Michael McKenna Guest Post: Worries about on-line teaching and the new normal??

Hello out there, PEA Soupers. I hope all of you are healthy and taking good care of yourself and your families. I happened to be talking on the phone with David Shoemaker last night while we were sharing a few end-of-the-week cocktails, and he asked if I might post something on PEA Soup. It’s about a couple points that came up when we were discussing a conversion to online teaching. I was sharing with Dave my thoughts about a recent memo from the dean of our department’s college. He remarked in passing that higher education could be at a crossroads, and this was in the context of noting that we do not know what the long-term implications will be of this nationwide conversion to online teaching in higher education.

I made two points to Dave about this that he and I thought might be worth sharing.

First, it would be unfortunate if our collective short-term efforts to respond well to an immediate crisis provided a way for administrators to move many of us in the direction of online teaching rather than keep philosophy in the (physical) classroom. Getting a long-term policy implemented as an upshot of decisions made in response to immediate need is, obviously, not out of the question, even if it is the sort of thing best decided by cooler heads in better times. I do, however, think it would be easy to react unfairly to administrators who are now entertaining such thought. If this transition leads many consumers of higher education to consider more seriously online education, then it will affect expected enrollments and create more demand for a different way of delivering education. Good administrators should be strategizing by thinking through how all of this might go. But equally, we should all make sure that in advocating for our discipline we are not forced into a style of teaching that, at least to my mind, diminishes rather than enhances what philosophy is for and what makes it an enjoyable thing to pursue and to teach.

Second, I also noted to Dave that at least at my university, insofar as I understand it, my recorded lectures for my classes are the property of my university. So are my recorded Zoom live class meetings. All of this work I am posting on my d2l course website could be captured and then supplied in the service of others teaching online classes with my work product and expressing my views. Now I have to say that in my case there is not much reason to worry. My recorded lectures are so bad. I say “um” a lot and stumble around for what I want to say with the camera running. There’s little chance anyone will be moved to make use of my lectures. But that’s beside the point. We might all be stockpiling resources universities could use to help make at least some of us unnecessary.

Do you think I am now sounding too paranoid, just one more nut-job conspiracy theorist? Think again! Just yesterday on a long bike ride far outside the city of Tucson, I happened to come upon a building with signage indicating it was owned by the U of A. When I peeked inside, to my horror, I saw an entire room of lifeless androids that were exact replicas of each member of my department. All were wearing the same light blue button-down shirts and tweed jacket, with perfectly combed hair and docile smiles, and they were all on a loop, repeating in monotone voices expressions like, “And therefore…” “What is the argument for this claim?” “Your paper is a week late now, when can you get it to me?” and so on. Get them to pass a Turing test, and we’re screwed. They’ll just hire elite ninjas to “disappear” us tenured faculty in the night, and presto, no more faculty salary needed to run the place. These are dangerous times, my friends.

9 Replies to “Michael McKenna Guest Post: Worries about on-line teaching and the new normal??

  1. According to Brown, I own the copyright to my recorded Zoom lectures.
    But it’s going to vary from university to university, I think.

  2. Like you, Michael, I am concerned with the possible misuse of the current crisis either to move *all* courses online or to pressure us to add online courses to the curriculum, especially for disciplines like philosophy that most administrators view as service to University students. Perhaps our best defence against such a proposal is to have reasons to oppose it. You mentioned that online delivery diminishes rather than enhances what philosophy is for. What reasons have we for thinking that online delivery of content diminishes philosophy?

    In anticipation of your response, let me say this: No doubt, it is an alternative environment, but it is awkward for those of us who are not familiar with the interface. Still, online platforms permit us to interact virtually face-to-face using Zoom, Skype, or Google Hangouts. We can, it seems, have the sorts of conversations we would have if we were interacting face-to-face. Moreover, it seems that the virtual environment helps to facilitate more diversity among speakers; we needn’t yield conversation to the most precocious students-at least that’s been my experience over the last few weeks (admission: that’s not much experience!).

    On a different note, much of the conversation that has occurred amongst philosophers takes place in print. If we look back at early issues of Mind, JPhil, and Phil Review, e.g., we notice that the conversation there seems like something we may find on blogs. A strength of the virtual environment is that much of it is “in writing,” so it’s not clear to me how that kind of interaction would diminish what philosophy is for. In fact, online delivery may serve as an object lesson for non-philosophers. We get to show them what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate in the dialectic state-of-play.

    Having said all this, I’m keen to hear more about your views on this.

