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.

Special Summer Teaching Toolbox: Inclusive Teaching

Two weeks ago or so, I added the following to the CFI Teaching Toolbox series.

As the Black Lives Matter protests revived this summer, there have been increased calls for inclusive,antiracistculturally 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:

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Going Online

The following is a preliminary version of an article (or advice email, or whatever it’ll be) that in a couple of days will probably go out through JMU’s Center for Faculty Innovation, my employer. But until then it’ll go through a couple of checks and revisions, and I thought I should circulate this draft a bit sooner, in case people who are currently working on transitioning their in-person classes to online formats. This means I should add the following disclaimer: this version represents my own viewpoint and not that of James Madison University. In particular, the introduction will probably be replaced with something more, ahem, sober. I hope you’ll enjoy it nevertheless.

Oh, and I should mention the amazing and intrepid work of the JMU Libraries, who are creating the backbones support structure to get JMU faculty up to speed about online learning, particularly Christie Liu, Eric Stauffer, and Elaine Kaye. Elaine and my colleague Emily Gravett provided valuable feedback on the piece, (though all errors and foolishnesses are my own fault).

All comments will be appreciated!


So you’ve bought all the toilet paper, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, rice, cheesy novels, and gummy bears that you could find and afford and are ready to face any hurricane, snow storm, campaign rally, Justin Bieber concert, or space invasion that may come your way. Oh, and that pandemic.

Gulp. I know. Nothing like reading the news from Italy to get a reminder of your own mortality. A quick check of the calendar and, yup, you are now in the age range in which COVID-19 may create some actual damage.

And like at other institutions, your employer moved basically all classes online. Within one week. That’s the right decision, but also a major stress on top of an already stressful situation. What should you do? Here are some suggestions:

Continue reading Going Online