In Defense of the ‘Impostor’ Learning Community

An unhappy reader says a recent column cast aspersions on cash-starved colleges trying to do the right thing. Plus: We seek your advice on how we should cover teaching and learning during corona frenzy.

March 11, 2020
 
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Welcome to this week's edition of "Transforming Teaching and Learning," a column that explores how colleges and professors are reimagining how they teach and how students learn. Please share your ideas here for issues to examine, hard questions to ask and experiments -- successes and failures -- to highlight. If you'd like to receive the free "Transforming Teaching and Learning" newsletter, please sign up here. And please follow us on Twitter @ihelearning.

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I’d like to make this a generally coronavirus-free zone -- not because I don’t think the health situation is significant or concerning, but because so much of Inside Higher Ed’s content right now is (appropriately) focused on the burgeoning epidemic, and out of a recognition that the rest of what we all do professionally each day isn’t stopping no matter how much time we spend monitoring CDC guidance or reconsidering travel plans (or obsessively washing our hands).

So most of this week’s column will explore some recent columns and share some constructive criticism and feedback I’ve received, in the interests of ensuring that "Transforming Teaching and Learning" incorporates as many relevant points of view as possible.

But first, a few thoughts on what the last few days have wrought, and a request. As our excellent reporters have started to explore in articles like the ones that follow, many colleges have responded to the coronavirus by ending face-to-face classes and replacing them with “remote” or “virtual” instruction, which can mean a lot of different things.

Those health-related decisions are certain to have an educational impact, especially at institutions (of which there are many) that have not historically used technology of one form or another to educate significant proportions of their students. There are many potentially fascinating questions about how this essentially forced embrace of technology-enabled learning will affect institutions and students -- and evidence to answer those questions may not be available for a long time to come.

Some of the questions that are occurring to me right now are these:

  • Will these changes disproportionately affect (hurt) students who lack good technology or internet access, who by and large are students higher education historically has served least well? And how do institutions prevent or minimize that disproportionate impact?
  • What kind of training and support are colleges providing to faculty members who have not previously used technology in the classroom?
  • Over the long term, will the sudden "forced" move online speed up the pace of adoption (or at least grudging acceptance) of online and other technology-enabled forms of learning?

Those are a small set of questions rattling around my brain. I’d invite you -- either in the comments section below or in emails to me -- to share with me and my Inside Higher Ed colleagues the questions you’re wrestling with about how this bizarre (though if you think about it, entirely predictable) situation promises/threatens to change the postsecondary learning landscape, in the near and long term.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming, in which readers take issue with some recent "Transforming Teaching and Learning" columns.

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For those of you who aren't journalists or haven't spent a lot of time with them, we're a strange breed. Among other things, it's something of a badge of honor that we're used to angering or exasperating people. In fact, many of us feel that we're not doing our jobs well if that's not the case. I've always felt that an article I write has only hit its mark if everyone is a little unhappy -- otherwise I may have favored one side or perspective over another. (For what it's worth, this strategy does not work very well in one's personal life.)

By that standard, some of my recent columns have clearly done their job.

This column on professors' responsibility for their students' early-career success generated a lot of discussion in our comments section, with quite a few faculty members blasting employers for constantly shifting what they want from graduates, and others suggesting that it's "somewhat simplistic [for professors] to argue that the job of a university is to prepare students to be intellectuals," as one commenter put it.

(There was less division around my recent piece on efforts by Course Hero, the content-sharing platform, to win over faculty members who view it as enabling plagiarism and copyright infringement. While a couple of people accused me of going too easy on the company -- one called it "weaksauce," a new favorite word of mine -- most said they still struggled to see how Course Hero and its ilk are improving education.)

My most recent column, last week's on learning communities, focused on one friendly critic's concerns that some colleges -- in the pursuit of showing they care about student success -- have implemented the high-impact learning practice "in name only," without integrating the work of students and professors in a set of linked courses and investing in strong leadership and support that give students a truly meaningful educational experience.

