Helping our Veterans: A Sloan-C Workshop

I’ve seen some terrific resources recently for faculty and staff who are wanting to better serve the growing number of returning veterans entering into online education.  This morning this workshop from Sloan -C crossed my virtual desk.  Titled  Meeting the Diverse Needs of Servicemembers, Veterans & Military Family Members Enrolled in Online Education, it’s a free online workshop being help May 14, 2014 from 12:00 to 1:30 pm EST.  It may well be worth your time.

Reframing the Humanities

The humanities have certainly been in the press a lot this summer.  Are the humanities in crisis?  Is the crisis in humanities manufactured?  Is the decline the result of, as David Brooks suggests, our traditional focus having been been debased by changing educational trends and political correctness? What is our disciplinary way forward in these troubled times of degraded educational standards, and economic reductionism?  Are the humanities, in fact, the neglected moral core of our nation, which need to be nurtured and supported by university administrators who simply don’t understand the nature and impact of our important contributions?

Well, regardless of whether or not the humanities are in “crisis”, I certainly do think there are serious problems in the humanities that demand our attention, and I think they can be reduced to the fact that what we teach is not understood in concrete terms, and therefore our contributions are not widely valued.  I believe we need to address this concern head on. As an example of this, in 2012, Brown reported that their humanities professors make on average $30,000 less than colleagues in other departments doing the exact same job.  This discipline linked disparity is pretty much known and accepted in universities across the board. Administrators argue that academics in fields like business, tech and the sciences can get jobs outside the university setting so they make their academic salaries more competitive, and ours remain low, even if we are doing the same university level work.  This indicates a clear perception that humanities professionals are unable to get jobs outside the university, that our skill sets are worth less, and so it’s acceptable to pay us less.  This is not OK.  Really, it is not.  But, it’s is justified by both humanities professors and administration by the idea that working in the humanities is a labor of love, and that because our discipline is not seen to contribute to the wider economic life of this nation, that it is perfectly reasonable for us to accept lower wages.

By the same logic, it is also perfectly acceptable for interns working in the humanities trying to gain professional experience to be expected to work for free. I guess we’re supposed to subsist on our highly developed sense of moral superiority and enhanced cultural capital.  I’m sorry, but smugness does not put food on the tables of my colleagues or my students.  Besides, to expect us all to work for reduced wages or for free seems to me to be based in the kind of elitism that does not serve our academic institutions in general, and which certainly puts the general public off of embracing the humanities.  Sure you’ll work for free if a trust fund keeps you from needing any actual professional experience, but for many of us, this pursuit has long ceased to be a rich person’s hobby.   Arguments which center around preserving the humanities merely because they are part of our academic and cultural heritage is, to me, insulting to our enterprise.

We need to start sending the clear message that humanities professionals are skilled, that our skill sets are marketable and that they contribute to the economic life of the nation.  If we don’t do this, not only will we and our students continue accepting second rate treatment and low pay, the worse possibility is that we will not survive much needed curricular reforms that focus on competency based learning and concrete, measurable objectives. I think it’s time that we start promoting in very real, specific terms the ways in which training in the humanities absolutely impacts the bottom line, and we need to not find this to be a degrading or demoralizing exercise. Design, aesthetics, communication, diversity training, writing skills, research skills, and the formation of ethics are just a few examples of ways in which the humanities directly contribute to innovation and income generation.  People get hired because they know how to do these things! We need to champion these abilities, we need to know our self worth, and demand recognition for the training we provide.  To accomplish this we will first start needing to reevaluate what we as humanities professionals do, possibly starting with ourselves as academic professionals, and we will also need to think strategically about how we relate to the world outside academia.

This summer, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences released a report called The Heart of the Matter: Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive and Secure Nation. Ostensibly, this report was designed to reinforce the importance of the humanities and the social sciences to the cultural life and economic prosperity of the country. It’s certainly a vigorous defense, but to my mind it still feels somewhat sentimental and abstract, even noting that the benefit of a Liberal Arts education is not to be found in training for specific jobs, but in nurturing a spirit of inquisitiveness and “long term qualities of mind.” How is this convincing to either employers or students? Maybe we need to focus on what we DO train people for in very concrete ways.

