By Anonymous, December 28, 2011 in Uncategorized
I have officially leapt from the frying pan. After something of a nail-biting year on the market at the University of Texas, Austin, I took a job at the end of the summer that unexpectedly opened up at Morehead State University in Morehead, KY. My wife and I were visiting family in Arkansas when I accepted the job; we had two weeks to go back to Austin, pack up our three-bedroom apartment (we have 3 children), and move to Kentucky. Classes started the next week, and I was reassigned classes for which other professors had drafted syllabi and ordered books. So it was a very hectic transition.
In an effort to ease some stress, our department chair assigned me some online teaching, which would allow the ability to work from home more this fall. That’s been very helpful, but it’s also made me acutely aware of the real deficiencies of online education. Some previous blog posts have touted the benefits of careful analysis and reflection that discussion boards can facilitate in an online class. I can see that this kind of use of discussion boards might have some advantages over extemporaneous class discussion. That assumes, however, that the class size stays relatively small. Liberal use of discussion boards for large classes (I’m teaching a course of 60 students) simply generates more grading of written work than is manageable. No doubt this is a problem of class size, not a deficiency unique to distance learning. On the other hand, the limitations of online education accentuate the problems of large class size. Students are more isolated and have even less access to a professor’s help in understanding and processing the material. Inversely, professors are robbed of the ability to spark interest and reflection in students through well-delivered lectures. Students are effectively left, according to Oakeshott’s distinction, to review and memorize what technical knowledge they can, bereft of the practical knowledge they might acquire by observing and learning from a serious teacher.
Of course, it seems that greater isolation is precisely what many students are after. I was surprised to learn that many of my online students are full-time undergrads at MSU, apparently attempting to minimize their investment in general education courses by inserting another degree of remove. Or perhaps they are motivated by the slightly more benign desire for a convenient schedule. Either way, allowing this kind of use of online education serves only to reinforce in students’ minds that nothing particularly important is going on in the classroom. Their ability to jump through educational hoops with the least amount of personal investment possible confirms that this is in fact all they are doing—jumping through hoops. So whatever the legitimate uses of distance learning (and I would be willing to concede that there are some), it’s clear to me that how it is being employed by many students only intensifies its limitations and further undermines the real business of higher education.
On a more positive note, my in-class experiences have been more encouraging. I’ve been pleased with the students’ real desire to learn and their engagement with the material (a lot of this dissimilarity, I realize, is a function of the difference between teaching an intro course and an upper division course for majors). It’s a very satisfying experience to lead students through a set of problems, help them see where the difficulties lie and why they’re important, and to assist them in thinking things through carefully. But I’ve also been struck by what a real challenge good teaching is. I had done enough teaching already (and learned from enough fine teachers) not to expect to be able to step into the classroom and immediately bedazzle a class with my pedagogical artistry. However, I’ve also been amazed at how many stars have to align in order for a class to come off as I’d like it to, and how many of those factors are at times simply beyond my control.
Sometimes I’ll walk into the classroom having over prepared, knowing exactly what I want to get across and how I intend to do it, yet the whole lecture/discussion seems to be a laborious crawl from point A to point B. Other days I’m much less confident about what I’m trying to do, but the ideas just all seem to fall into place, the students get it, and real learning takes place. I know that part of this is just the nature of learning; it’s always peaks and valleys, flashes of insight amidst a lot of muddling through. It also strikes me that this is simply a neophyte’s introduction to acquiring a very complicated skill. At first you have to concentrate on every little detail to get it right, e.g., figuring out at what level to pitch the material, coming up with interesting illustrations, knowing where discussion will be helpful and how to elicit it. It’s easy to fumble the details before their execution becomes second nature. Other times you or the students or both just aren’t “on” that day or for some other reason aren’t fully engaged. Recognizing and figuring out how to effectively counteract those contextual factors takes a lot of work. So I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the labor and practice that being an excellent teacher will require. I’m sure it will get easier as I master the details, but it’s a long-term project.
Over the desk in my study hangs a large needlepoint tapestry of a Bengal tiger that my grandfather stitched when I was a young boy. I’ve come to see the piece as a metaphor for my own work as a scholar and professor. The tapestry is 23” wide and looms 4’ high. I’ve calculated that my grandfather put over 248,000 stitches into that tiger. This was no paint-by-the-numbers piece either. Grandad had an artist friend paint the tiger onto a piece of canvas from a favorite photograph; then he personally picked out dozens of shades of threads to match the colors. Often he meticulously spliced threads together to achieve a precise hue. My uncle tells me that Grandad worked for years finishing the project. He’d come home from a day’s work as a surgeon and sit hunched over his magnifying glass putting in one stitch at a time, day after day. It began with a burst of enthusiasm, no doubt, but it was only completed by diligent, precise, labor. He got sick and tired of the stitching, my uncle tells me. But he pressed on with it because he loved the beauty and power of the beast and knew that the finished product would be a thing of beauty. Indeed it is.