The various experts quoted in the article, including Steve Mintz, whose original blog post underpinned the column, went out of their way to say they were not dissing those institutions whose learning communities fall short of the ideal, but their comments (and arguably mine in the column) struck one particularly annoyed commenter as "opprobrium."

"No, we don’t have anything much like the wonderfully polished LCs discussed here, but then we have no resources to fund them," said the commenter, who said her/his "large, public, urban 4-year commuter campus" sees its budget shrink each year. "Nevertheless, our terribly hobbled LCs do provide our students with great benefits and I’m proud to teach in them."

Another View

I reached out to the professor directly, asking for more information on what troubled him/her about the column and the perspectives it shared. (We communicated via email.)

First, the professor openly acknowledged the ways in which the institution's learning communities fall short of the high standards that Mintz and others suggested they strive for. Her/his college's learning communities link just two courses (an English composition course and an introductory class in another discipline), rather than three or even five courses, and the professor conceded that the courses' instructors don't collaborate meaningfully on aligning their curricula and assessments, as the experts suggest they should.

"In theory these two instructors are supposed to develop some shared theme, but in my experience this is pretty much in theory," the professor wrote. "I usually, but not always, meet with my partner and talk for a bit to find something we can claim as the shared theme, but the linkage rarely goes much further than that."

The administrators running the program "have a thousand other tasks and responsibilities," and the learning communities "get short shrift as a result … There are next to no resources allocated to them," the professor said. The college runs relatively few learning community sections because "there are so few faculty willing to participate, given the low level of support."

The professor acknowledged having been skeptical about the campus's learning communities, "for all the reasons you detail in your original piece … But I nevertheless see the positive results of the block programming, and if we need to call what we’ve got LCs in order to make these happen then I’m willing to go along. And it really does make a difference to the new frosh. I see it during the course of that first fall semester each year. Before we tried this, there wasn’t much connection among the new students at all."

Asked to explain what makes her/him confident that the institution's learning communities, however limited, help students, the professor said the institution "scores very high in every sort of report card that every sort of program formulates when it comes to retention, given the percentage of our students receiving Pells. There are multiple reasons for this, but the LCs are among them, even if they don’t reach nearly as many new students as they should. I repeat: 'LC' has cachet and we draw on that, even if we don’t live up to the heavy hitters’ standards."

Discouraging Elitism

Which was why the critiques lobbed at "lesser" programs from on high stung, the professor wrote.

"I heard the phrases 'There are programs out there that call themselves learning communities that are learning communities in name only' and 'charade' as indictments of what we’re doing," wrote the professor. "I understand their perspective, but my perspective is that we’re only going to be able to do this if we call these things LCs, and what we’re doing is important and useful, so I don’t want to be told that we don’t measure up, that we’re impostors, that we need to make major improvements, and that if we don’t we have to stop calling what we’re doing LCs."

The professor took issue with one particular line of my own. "You wrote: 'Shockingly, nobody I spoke to for this article acknowledged having the sort of "lesser than" learning community that Mintz called out.'

"Well, I acknowledge it, even if the folks who run our programs might not. Yeah, we’re bottom feeders. So maybe I’ll start an association of bottom feeders. At a time when private colleges are dying on the vine and public institutions are being systematically starved, though, it seems to me like it takes a lot of gall to attack us for trying to eke out just a little bit more help for the freshmen."

What might my column have done differently, I asked the professor.

"This is just a basic problem in conversation, discourse, communication in general," came the response. "How do we push for improved performance at the same time that we’re praising what’s already been achieved? You (and they) might have acknowledged that there are reasons -- good reasons -- why some of these LC programs fall short of what Mintz and the others think should be the minimum standards.

"Definitions are slippery; they have to be. Just because we’re not meeting your standards doesn’t mean we’re not out there on the field playing our little hearts out. I don’t believe that Harvard really provides an education that’s all that much greater than the one my colleagues and I provide, and it bothers me that we’re seen as not much more than chopped liver. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. So what?"

Duly noted, Professor. And keep up the good work.

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