Here are some possible suggestions:

1.  Let’s start building direct alliances with industry at the personal and departmental level.  Innovation, creativity and critical ability are areas in which we excel, arguably much more so than our STEM colleagues.  Diversity education, communications abilities and specialized cultural knowledge are highly valued in the corporate world. These are our areas, and they are important.  We should work within our local communities to determine what employers need, and then communicate back to them what skills our training provides.  We should also build humanities initiatives which insist that interns are paid for the contributions they make within the context of industry (whenever possible), just as interns in other fields are.  As one small example, many of the skills which a humanities curriculum emphasizes are frequently reiterated within industrial contexts in the form of corporate training and professional coaching.  It seems odd that we are not explicitly building more relationships in this area. The same can be said for so many fields; design, marketing, health care to name a few. We can also start on campuses by building relationships with colleagues in business and law departments, expanding the curriculum and providing innovative joint offerings.

2.  We need to start to emphasize skills, not content.  Let us make sure that students understand explicitly what practical skills they are gaining from our courses, and then get those skills on resumes. This means we, as educators, need to be able to articulate what transferable skills a person can gain from, say reading Milton or Joyce.  How about reading comprehension, analysis, critical thinking? What can we do with film studies and art history? How about visual literacy, and understanding basic principles of aesthetics. At an undergraduate level maybe we can consider our presentation of humanities content as case studies which will help to develop particular skill sets rather than thinking of content mastery as an end in itself. As a bonus, they will still get the content.

3.  Let’s do a little rebranding.   This means that we need to think of ourselves as scholars in a different way.  As scholars we would do well to stop identifying so deeply with our pet subject matters and think about the skills that we possess, and encourage our students to do so as well.  How are we relevant?  How can we envision humanities degrees as professional degrees?  This doesn’t always need to be the goal, but we should be able to demonstrate this sort of flexibility when called to do so.

4. As academic professionals we need to be forward thinking, not conservative, and be open to learning new professional skills ourselves so that we can better help our students to be more adaptable.  We, as scholars and teachers, need to engage with the world around us, not reject it. Let’s face it, we tweedy types are not always very good at projecting an image of worldliness or even competence outside academia. We need to be open to gaining new abilities, maybe by occasionally learning new software packages or simply updating our own research skills.  If we want to promote lifelong learning and a spirit of inquiry, and we should be at the forefront of any lifelong learning initiatives, we would do well to start with ourselves as professionals.  Most people in industry update their skills and engage in professional development all the time and in fact are expected to do so. Humanities professors enjoy being “the expert”, the “sage on the stage”.  It would probably do us well to abandon that persona and the professorial mantle once in awhile and embrace beginner’s mind. If we want our students to be adaptable we should lead by example and get more tools for our belts. Of course we are all overworked already, but it takes less time and effort than you think to learn a simple new skill.

Changes are coming.  There are refreshing moves toward curricular reform that will help genuinely prepare students for the workforce, and that will help returning students prepare to transition to a new economy by focusing on skills and competencies.  As humanities professionals, we need to change the framework of this discussion away from preservation of knowledge and we need to stop using language that reinforces the notion that the humanities lack utility. I think it’s time that we get out there and make the case for humanities scholarship without recourse to moral arguments, sentiment and tradition.  We need a forward thinking campaign that puts the humanities at the heart of a vibrant, innovative economy.  But before we can make this case to others, it means we need to change how we look at ourselves. That won’t be comfortable for many, but it may be necessary and ultimately strategic.

Educational Startups Part Deux

I was amused to hear American Public Media’s Marketplace proclaim yesterday that “online learning is the next big thing.”  Really?  You’ve just noticed?

Again, they were featuring Coursera and Udacity and discussing their approaches to online education, namely that top notch universities are putting free content on their websites to offer to folks around the world that cannot afford to attend Stanford. The argument that was being made is that the traditional needs for certification and accreditation are decreasing, while the need for real education is increasing, so if they don’t offer credits or degrees…it won’t matter.   Students will be “educated” and will be able to land better jobs. I really wish that Marketplace had taken a more informed and educator driven view, rather than tech driven, on this phenomenon.

Well, yes, and resoundingly no. In my view, training is a subset of education.  You are trained in skill sets, and it is widely agreed upon that many employers, especially in tech fields do not really care how you get your skills as long as you can demonstrate capacity in them.  See, that is what degrees are supposed to do.  This is why we have assessments. Educational assessments demonstrate that you have achieved mastery of a skill to a certain level. This mastery is measured by a variety of means, which are normally designed by…yes…subject matter experts.  You are never going to convince me that a student peer review is a sufficient replacement for the feedback of a subject matter specialist.  And I would argue that claims which suggest this are misusing and potentially misrepresenting  these studies and the actual, important role of peer review in the classroom.  There have been some good critiques of this process made by Audrey Watters over at Inside HigherEd.  If you read the comments, the student experiences are very telling.  It seems as though this strategy will need some refinement.

