I finished reading and grading the last big project from my “Digital Writing” class this semester, an assignment that was about the emergence of openai.com’s artificial intelligence technologies GPT-3 and DALL-E. It was interesting and I’ll probably write more about it later, but the short version for now is my students and I have spent the last month or so noodling around with software and reading about both the potentials and dangers of rapidly improving AI, especially when it comes to writing.
That’s nonsense, though it might not be nonsense in the not so distant future. Eventually, whatever comes after GPT-3 and ChatGPT might really mean teachers can’t get away with only assigning writing. But I think we’ve got a ways to go before that happens.
Both Marche and Herman (and just about every other mainstream media article I’ve read about AI) make it sound like GPT-3, DALL-E, and similar AIs are as easy as working the computer on the Starship Enterprise: ask the software for an essay about some topic (Marche’s essay begins with a paragraph about “learning styles” written by GPT-3), and boom! you’ve got a finished and complete essay, just like asking the replicator for Earl Grey tea (hot). That’s just not true.
In my brief and amateurish experience, using GPT-3 and DALL-E is all about entering a carefully worded prompt. Figuring out how to come up with a good prompt involved trial and error, and I thought it took a surprising amount of time. In that sense, I found the process of experimenting with prompts similar to the kind of invention/pre-writing activities I teach to my students and that I use in my own writing practices all the time. None of my prompts produced more than about two paragraphs of useful text at a time, and that was the case for my students as well. Instead, what my students and I both ended up doing was entering in several different prompts based on the output we were hoping to generate. And my students and I still had to edit the different pieces together, write transitions between AI generated chunks of texts, and so forth.
In their essays, some students reflected on the usefulness of GPT-3 as a brainstorming tool. These students saw the AI as a sort of “collaborator” or “coach,” and some wrote about how GPT-3 made suggestions they hadn’t thought of themselves. In that sense, GPT-3 stood in for the feedback students might get from peer review, a visit to the writing center, or just talking with others about ideas. Other students did not think GPT-3 was useful, writing that while they thought the technology was interesting and fun, it was far more work to try to get it to “help” with writing an essay than it was for the student to just write the thing themselves.
These reactions square with the results in more academic/less clickbaity articles about GPT-3. This is especially true about Paul Fyfe’s “How to cheat on your final paper: Assigning AI for student writing.” The assignment I gave my students was very similar to what Fyfe did and wrote about– that is, we both asked students to write (“cheat”) with AI (GPT-2 in the case of Fyfe’s article) and then reflect on the experience. And if you are a writing teacher reading this because you are curious about experimenting with this technology, go and read Fyfe’s article right away.
Oh yeah, one of the other major limitations of GPT-3’s usefulness as an academic writing/cheating tool: it cannot do even basic “research.” If you ask GPT-3 to write something that incorporates research and evidence, it either doesn’t comply or it completely makes stuff up, citing articles that do not exist. Let me share a long quote from a recent article at The Verge by James Vincent on this:
This is one of several well-known failings of AI text generation models, otherwise known as large language models or LLMs. These systems are trained by analyzing patterns in huge reams of text scraped from the web. They look for statistical regularities in this data and use these to predict what words should come next in any given sentence. This means, though, that they lack hard-coded rules for how certain systems in the world operate, leading to their propensity to generate “fluent bullshit.”
I think this limitation (along with the limitation that GPT-3 and ChatGPT are not capable of searching the internet) makes using GPT-3 as a plagiarism tool in any kind of research writing class kind of a deal-breaker. It certainly would not get students far in most sections of freshman comp where they’re expected to quote from other sources.
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here (and this is something that I think most people who teach writing regularly take as a given) is that there is a big difference between assigning students to write a “college essay” and teaching students how to write essays or any other genre. Perhaps when Marche was still teaching Shakespeare (before he was a novelist/cultural commentator, Marche earned a PhD specializing in early English drama), he assigned his students to write an essay about one of Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps he gave his students some basic requirements about the number of words and some other mechanics, but that was about it. This is what I mean by only assigning writing: there’s no discussion of audience or purpose, there are no opportunities for peer review or drafts, there is no discussion of revision.
Teaching writing is a process. It starts by making writing assignments that are specific and that require an investment in things like prewriting and a series of assignments and activities that are “scaffolding” for a larger writing assignment. And ideally, teaching writing includes things like peer reviews and other interventions in the drafting process, and there is at least an acknowledgment that revision is a part of writing.
Most poorly designed assigned writing tasks are good examples of prompts that you enter into GPT-3. The results are definitely impressive, but I don’t think it’s quite useful enough to produce work a would-be cheater can pass off as their own. For example, I asked ChatGPT (twice) to “write a 1000 word college essay about the theme of insanity in Hamlet” and it came up with this and this essay. ChatGPT produced some impressive results, sure, but besides the fact that both of these essays are significantly shorter than 1000 word requirement, they both kind of read like… well, like a robot wrote them. I think that most instructors who received this essay from a student– particularly in an introductory class– would suspect that the student cheated. When I asked ChatGPT to write a well researched essay about the theme of insanity in Hamlet,it managed to produce an essay that quoted from the play, but not any research about Hamlet.
