Tag Archives: pedagogy

We Don’t Have a Rigor Problem

The close of last week brought a perfect storm of opinion pieces that would seem to herald the inevitable backlash against higher ed’s shift to remote learning and working from home. All three of the essays examined here adopt a posture and rhetoric of standards and rigor, suggesting that in the few short weeks since this shift occurred all hell has broken loose. Rather than arming the barricades for a presumed descent into anarchy, the authors would all do well to take a different set of lessons from this situation. We don’t have a rigor problem, we have a compassion problem.

Claire Laporte and Leonard Cassuto are authors of a piece intended as a tentative blueprint for opening campuses in the fall. As a question weighing heavily on the mind of everyone in higher ed, myself included, I was hoping for an enlightened plan. Instead, in their eagerness to open campuses back up (please note: their model for this assumes an almost exclusively residential campus–which is not the reality for the vast majority of college students), they made their rallying cry the restoration of face to face instruction and took things one step further to lob cheap pot shots at online education calling it “thin pedagogical gruel.” They even went so far as to assert that “online learning just isn’t as good” as in-class instruction. Their desire to open campuses back up is at its core built on an elitist and classist model of dorms and small classes. Its disparagement of online education is an insult to those who have been doing it with integrity and creativity for years.

The same day that this piece appeared, Inside Higher Ed also published an opinion piece that urged us all to wash our hair and present a clean and well-dressed online persona to our students. The author criticized her fictionalized, and tellingly female, target for appearing onscreen with “disheveled, unwashed hair,” and piles of “unattended laundry” in the background. The article brazenly fails to acknowledge the innumerable constraints that have made the shift to remote learning challenging at best, and positively overwhelming and demoralizing at worst. For this author, shared and improvised work spaces, child care, illness, limited resources, not enough time, and perhaps just the oppressive existential doom created by this whole pandemic are no excuse for not putting forth a tidy and composed image.

Often overlooked amid the justifiable outrage at the deeply gendered attempt to get professors to dress and practice a particular standard of hygiene was the Inside Higher Ed author’s concomitant demand that we not abandon standards in the assignments and assessments that we give our students during these difficult times. She and David Brooks would get along well, since his opinion piece also expressed a deep–but ultimately flawed and unsubstantiated–concern about grade inflation and students being coddled. He believes that this moment of hardship can teach us about tenacity and help us educate the next generation to “master hardship” and “endure suffering.” What he fails to acknowledge, however, is how many of them are already too familiar with both. Students are sitting in library parking lots trying to access wifi and complete assignments on their phones because they don’t have reliable access to internet or computing equipment. I’m fairly certain I don’t need to provide them with any lessons in hardship and suffering.

In short, all of these articles, have sought to capitalize on the current moment in higher ed to return us to their artificial and elitist notion of rigor and standards. They have defined online education and disheveled professors that hand out too many good grades as the problem. Those of us in the trenches know, however, that the problems are deeper and more complicated than that.

What all of these essays clearly demonstrate is that higher ed doesn’t have a rigor problem; we have a compassion problem. We are unwilling to see each other for who we are as faculty and students. The academy is deeply fractured along class lines and still sexist and racist. There is a thinly veiled disdain for and even hostility towards any pedagogies that depart from the model of the sage on the stage. There is also a deep unwillingness that keeps some faculty from seeing the harsh financial and socio-economic realities that shape the experience of the vast majority of our students. We have failed to acknowledge or remedy the fact that many of our faculty experience similarly precarious financial circumstances. Outside of the academy this is the story that we need to tell others like David Brooks who continue to rely on facile and outdated notions of what higher ed looks like.

Higher ed is broken and we will not be saved by clean hair and face-to-face instruction. We might be saved by a willingness to acknowledge the gaping rifts in higher ed that this crisis has exposed. We might be saved by taking this moment to really see one another in all our messy humanity through the lens of grace and compassion. Like you, I despair and worry that we won’t, in fact, take the opportunity to do these things. But if I don’t start by at least asking myself these questions and opening myself up to these realities, then all hope is lost.

