Thursday, July 20, 2017

Nothing Will Save Us Or Make This Easy

This summer I met with the director of accessibility services on our campus to discuss a problem she was having.  A number of faculty on our campus had become interested in using open educational resources, allowing our students—many of whom are first-generation students struggling to make tuition payments—to save money by providing them access to free course content. 

But these resources, while so helpful to some of our students, were causing problems for others.  A half-dozen students in those courses had visual impairments that necessitated access to audio or large-print forms of these course materials.  Some of those materials came in forms that did not lend themselves easily to either of these options, and the director of accessibility services and our IT department had to scramble in the middle of the semester to provide the tools these students needed to succeed.

The conflict between these two efforts to help our students represented a case of competing goods.  Surely we want to do what we can to help make college as affordable as possible for our students.  Tuition rates are sky-high and climbing; as the father of two children in college, I know how the annual sticker-shock of textbook prices only intensifies the financial burdens our students must bear.  Open educational resources seem like they could save us from the scourge of overpriced textbooks adding to the cost of college.

Equally surely we want to provide accessible course content to all students, whatever learning challenges they might face.  If we admit them to our institutions and accept their tuition dollars, we have both a moral and legal obligation to make our courses accessible to them.  Selecting and creating course materials that can be accessed by visually impaired students (through audio or large-print formats) seems like a fundamental obligation on our part.

These goods compete.  No painless solution exists here.  In this particular case, faced between the choice of a free resource that has not been made accessible and a costly one that has been made accessible, we are morally and legally obligated to choose the accessible one.  But that doesn't mean that something has not been lost here; we have sacrificed one good (saving our students money) for another one.

This problem of competing goods exists in many other areas of higher education.  Earlier this year the Chronicle published a satirical essay in which a professor wrote scathingly about students who attempt to escape their academic obligations by fabricating deaths in the family.  The essay sparked outrage on Twitter and in the comments, with some readers claiming that we should always trust our students, even if that meant we were occasionally lied to by them.

Others pointed out that a student who fabricates a dead grandmother to gain more time on a project or an exam gains an unfair advantage over his fellow students, which violates the integrity of the academic enterprise, and integrity should matter to us.  While we may not like the fact that students are measured and compared to one another through grades, they are evaluated in these ways by graduate schools and employers, and those folks are expecting us to give accurate representations of what our students have learned and accomplished, including in comparison to one another.

These goods compete.  We should trust our students and create learning communities in which students feel they can trust us.  We should also protect the integrity of the academic enterprise by ensuring that students do their work honestly and fairly.  No magic bullet exists to reconcile these competing goods once and for all. 

In short, when it comes to education, nothing will save us or make this easy.

For the remainder of my academic life, this will be my mantra.

Nothing will save us or make this easy.

Last year I wrote for the Chronicle a series of columns about small changes we can make to our teaching, ones that were based on research from the learning sciences.  I was inspired to write those essays, and the book that accompanied them, in part because I had become frustrated with our seeming fascination with radical solutions to the complex problems we face in helping other human beings learn. Flip the classroom!  Embed your course content in games!  Chuck traditional classrooms and let students hack their own educations!

I am convinced that every pedagogical context does not require a radical re-thinking of an endeavor in which we seem to have been engaged with some success for thousands of years.  The persistence of the traditional classroom structure across times and cultures may indicate that something about it works well for us as a species.  We also have an enormous sector of our society and economy which arose around it and depends upon it.  So we may be better off evolving slowly, experimenting with small changes and continuous efforts at improvement.

And yet . . . I might well be wrong about that.  Perhaps society has changed so quickly in the past decades, driven by our astonishing leaps in technological innovation, that we have to re-think higher education entirely.  I’m skeptical, but open to the prospect.  I watch educational innovators with interest, and am glad to see radical experiments happening.  This fall I will be using community service learning in my first-year writing course, making a substantial change that I have been thinking about and working on all summer.

So here too we find that no right answer exists.  Small changes or major innovations—neither will save us from the hard work of greeting each new group of students, bringing them the courses we have planned, and then trying to adjust those courses according to how well they seem to be helping students learn.  Nothing will make that any easier.

But now for the joyful turn: the fact that no easy solutions exist, and that absolute positions have no place in our discussions, is precisely what makes teaching such an intellectually challenging, fascinating, and important endeavor. 

Although I grew up in a family of teachers, I had no desire to teach when I first entered graduate school.  I wanted to read literature and become a writer.  Graduate school was a place for me to bide my time until my writing career broke.  But something about the challenge of teaching, when I first stood in front of the classroom, lit an intellectual fire in me that has continued to burn more than twenty-five years later.  Every semester I enter the classroom with hope and excitement; every semester I leave it feeling like many things went well, but I didn’t quite get it right, and I’d like just one more crack at it to see if I can make it better. 

The new semester approaches again (already!), and I view my upcoming first-year writing course with that same mix of hope and trepidation with which I greet each new semester.  I likewise view it as another opportunity to be both right and wrong about my pedagogical convictions.  Either way, I’ll come out the other side having learned something new about myself, about them, or about writing and how to teach it.  Either way, I’ll be ready to try again.

Only one thing can close off this kind of attitude toward teaching, which I believe we must adopt if we want to continue doing the best we can for our students: belief in absolutes of any kind in relationship to your students, the practice of teaching, or the nature of education.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have convictions; it means we should always remain open to the possibility that our convictions might be wrong. 

We’ll never have the answers for what will help every student learn most effectively, no matter how much data we gather.  We’ll never find the one secret strategy that motivates every students.  We’ll always have to keep experimenting, keep trying new things, and keep being upended by the endless individual differences that exist within our students and individual classrooms.

We will never get teaching quite right. 

And how wonderful that is!

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