Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Occupy the Standards! or, On my conversion to distance learning

This morning on our way to campus I was telling Kelly about my plans to begin recording lectures for the latest of my courses that I am converting into the distance learning format.   I’ve had a bit of conversion towards the distance learning wave in the past two years since the idea was first offered to me.  Actually, it was less an offering than a mandate, of sorts:  we need your philosophy of education course to be part of the new online only master’s in higher education.  In fact, we also need your course on multiculturalism too.  And, if you have any other courses you’d like to offer as distance learning course, well, why not bring those online too!  Oh, and there’s some compensation.  Not a lot, but enough to make it worth the time and energy you’ll be expending.  And so I was drafted, and then, after I got into the studio and started recording the lectures, I became a convert to distance learning, or what my esteemed colleague Nick Burbules calls ‘ubiquitous learning.’   (I’m wondering if I’m just an example of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome?  But, I dare say, I’m not being held captive by this mandate.  Truth be told, one of my colleagues who was recruited to be part of the distance learning program jumped ship at the 11th hour.  Coincidentally, he’s now in a dire situation with regard to making his load, which, for any non-academics reading this blog, means that he doesn’t have enough courses to fulfill his contractual obligation at the university.  Translation:  he shot himself in the foot when he turned up his nose to online teaching.  Maybe he’ll change his mind and listen to that old aphorism:  necessity is the mother of invention!)  

My conversion to the distance learning format happened as soon as I got into the studio where I record The Dead Zone.  That happened way back in the summer of 2010, when my goal was to nail down a set of 20 min lectures (short by most standards) that would complement the assigned readings.   After I’d recorded the third of the ten lectures I realized that I’d stumbled upon a ‘missing link’ in my teaching: a mooring for the ideas that formed the basis of my teaching.  It might seem odd that I would only discover this in year 17 of my teaching.   Didn’t I use the same lecture notes semester after semester, especially since I was teaching the same courses year after year?  No, I wasn’t.  In fact, over the decade and a half of teaching I’d collected a large pile of notes, both typed and hand written.  Each semester produced a new set of notes, even if I were using the same readings.   I couldn’t imagine working from the same material.  I still don’t.  It doesn’t’ feel natural.   But there is a certain kind of discomfort associated with this itinerant approach to teaching.  It’s unsettling because it’s so unsettled.  Of course, its counter-intuitive to ‘settle’ in one’s teaching.   Or that’s how I’ve been thinking oh these many years, until I discovered a satisfaction in the recording of lectures.   Sure, part of it is the pleasure of the performance, of putting on the head phones and standing behind the board, speaking into the mic.  But once I’d completed the set of lectures, I found that there was something reassuring about having documented my thoughts on the set of readings we were studying. 

So today, when I went into the study to record the first of my lectures for my ethics class, I was beginning the production of my third distance learning  course.  The multiculturalism course, which I redesigned as a study in the philosophy of difference, was a huge success.   I recorded a set of 7 lectures that average about an hour in length, and was so pleased with them that I had a grad asst transcribe them.   But for all that, I was nervous when I entered the studio this morning, in part because it had been almost a year since I’d recorded my last set of lectures, and sometimes past success can be more of an impediment than an inspiration.   Can I tap into the source that produced the philosophy of difference lectures?

The real inspiration for the work remains the energy behind the questions being explored.  I’m energized in a new way with the question I’m exploring in this ethics class, which are philosophical in way that’s a bit different for me.  Indeed, at the moment, philosophical understanding is a matter of what Aristotle called phronesis, which we might roughly translate as ‘practical understanding.’   We can understand things conceptually, abstractly, and this kind of understanding is what we usually call ‘theory.’   I’m a dyed-in-the-wool theorist, and most of my work for the past 8 years or longer has been what I like to call ‘formalist.’  That is, I’ve mostly been concerned with exploring new forms of writing.  This is the project of ‘originary/original philosophy’ that I’ve mentioned in this blog, and which will, in time, be given some attention.   So for me, phronesis is new path to take up.   And this is partly where the energy behind the decision to go into the studio is coming from.   Another source of the energy is the realization that this sociopolitical event of ‘standardization’ in education isn’t a trend, or fad, but, something that is taking root, or, at the very least, is going to be with us for some time.  Hence, the decision to occupy the standards!  This, anyway, was the way I phrased the agenda of my ethics course when I was sharing with Kelly what I was up to, and why I was going into the studio.

Occupy the standards!   This is the experiment for this semester, in the work I doing with my students.   Own the language that is being dictated to us from the State, and from the national accreditation organizations.  

Begin with a serious, careful study of these standards, of these ‘Quality Principles’.  Then,  occupy them:  take them up, fill them with your meaning, reside in them, dwell in them, perhaps even overrun and subjugate them.  

Here’s how I expressed it in a recent email:

Just wanted to share with you all an experiment/project I'm undertaking this year, which will be an attempt work against the creeping cynicism vis-a-vis the increasing standardization and outcome based assessment of teaching and learning.

My experiment/project is happening in my ethics course  The thesis is the following:  if, in our courses, we make a study of the principles underlying TEAC, we will increasingly 'own' the language that is being 'dictated' to us and our students.   In the case of TEAC, I'll be using it, first, as the basis of my Ethics class, where we will study the language of TEAC Quality Principles, specifically, the principle of 'care'.  In turn, I have a working paper/pamphlet that I've proposed to write for a three day summer institute at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign.   That piece will be a theoretical study that I intend to write in the wake of teaching this spring.  In turn, the fleshing out of my piece will be based on the work I undertake with my students, and, as a result, will be an authentic and organic reflection work happening in the course.   My plan is to circulate my piece next year to the faculty as a 'working paper,' with the hope that it will initiate a conversation about the TEAC principles, which, today, remain a set of abstract and empty concepts that are ostensibly guiding our work in teacher ed.

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