So now students will pay for a certification after taking classes at Udacity.  How do we really know what that means? How will employers know what that means? Will they have to attempt to absorb the pedagogical statements on their website to determine of the student has actually been well trained? Will they even understand the context for these methods? I’m not being snarky here, I really want to know what they are selling. I also want to see more education professionals and fewer computer geeks on board.

I know there are people out there who are really enjoying the educational offerings of these startups.  I think they potentially offer some great things, and for a genuinely education starved planet, I am always grateful for awesome content. I am also totally happy to support busting the broken models of the ivory tower to provide more genuine opportunities for learners and scholars. But let’s not sacrifice real education and sound pedagogy for a quick buck.  Online learning already suffers from that reputation.


Academic Publishing and Personal Demons

In my chosen career trajectory, I don’t have a huge need to develop any kind of staggering research profile. I’m sure my employers like that I do it, but I am not at all living under a publish or perish tyranny. So…why do I still invest time and energy in keeping up an academic research profile?  Simple answer, because I enjoy doing it, and it is useful to my career at some level.  Not so simple answer, because I enjoy the conversations I have with colleagues in that sort of academic space.  The really not so simple answer turns out to be a bit more disconcerting, though.  In musing upon my own motivations for publishing academically,  I stumbled upon some other parts of my journey related to my continuing project of understanding my complex relationship to academia.

I have not been a conventional academic for almost a decade, yet for some strange reason I have worked hard to try to maintain a “proper” and “respectable” (well sort of, anyway, given my unconventional research areas) academic profile.  Now, I’m not saying this has not had some benefits, especially since I really do enjoy publishing, attending conferences, and spending time with my research colleagues, and academic publishing does afford me some measure of academic legitimacy, which opens particular doors for getting grants and honestly to just being heard in certain arenas.  But I also have to acknowledge that academic publishing is not going to really affect my financial bottom line to any significant degree, and, in fact, it takes time away from other things I could be doing.  These days I’m primarily hirable because of my skill set and my teaching background, not because of my research profile, so if I am going to spend time writing and publishing, actually strategizing what I need to get from those publications is a useful task. And in my mind, “because I enjoy it” is a perfectly acceptable reason alone to direct energy and attention to publishing. But I realized that, in fact, I was still having attachment issues around academic publishing, and I was hurting myself in the process.

A little over year ago I cancelled a project that initially was very important to me.  I was attempting to work on a book that would compile all of my writings on Cornwall and economic policy.  For a number of reasons, primarily because the economic profile there is shifting so quickly, this became very difficult for me to accomplish without being on the ground more in Cornwall which just isn’t feasible for me.  The book was contracted with a fairly decent academic press, and a very respected editor.  Of course, the contract stipulated that I would get five free copies, or something like that, but absolutely no pay for completing the text.  The series editor informed me toward the deadline that I needed to complete the manuscript within a certain period of time, because it was possible that the press was going to start charging authors to publish their work.  Really?  This is just a vanity press in disguise! And not that self publishing is wrong, far from it, but if those are the conditions, why not just do it myself! Ultimately, I know who reads these books, I can publish the text myself, and distribute it if I want.  But within academic culture, the prestige of this series, which for some people is translated into promotions, is more important than being paid for your work.  At the end of the day, someone else is probably profiting far from my labor more than I would be, certainly in my circumstance where promotions are not tied to my research.  Is this a model that I want to endorse? Also, would it be available and of a reasonable enough cost to make it accessible to people? At the end of the day, completing this book was going to take away from paying work.  It was not a sound investment of my time.

