All posts by chris

6×6-2 The Compulsory Arts

[Apologies in advance for this ramble. Out of desperation I resorted to headphones, a timer, and an unedited—other than fixing basic spelling/grammar errors and formatting footnotes8—writing sprint.]

It’s been a few years since I’ve explored the research into the challenging relationship between instructors and instructional designers, but a quick trawl today at least makes clear that no magic communication cure-all has appeared1.

I say “challenging,” but anyone who works in learning design knows the common framing question is, “how do we overcome faculty resistance?” Or, as the more jaded might ask amongst themselves, “why do we have to spend so much time convincing faculty to just pick up some of those $%&# gold nuggets?

Some of the highest hurdles to teaching excellence are systemic: even assuming that an instructor can overcome the natural trap of “good enough,” and wants to improve continuously for their own reasons, most are trapped inside a double-layer of smothering bureaucracy. Teaching is usually not accorded the importance it deserves—if it is seen2 as important at all—and plays a correspondingly small, effectively unimportant role in promotion and tenure, compensation, workloads, etc. And this broken system is stuffed, turducken style, into institutions that not only aren’t philanthropic in nature, though they often like to pretend they are, but are actually big businesses in which credit hours and high-minded rhetoric are scanty fig leaves for real currency.

So I understand the reluctance. Academic work can be difficult, time is in short supply, and they aren’t paid by the hour.

But teaching is both craft and art. It’s more than a calculation of time and effort, more than the imagined billable hours on the mental meter salaried instructors frequently have running in their head. Good craftsmanship and creative teaching are hard. Caring about learners and working to improve are often Herculean labors7 that, unlike those faced by the mythical hero, don’t stop at a mere dozen. In fact, they don’t end at all, placing real demands on instructors and designers alike to manage their time. I frequently say that both could spend the rest of their careers improving and transforming a single course, but that isn’t our blessing/curse.

However, the answer isn’t spending as little time as possible on preparation and teaching, either, turning what should be creating a world of connection and learning into a producing a minimum viable product. I understand when good enough to go teach a course has to be good enough to stop improving a course. I don’t understand why so few teachers put in the effort to go further. Where are the artists challenging themselves of their own accord? The craftspeople who want to go beyond assembling items from the publisher’s versions of IKEA?

I’ve been in this field for a long time and, in the end, I don’t believe this kind of creative striving is something that can be instilled, only discovered and cultivated. I can work to establish relationships with instructors and gain their trust, facilitate learning communities, and put on events. I can provide cookies and coffee. If I’m fortunate, I can provide stipends and release time. These things will help some teachers do more for a while but, as the cliché goes, the motivation and passion have to come from the inside. Extrinsic motivations, even if maintained materially, are not enough to foster permanent change. Teachers who want to pick up and spend those bags of gold have to do it for themselves, the same way writers have to choose to put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard3 without being told to and, for the vast majority, with insufficient compensation and little to no fanfare.

All of this is why the common framing in the instructional design world of overcoming resistance and convincing faculty feels off. Before instructional design work of consequence can happen, the instructor needs to have an authentic, intrinsic desire to create work of consequence. Before faculty development events can succeed, those motivated faculty need to be found—or aided in discovering their own creative ambitions.

As a poet4, I’ve taken my fair share of poetry classes and workshops and had the fortune of leading them myself. In many ways, the pursuits of writing poetry and teaching demand, if one is to “succeed” at them, the same things: desire, intrinsic motivation, and the willingness to find the time to put in the hard intellectual labor at a pursuit that will never be finished.

But poetry writing classes are attended by people who want to write poetry. No one is being forced to be a poet, and teachers don’t spend time trying to convince their students that creative writing is a vast, life-long discipline, and poetry a demanding art form.

Faculty, on the other hand5, are often practically forced to teach. For the most part they don’t recognize, or they discount, education as a real discipline, and they don’t understand that teaching is an art. And I’m not even going to get started on lack of knowledge of, and disrespect for, the discipline and art of learning design6, even as those designers have to simultaneously do their actual work and fill in for what would be, in the poetry analogy, introductory literature classes that provide exposure to different authors and work ahead of some of them self-selecting into that world.

As I said earlier, some of this is systemic. A real solution would involve recognition and review of teaching, unbundling research and teaching, proper compensation for dedicated teachers, and much more. Meanwhile, while teaching remains for most a necessary sidelight to achieve things they feel are more important, and part-time lecturers are given little or no time for development of themselves or their courses, learning design is left to attempt the impossible: creating compulsory, collaborative art.

1. The pharmaceutical industry is woefully behind in created such a wonder drug.
2. A sad reality is that even the pretense of prioritizing teaching is often dropped, leaving teachers who want to excel “seen” in the same way one might note that a driver saw a pedestrian…and ran them over anyway.
3. And often head to table, hard.
4. Or more accurately, former poet and MFA program deserter.
5. Particularly full-time, tenure-track and tenured faculty.
6. Maybe another time. But it’s bad. At least once a week an instructor will ask, essentially, how they can quickly “pick up instructional design” when they have a bit of free time.
7. If you’re getting bored already, may I direct you to reading Stephen Fry’s depiction of Heracles in his excellent book Heroes.
8. Yes, I do think with footnotes!

[CC-BY image by lylejk]

What Happened to the Bags of Gold?

[Note: I’m going to be making some broad generalizations here, but I’m not unaware there is a wide range of differences within the groups as well as outright exceptions.]

From mid-2018 until a few months ago, I was almost completely disconnected from what had been my essential online education & open teaching and learning & educational technology community for more than a decade. What started as a positive, intentional break when I left my job in Alaska became a slog through deep depression, my mother’s death by suicide, prolonged ECT treatment, the pandemic, and continuous family issues that ultimately precluded even making personal connections with those I was closest to.

Mom, Althea, Galen (1993?)

Most of those issues remain in some way, but I’ve managed to re-establish some connections and make a tentative re-entry into that world behind the scenes and—beginning with posts like this—out in the open too.

It’s not the same. Some voices of my personal community remain as active and strong as ever, if not even better. But a significant majority have retreated, become more withdrawn, or left the public arena (if not the profession) completely.

What happened? Whence my unease? Is it an inevitable fact of aging, both my own and the community generally? Is it just me? Why does it, in this particular area, just feel both different and, in a way I can’t quite pin down, wrong?

Gardner Campbell Blows the Reverend's Mind

I’ve been considering these questions through the lens of Gardner Campbell’s famous (in my circles anyway) “Bags of Gold” analogy, where he—and I! Way back in 2009!—felt that the explosive growth of technologies and platforms paired with experimental pedagogical approaches created the conditions of a possibly amazing educational future. We knew there were those who couldn’t care less, even outright skeptics—that was what made the analogy funny and powerful—but my assumption, as cynical as I could be, was that the obvious availability of riches would overwhelm most educator’s doubts.

But here I am, looking around at veritable mountains of gold that not only remain undisturbed, but for many seem to have disappeared beyond the broad horizons bounding a flatland of ephemerality characterized by relentless consumerism, individual rootlessness, and a weird kind of collective amnesia…all yoked firmly to what Langdon Winner called “technological somnambulism.”

Educational technology has changed, with the LMS becoming even more entrenched and totalizing—mimicking the same dynamics in the larger connected worlds of social and consumer platforms—but I’d argue that’s more effect than cause.

And students’ use and expectations of technology, like almost everyone’s, have followed the same contours of big tech and the web in general, reifying in technological spaces—particularly the loops of social software and the whorls of short-form media—a gossamer of weak ties, discussions that are more serial than exchanges, and debates consisting mostly of successive tribal screams.


Still, that doesn’t explain my malaise—angst, disquiet, lassitude, whatever it is—or that of others I know are similarly troubled (and sometimes tormented). After all, the wealth of possibilities available to teachers and learning designers has never stopped growing, even as individual apps and services have come and gone. Micro-communities are flourishing like never before. And my job, intentionally chosen (and fortuitously given subsequent events in my personal life), provides plenty of freedom to dig deep.

Like I said, I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Or maybe all of this has been so much prattle (apologies if you’ve made it this far; you are a warrior) and an explanation can be assembled from simpler, more personal stuff: I’m older, wearier, still haunted by depression, and saddled with a brain that—in addition to normal decline—doesn’t work the way it used to after so much electricity has been shot through it.

Finally, I face a challenge I know others are squaring off with: convincing teachers that any of this is worth their time and effort to authentically consider, much less explore with their students (and the constant, low-level resentment that I have to spend my time enticing them to become better teachers rather than facing an overwhelming rush of those who want it for themselves). That will be the topic of my next 6×6 post, which I promise will be more positive than this one!

6×6-0 Back On the Horse?

The Write 6×6 Challenge is to:

…create 6 pieces of writing, one each week for 6 weeks beginning the week of March 7. Aside from the 1 post each week for 6 weeks, the only other rule is that the writing must be about teaching, learning, and/or student success.

It’s been a few years since I’ve written about teaching and learning from a personal vantage point, and because I have a penchant for periodically tearing down as much of my presence on the web as I can, most of what I have written has been lost except for traces in the posts and comments on the sites of my more steadfast compatriots and the odd page in the Wayback Machine.

But, encouraged by connecting with Todd Conaway here at UW—and a fortuitous chance to connect with the UWB Teaching & Learning on the Open Web group just when they were set to hang out with my old friend Jim Groom—I’m going to take advantage of the 6×6 Challenge to start back up again. For a while, at least.

My apologies in advance…

[featured image: a blackout poem using a page from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. See complete image/page]