Interestingly, I do think ChatGPT has some potential for helping students revise. I’m not going to share the example here (because it was based on actual student writing), but I asked ChatGPT to “revise the following paragraph so it is grammatically correct” and I then added a particularly pronounced example of “basic” (developmental, grammatically incorrect, etc.) writing. The results didn’t improve the ideas in the writing and it changed only a few words. But it did transform the paragraph into a series of grammatically correct (albeit not terribly interesting) sentences.
In any event, if I were a student intent on cheating on this hypothetical assignment, I think I’d just do a Google search for papers on Hamlet instead. And that’s one of the other things Marche and these other commentators have left out: if a student wants to complete a badly designed “college essay” assignment by cheating, there are much much better and easier ways to do that right now.
Marche does eventually move on from “the college essay is dead” argument by the end of his commentary, and he discusses how GPT-3 and similar natural language processing technologies will have a lot of value to humanities scholars. Academics studying Shakespeare now have a reason to talk to computer science-types to figure out how to make use of this technology to analyze the playwright’s origins and early plays. Academics studying computer science and other fields connected to AI will now have a reason to maybe talk with the English-types as to how well their tools actually can write. As Marche says at the end, “Before that space for collaboration can exist, both sides will have to take the most difficult leaps for highly educated people: Understand that they need the other side, and admit their basic ignorance.”
Plus I have to acknowledge that I have only spent so much time experimenting with my openai.com account because I still only have the free version. That was enough access for my students and me to noodle around enough to complete a short essay composed with the assistance of GPT-3 and to generate an accompanying image with GPT-3. But that was about it. Had I signed up for openai.com’s “pay as you go” payment plan, I might learn more about how to work this thing, and maybe I would have figured out better prompts for that Hamlet assignment. Besides all that, this technology is getting better alarmingly fast. We all know whatever comes after ChatGPT is going to be even more impressive.
But we’re not there yet. And when it is actually as good as Marche fears it might be, and if that makes teachers rethink how they might teach rather than assign writing, that would be a very good thing.
As a college professor who also follows politics fairly closely, I’ve been noticing a lot of commentaries about how universities are making the political divide in America worse. I think that’s ridiculous (and the tl;dr version of this post is college educated people are leaving the Republican party not because college “makes” people into Democrats, but because the party has gone crazy). I guess these ideas have been in the air for a couple years now, though it’s gotten a bit more intense lately.
The version of this most in my mind now is Will Bunch’s After the Ivory Tower Falls:How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It, which I finished listening to a couple ago. There’s a lot to unpack in that book about things he got right and wrong (IMO), and I completely agree with this review in The New York Times. But in broad terms, Bunch argues higher education is the primary cause of political division and the rise of “MAGA” conservatism in the United States. Universities perpetuate a rigged meritocracy, they’ve grown increasingly liberal (I guess), and they have become horrifically expensive, all of which puts college out of reach for a lot of the same working class/working poor people who show up at Trump rallies.
This kind of thing seems to be in the air nowadays. For example, there’s this recent article from New York magazine, “How the Diploma Divide Is Remaking American Politics” by Eric Levitz. There’s no question that there have been shifts in how education aligns with political parties. Levitz notes that Kennedy lost the college-educated vote by a two-to-one margin, while Biden lost the non-college-educated vote by a two-to one margin. Levitz goes on to argue, with fairly convincing evidence, that higher education as an experience does tend to present people with similar ideas and concepts about things like science, art, ethics, and the like, and those tend to be the ideas and concepts embraced by people who identify as Democrats.
Or at least identify more as Democrats now– because as both Bunch and Levitz point out, college graduates were about equally split between the two parties until about 2004. In fact, as this 2015 article from the Pew Research Center discusses, more college graduates identified as Republicans between 1992 (where the data in that article begins) and 2004. And I’m old enough to vividly remember the presidential campaign between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000 and how one of the common complaints among undecided voters was Bush and Gore held the same positions on most of the major issues. How times have changed.
Anyway, U.S. universities did not tell state legislatures and voters during the Regan administration to cut funding to what once were public universities; politicians and voters did that. Higher education did not tell corporate America that a bachelors degree should be the required credential to apply for an entry-level white collar position, even when there seems little need for that kind of credential. That standard was put in place by corporate America itself, and corporate America is lead by the same people who said we shouldn’t support higher education with taxes. In other words, the systematic defunding of public higher education has been a double-whammy on poor people. The costs of college are putting it financially out of the reach of the kinds of students who could most benefit from a degree, and at the same time, it makes it easier for parents with plenty of money to send their kids (even the ones who did poorly in high school) to college so they can go on to a nice and secure white collar job.
I’m not saying that higher education isn’t a part of the problem. It is, and by definition, granting students credentials perpetuates a division between those who have a degree and those who do not. Universities have nothing to do with company polices that require salaried employees to have a bachelors degree in something, but universities are also very happy to admit all those students who have been told their entire lives that this is the only option they have.