But cancelling this project had an emotional cost for me, and I needed to take a look at why. I was really proud that this editor and this press wanted to publish my work, even though the contract arrangements were ridiculous.   I then realized that I have been punishing myself for a number of years by trying to publish too much, being hard on myself when I didn’t publish enough, and trying to maintain the right balance of publications on my CV.   While I still think the last of those has some merit, given my career path, why was I putting myself through that emotional torture?  It was clearly a conditioned response. Sometimes I could only focus on what I hadn’t done rather than all I had actually accomplished. Am I secretly in some form of competition with my colleagues? Am I still caught in the prestige trap?  And am I somehow tying my personal value and self esteem to my publication record? I don’t think that’s healthy, but I do think it’s common.  Academics certainly don’t need anything else to beat themselves up over!  At this point, I want to assess and focus on what brings me happiness.  I do like getting things published, I love research and I generally enjoy the act of writing, but these things take time, and I teach a lot of classes to earn a living.  I need to set reasonable expectations about how many kinds of articles I can get out, and what I want to accomplish with each one.  Yes, I’m slower than I’d like to be but writing is only part of what I do, ultimately it costs me money, and I need to be realistic about what I can get done and how quickly. I’m not alone in this, I think most academics suffer from feeling like they aren’t doing enough, or should be doing it all.

Honestly, these days I’m more interested in having my work read, and that is motivating some of my strategies.  Luckily, I am also in a nice position to be able to engage in academic publishing while still critiquing it.  Acceptable publications within an academic framework have become much more restricted.  To be counted for tenure, or even tenure track, you really need to be pushing for academic journals and academic presses.  Younger academics and people needing promotions frequently won’t even consider more popular publications, or even academic type presses that are not affiliated with a university, and sadly they aren’t in a position to.  I’m sympathetic to my friends and colleagues in those positions, but how does this model serve the public?  It doesn’t. It only helps to keep our research shrouded and our professional language and concerns even more specialized.  And particularly for those of us in the Humanities and Social Sciences, how does this approach to publishing help the general public to understand and value our work?  It keeps us from shaping public discourses.  The last thing we need is to be even more obscure.

I would really like to see a model emerge which rewards a balance of professional and accessible publications.  And I think that for some academics, self publishing, blogging, and working with smaller, quality publishers can be an excellent way of getting exposure to your work, which may ultimately be more valuable to you, and can generate other opportunities. As for me, I think this will still be an area of personal struggle, but if I keep some perspective and focus on the joy of writing and sharing my work rather than being driven by the conditioning of academic culture that is not overly relevant to how my career (and income) is shaped, I will be in a healthier position.





The New Educational Start Ups and the Humanities

As you might imagine, I’ve had a number of people approach me about these new fancy looking Silicon Valley educational initiatives such as Coursera and Udacity which are based on the generally really wonderful idea of making excellent online education available to interested, hungry minds around the world.  Since I am a huge, huge fan of accessibility, part of me says “Yay!”  In perusing the message and discussion fora following news reports such as this one from the New York Times, I see the old chestnuts being wheeled out about the fears of online education taking over the world, concerns about the efficacy of online learning in general, and of course the fears of my face to face colleagues that edubots will soon dominate the world of education, destroying their craft and decimating learning communities and bricks and mortar education. Let me take a moment to unpack a number of things about these new enterprises which I think are great, and also to examine what I think are some of the flaws, especially as these enterprises relate to Humanities education.

Most of these initiatives, as I understand it, developed out of the hard sciences and engineering.  The aim of the scholars and professors involved is to find a way to impart valuable, high level skills to people who need them all over the world, which I think is just wonderful. Since we know online learning works (yes, we really do), we can find ways to impart certain skill sets to people in an online setting, with assessments and peer evaluations which will genuinely determine if they have learned them, with a minimum of instructor intervention.  This type of educational setting works really well in teaching very concrete, measurable skills.  A program runs, or it doesn’t.  A mathematical application is right or it isn’t. The switch goes on, or it doesn’t.  And you know, employers today in tech and engineering don’t care how you learn your skills, they just want to know you have them and can demonstrate them.  Especially for people in developing and underserved areas this approach is great!!  If we can get this content and good, solid assessments loaded onto mobile devices just think of the opportunities this might give people!

But not all subjects will work well in this format, and what these start ups don’t want to do is to fall back on old style pedagogies that we know are outdated and don’t even work well in a classroom setting, much less an online one.  With all due respect to my brilliant lecturing friends out there, the long style lecture doesn’t work for adults, not without interactivity, which is why awesome lectures and dynamic classroom environments go really well together.  Online, this is even more of a non starter.  Think about why TED talks are generally short format.  That’s about how long an adult can reasonably stand to get yapped at by a talking head, especially delivering high level conceptual information.  So, getting awesome profs working for prestigious institutions to upload video lectures is not a really great educational strategy if we are talking about retention and assessment.  If we aren’t talking about these things, then what are we saying about the genuine value of Humanities education?  Are we relegating the Humanities to “cool trivia you will enjoy learning about as an adult?”  “Watch our content because it’s better than the Discovery Channel?” “Watch an MIT lecture and feel smart enough to have attended MIT!”

