18ish vultures circling next to the top of a tree

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.

https://hybridpedagogy.org/the-endgame-for-instructional-design/

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.)

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