What Is In a Name?

What is in a name?  A lot apparently, if this recent essay in Inside Higher Ed is any indication.  In it, Alexander Bolyanatz vigorously rejects the appellation of “teacher,” largely because of the connotations he believes it carries.  Drawing on the example of K-12 educators, he argues that these individuals, who should be called teachers, are called upon to be disciplinarians, to act in loco parentis, and are often perceived by their students as adversaries.  These associations, he believes, should not characterize the work of university faculty.  Further, he contends, he is not trained to be a “teacher” since teachers have “formal training in fields like pedagogy and learning” and he does not.

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The pushback against this essay has been hard-hitting.  And it has been heartening to see many college and university professors embrace not just the title but also the responsibilities of “teacher.”  Where I would like to enter the debate is to address an issue that I encounter frequently and have written about previously: the extent to which we as college faculty should be engaged with pedagogy and research on the science of learning.

The author is correct in asserting that most college and university professors do not receive preparation in pedagogy.  So add that to the list of things we should be changing about graduate education since the vast majority of us will not teach at R-1 institutions and will regularly and frequently stand before students and TEACH.  But in the meantime, shouldn’t we WANT to engage with this material?  I have written before about the perplexing–to me–phenomenon of some university professors ignoring the vast literature on how students learn and persisting in outmoded and ineffective forms of instruction.  I have several theories about why this is the case, but Bolyanatz’s essay highlights one of them: the unspoken and uncomfortable hierarchies by which we (sometimes) divide the world of education.

I suspect I am not alone in having heard and observed the following sentiments.  Being a college professor is better than being a high school teacher.  Within the post-secondary world, being an English professor who teaches literature is superior to being one who “only” teaches composition.  Those professors who teach “Math Ed”?  Not as good as those who teach advanced subjects.  And yet ironically we expect those whose work we rank lower to be the ones engaged with the literature and research on how to teach effectively and enhance student learning.

So when the author relegates the work of pedagogy and learning to K-12 teachers I believe that doing so is symptomatic of a larger dilemma in education writ large: the chasm that often divides post-secondary education from its secondary counterpart.  Though the author credits these teachers with having expertise in pedagogy and learning, he also simultaneously denigrates them by saying in the next breath that they act as adversarial disciplinarians.  In this he exacerbates the divide by fueling negative characterizations that separate these two worlds one from the other.

Some have generously argued that the problem in bridging this gap between the findings of pedagogy and the science of learning and university faculty is one of “communication.” We should communicate the results of the work on pedagogy and learning more broadly and that will change minds.  I wish I could be as sanguine.  I think the problem is deeper and rooted in these hierarchies which in turn foster prejudices and disdain.  So the remedy is interaction.  In my experience these hierarchies do not hold once one begins to interact with K-12 educators, composition professors, my colleagues who teach math education at the post-secondary level, and others whose work we are typically quick to trivialize or criticize.  Is teaching high school different from teaching college?  Absolutely.  Are the challenges of teaching freshmen composition different from the challenges of teaching literature?  Of course.  But different does not mean that one is better or more valuable than the other.  I am convinced that we have much to learn from each other if we open a dialogue across these gaps and subvert these hierarchies.  I doubt any one of us–regardless of what we teach–has cornered the market on pedagogical knowledge and insight.  I know I haven’t.  With any luck at all, the best teachers–yes, I said, teachers–are the ones who aren’t done learning how to teach.