I’ll say it again:  I think that the Humanities are important and useful, and these new educational startups need to value them and develop pedagogical strategies which will reflect their relevance.  And now I offer my own rant against the creeping edubots:  Humanities are about nurturing different sorts of skill sets which require communities, interactions and guidance.   Yes, I use many, wonderful, online assessments and learning objects in my courses that students enjoy completing.  They are great for getting students to drill facts, and when done in a low risk environment they are very effective. They are also great for self paced learning and learning on mobile devices!  But when it comes to critical thinking, assessment of source materials, getting students to consider how they derive their value systems and the effects their values have on others and on society, that’s where I come in.  I’ve noted that some of these Humanities courses offered by these educational startups are relying solely on peer review on the discussion boards and on essay assignments.  Of course they don’t want to really pay the professor for her or his skill in grading or delivering feedback, so they just compensate for the initial content.  But my courses are more than their design and content–they are about me and the interaction I have with the students.  Yes, peer feedback is a great online pedagogy, and we know the value of the outcomes there, but frankly, my students are just not qualified to grade their classmates’ essays or discussion posts.  They might be able to say if they think an essay is cool, but that’s not the same thing.  Yes, I’m an online professor, but I’m a real person, engaging with my students 7 days a week on tough topics like diversity, globalization, the environment, politics, gender and how we find our way in this complicated world while trying to respect and be kind to each other.  I assure you, people need help with this stuff.

The need for quality Humanities education is getting greater, not smaller.  I think Humanities professionals are starting to get it together to articulate at the university level exactly what it is we do, and why we impart valuable skills that can measurably affect the bottom line at an individual and corporate level.  These statements are now working their way into learning outcomes that demonstrate the very real impact of the Humanities on how people live, make decisions, and do business.  I would like to see educational startups take these notions into account when developing their Humanities offerings. Develop pedagogies which show the relevance and applications of a Humanities education, don’t diminish what we can really offer the world.

Is online learning moving too fast?

I’ve been teaching and designing online courses for 12 years now, and it seems like ever since I started I’ve been hearing the same thing: “What you’re doing is the way of the future!” Yes, it is, I firmly believe that, and it is also the way of the present.

In my view, decent online provision can’t move fast enough, but I’m getting the impression from my conversations with my face to face colleagues that some institutions could be doing a better job moving in this direction. Naturally, the attractive prospect of expansion into new markets, and the reduced cost of maintaining physical teaching locations is causing a boom in online provision, but it’s very clear to me that this is causing quite a bit of resistance from traditional educators.  While I think that some of the resistance comes from not particularly well informed biases, and also probably some very outmoded ideas about effectiveness and teaching, I really do understand the nature of some of their concerns.  It used to be when I started working in this whole crazy world that successful online educators were both subject matter specialists and also online pedagogy specialists. Now, face to face educators are being forced by their administrations to offer more fully online provision when frankly, they don’t want to.  The availability of open source and free, downloadable learning management platforms seems like an economic solution for many universities in their desire to expand their online provision, but many professors are now being forced to design and teach courses with no training in online learning and a lack of institutional support.  Honestly, I can completely understand the frustration of my face to face colleagues who feel as though they’re having online teaching forced on them when they don’t really understand how to teach this way, and also don’t understand how and when online learning is useful and successful.   Professors are busy enough people without having to take on a whole new level of formal training in teaching and design on top of their other commitments.

I’ve been saying for years that face to face teaching and online teaching are like apples and oranges, they use different strategies, they are best for different populations, and they’re not interchangeable.  Not only have I done a lot of training to learn to teach this way, but I make sure that I’m keeping up on best practices in online teaching through continuing education and reading recent research.  I have chosen to make this my specialty, but not everybody should.  If administrators are rushing into online learning without providing the appropriate support for teachers and students, they will find that their efforts will simply not be successful.