  3. My university (singapore university of social sciences) owns the copyright for any lectures I may record in the future. But this does not necessarily make us redundant. After all, tutorials/seminars for full time students are still conducted by full time staff. Likewise, seminars for part time students are conducted primarily by adjunct faculty.

    The thing about recorded lectures is that they allow you to maximise the allotted contact time. It used to be the case that lectures and other learning activities were conducted over a 3 hr block. However, with recorded lectures, we can require students to view the lecture before coming to class and then conduct more learning activities. This allows us to cover more material, or cover the existing material more thoroughly.

  4. I actually think many will be so happy to return to campus and normal life that the incentive will be to double-down on all the ways we interact with each other on campus that social distancing has made impossible. So, rather than pushing us all into the virtual world, in-class instruction may in fact get a boost post-COVID. For some supporting evidence, my students, at least, haven’t been rejoicing at the new online format — they miss in person class meeting, etc. So there’s likely to be at least some consumer pressure to promote brick-and-mortar classes, and most administrators I know are very alive to consumer pressures!

  5. One thing guaranteed to change: In the past, administrators would vaguely wave their hands and say, “If professors have to miss a class to attend a conference, etc., they might try to arrange for some replacement activities for their students.” Now that we know all about asynchronous teaching, and even Zoom, this will be mandatory to make up missed classes. Students may actually start to get their full money’s worth!

  6. That last point is funny, Michael, but you gave it away, since obviously they are keeping those robots in an underground bunker. (Mine is better than yours and way better than Dave’s.)
    I am very concerned about your first point. We are already under a lot of pressure to develop more online courses and programs. This crisis will lead more students to want even more such courses and programs and more teachers to develop them. Administrators will put 2 and 2 together to increase efficiency and resources/$.

  7. Certain other disciplines appear less vulnerable than philosophy on this front– lab sciences, for instance, where classes teach physical skills. But maybe we can make an argument that philosophy is more like those disciplines than appearances suggest.

    Here’s how one such argument might go: (i) defend Aristotle’s view that friends of virtue must spend substantial in-person time together; (ii) argue that the main value of philosophy lies in cultivating intellectual virtue-friendship; (iii) conclude that there is no hope of philosophy being taught effectively – achieving its valuable end- exclusively online.

  8. All good points above!
    Assume higher education increasingly migrates from the campus classroom to virtual space. Consider some likely implications:
    (1) Colleges and universities will discover that many of their classrooms and instructional labs that were once full now sit empty and ready to be shed, repurposed, sold off or sloughed.
    (2) Multiple public universities within a state, will appear to legislatures and governors as expensive excesses and candidates for consolidation or elimination.
    (3) Some states will wonder whether they ought to merge the online efforts of their colleges and universities with those of other states.
    (4) As classrooms become unnecessary, so too do the professors with chalk dust on their hands and the diverse ideas displayed on their different and distant chalk boards.
    (5) Maybe someday someone will ask aloud whether homogenized public education is as good as homogenized milk. The skim’s on sale today, but it goes bad tomorrow.
    (6) Meanwhile, some – but not all – private universities and colleges, will flourish by providing the incarnate alternative to ethereal education. It will be better but more expensive and so available to few.

    When I entered college in 1967, I paid – by washing dishes for the then minimal wage – my own way through one of Ohio’s fine public universities located only a couple of miles from one of the best private universities in the country. That was possible because the generous citizens of Ohio chipped in to cover the real cost of my education. The education I gratefully received was every bit as good (and really as expensive) as excellent one offered down the road to those fortunate enough to avoid the scullery. Once upon a time that was the point and purpose of higher education then. For the aim was to ensure that despite difference in luck at the start of life, we might – all and each – have a chance optimally to contribute to the welfare of all throughout the lives we had luckily won in Darwin’s lottery. Hard in and after a crisis to recover the proper priorities. But maybe we’ll be lucky in just that way.

  9. Hi everyone, so sorry I posted this and then went dark. As it happened, I was deep in some drama here at U of A that has not gone so well. Those of you following the other blogs know well what I mean. I’ll just comment in this one post on everyone’s comments, and thank you all for chiming in. Then I’ll have to return to my drama on these other matters so that I can lose lots of sleep and try hard to fix problems not in my power to fix.

    I’ll take Joe’s last, as it focuses on the most substantive issue.

    As for Murali’s, I agree. I too have recently found it fun to set out my thinking on a set of issues and then devote class time to other matters, where, as you say we can “conduct more learning activities.” I get that. Though there is one learning activity that is cut out that way. It is the activity of sitting and listening to one person speak, sharing their thoughts, and trying in real time to grasp those thoughts and then engage with that person at that time—to converse and have dialogue in the moment while one is teaching to another. I have always thought that one of the things that makes philosophy a part of the humanities—one of its most humane features—is the way we interact when we directly engage each other in philosophical exchange, including teacher with student. Online forums place a barrier to that natural form of engagement.

