? Not with a bang but with a whimper! (Funny how good poetry can devolve into cliché, eh?) I noticed that I was slo-mo crashing during the last two weeks of classes or so. Nothing dramatic, but working felt more and more like wading through some kind of jelly; you could do it, but it was more effort than usual. I was badly, badly behind with grading, and the class became less interactive than I wish it had been. In addition, the end of the semester provided an added need for educational development programs, so I helped write a CFI Teaching Toolbox about final exams and participated in open office hours and consults on that topic. At least I managed to record a few lectures on different approaches to interpreting the Constitution. These will be useful for future classes, even for flipping in-person classes. (And I just saw that the first video got 18 views, which means that 11 students out of 29 did not watch it—that’s a fairly typical “attendance” rate for the last week of classes. Sad in principle, but not too bad for this emergency!)
Looking back at the semester, here are some things that I’ve observed, some surprising, some not so:
One important announcement: Join me on Monday at 2:30 for an online conversation with a state judge from Pennsylvania. This will give us an opportunity to get a first-hand account of things like judicial selection and judicial work (including in the times of COVID-19) in the states. Or at least in one state. Check our Canvas modules for the Video conferencing link.
I also provide a quick summary of our discussion of judicial appointment mechanisms. Is the federal appointment system that different from a merit system? You will find out!
One of the main concerns we’ve heard from colleagues about online teaching is connected to the integrity of grades. Online exams and other assignments give new opportunities for cheating: Students can use Google to look up answers without actually having learned the material; they can email and text each other during exams; they can take photos of test questions and distribute them widely; they can outsource their work to others who are more knowledgeable and more than happy to be paid. After all, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.
Common responses to such concerns include timed tests that make it difficult for students to cheat, as cheating takes time, and various forms of online proctoring, for example, through video conferencing systems monitored by professional services. Yet these approaches can be problematic. Timed tests are not only a barrier for some students with disabilities (who theoretically can get extended time through an ODS access plan, though not all students have the economic resources to get the required medical tests to receive such accommodations in the first place), but also for students who do not have the economic resources for fast or reliable internet connections. (Try taking a timed exam from a McDonalds parking lot!) And forced video proctoring violates student privacy, as we—or the proctoring services—spy into their living spaces that now double as work spaces, and data security, as their movements are tracked and sold to third parties. (For more about problems with video proctoring, see this recent Washington Post article.)
Some disciplines and programs may nevertheless force instructors to use such “brute force” strategies against cheating, even if these strategies discriminate against otherwise already disadvantaged students and do not fully prevent the problem. We hope that the current crisis leads to a reconsideration of such policies, but faculty may have no choice but to follow suit in such circumstances. For those who have the academic freedom to avoid timed and proctored exams, we offer the following suggestions and considerations, in addition to those from JMU Libraries: