It’s taken decades, but educational technology is finally beginning to change the way we think about education itself -- not just the way we deliver it.
Twenty-four years ago, I taught my first writing course in a classroom kitted out with 25 computers. A few years later, I team taught my first online and hybrid courses via threaded discussion boards and asynchronous email-based class discussions, respectively. Of course by that time, the pioneers in the field had already been at the online learning game for years.
In those days, online learning was about experimentation -- seeing what the new technology could do. Soon, though, online learning became a means to an end, in the form of rapid market expansion and tuition growth, aided by 100 percent year-over-year growth rates in the mid-1990s and driven by the early entrants in the market -- for-profit universities and continuing and professional education divisions at nonprofit universities.
A couple decades on now, we see millions of students pursuing degrees wholly online and millions more taking the odd online course for credit, while still millions more are signing up for non-credit-bearing MOOCs. That goes some way to underscoring the fact that online learning is an established and maturing field. But it’s also flattening out. Today the growth has slowed, almost to a standstill, and thus the high-octane revenue growth phase may be behind us.
This may explain, in part, why the field is starting to be talked about in new ways, particularly as new sorts of institutions get involved, as the motivations for deploying an ever-growing number of learning technologies gradually begin to shift, as learning scientists leverage the growing quantities of data captured by these technologies and as the organizational structures online learning operates under begin to take new shape.
If the era of online learning over the past two decades was in large measure about revenue growth, the present moment is about something else.
Evidence of this change can been seen in a subtle shift in how we talk about this work. Where once we spoke consistently about “online learning,” now, more and more often, I hear higher education leaders talking about “digital strategy” -- a shift in terminology that signals, I believe, a significant change in how we are thinking about the utility of learning technologies.
The phrase “online learning,” for example, might be said to be associated with other terms, like growth, tuition streams, content development and professional master’s degrees. By contrast, the phrase “digital strategy” is associated with a more diverse and inclusive set of terms, like pedagogy, market relevance, undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as online and residential learning experiences. If online learning was, more often than not, about money, then digital strategy is about how we think about, define and structure learning.
As Claudia Urrea, a lecturer at MIT’s recently established Office of Digital Learning, put it to me, “It’s no longer just about putting content online but an opportunity to rethink learning.”
Kevin Bell, who serves as executive director for online curriculum development and deployment at Northeastern University, put it somewhat more forcefully: “There needs to be a digital strategy for face-to-face courses, as well.”
Interestingly, both MIT and Northeastern have been busily realigning their organizational structures in the digital realm to assist them in yielding a broader kind of payoff. The Office of Digital Learning at MIT, headed up by Dean Sanjay Sarma, is a relatively new organization into which established initiatives now report -- such as OpenCourseWare, founded more than 15 years ago, and MITx, launched in 2012 and the precursor to MIT’s collaboration with Harvard, called edX.
Last fall, Northeastern brought on Chris Mallet from Western Governors University to serve in a new role as vice president of online programs, and while the job title underscores the familiar and still persistent use of “online” as a term of art, the new role was conceived as a way of integrating and expanding a diverse set of teaching and technology-related initiatives. Other institutions are similarly reorganizing, adding new layers of management and governance to oversee and harmonize their increasingly diverse digital holdings.
In 2014, James DeVaney joined the University of Michigan as its associate vice provost for digital education and innovation, with the explicit aim, he told me, of making his office’s services “obsolete -- in a good way -- so that academic units are thinking about the innovative use of technology in all their learning environments.” Within a few years, DeVaney added, “I would like to see the word ‘digital’ removed from our unit name.”
One way to account for this shift in thinking is the growing awareness of the potential for educational technologies to enhance teaching and learning broadly and to strengthen the value that colleges and universities are delivering at their very core.
“I see the shift not as one from online to digital,” said Eddie Maloney, the executive director of the center for new designs in learning and scholarship at Georgetown University, “but as a shift from a content-driven or faculty-driven curriculum to an intentional design and assessed curriculum. It’s really about a growing focus on learning design.”
Indeed, where the online era was characterized by efforts to make technology-enabled courses just as good a classroom courses, digital strategy and learning design are about making education better -- regardless of the medium.
Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t still institutions out there looking to grow revenue by delivering programs online. And even institutions like Harvard are seeking to generate income from initiatives like HBX, an initiative at Harvard Business School, with its online courses in business fundamentals targeting alumni, corporate and other audiences. Likewise, of course, there are certainly countervailing examples to the structural integration underway at places like MIT, Northeastern and Michigan. Southern New Hampshire University and Champlain College, to name just two examples, have intentionally set out to create organizational separation between their on-campus and online learning activities, and with strong enrollment growth to show for their efforts.
For others, though, the ambitions are different. According to Josh Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College, and author of Inside Higher Ed’s “Technology and Learning” blog, “Places that really want to protect their brand -- like Brown, Yale, Georgetown, Dartmouth -- are experimenting with low-residency online programs in professional schools and they are having real success, which is driving some rethinking about what we need to be doing to improve our core product. At Dartmouth, it’s a quality play. We want to bring new techniques into residential teaching but also create sustainable programs.”
To the extent that this shift in emphasis from online learning to digital strategy can produce sustainable programs of enhanced quality, we can undoubtedly expect to see more institutions pursuing the path of learning design informed by digital experimentation.
While it may yet be too early to say for sure whether this shift will be long lasting, if it is, we should expect to see evidence of it in some very prominent places. As DeVaney put it, “I think we’ll know if this shift is real when we see more institutions differentiating around this. Hopefully we’ll see mission statements that look different, too.”
Kathleen Ives, chief executive officer of the Online Learning Consortium, agrees, noting, “Digital is becoming mainstream. But for an institution to succeed it has to be part of their vision and mission and has to permeate across their organization.”
Bell at Northeastern argues that truly effective digital strategy will have to go a step farther even than connecting diverse institutional activities. “Digital leadership should not just be about harmonizing initiatives,” he said. “It should also be about harmonizing our messaging and conveying our unique philosophy to the communities we serve -- and at Northeastern, the emphasis is on online experiential learning.”
In other words, the shift to digital strategy will only be significant if it enables institutions to not only think and teach differently, but also to talk more effectively about who they are and what makes them different at the very core.
Peter Stokes is a managing director in the higher education practice at Huron Consulting Group.
Early in my career, there was an incident involving a senior professor in another department. He was a mild-mannered man but deeply embittered about his career. He began savagely berating students in feedback on assignments and writing vitriolic reviews of junior faculty members. To avoid an inevitable lawsuit, the college negotiated his early retirement. At commencement, the college always announced the recipient of its top teaching award. I happened to be standing near this professor before commencement began. I heard him tell one of his colleagues, “This is my last commencement, it would be really nice if I won the teaching award.” I was stunned. How could someone being forced into retirement for abusive practices believe he might be chosen as the outstanding teacher?
The experience raised a basic question in my mind: What do people think professors do to deserve teaching awards? The answer to this question is important. It defines the kind of teachers we strive to become. For institutions, the answer determines the kind of teaching that is rewarded with tenure and promotion (at least at places that don’t focus exclusively on research).
When someone wins an award for outstanding research or artistic expression, we understand that the person has made a critical discovery or created something unique and significant; but when a person wins a teaching award, what do we think he or she did to deserve it? Do we believe the recipient did something extraordinary and important, or do we attribute it to less admirable reasons, such as being popular among students? In my experience, the most positive reasons people give to explain why a colleague won a teaching award is that the person is especially passionate or dedicated to teaching. We applaud colleagues who win teaching awards who have sacrificed in some way for teaching, or who have worked to make their classes particularly fun and engaging, or who inspire students to excel.
What is notable about these reasons is that they have little to do with actual teaching skill. The implication is that award-winning teachers are not any more effective at engendering student learning than the rest of us. Rather, they devote more time and attention to their teaching and students than we do, or they persevere through greater challenges. I propose that these traits, while certainly important, are not the critical reason why some faculty deserve to win teaching awards.
During my career I’ve seen faculty members who are deeply passionate about teaching and care greatly about their students who nonetheless are not particularly successful teachers. Passion, dedication and sacrifice are no guarantee of teaching effectiveness. They do not automatically translate into student achievement or satisfaction. Neither does disciplinary knowledge; faculty with distinguished research records are not necessarily better teachers than graduate students.
What, then, is the critical element for teaching success? I say the best teachers are learning driven; their teaching is wholly focused on developing a deep understanding of the subject matter in the minds of their students. This entails much more than presenting information. Learning-driven teachers don’t simply wish or hope their students learn -- they take actions to see that the desired kind of learning takes place. Consciously or not, learning-driven teachers are concerned with an array of factors that influence student learning. For example, they manage the class’s collective attention, monitor metacognitive awareness, respect the constraints of working memory and promote transfer-appropriate processing, even if these teachers are unaware of the formal names of such concepts.
These teachers create a classroom atmosphere that supports learning. They become trustworthy sources of knowledge for students. These teachers show students the shortcomings of their current thinking and understanding, and convince them of the value of developing a deeper, more accurate understanding. They create learning experiences that promote both long-term learning and appropriate recall and application beyond the classroom. These teachers are able to assess the level of understanding of students and recognize how to move that understanding toward a desired learning goal. The ability to accomplish all these tasks defines teaching skill.
The best teachers develop an accurate understanding of how people learn. They recognize the power they have to either help or hurt student understanding. They see learning as a shared responsibility between themselves and the students. Quality of teaching is judged by what students learn and how they can use the information. If students don’t learn, teaching is not successful, regardless of how brilliant and engaging the teacher might be.
A learning-driven approach can be contrasted with an information-driven approach to teaching. Faculty who adopt this approach see the goal of teaching as presenting information the students are responsible for learning. The teacher’s responsibility is to make sure the information is accurate, up-to-date and presented in as clear, organized and engaging way as possible. Quality of teaching is judged by informational content and quality of delivery. Little knowledge beyond up-to-date disciplinary expertise is needed. Cutting-edge faculty use the latest educational technology and the most current teaching methods, but their use and implementation is not guided by student learning. In this approach, the teacher either cannot or should not influence learning beyond the method of delivering information.
The two approaches lead to different views of teaching awards. From the information-driven perspective, teaching is straightforward. Anyone with sufficient disciplinary knowledge has the ability to teach effectively. The challenging part of teaching is developing good presentations and grading assignments. From this perspective, most anyone is deserving of a teaching award if they make a sincere effort to be clear, current, engaging and organized, because that is about all a teacher can do. Some faculty have a special knack or talent for teaching, but it isn’t something that can be developed through training. For learning-driven faculty, teaching is a complex challenge requiring innovation, creativity and constant adaptation based on evidence of student learning. The challenge of teaching is creating conditions in which learning will occur. Teaching awards are for teachers who have mastered that challenge more successfully than others.
One belief that both perspectives share is that student evaluations alone are not a sufficient measure of teaching effectiveness, but the learning-driven approach points to the kinds of additional information that should be collected. A learning-driven perspective demands evidence that one pedagogical approach or activity is superior to another in a way that contributes to learning. The same evidence that can help improve student learning can be used to evaluate teaching effectiveness.
The consequences of these two different perspectives on teaching are far reaching. For example, consider grade inflation. For information-driven teachers, if a large percentage of students in a class earn high grades, it is a sign the class is too easy and cause for concern. Learning-driven teachers distinguish between making it easier for students to get good grades and making it easier for students to learn. Learning-driven teachers see the former as grade inflation, but the latter as skilled teaching. In addition, the information-driven perspective means that universities need not provide much training to graduate students or faculty on how to teach, while the learning-driven perspective means that universities should provide professional development opportunities to help faculty become award-winning teachers.
Finally, the information-driven approach allows faculty members to believe that they are doing all they can to promote learning when their teaching may actually be suboptimal and even detrimental. As a result, they may end up with a poor classroom experience for both themselves and their students. They may mistakenly blame the indifference of the current generation, the inadequacies of high schools, or mollycoddling by the students’ parents. Faculty members may become frustrated and deeply embittered, like my colleague in the opening story. No, he did not win the teaching award, but the tragedy is that his students didn’t learn and he didn’t have the satisfaction of helping them learn, which should be award enough for any teacher.
Stephen L. Chew is professor and chair of psychology at Samford University.
The mudslinging in the debate over the use of digital courseware has reached Hatfield-and-McCoy levels of feuding. I have heard at least one higher education leader say, “The only faculty that are afraid of being replaced by digital courseware are those who deserve to be replaced by digital courseware.” Also heard are descriptors such as: rigid, skeptical, curmudgeon, Luddite, etc. On the other side, there are the “reformers” and “disruptive innovators” who are criticized for seeing technology as a panacea.
The enthusiastic debate about digital courseware’s adoption and its impact on student outcomes is caused in part by mounting pressure on faculty to change and, especially, to use more technology in their teaching. Too often, though, faculty are considered as a monolithic group, facing the same challenges across many different types of institutions and student populations. Our research shows that this oversimplifies the perspectives of faculty and the challenges that institutions and instructors face as they grapple with elevated outcome expectations and capacity constraints.
There is more texture to the debate than the view that it’s about brash proponents of using digital courseware squaring off with change-resistant opponents. And this oversimplification sprouts problems beyond mischaracterizations of faculty. The common belief that faculty members are blockers to digital curriculum adoption pushes those who are attempting to advance technology use on campus to adopt strategies that circumvent faculty members instead of directly engaging them. This creates a harmful cycle in which the concerns of faculty members are not addressed, new platforms are created or adopted with incomplete information, and administrators and faculty members on both sides of the technology-adoption debate remain frustrated.
So, what’s really behind faculty members’ resistance? Fundamentally, most faculty are open to using digital courseware, but are so dissatisfied with the prevailing user experience that they are unlikely to recommend their current digital curriculum to a colleague. In surveying 2,700 faculty and administrators in the summer of 2014, our research identified four unique faculty groups on campuses across the United States. Common attributes, behaviors and mind-sets among faculty in these groups help to uncover the layers underneath faculty members’ perspectives on digital curricula. Below is a chart that will help you identify which group you or your faculty fit into, and a snapshot of our findings on each group.
Off-the-Shelfers: This group is moderately open to the use of courseware. They represent 21 percent of faculty. Off-the-Shelfers are more heavily concentrated in public two-year institutions and career-focused disciplines. These individuals value ease of use and implementation and are less inclined to develop their own curricula than their peers. Additionally, analysis links their cost sensitivity to this institutional and discipline concentration.
Unconvinced Do-It-Yourselfers: This group is open to the use of courseware but is still looking for proven improved outcomes. They represent 25 percent of faculty. Unconvinced DIYers want control over curriculum decisions and are open to how courseware might enable this, however, they are not yet convinced that the cost of using courseware is worth the potential benefits.
Enthusiastic Do-It-Yourselfers: At 13 percent of the population, Enthusiastic DIYers look very similar to Unconvinced DIYers in their perceptions and preferences, but they report higher satisfaction with digital courseware than their peers. Generally, Enthusiastic DIYers have not earned tenure or are not on a tenure track and have been teaching for fewer than 10 years.
Lecturing Skeptics: Representing 31 percent of all faculty, Lecturing Skeptics are the faculty most likely to deliver instruction through a lecture format, the least likely to instruct online. They are most likely to prefer proven teaching methods. These are the more traditional drivers of the teaching and learning process, to whom digital courseware has yet to prove itself. Lecturing Skeptics are more likely to teach in arts and social science disciplines than members of other segments.
When faculty survey respondents were asked whether they would recommend their courseware product to a friend or colleague at their own or another institution, only one of the four segments, Enthusiastic DIYers, exhibited a positive net promoter score (NPS), meaning that a greater portion of the group would be promoters of courseware than would be detractors. The negative NPS from three of the four groups of faculty reflects the overall level of dissatisfaction with courseware that faculty members feel.
What does this all mean? Ultimately, we found that each faculty group reveals insights that can be used to engage with those who are unconvinced and skeptical. For courseware developers, these findings are a loud call to rethink their approach to user input in their design process. The truth is that faculty are decision makers and key stakeholders. They have influence to redefine the courseware category and to improve the experience for students and faculty. More than anything, internal and external stakeholders and decision makers need to understand these faculty groups and what is driving their behavior. Ongoing failure to listen and respond to faculty needs will only reinforce resistance.
Digital curricula in the hands of supported and equipped instructors have significant potential to personalize learning and to lead to the delivery of high-quality education that meets the needs of today’s postsecondary students. But that impact will only be realized if technology solutions are able to successfully scale. New offerings with greater capacity to adapt to faculty needs are unlikely to transition from pilot to scale unless more than just the early adopters or “tech-savvy” faculty are engaged from the beginning.
The legendary 1870s feud between West Virginia families the Hatfields and the McCoys -- from disputes over land, prized pigs, interfamily romances and no fewer than 10 revenge killings -- wasn’t a simple one, either. (But the families did reunite in 1979 for a more palatable version on the game show Family Feud -- no joke!) Only by moving the conversation from oversimplified mischaracterizations to engagement of all faculty in the process to address needs and the barriers to adoption will we be able to redefine the digital courseware experience and achieve personalized learning for all students.
Gates Bryant is a partner with Tyton Partners, the former Education Growth Advisors, which provides investment banking and strategy consulting services to companies, organizations and investors.
I’m a liberal white faculty member, and I have a confession: I have no idea why other liberal white faculty members claim to be so afraid of their liberal students. In the past few months, anonymous (and sometimes not) white professors have started airing these fears, or re-airing them, as they are reminiscent of old complaints. The campus culture, they claim, has grown toxic, with faculty members carefully paring their syllabi to avoid any potentially uncomfortable material. A specter, they will tell you, is haunting universities -- the specter of political correctness, or radical liberalism, or identity politics.
The latest of these accounts, published recently in Vox under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser, is particularly unconvincing. Schlosser, an ostensibly liberal professor, conflates real problems -- the shifting of higher education toward a consumer experience (explained and deflated well here by Rebecca Schuman) and the absence of job protection for contingent faculty -- with ghosts conjured by paranoia. The generality of Schlosser’s writing doesn’t pass the sniff test; for example, he claims, “Personal experience and feelings aren't just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics.”
That sentence doesn’t stack the deck so much as it replaces it entirely. And the oddly random anecdotes of feelings-driven radical liberalism don’t add up; as in many invocations of the dangers of student liberalism, Twitter is a central go-to demon. The fundamental irony of Schlosser’s essay is that he criticizes overreliance on emotional responses that students have, but the fear he describes ultimately seems like an overreliance on an emotional response by some white faculty members. Criticism from students -- whether it’s over the reading choices, the assignments, the in-class dynamic -- isn’t new, even if it develops out of students’ political perspectives or not. Instructors have to learn to meet that criticism and engage it respectfully.
Finally, people of color are starkly underrepresented among full-time faculty members and face authority challenges in the classroom that white male faculty do not, so the growing concern about what the white professoriate can and cannot say seems laughable to me. Plus, for what it’s worth, I’m a white male instructor unprotected by the tenure track, but I don’t feel the fear Schlosser describes, and my academic friends and colleagues, both tenured and not, at a wide variety of institutions, either don’t feel this fear or don’t confess it to me.