    Matt, I think you are correct. Lots of students are finding online teaching unappealing. But right now, lots of those students are going to be in homes with no paychecks for a long while. Parents have for too long, along with students of course, been staring down the abyss of huge costs to carry college tuition. Staying in a house where there is no further costs, eating food prepared in the family from the kitchen, drawing on the local grocery store rather than all the burger joints, and so on are all going to compete with the appeal of heading back to campus. I worry higher ed in an on-campus setting is going to start seeming like a lot more of a frivolity when there is an alternative at a fraction of the cost.

    Shoeman, I thought of your point too. I actually like that. I head off for a week and I can just drop some wisdom, maybe rap a few lines of deep thought, and boom! I’m glidin’ off to jazz fest to chill wit my boi in NoLa! Amiright? That’s all upside as far as I am concerned.

    Eddy, about the joke. You are right. I got that story wrong. It would have to be an underground bunker. But on to your other point. My biggest immediate worry is the financial incentive stuff. Prior to this crisis, I was told that the most burdensome problem at a university like ours is a simple matter of space. It is expensive to maintain, and it requires pricey real estate to expand. The incentives to go online are so extreme that I just think the people who control the purse strings will keep moving us there, and quickly if they can get away with it.

    Anne, I like the general form of the argument. Of course, administrators don’t deal in arguments too much. But I agree the value of philosophy does involve a kind of intellectual virtue shared among friends. This relates to what I want to say in reply to Joe.

    Chris, what you describe I fear is close to a reality. Right now, people can capture content of a U of A course and lectures by some of our own colleagues and make use of them in other courses. It’s a tempting logic. Want a top lecture on John Rawls? Who better than, say, Jerry Gaus, Dave Schmidtz, or Steve Wall? Eventually a small cadre of experts might take up all the lecture space needed to deliver content for philosophy classes. Why allow some relative “unknown” freshly minted PhD teaching at some small college teach their kiddos about Rawls? Better to have a pro do it in a recorded lecture. Let the “lesser” folks take up the slack and just help their students understand what the true experts have to say.

    What I want to say here helps me begin to answer Joe. I do not think it is better to have the world’s best give recorded lectures on John Rawls for the undergrads at a place like Ithaca College where I used to teach. I think it is better that one of their faculty do it. Why? First because they have their own interesting ideas and are quite capable of explaining Rawls in beautiful detail. But also because they can stand before their students and look into their eyes. They can tailor what a student says in a lecture to what their students asked them the day before in office hours. They can pick up on a look of puzzlement and recalibrate. But they can also use their own person in the classroom—literally the bodies they have—to display warmth or instead passion or even confusion and frustration. All that gets washed out and anesthetized with Zoom. But a further thing is this. We don’t want the kiddos at a place like Ithaca College thinking that the great ideas are best expressed by a select group of minds. We want them to see the variability of who can do that. And as it happens there are numerous great philosophers out there at college and universities all over who can. We want the humanity of each person who teaches to be in play in each classroom. (Well, except for the assholes. We want them to go away. But at least for the non-assholes, we want that, yo.)

    Now for Joe. You ask me for reasons why I think online teaching diminishes philosophy. Part of my answer is just above. To be more specific, we are embodied creatures, and we read all sorts of cues from our audience when we are in their presence, and vice versa. Maybe one can see on those little squares of 20-50 on a Zoom display the looks of their students and recognize puzzlement or instead timidity at the prospect of speaking up or what not. But I at least teach by trying to connect with my students and adjust on the fly, in mid-sentence, just for them. I also allow them to see me as I am struggling with thoughts, good days and bad. And I am alive to their efforts to understand me. I think what philosophy is for is certainly content. But it is not just that. It is also a way of engaging with another. Online forums compromise that. They also undermine other variables that make it better for students. Entering a physical class with a group is an occasion for a one on one exchange with a peer before or after class about the philosophical arguments, a chance to walk down a hallway after class with a professor and have a conversation about the family pet bleed into last week’s discussion of animal rights, and so on. It is also an occasion for students to collect themselves and organize their lives around attending and really trying to invest in the classroom experience that day in a shared location. It connects them literally with others. All of those things are also what bring students to knock on my office door. That’s when the serious teaching and learning really starts.

    Anyway, I know I did not say that well. I am tired and working too fast. Sorry. If you were here and we were talking in person, I am sure I’d do a better job. At least I’d have the chance to try.

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