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.

A blog? Or bessays?

I haven’t posted anything here for a while, for lack of time, and since the cumulative effects of pandemic work have finally caught up with me:


[Description: gif of a baby falling asleep on a sofa]

This makes me wonder, though: Blogposts have become really long and work intensive. This format was supposed to be a log, and now it has become an essay. How did we get here? I know: Twitter (and other social media) took over the log part. Twitter is short and shortish, but it’s still different from the goold blog: there’s a pressure to be pointed, funny, angry, and definitely not as umh expansive as even a short blog post. And I don’t want expansive when I browse Twitter. Twitter threads beyond a few chained posts get on my nerves: that’s not what I was coming for.

So I hope to write a few more true logs here. Just brief ideas, maybe a reference to a piece I’ve read, rough, unpolished, maybe a smart idea or, more likely, a stupid comment that I’ll come to regret. As time permits and ideas roll in, there may also come again a few weBESSAYS. You’re welcome