Another consequence of the rush into online learning that I am experiencing is that counselors are pushing students into online courses who are really not suited for them.  I am increasingly having more students in my classrooms who are barely computer literate and who do not receive adequate training on the learning management system.  Based on my observations, I believe that there are many students in my classes who do not know how to initiate an e-mail to me, do not know how to create a document and send an attachment, and who do not know how to find information within the course.  Naturally, all of these issues are addressed in my introductions, and also in the training that the school provides, but my belief is that a lot of the students are frankly just not that competent in an online environment, and advisers are still pushing them into taking online courses.  I’m spending more and more of my time every term addressing what are matters for the helpdesk.  Many students frequently encounter problems with the learning management systems, or with their own ability to use them, and I’m the first port of call even if my ability to help them diagnose and troubleshoot is not that great. It’s not my job!

Online learning is great, and it is the way of the future, but it is also genuinely not for everyone and that goes for both students and teachers.  Of course I would love to see really good online provision expanded, I would certainly love to see more experimental courses on a graduate level, but if we’re going to maintain the track record that we have with success in online learning, it means that we need continuing quality control, which requires training and support for both students and educators.  I have been extremely fortunate that the schools for which I teach have excellent ongoing training and support programs, that have helped make this career path a much more joyous one.  So, yay for more online learing, but only if we’re doing it in a way that we know works, which means good design, good training,  and a commitment to this way of educating people.

Academia and the Portfolio Life

I just returned from a really massive academic conference, you know the type where there are thousands and thousands of people, hundreds of panels, people trying to get jobs, find places to publish, and make fabulous professional connections.  These events feel like part intellectual hotbed, part meat market.  I had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people in my field, and in general experience a type of collegiality that I have not encountered in a number of years. Mission accomplished! I left the conference generally feeling excited and renewed, but these events also make me feel a bit introspective, and get me considering my own nonstandard academic career path and trajectory.  When meeting academic colleagues for the first time, I get the standard rota of questions:  “So, where do you teach?  What do you teach?” and then the inevitable follow ups “You teach for how many schools?  How do you do that?”  (By the way, I’m happy to offer workshops or consultations on these and other topics!) The response to my online specialization ranges from “Wow, that’s really cool!” to almost pitying responses from people who assume that I either gave up, or I must genuinely be wanting that tenure track position.  What is also clear to me, based on comments made by some colleagues, is that online teaching is not considered a respectable profession, and there is still clearly a lot of hostility and resistance to online teaching among classroom based professors.  In some ways I can understand this, and that will be a subject of another blog post, because it really needs addressing, but what I really wanted to write about today is how events like this prompt me to think about my life and my values as a teacher, academic, and researcher, and to reflect on my continuing engagement with traditional academia.

While I take great inspiration from my traditional colleagues, and I’m always excited to have the opportunity to exchange ideas with them and to start new projects, in many ways my life just does not look like theirs, except for the endless rounds of grading papers, and student interactions, which are just as real, inspiring, challenging and also as heartbreaking online as they are in the face to face environment.  I actually find that a lot of my day to day inspiration and motivation comes from the writings of people who consider themselves to be “lifestyle hackers”, those who live outside the box, and who conceive of of their lives and income streams in much more radical ways.  I’m thinking of The 4 Hour Workweek (not without problems, just sayin’!!) and The Art of Non Conformity, but there are many others. Please feel free to share your favorites with me.

In the past week or so I have been particularly inspired by the notion of the “portfolio life”, which is the idea that we start to see ourselves less as “having jobs” and more as possessing a variety of skills and interests that we can add to our portfolio. We can use our portfolio for marketing ourselves and also for making decisions on how we want to spend our time and resources.  Portfolio lives also require knowing what resources you need, because the income streams are seen less as an identity anchor and more of a way to finance how you want to live.  Although the portfolio life is frequently used to promote active retirement, I think there are plenty of ways for those of us not working 9 to 5 jobs to use this idea to use this concept to consider a more integrated life that is less defined by our jobs, and more defined by what we love. For people not engaged in standard employment, or do not have a single institution based position, this can be a very empowering life reframing exercise.

I want to concentrate on the different ways in which pieces of my life work together, some of which are career focused, some of which are not. I really don’t identify myself as an “adjunct professor”. Mostly I frame my career activities in a much more entrepreneurial space. I teach, I design, I consult. I have a number of different income streams that allow me the flexibility to travel, research, write and sing. Certainly there are many tech and business people who have this kind of existence, but I think it tends to be harder for those of us in the Humanities to envision our lives in this way, because frankly, so much of our self worth ends up being tied to the way in which we are received by institutions. In short, unless a university tells us we are good, we don’t think we are, and there is still suspicion and derision directed toward academics who are not on the tenure track. The “prestige trap” of academia has been well addressed elsewhere, but I really think the problem of self esteem, and the relationship to institutional acceptance is something that hurts many scholars deeply, and it makes me sad.  I know people who are literally crippled by this problem, and who simply cannot find another way to envision their lives.  I know so many people who are angry with academia, and even those who have chosen to step out of it entirely often bitterly regard it as a romance that went horribly wrong, and they see themselves as failures.

I have had to go through a process of ungluing my brain and continually being aware of that sort of negative conditioning to get to where I am now, and the large scale interaction with so many traditional colleagues at this recent event brought that process to the surface.  But this life suits me!  It certainly suits the fact that I have a number of unusual research interests in far off lands that require financing and flexibility.  It also means that I can take more chances with my research topics, and pursue interesting hypotheses. The fact that I work from home supports my introvert nature, and I really do, genuinely, feel good about the teaching I do and the populations I serve.  I would just love to see more academics living without fear and embracing new models for their own lives and becoming empowered in the process.  Sure, I teach, and I write, but I also sing, exercise, try to learn new skills, and have a wonderful family life and rich friendships.  These are all part of my portfolio, and I can find satisfaction and accomplishment in so many different ways as well as staying employed.  As we find traditional employment patterns changing, shifting the attention back to the entirety of our lives and giving ourselves the freedom and permission to focus on what we value and enjoy may help us to find a deeper satisfaction.

Adventures in blackboard 9

One of my schools has just adopted Blackboard 9 this term, and I am loving it. I’ve been using another version of Bb9 prior to this term, but for some reason it seems as though it is a reduced version without all the nifty features, which I’m only getting to play with for the first time this term.  Right now I am loving the grading feature in the gradebook that allows me to view assignments, grade and then move onto the next one without having to return to the gradebook. This really makes a huge difference, and is great design.  It makes grading streamlined and efficient.  I use the voice recognition software on my computer to give feedback, and away I go!

The toll of student excuses

After two research trips, a house move and a heavy Spring term, I was really looking forward to my Summer term this year.   Normally, this is the time when I have a reduced course load and then I get a short break before the madness of Fall term begins again in late August.  I was thinking I might have time to settle into my new home, do some writing, maybe relax a bit.  This has not been the case, and as my Summer terms are now really winding down, I have found myself much more tense and frustrated than I might have expected to be.  Upon reflection, I have found that much of my frustration has been caused by a rather high proportion of student excuses and last minute begging for grades in my Summer terms this year.  I have had a number of students who were far more invested in begging me to raise their grades than they were in simply doing the work assigned to them in the first place or in following the improvement plans that I had created for them.   I care about my students and want them to succeed.  When they behave this way it makes me both sad and angry, and I find dealing with them draining.  Sometimes I know I just need to step away from the keyboard…

I have a couple of observations I wanted to make on these patterns of excuses, though.  First, for many students, Summer terms are a necessity, not their first choice, and students take Summer courses to meet their goals faster or out of some form of desperation. These are not good conditions for student success. Additionally, many Summer courses are accelerated, and students pile them on thinking that they will have no problems completing all the work.  But they often do, and then they try to impress upon me  that they couldn’t keep up in my course because they are so awesome that they took 6 courses!  Really this translates to “I don’t manage my time well and didn’t make your course a priority”.  I’m not sure why I should accommodate this particular problem.

And at the end of every term I get the sob stories, and some of them are quite amazing.  I’ve encountered all manner of student illness, child illness, parental illness, death, stalkers, eviction, job loss,  incarceration, housefires, and any form of deployment and military training you can imagine.  Most of my students are adults leading adult lives.  We all know what it is like to have life get a bit hard, or very very hard, and just put our heads in the sand wishing it would all go away.   But when my students take this approach it leaves me in a horrible position. I hate having to fail students. I want them to do well, and the fact of the matter is that many of my students are taking my courses to get out of a tough spot in life. This means they will have extra challenges.  While I want to show them compassion, giving them higher grades just because they ask me to or grading work submitted well beyond the due date,  is not, in my view, genuine compassion.

Sometimes I have to teach horrible lessons about consequences. If your grant aid is important to you, you will do what it takes to stay in school. If you want to qualify for a specialized academic program, you will make passing my class a priority. You will have to learn your own limits and know whether or not you can really adequately balance family life, work and school.  I give you all the tools to help you succeed in my course plus I give you myself!  I am here to be used as a resource and I will help you!  It really takes so little to get me on your side, but I have to stick to my guns and I have to be fair and consistent.  But sliding on my standards is not really helping students out.  It also suggests that I don’t respect my subject matter or my role as a teacher, and I do.  I have so many triumphs to celebrate this Summer term.  There were a lot of great papers, there was super discussion and a lot of my students did very well.  Many A’s were earned.   I hope to turn my focus to those and hope that next term I won’t have to have so many painful conversations.

