Finite and Infinite Pedagogies in the Transition Online

James Miller asks, as professors move to virtual instruction, how do they hold on to the open-ended creativity of discussion more common in the physical classroom?

April 8, 2020

When my colleagues and I arrived at Duke University two years ago for our job interviews to become the first cohort of faculty teaching at their new joint venture university in Kunshan, China, little did we know how much this experience would prepare us for dealing with the transition to online learning during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of the interview process, we had to give not only a standard research talk, but also work in interdisciplinary teams during the interview process to solve a pedagogical problem. This emphasis on teamwork and pedagogy continued with our onboarding process, a 12-week learning innovation fellowship managed by our Center for Teaching and Learning in collaboration with Duke’s Center for Learning Innovation. Throughout this process, we developed strong social bonds while writing learning objectives, devising assignments and achieving better pedagogical alignment among the various elements of our courses.

I’m convinced that this unusual cohort hiring model has helped us in the move to online learning due to the COVID-19 outbreak, especially when it comes to our first-year common core class, China in the World.

This course features 160 students divided into nine sections with a mixture of plenary lectures for everyone and a small-scale discussion class taught in sections by five different faculty. The virus hit China in the middle of our first seven-week teaching session, so we had to modify our class for online learning halfway through the session. But now we are in the midst of our second seven-week session, and we had the opportunity to redesign the course for an entirely online format.

Taking stock of what we have done, one pedagogical transformation stands out: the second version of the course is much more coherently aligned than before. We have reduced the numbers of readings, focused the assignments and in general made the course more internally coherent. As a result it is easier for students to see how the readings, the activities, the assignments cohere with each other and are aligned with the learning objectives.

In so doing, the course is a definite improvement from the perspective of instructional techniques, pedagogical rationality and the best practices advocated by teaching and learning centers across the world.

And yet, I feel that I am missing something.

Last semester, one of my colleagues told me a funny story. A student had come to see him, and as he was going to teach shortly, he apologized to the student and asked her to come back later as he was preparing for class. The student, who was also in one of my classes, exclaimed “But Professor Miller never prepares anything for class!” Of course, I hasten to reassure my readers and colleagues, I do indeed prepare for class, in the sense that I devise learning activities and think through what I want to accomplish in the class. But I do not usually come to class with a document outlining what we are going to be doing every 10 minutes of the class.

The reason for this is that I teach humanities. And as one of our very smart DKU students, Yetta He, pointed out to me recently, learning in the humanities is, to use the language of James P. Carse, an “infinite game” rather than a “finite game.” In Carse’s famous work, a finite game is “played for the purpose of winning,” whereas an infinite game is played “for the purpose of continuing the play.”

Of course, just like in the sciences, humanities courses have their learning objectives, their essays and exams, and like all courses everywhere, they are viewed by students as finite games, a series of hoops to jump through at the end of which the student receives the grade and eventually the degree certificate.

The humanities and the sciences, at their deepest and richest, are not finite games to be measured, ranked, won and lost. They are not absolutely reducible to learning objectives, or to ensuring the alignment of learning activities and assessment, however vital those are for our students to achieve their pedagogical goals. The means do not justify the ends. The best scholarship and the best science is, as Geoffrey Harpham noted in his inaugural lecture to the DKU Freedom Lab, forever infinite. It is always capable of being revised and can never be finished.

In reflecting on the transition to online learning, what I realize now is that in the “messiness” of my regular face-to-face classes, I always allow some portion of the class time to wander. “Let’s just see what’s on the students’ minds,” I say to myself, “and let’s follow the discussion wherever it goes.”

And if I throw out a reference to an important book or a thinker in the midst of this, it doesn’t matter to me if it isn’t on the syllabus or aligned with the learning objectives, because for those precious few minutes of class time we are playing the infinite game.

In our online Zoom sessions, such adventures seem quixotic at best and self-indulgent at worst, and I realize that I have stopped doing this. Perhaps this makes my students happy! I am sure that most of them would prefer that I treat their education as the same finite game that they see it as, creating ever more aligned assessments and ever more rational learning objectives. Perhaps it is even arrogant or cruel of me to hold out to my students a vision of education as an infinite game that can never be won or lost, still less graded.

In the end, I see this not as an either-or but a yes-and situation. Yes to better coherence, yes to better alignment within the course as a finite game. And yes to making sure that this vision of education as a finite game does not completely obscure a richer, more humanistic vision of learning and more scientific view of scholarship as an infinite game that is never over.


James Miller is a professor of Daoist studies and associate dean for interdisciplinary strategy at Duke Kunshan University.


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