But the main cause of the political division in this country? I’m not even sure if it’s in the top five. For starters– and Bunch acknowledges this– the lack of decent health care and insurance are at least as responsible for the divide between Americans as anything happening in higher education. A lot of Americans have student loan debt of course, but even more have crippling medical debt. Plus our still unfair and broken health care system enables/causes political division in “spin-off” ways like deaths and ruined lives from opioids and the Covid pandemic, both of which impact people who lack a college degree and who are poor at a higher rate. Plus the lack of access to both health care and higher education for so many poor people is both a symptom and a result of an even larger cause of political division in the U.S., which is the overall gap between rich and poor.
Then there’s been the changes in manufacturing in the U.S. A lot of good factory jobs that used to employ the people Bunch talks about–including white guys with just a high school diploma who voted for Obama twice and then Trump– moved to China, and/or disappeared because of technical innovations. One particular example from Bunch’s book is of a guy who switched from an Obama voter to a wildly enthusiastic MAGA Trump-type. Bunch wants to talk about how he became disillusioned with a Democratic party catering to educated and elite voters. That’s part of it, sure, but the fact that this guy used to work for a factory that made vinyl records and music CDs probably was a more significant factor in his life. I could go on, but you get the idea.
But again, I think these arguments that higher ed has caused political polarization because there are now more Democrats with college degrees than Republicans are backwards. The reason why there are fewer Republicans with college degrees now than there used to be is because the GOP, which has been moving steadily right since Bush II, has gone completely insane under Trump.
Now, I’m not saying that college graduates are “smarter” than those who don’t have college degrees, and most of us who are college graduates still have a relatively narrow amount of knowledge and expertise. But besides providing expertise that leads to professions– like being an engineer or a chemist of an elementary school teacher or a writer or whatever– higher education also provides students at least some sense of cultural norms (as Levitz argues) about things like “Democracy,” the value of science and expertise, ethics, history, and art, and it equips students with the basic critical thinking skills that allows people to be better able to spot the lies, cons, and deceptions that are at the heart of MAGA conservatism.
So right now, I think people who are registered Republicans (I’m not talking about independents who lean conservative– I’ll come back to that in a moment) basically fall into three categories. There are people who still proudly declare they are Republicans but who are also “never Trumpers,” though never Trumpers no longer have any candidates representing their views. Then there are those Republicans who actually believe all this stuff, and I think most of these people are white men (and their families) who have a high school degree and who were working some kind of job (a factory making records, driving trucks, mining coal, etc.) that has been “taken away” from them. These people have a lot of anger and Trump taps into all that, stirs it up even more, and he enables the kind of conspiracy thinking and racism that makes people not loyal to the Republican party but loyal to Trump as a charismatic leader. It’s essentially a cult, and the cult leaders are a whole lot more culpable than the followers they brain-washed.
Then there are Republicans who know all the conspiracies about the 2020 election and everything else are just bullshit but they just “go along with it,” maybe because they still agree with most of the conservative policies and/or maybe they’re just too attached to the party leave. But at the same time, it’s hard to know what these people actually believe. Does Trump believe his own bullshit? Hard to say. How about Rudy Giuliani or Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy? Sometimes, I think they know it’s all a con, and sometimes I don’t.
Either way, that’s why college grads aren’t joining the Republican party– and actually, why membership in the Republican party as a whole has gone down, even among people without a college degree. It certainly isn’t because people like me, Democrat-voting college professors, have “indoctrinated” college students or something. Hell, as many academic-types have said long before me, I can’t even get my students to routinely read the syllabus and complete assignments correctly; you think that I have the power to convince them that the Democrats are always right? I wish!
In other words, these would-be Republicans are not becoming Democrats; rather, they are contributing the growing number of independent voters, though ones who tend to vote for Republican candidates. I’ve seen this shift in my extended family as my once Republican in-laws and such talk about how they are no longer in the party. My more conservative relatives didn’t vote for Trump in 2020 and probably won’t in 2024 either, but that doesn’t mean they are going to vote for Biden.
One last thing: I’m not going to pretend to have the answer for how we get out of the political polarization that’s going on in this country, and I have no idea how we can possibly “un-brainwash” the hardcore MAGA and Qanon-types. I think these people are a lost cause, and I don’t think any of this division is going away as long as Trump is a factor. But there is no way we are ever going to get back to something that seems like “normal” without more education, and part of that means college.
Despite not posting here all summer, I’ve been busy. I’ve been on what is called at EMU a “Faculty Research Fellowship” since January 2022, writing and researching about teaching online during Covid. These FRFs are one of the nicer perks here. FRFs are competitive awards for faculty to get released from teaching (but not service obligations), and faculty can apply every two years. Since I’m not on any committees right now, it was pretty much the same thing as a sabbatical: I had to go to some meetings and I was working with a grad student on her MA project as well, but for the most part, my time was my own. Annette also had an FRF at the same time.
I’ve had these FRF before, but I never gotten as much research stuff done as I did on this one. Oh sure, there was some vacationing and travel, usually also involving some work. Anyone who follows me on Facebook or Instagram is probably already aware of that, but I’m happy with what I managed to get done. Among other things:
I conducted 37 interviews with folks who took my original survey about online teaching during Covid and agreed to talk. Altogether, it’s probably close to 50 hours worth of recordings and maybe 1000 pages of transcript– more on that later.