Notes from the International Online Conference 2011

I’m having a lovely, slow paced morning here in sunny yet brisk Oakland, drinking coffee, puttering around on my course discussion boards, and listening to sessions from the International Online Conference 2011.  This is the first time I have had the opportunity to participate, and it’s nice seeing a member of my colleagues from my various institutions participating in chat and discussion.

The theme for this year’s conference is mobile learning, or m- learning.  As far as I’m concerned this event cannot be more timely.  This has been the hot topic of conversation in the online and distance learning world for quite some time, and I think it’s pretty clear from what I’m hearing at this conference already that there are myriad ways to approach this topic.  One of the thoughts I’ve had so far, is that as online and distance learning specialists, we’re already becoming more aware of the fact that online professors need to come to terms with the communication and learning styles of digital natives.  In some cases, we, too, fit that definition, but for many professors making the transition to online learning, new learning styles challenge their notions of education and classroom authority.  Therefore, what we need to do is understand how technology is changing the way in which people process information, and simply adapt.  While formerly, in a face to face classroom environment I might have delivered a 20 to 40 minute lecture, online students really only want to see about 3 to 5 minutes.  It doesn’t matter what we think about that, that’s really what the format requires, so we need to understand how people learn, and tailor effective strategies to new learning realities.

So how far ahead of the curve do we end up being as educators?  I hear a number of discussants today talking about trying to anticipate how people will use technology so that we can deliver educational content more creatively.  I see two problems with that :  first we don’t really know how people will use devices, and so if we put a lot of money into developing educational content that doesn’t match the user experience, we’ve wasted a lot of time and money.  I think dedicating resources to help us learn what people want and what they will enjoy will serve us much better in the long run.  I mean, do we even know how young people will learn best five years from now?

Also, in online and mobile learning, I always see people getting really excited about using technology in novel ways to create learning communities and to develop and deliver content.  Now, I’m not exactly a stick in the mud about these sorts of things, but we really need to consider the relationship between innovation and accessibility in our course design. I keep hammering on about this, but I just don’t see it addressed as much as it needs to be.  While online learning it may be the growing trend for younger students, we don’t want to assume that everyone interested in distance learning is a 20 year old with a smart phone.  Right now the majority of my students are actually much older.  A number of my students don’t even know how to initiate an e-mail to me.  Also, I have a lot of students who are quite low income, and possibly well behind on the technology curve.  I think we need to use technology to develop a number of different types of learning modalities, but we need to make sure that we are not leaving students behind with our creativity and innovation.  Also, we need to think internationally about educational needs for developing markets.  I know there are people on that, and I’d like to hear more from them.

Having said all that, I’m really excited about a number of possibilities for mobile education. Honestly, I see a lot of potential in apps for phones that use game strategy. Students do love playing games on their phones, and if we have low risk games and quizzes that support our curricula, students will play them and will learn.  I am also very excited about content that can be used with Kindle and e-book programs.  I would be thrilled to see our academic libraries and publications much more integrated with mobile devices.  I know my students are highly interactive and if they can scribble on texts, cut and paste and bookmark content that is meaningful to them, it will help shape their individual learning journeys.

And I think we also need to start asking questions about the role of learning communities and mobility as well. For as much as I like the idea of using mobile devices to encourage collaboration, I plan to approach this cautiously. Many of my students really still like the solo and asynchronous nature of online courses. I love the idea that perhaps they can use their phones to, say, upload recorded commentary onto the discussion board, but I still fear that at this stage forcing people into real time collaboration for assessments may leave a bad taste in some people’s mouths, and for some (like many of my military students), it’s simply impossible.

What I don’t see enough in discussions about mobile learning, though, is how this stuff really integrates with the pedagogy of online learning. Do mobile learning strategies work best primarily for educational support, or can we build assessments around them that students will really enjoy and that they can all access and participate in? As always, I think we need to balance novelty with understanding the needs and realities of our students.  It may be that we online learning specialists will have to accommodate a range of students in one space with different types of assessments based on what gadgets our students have and enjoy.

Online Educational Specialist