All that said, I do think Schlosser’s concern comes from meaningful, important questions: How do faculty members teach controversial material in an open, respectful forum where students can learn? And how can white male instructors approach issues of race, gender and sexual orientation with sensitivity? I teach first-year writing, creative writing and the personal essay, so each semester I regularly teach (and encounter in student writing) controversial material. If a student has raised a complaint about my handling of that material, it hasn’t been mentioned to me. I don’t assume to know every experience that might arise in the humanities classroom; I also can’t claim I’m the exemplar of how to encounter controversial issues in the classroom. Based on my experience, though, I have suggestions below on how Schlosser and other fearful faculty can teach controversial material.
Know, and admit, the limits of your authority. All instructors try to prepare as comprehensively as possible, but we all enter the classroom with our blind spots, our little (and sometimes big) ignorance. If you help students understand both the background of knowledge you bring as well as the uncertainties and questions you ask of a subject, they likely will understand your perspective more fully and engage with the questions you want them to consider. You won’t lose authority; rather, they’ll grow to see, via your model, how they can enter into complex problems and develop their own authority. They’ll also recognize the limits of their own knowledge, and that knowledge is fluid and limited.
Know, and admit, the extent of your authority.Faculty members are overwhelmingly, disproportionately white; department chairs more so. That’s the main reason I can’t take seriously this anonymous fear of retribution from liberal students: even at colleges with less diverse student populations, students still find more diversity among their peers than on the faculty. The resistance some white faculty members feel from students is, among other things, likely resistance to discovering the university as an ostensibly open environment that is still a sometimes unwelcome one for students of color. Even if we’re trying to be welcoming, white faculty members, myself included, are part of the problem, whether we like it or not. (NB: We should not.) Acknowledging that disparity as part of the process of teaching difficult material can help students discuss that material openly.
Know your place -- or, rather, know the place you’re in. While earning my Ph.D., I taught at an urban campus in the Midwest. In one first-year writing course, a student argued that affirmative action has given unfair opportunities to African-American students. In the course of the conversation, I asked the students what percentage of the student body they thought was African-American. One student, from a rural area, guessed 50 percent; no student guessed less than 25 percent. When I told them the percentage was actually under 10, well under the demographics of the city, state and nation the university was home to, they refused to believe me. (Had they looked around the room, they would have seen a single African-American student among the 18 of them.) When I showed them the university’s website, the look of confused resistance that spread on their faces appalled me; one student continued disagreeing, saying there must be some mistake with the website -- an administrator had told him it was 25 percent.
Had I been more aware of the place I was in, I would have understood their reactions better. A colleague reminded me later that the university was bordered on two sides by predominantly African-American neighborhoods; the custodial staff and service workers on campus were also largely African-American. Many of the students came from predominantly white neighborhoods and rural areas; they’d never seen so many African-Americans, so their imaginations likely multiplied those numbers.
Wherever we are, we should remember that academe is a shorthand for extraordinarily diverse kinds of universities. That’s why many of us resist when longtime tenured faculty from elite universities describe their experience as universal, a useful reminder that advanced age and advanced degrees don’t necessarily confer wisdom. Knowing your own college or university culture more intimately will help you work more directly with your students, whether the subject matter is controversial or not.
Recognize your own emotional reactions. Fear has a way of magnifying itself. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean the thing you’re afraid of is real. Along those lines, I’m skeptical of those who posit a split between the intellectual and emotional. Too many of the essays about fear of liberal students (especially Schlosser’s in Vox) posit the fearful faculty as reasonable and the student body as unreasonably emotional. Not only does the fear some white faculty members describe seem like an emotional embellishment, conceiving of emotion and reason as disconnected opposites does a tremendous disservice to both. Yes, reason and logic can be dispassionate, even at times disconnected from our emotional responses, but to pretend that they must be ever thus in the humanities classroom ignores basic human experience. If you pretend as Wendy Kaminer does that the utterance of the n-word by a white person has a negligible emotional charge, you’re committing an intellectual sin.