I “gave presentations” at the CCCCs and at the Computers and Writing conference. Though I use the scare quotes because both were online and “on demand” presentations, which is to say not even close to the way I would have run an online conference (not that anyone asked). On the plus-side, both presentations were essentially pre-writing activities for other things, and both also count enough at EMU justify me keeping a 3-3 teaching load.
Plus I have an article coming out about all this work in Computers and Composition Online. It is/will be called “The Role of Previous Online Teaching Experience During the Covid Pandemic: An Exploratory Study of Faculty Perceptions and Approaches” (which should give you a sense about what it’s about), and hopefully it will be a “live” article/ website/ publication in the next month or two.
The next steps are going to involve reviewing the transcriptions (made quite a bit easier than it used to be with a website/software called Otter.ai) and to code everything to see what I’ve got. I’m not quite sure what I mean by “code” yet, if it is going to be something systematic that follows the advice in various manuals/textbooks about coding and analyzing qualitative data, or if it is going to be closer to what I did with the interviews I conducted for the MOOC book, where my methodology could probably best be described as journalism. Either way, I have a feeling that’s a project that is going to keep me busy for a couple of years.
But as I reflect on the end of my research fellowship time and also as I gear up for actually teaching again this fall, I thought I’d write a bit about some of the big picture take-aways I have from all of those interviews so far.
First off, I still think it’s weird that so many people taught online synchronously during Covid. I’ve blogged here and written in other places before about how this didn’t make sense to me when we started the “natural experiment” of online teaching during covid, and after a lot of research and interviews, it still doesn’t make sense to me.
I’m not saying that synchronous teaching with Zoom and similar tools didn’t work, though I think one pattern that will emerge when I dig more into the interviews is that faculty who taught synchronously and who also used other tools besides just Zoom (like they included asynch activities, they also used Zoom features like the chat window or breakout rooms, etc.) had better experiences than those who just used Zoom to lecture. It’s also clear that the distinction between asynchronous and synchronous online teaching was fuzzy. Still, given that that 85% or so of all online courses in US higher ed prior to Covid were taught only asynchronously, it is still weird to me that so many people new to teaching online knowingly (or, more likely, unknowingly) decided to take an approach that was (and still is) at odds with what’s considered the standard and “best practice” in distance education.
Second and very broadly speaking, I think faculty who elected to teach online synchronously during Covid did so for some combination of three reasons. And more or less in this descending order.
Most of the people who responded to my survey who taught online synchronously said their institution gave faculty a number of different options in terms of mode of teaching (f2f, hybrid, synch, asynch, etc.), and that seems to have been true generally speaking across the board in higher ed. But a lot of institutions– especially ones that focus on the traditional undergraduate college experience for 18-22 year olds and that offered few online courses before Covid– encouraged (and in some cases required) their faculty teach synchronously. And a lot of faculty I interviewed did say that the synchronous experience was indeed a “better than nothing” substitute for these students for what they couldn’t do on campus.
(It’s worth noting that I think this was striking to me in part because I’ve spent my career as a professor at a university where at least half of our students commute some distance to get to campus, are attending part-time, are returning adult students, etc. Institutions like mine have been teaching a significant percentage of classes online for quite a while.)
They thought it’d be the easiest way to make the transition to teaching online. I think Sorel Reisman nailed it in his IEEE article when he said: “Teachers can essentially keep doing their quasi-Socratic, one-to-many lecture teaching the way they always have. In a nutshell, Zoom is the lazy person’s way to teach online.” Reisman is okay with this because even though it is far from the approach he would prefer, it as as least getting instructors to engage with the technology. I don’t agree with him about that, but it’s hard to deny that he’s right about how Zoom enabled the far too popular (and largely ineffective) sage on the stage lecture hall experience.
But I think the most common reason why faculty decided to teach online synchronously is it didn’t even occur to them that the medium of delivery for a class would make any difference. In other words, it’s not so they decided to teach synchronously because they were encouraged to do so or even because they thought redesigning their courses to teach online asynchronously would be too much work. Rather, I think most faculty who had no previous experience teaching online didn’t think about the method/medium of delivery at all and just delivered the same content (and activities) that they always did before.
Maybe I’m splitting hairs here and these are all three sides (!) of the same coin; then again, maybe not. I read a column by Ezra Klein recently with the headline “I Didn’t Want It to Be True, but the Medium Really Is the Message.” He is not talking about online teaching at all but rather about the media landscape as it has been evolving and how his “love affair” with the internet and social media has faded in that time. Klein is a smart guy and I usually agree with and admire his columns, but this one kind of puzzles me. He writes about how he had been reading Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, and how he seems to have only now just discovered Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Neil Postman, and how they all wrote about the importance of the medium that carries messages and content. For example:
We’ve been told — and taught — that mediums are neutral and content is king. You can’t say anything about television. The question is whether you’re watching “The Kardashians” or “The Sopranos,” “Sesame Street” or “Paw Patrol.” To say you read books is to say nothing at all: Are you imbibing potboilers or histories of 18th-century Europe? Twitter is just the new town square; if your feed is a hellscape of infighting and outrage, it’s on you to curate your experience more tightly.