 

Try a Little Empathy

As an administrator, I hear lots of complaints from faculty about students and from students about faculty.  It is part of my job to adjudicate these complaints.  But the longer I do this the more I am struck by a seemingly simple observation–but one that is not acknowledged frequently enough–that is at the core of many of these conflicts.  The uncomfortable truth is that the professor-student relationship is predicated on us having power over them. We can seek to mediate that to make it less intimidating. We can seek to be more collaborative and to become their partners in learning.  But at the end of the day we occupy a position of authority and we do powerful things like evaluating their work and assigning grades. I say this not to suggest that we should lord our power over them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, I think we need to remedy our (occasional) failure to fully appreciate how our students experience the power that we have over them.  We need to try a little empathy.

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Too often, our reactions to students assume a disrespect or malice that I don’t think is there. I think instead that students are worried and anxious. I am not saying we should be pushovers. Or that students should be coddled. But I am saying that a little empathy could be constructive. And in my experience, coupling that empathetic disposition with listening can really keep the situation from escalating.

So, like you, I get emails and have interactions with students where they make requests that rankle me: they want extra time to turn in an assignment, they want a detailed study guide for the exam, etc.  There was a time when I would have gotten my hackles up: “how DARE they make these unreasonable requests?”  But I have found that doing so was a failure on my part to consider the anxiety that might reside behind such petitions.  Unreasonable requests are often the last-ditch effort of students who are panicking about a grade.  Is it likely that they got themselves into this pickle to begin with?  Absolutely.  Do I accomplish anything by responding with outrage?  Probably not.

Instead, I have found that if I make my default setting empathy and I take just a few moments to ponder the concerns and fears of my students I am usually able to work towards a more constructive response.  Better still, if I have the opportunity to engage students and talk to them, and even more importantly, listen to them, they are more likely to eventually acknowledge their responsibility.  So whenever possible, find a way to engage with the student–easier to do if they approach you in person, but if they email, invite them to come to office hours or talk to you before or after class.  Email is notoriously bad at communicating tone and intent.  My point is this: oftentimes, students just need to be heard and give voice to their anxieties.  As a chair and now as a dean I continue to be surprised at how often a situation can be defused by just listening.  At least half the time, once a student has finished giving voice to the complaint/concern/frustration, the unreasonable request has evaporated, the student feels heard, and all of this without an escalation of the situation.

But if the unreasonable request hasn’t disappeared after a conversation, your response to that unreasonable request might still be “no.”  That said, I am still persuaded that a momentary flirtation with empathy costs us very little and may keep a situation from worsening.

Empathy has other roles to play in our interactions with students.  Your empathy should include, for example, never assuming that students know how higher education works. This is especially true, of course, for first-generation college students. Even a super-rigorous college prep high school cannot prepare them for the bureaucracy and interactions that define higher education. And this means that they may not know how to interact with you at first.  They may call you by your first name. They may express frustration when you don’t respond to their emails right away. Rather than take these things as a personal affront, take the opportunity to explain the rules of engagement.

As you interact with them, your empathy should also extend to realizing that you might be scary–or at least perceived as such. I like to think that I am nice, approachable, and reasonable in my interactions with students. And I suspect that eventually they are persuaded that I am. But for a student who has never taken a class with me or never come to my office hours, I may be scary and intimidating, no matter how relaxed or jokey or unpretentious I am.  I’m the one who graded that exam they want to discuss. I’m the one who will be hearing, and presumably evaluating, that comment they make in class. An appreciation of these potential tensions and apprehensions that sometimes result from the power dynamic in the professor-student relationship might go a long way to easing interactions with our students.

Some will say that this amounts to coddling students.  I couldn’t disagree more and am inspired by Prof. Sara Rose Cavanagh‘s wise work on the science of student emotions and learning.  She contends that we need to reject the false dichotomy of assuming “that we have to choose between rigor and care.”  Are students sometimes irresponsible and immature and even disrespectful? Absolutely.  My admonition to empathy is in no way meant to deny this.  And there may be situations where a more stern response is required.  My proposal, however, is modest: we should err first on the side of empathy.  Acknowledging the anxieties that adhere to the power we have over our students is a relatively small gesture that may have a large impact on their experiences and our interactions with them.