Explore your own bias, and never treat it as solved. I’m a white man born and raised in Arkansas. I’ve spent years working to understand the legacy of racism in my home state, and I’ve come to understand that, no matter how fully I try, I’ll probably never filter from myself the last dregs of that legacy. Exploring that bias -- via Harvard University’s Implicit Bias test, for example -- and acknowledging it to students can be a useful path to helping instructors and students recognize their own biases and develop a more complex understanding of their own emotional and intellectual responses.
When we discuss race in my classes, I tell my students of my background and acknowledge that, as careful as I try to be in thinking and speaking about race, I almost surely bring biases and emotional reactions I don’t yet recognize. In my experience, that engages them with their own experience and the intellectual material we discuss. Along those lines, instructors can benefit from presenting themselves as learners. Both the best and the most frustrating students have an inherent mistrust of authority, I think. As an instructor, I do, too. My greatest pleasure in teaching is being surprised and enlightened by my students’ work, especially their productive, constructive challenges to authority. And when they realize they’ve taught the instructor something, the students gain a useful confidence and foundation for the development of more complex ideas.
Teach difficult, controversial texts, paying particular attention to intellectual and cultural diversity. The avoidance of difficult material that Schlosser describes would be enormously counterproductive, of course, and faculty need to reconsider their syllabi in light of ongoing change. For example, I had long been proud to have a diverse list of poets and fiction writers in my creative-writing class. But when I reconsidered the syllabus last summer, I discovered that the poetry readings were less diverse and less focused on issues of race and gender than I had thought. So I adjusted the readings, adding in poems like June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and short stories like Percival Everett’s “The Appropriation of Cultures,” excellent writing that drew the students’ attention to complex issues. Just as we discussed sound and sonnet structure in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” and image and figure in Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” we discussed line breaks, anaphora, tone and race in Jordan’s poem.
As sometimes happens, I encountered student fatigue with discussions of race (in this case in a discussion of Jordan’s poem), only to discover what I think is often the source of that fatigue: many students see the beginning and end point of such discussions as “racism is bad.” When reluctant students saw how the issues were more complicated and required more inquiry, they became more engaged and moved to more compelling insights about the poem and about race.
Make clear the potential discomforts and challenges of the course material. To many, that might sound like a trigger warning, but it actually isn’t. On the first day of my classes, I mention that our reading (and possibly their writing, in creative-writing and personal-essay courses) will make us think in complicated, sometimes uncomfortable ways, about sexuality, race, gender and age, among other subjects. That isn’t a trigger warning; it’s simple politeness. Each class approaches its subject matter differently, and guiding students to your pedagogical approach helps them build the class dynamic more constructively. Trigger warnings, on the other hand, explicitly inform students about subject material that might trigger memories of trauma for those who’ve suffered that trauma. Though I don’t include trigger warnings, it’s frustrating that so many critics of trigger warnings conflate discomfort and trauma, ultimately misrepresenting the idea and design of trigger warnings.
If a student accuses you of hurting her/his feelings in a meaningful way, assume you’re in the wrong before you assume you’re in the right. This runs counter to the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” but it’s a useful guide to self-awareness. (Bear in mind that I’m not arguing that departments should assume their faculty are in the wrong.) In academic and nonacademic contexts, I’ve seen plenty of people react immediately with a sharp defensiveness to all kinds of accusations, only to calcify that defense over time. (Full disclosure: I’ve been that person before and likely will be again.) Moving past the initial defensiveness, or converting the initial impulse into self-inquiry, can be useful in helping instructors consider their biases and emotional responses. Even if you and your colleagues decide you weren’t in the wrong, avoiding the defensive impulse will make you a more perceptive teacher.
What I’ve written above isn’t a comprehensive guide for scared white faculty; I’ve based it on my experience, so it’s necessarily limited. I’m trying to keep myself malleable in the hope of becoming a better teacher. Students will change over time; decrying the loss of some golden age while warning of some encroaching PC liberalism screaming across the sky does the students no good.
Charles Green teaches writing at Cornell University. He hopes that his bosses at the Politically Correct Policepersons Union will accept this essay in lieu of dues this month.