There is truth to this, of course. But there is less truth to it than to the opposite. McLuhan’s view is that mediums matter more than content; it’s the common rules that govern all creation and consumption across a medium that change people and society. Oral culture teaches us to think one way, written culture another. Television turned everything into entertainment, and social media taught us to think with the crowd.
Now, I will admit that since I studied rhetoric, I’m quite familiar with McLuhan and Ong (less so with Postman), and the concept that the medium (aka “rhetorical situation”) does indeed matter a lot is not exactly new. But, I don’t know, have normal people really been told and taught that mediums are neutral? That all that matters is the content? Really? It seems like such a strange and obvious oversight to me. Then again, maybe not.
Third, the main challenge and surprise for most faculty new to online teaching (and also to faculty not so new to it) is in the preparation. I mean this in at least two ways. First off, the hardest part for me about teaching online has always been how to shift material and experiences from the synchronous f2f setting to the asynchronous online one. It’s a lot easier for me to respond to student questions in real time when we’re all sitting in the same room, and it’s much easier to do that f2f because I can “read the room.” Students who are confused and who have questions rarely say (f2f or online) “I’m confused and I have some questions here,” but I can usually figure out the issues when I’m f2f. In online courses– certainly in the asynch ones but I think this was also mostly true for synch ones as well– it’s impossible to adjust in the moment like that. This is why in advance/up-front preparation is so much more important for online courses. As an instructor, I have to explain things and set things up ahead of time to anticipate likely questions and points of confusion. That’s hard to do when you haven’t taught something previously, and it’s impossible to do without a fair amount of preparation.
Which leads to my second point: a lot of faculty, especially in fields like English and other disciplines in the humanities, don’t do as much ahead of time preparation to teach as they probably should. Rather, a lot of faculty I interviewed and a lot of faculty I know essentially have the pedagogical approach of structured improvisation, sometimes to the point of just “winging it.”
This can work out great f2f. I’m thinking of the kind of improvisation accomplished musicians have to improvise and interpret a song on the fly (and more than one of the people I interviewed about teaching online for the first time used an analogy like this). A lot of instructors are very good as performers in f2f class settings because they are especially good lecturers, they’re especially good in building interpersonal relationships with their students, and they’re especially charismatic people. They’re prepared ahead of time, sure, and chances are they’ve done similar performances in f2f classes for a while. These are the kind of instructors who really feed off of the energy of live and in-person students. There are also the kind of instructors who, based again mostly on some of the interviews, were most unhappy about teaching online.
But this simply does not work AT ALL online, and I think it is only marginally more possible to take this approach to teaching with Zoom. If the ideal performance of an instructor in a f2f class is like jazz musicians, stand-up comedians, or a similar kind of stage performer, an online class instructor’s ideal performance has to be more like what the final product of a well-produced movie or TV show looks like: practiced, scripted, performed, and edited, and then ultimately recorded and made available for on-demand streaming.
And let’s be clear: a lot of faculty (myself included) are not at their best when they try the structured improvisation/winging it approach in f2f classrooms. I’ve done many many teaching observations over the years, and I am here to tell you that there are a lot of instructors who think they are good at this at this kind of performance who aren’t. I know I’m not as good of a teacher when I try this, and I think that’s something that became clear to me when I started teaching some of my classes online (asynchronously, of course) about 15 or so years ago. So for me, I think my online teaching practices and preparations do more to shape my f2f practices and preparations rather than the other way around.
In any event, the FRF semester and summer are about over and the fall semester is about here. We start at EMU on Monday, and I am teaching one class f2f for the first time since Winter 2020. Here’s hoping I remember where to stand.
This blog entry/page is my online/on demand presentation for the 2022 Computers and Writing Conference at East Carolina University.
I’m disappointed that I’m not at this year’s Computers and Writing Conference in person. I haven’t been to C&W since 2018 and of course there was no conference in 2020 or 2021. So after the CCCCs prematurely pulled the plug on the face to face conference a few months ago, I was looking forward to the road trip to Greenville. Alas, my own schedule conflicts and life means that I’ll have to participate in the online/on-demand format this time around. I don’t know if that means anyone (other than me) will actually read this, so as much as anything else, this presentation/blog post– which is too long, full of not completely substantiated/documented claims, speculative, fuzzy, and so forth– is a bit of note taking and freewriting meant mostly for myself as I think about how to present this research in future articles, maybe even a book. If a few conference goers and my own blog readers find this interesting, all the better.
Because of the nature of these on-demand/online presentations generally and also because of the perhaps too long/freewriting feel of what I’m getting at here, let me start with a few “to long, didn’t read” bullet points. I’m not even going to write anything else here to explain this, but it might help you decide if it’s worth continuing to read. (Hopefully it is…)
The research I’m continuing is a project I have been calling “Online Teaching and ‘The New Normal,’” which I started in early fall 2020. Back then, I wrote a brief article and was an invited speaker at an online conference held by a group in Belgium– this after someone there saw a post I had written about Zoom on my blog, which is one of the reasons why I keep blogging after all these years. I gave a presentation (that got shuffled away into the “on demand” format) at the most recent CCCCs where I introduced some of my broad assumptions about teaching online, especially about the affordances of asynchronously versus synchronously, and where I offered a few highlights of the survey results. I also wrote an article-slash-website for Computers and Composition Online which goes into much more detail about the results of the survey. That piece is in progress, though it will be available soon. If you have the time and/or interest, I’d encourage you to check out the links to those pieces as well.
