Regarding the Artist

Years ago, before I even thought about teaching as a full-time and permanent career, I spent a few semesters working for an online “university.”

I won’t call what I did “teaching.” After all, the institution didn’t. I was a “facilitator” responsible for a section or two of the required Composition course. It had been designed elsewhere and my work was overseen by young administrators with little advanced training. I got into a dispute with one of them over a matter of pedagogy and was told, bluntly, that I could be replaced in seconds—and would be, if I did not follow orders. Out of a sense of duty to the students, I finished out the terms—but I never asked to continue my involvement.

I thought of this over the weekend as I read two book reviews in the new issue of Academe (as Faculty Editor, I am not responsible for those; Michael DeCesare handles that department), one by Hank Reichman (“Challenging the Technological Quick Fix”) and the other by Hans-Joerg Tiede (“Beware the Faux Middle Ground”). They both reflect understanding of the art that is teaching, that helping students move toward educational goals requires more than templates or mechanized procedures.

Tiede quotes what he says is the central thesis of the book he reviews (I have not read it, but I believe him): “To be absolutely blunt, it is time for individual faculty to give up, cheerfully and not grudgingly, any claim to sole authority of teaching methods of all kinds.” This is an outrageous statement on many levels, not the least being the assumption that any such faculty “claim to sole authority” exists. The classroom door is not a castle’s drawbridge and it never has been. What faculty ask for is respect for the authority of experience in dealing directly with students and inclusion of faculty voices as substantial contributors in creation of educational policy. ‘Shared governance’ does not mean faculty hegemony—and it never has.

That aside, the purpose of making the claim Tiede quotes is quite obvious—the authors want to remove faculty from decision-making processes, making them replaceable widgets as they are in the “college” where I once worked part time (I believe almost all faculty there are adjuncts). The students there were not being educated; they were simply finding ways of meeting benchmarks that would allow the conferring of “degrees.” The plasticity and variety that are necessary parts of education did not exist.

Tiede ends his review (it is well worth reading the whole thing), “the book provides camouflage for a program that undermines the role of the faculty in governance.” This is true of much that passes for discussion of education today, discussion in which actual input from educators is rare. Tiede illuminates the elitist attitude behind this, quoting the book’s introduction, which pleads for faculty to acknowledge “the wise exercise of leadership by others.” That is, to do what they are told.

In his review (also worth reading), Reichman quotes from the book, Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama: “what people get out of technology depends on what they can do and want to do even without technology.” By extension, technological aids are not substitutes for teaching but simply tools teachers can sometimes use for making their teaching more effective. By the same token, the authors of the first book want to use technology to weaken the power of the faculty—something many administrators (and the authors are both former college presidents) have wanted to do long before computer-assisted learning was first broached as a possibility.

Though I love watching developments in technology and use them in all aspects of my life (we all do, whether we wish to or not), I am becoming more and more resistant to relying on them in the classroom or making them substitutes for the classroom. I’m no longer willing to teach totally online courses and have become chary of “hybrid” courses that reduce face-to-face teacher/student interactions on the assumption that the “virtual” is an adequate substitution.

Teaching really is an art in the fact that good work is dependent on careful study of the subject (the student) on top of mastery of the tools (the pedagogy and the content). It depends on the unique perspective of the teacher or artist and cannot be reduced to paint-by-numbers, not if the result is to be something more than widgets.

These two reviews are further confirmations, if we need them, that we on the faculty need to get back to basics–that is, to focus on our students and not on technology.

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