I started this project in early fall 2020 for two reasons. First, there was the “natural experiment” created by Covid. Numerous studies have claimed online courses can be just as effective as face to face courses, but one of the main criticisms of these studies is the problem of self selection: that is, because students and teachers engage in the format voluntarily, it’s not possible to have subjects randomly assigned to either a face to face course or an online course, and that kind of randomized study is the gold standard in the social sciences. The natural experiment of Covid enabled a version of that study because millions of college students and instructors had no choice but to take and teach their classes online.
Second, I was surprised by the large number of my colleagues around the country who said on social media and other platforms that they were going to teach their online classes synchronously via a platform like Zoom rather than asynchronously. I thought this choice– made by at least 60% of college faculty across the board during the 2020-21 school year– was weird.
Based both on my own experiences teaching some of my classes online since 2005 and the modest amount of research comparing synchronous and asynchronous modes for online courses, I think that asynchronous online courses are probably more effective than synchronous online courses. But that’s kind of beside the point, actually. The main reason why at least 90% of online courses prior to Covid were taught asynchronously is scheduling and the imperative of providing access. Prior to Covid, the primary audience for online courses and programs were non-traditional students. Ever since the days of correspondence courses, the goal of distance ed has been to help “distanced” students– that is, people who live far away from the brick and mortar campus– but also people who are past the traditional undergraduate age, who have “adult” obligations like mortgages and dependents and careers, and people who are returning to college either to finish the degree they started some years before, or to retool and retrain after having finished a degree earlier. Asynchronous online courses are much easier to fit into busy and changing life-slash-work schedules than synchronous courses– either online ones of f2f. Sure, traditional and on-campus students often take asynchronous courses for similar scheduling reasons, but again and prior to Covid, non-traditional students were the primary audience for online courses. In fact, most institutions that primarily serve traditional students– that is, 18-22 year olds right out of high school who live on or near campus and who attend college full-time (and perhaps work part-time to pay some of the bills)– did not offer many online courses, nor was there much of a demand for online courses from students at these institutions. I’ll come back to this point later.
I conducted my IRB approved survey from December 2020 to June 2021. The survey was limited to college level instructors in the U.S. who taught at least one class completely online (that is, not in some hybrid format that included f2f instruction) during the 2020-21 school year. Using a very crude snowball sampling method, I distributed the survey via social media and urged participants to share the survey with others. I had 104 participants complete this survey, and while I was hoping to recruit participants from a wide variety of disciplines, most were from a discipline related to English studies. This survey was also my tool for recruiting interview subjects: the last question of the survey asked if participants would be interested in a follow-up interview, and 75 indicated that they would be.
One of the findings from the survey that I discussed in my CCCCs talk was that those survey participants who had no previous experience teaching online were over three times more likely to have elected to teach their online classes synchronously during Covid than those who had had previous teaching experience. As this pie chart shows, almost two-thirds of faculty with no prior experience teaching online elected to teach synchronously and only about 12% of survey participants who had no previous experience teaching online elected to teach asynchronously.
In contrast, about a third of faculty who had had previous online experience elected to teach online asynchronously and less than 18% decided to teach online synchronously. Interestingly, the amount of previous experience with teaching online didn’t seem to make much difference– that is, those who said that prior to covid they had taught over 20 sections online were about as likely to have taught asynchronously or to use both synchronous and asynchronous approaches as those who had only taught 1 to 5 sections online prior to the 2020-21 school year.
For the forthcoming Computers and Composition Online article, I go into more detail about the results of the survey along with incorporating some of the initial impressions and feedback I’ve received from the surveys to date.
But for the rest of this presentation, I’ll focus on the interviews I have been conducting. I started interviewing participants in January 2022, and these interviews are still in progress. Since this is the kind of conference where people do often care about the technical details: I’m using Zoom to record the interviews and then a software called Otter.ai to create a transcription. Otter.ai isn’t free– in fact, at $13 for the month to month and unlimited usage plan, it isn’t especially cheap– and there are of course other options for doing this. But this is the best and easiest approach I’ve found so far. Most of the interviews I’ve conducted so far run between 45 and 90 minutes, and what’s amazing is Otter.ai can change the Zoom audio file into a transcript that’s about 85% correct in less than 15 minutes. Again, nerdy and technical details, but for changing audio recordings into mostly correct transcripts, I cannot say enough good things about it.
To date, I’ve conducted 24 interviews, and I am guessing that I will be able to conduct between 15 and 30 more, depending on how many of the folks who originally volunteered to be interviewed are still willing.
This means I already have about 240,000 words of transcripts, and I have to say I am at something of a loss as to what to “do” with all of this text in terms of coding, analysis, and the like. The sorts of advice and processes offered by books like Geisler’s and Swarts’ Coding Streams of Language and Saldaña’s The Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers seems more fitting for analyzing sets of texts in different genres– say an archive for an organization that consists of a mix of memos, emails, newsletters, academic essays, reports, etc.– or of a collection of ethnographic observations. So for me, it doesn’t so much feel like I am collecting a lot of qualitative data meant to be coded and analyzed based on particular word choices or sentence structures or what-have-you, and more like good old-fashioned journalism. If I had been at this conference in person or if there was a more interactive component to this online presentation, this is something I would have wanted to talk more about with the kind of scholars and colleagues involved with computers and writing because I can certainly use some thoughts on how to handle my growing collection of interviews. In any event, my current focus– probably through the end of this summer– is to keep collecting the interviews from willing participants and to figure out what to do with all of this transcript data later. Perhaps that’s what I can talk about at the computers and writing conference at UC Davis next year.
But just to give a glimpse of what I’ve found so far, I thought I’d focus on answers to two of the dozen or so questions I have been sure to ask each interviewee:
Why did you decide to teach synchronously (or asynchronously)?
Knowing what you know now and after your experience teaching online during the 2020-21 school year, would you teach online again– voluntarily– and would you prefer to do it synchronously or asynchronously?
In my survey, participants had to answer a close-ended question to indicate if they were teaching online synchronously, asynchronously, or some classes synchronously and some asynchronously. There was no “other” option for supplying a different answer. This essentially divided survey participants into two groups because I counted those who were teaching in both formats as synchronous for the other questions on the survey. Also, I excluded from the survey faculty who were teaching with a mix of online and face to face modes because I wanted to keep this as simple as possible. But early on, the interviews made it clear that the mix of modes at most universities was far more complex. One interviewee said that prior to Covid, the choices faculty had for teaching (and the choices students saw in the catalog) was simply online or on campus. Beginning in Fall 2020 though, faculty could choose “fully online asynchronous, fully online synchronous, high flex synchronous, so (the instructor) is stand in the classroom and everyone else is in WebEx of Teams, and fully in the classroom and no option… you need to be in the classroom.”
I was also surprised at the extent to which most of my interviewees reported that their institution provided faculty a great deal of autonomy in selecting the teaching mode that worked best for their circumstances. So far, I have only interviewed two or three people who said they had no choice but to teach in the mode assigned by the institution. A number of folks said that their institution strongly encouraged faculty to teach synchronously to replicate the f2f experience, but even under those circumstances, it seems most faculty had a fair amount of flexibility to teach in a mode that best fits into the rest of their life. As one person, a non-tenure-track but full time instructor said, “basically, the university said ‘we don’t care that much, especially if you’re… a parent and your kids aren’t going to school and you have to physically be home.’” This person’s impression was that while most of their colleagues were teaching synchronous courses with Zoom, there were “a lot of individual class sessions that were moved asynchronous, and maybe even a few classes that essentially went asynchronous.”
A number of interviewees mentioned that this level of flexibility offered to faculty from their institutions was unusual; one interviewee described the flexibility offered to faculty about their preferred teaching mode a “rare win” against the administration. After all, during the summer of 2020 and when a lot of the plans for going forward with the next school year were up in the air, there were a lot of rumors at my institution (and, judging from Facebook, other institutions as well) that individual faculty who wanted to continue to teach online in Fall of 2020 because of the risks of Covid were were going to have go through a process involving the Americans with Disabilities Act. So the fact that just about everyone I talked to was allowed to teach online and in the mode that they preferred was both surprising and refreshing.
As to why faculty elected to teach in one mode or the other: I think there were basically three reasons. First, as that quote I had above just mentioned, many faculty said concerns about how Covid was impacting their own home lives shaped the decision for either for teaching synchronously or asynchronously. Though again, most of my survey and interview subjects who hadn’t taught online before taught synchronously, and, not surprisingly, some of those interviewees told stories about how their pets, children, and other family members would become regular visitors in the class Zoom sessions. In any event, the risks and dangers of Covid– especially in Fall 2020 and early in 2021 when the data on the risks of transmission in f2f classrooms was unclear and before there was a vaccine– was of course the reason why so many of us were forced into online classes during the pandemic. And while it did indeed create a natural experiment for testing the effectiveness of online courses, I wonder if Covid ended up being such an enormous factor in all of our lives that it essentially skewed or trumped the experiences of teaching online. After all, it is kind of hard for teachers and students alike to reflect too carefully on the advantages and disadvantages of online learning when the issue dominating their lives was a virus that was sickening and killing millions of people and disrupting pretty much every aspect of modern society as we know it.
Second — and perhaps this is just obvious– people did what they already knew how to do, or they did what they thought would be the path of least resistance. Most faculty who decided to teach asynchronously had previous experience teaching asynchronously– or they were already teaching online asynchronously. As one interviewee put it, “Spring 2020, I taught all three classes online. And then COVID showed up, and I was already set up for that because, I was like ‘okay, I’m already teaching online,’ and I’m already teaching asynchronously, so…” That was the situation I was in when we first went into Covid lockdown in March 2020– though in my experience, that didn’t mean that Covid was a non-factor in those already online classes.
Most faculty who decided to teach synchronously– particularly those who had not taught online before– thought teaching synchronously via Zoom would require the least amount of work to adjust from the face to face format, though few interviewees said anything so direct. I spoke with one Communications professor who, just prior to Covid, was part of the launch of an online graduate program at her institution, so she had already spent some time thinking about and developing online courses. She also had previous online teaching experience from a previous position, but at her current institution, she said “I saw a lot of senior faculty”– and she was careful in explaining she meant faculty at her new institution who weren’t necessarily a lot older but who had not taught online previously– “try to take the classroom and put it online, and that doesn’t work. Because online is a different medium and it requires different teaching practices and approaches.” She went on to explain that her current institution sees itself as a “residential university” and the online graduate courses were “targeted towards veterans, working adults, that kind of thing.”
I think what this interviewee was implying is it did not occur to her colleagues who decided to teach synchronously to do it any other way. As a different interviewee put it, inserting a lot of pauses along the way during our discussion, “I opted for the synchronous, just because… I thought it would be more… I don’t know, better suited to my own comfort levels, I suppose.” Though to be fair, this interviewee had previously taught online asynchronously (albeit some time ago), and he said “what I anticipated– wrongly I’ll add– that what doing it synchronously would allow me to do is set boundaries on it.” This is certainly a problem since teaching asynchronously can easily expand such that it feels like you’re teaching 24/7. There are ways to address those problems, but that’s a different presentation.
Now, a lot of my interviewees altered their teaching modes as the online experience went on. Many– I might even go so far as saying the majority– of those who started out teaching 100% synchronously with Zoom and holding these classes for the same amount of time as they would a f2f version of the same class did make adjustments. A lot of my interviewees, particularly those who teach things like first year writing, shifted activities like peer review into asynchronous modes; others described the adjustments they made to being like a “flipped classroom” where the synchronous time was devoted to specific student questions and problems with the assigned work and the other materials (videos of lectures, readings, and so forth) were all shifted to asynchronous delivery. And for at least one interviewee, the experience of teaching synchronously drove her to all asynch:
“So, my first go around with online teaching was really what we call here remote teaching. It’s what everybody was kind of forced into, and I chose to do synchronous, I guess, because I didn’t, I hadn’t really thought about the differences. I did that for one quarter. And I realized, this is terrible. I, I don’t like this, but I can see the potential for a really awesome online course, so now I only teach asynchronous and I love it.”
The third reason for the choice between synchronous versus asynchronous is what I’d describe as “for the students,” though what that meant depends entirely on the type of students the interviewee was already working with. For example, here’s a quote from a faculty member who taught a large lecture class in communications at a regional university that puts a high priority on the residential experience for undergraduates:
“A lot of our students were asking for the synchronous class. I mean… when I look back at my student feedback, people that I literally wouldn’t know if they walked in the room because all I had (from them) was a black (Zoom) screen with their name on it, (these students said) ‘really enjoyed your enthusiasm, it made it easy to get out of bed every morning,’ you know, those kind of things. So I think they were wanting punctuation to just not an endless sea of due dates, but an actual event to go to.”
Of course, the faculty who had already been teaching online and were teaching asynchronously said something similar: that is, they explained that one of the reasons why they kept teaching asynchronously was because they had students all over the world and it was not possible to find a time where everyone could meet synchronously, that the students were working adults who needed the flexibility of the asynchronous format, and so forth. I did have an interviewee– one who was experienced at teaching online asynchronously– comment on the challenge students had in adjusting to what was for them a new format:
“What I found the following semester (that is, fall 2020 and after the emergency remote teaching of spring 2020) was I was getting a lot of students in my class who probably wouldn’t have picked online, or chosen it as a way of learning. This has continued. I’ve found that the students I’m getting now are not as comfortable online as the students I was getting before Covid…. It’s not that they’re not comfortable with technology…. But they’re not comfortable interacting in an online way, maybe especially in an asynchronous way… so I had some struggles with that last year that were really weird. I had the best class I’ve had online, probably ever. And the other (section) was absolutely the worst, but I run them with the same assignments and stuff.”
Let me turn to the second question I wanted to discuss here: “Knowing what you know now and after your experience teaching online during the 2020-21 school year, would you teach online again– voluntarily– and would you prefer to do it synchronously or asynchronously?” It’s an interesting example of how the raw survey results become more nuanced as a result of both parsing those results a bit and conducting these interviews. Taken as a whole, about 58% of all respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “In the future and after the pandemic, I am interested in continuing to teach at least some of my courses online.” My sense– and it is mostly just a sense– that prior to Covid, a much smaller percentage of faculty would have any interest in online teaching. But clearly, Covid has changed some minds. As one interviewee said about talking to faculty new to online teaching at her institution:
“A lot of them said, ‘you know, this isn’t as onerous as I thought, this isn’t as challenging as I thought.’ There is one faculty member who started teaching college in 1975, so she’s been around for a while. And she picked it up and she’s like ‘You know, it took a little time to get used to everything, but I like it. I can do the same things, I can reach students and feel comfortable.’ And in some ways, that’s good because it will prolong some people’s careers. And in some ways, it’s not good because it will prolong some people’s careers. It’s a double-edged sword, right?”
My interviewee who I quoted earlier about making the switch from synchronous to asynchronous was certainly sold. She said that she was nearing a point in her career “where I thought I’m just gonna quit teaching and find another job, I don’t know, go back to trade school and become a plumber.” Now, she is an enthusiastic advocate of online courses at her institution, describing herself as a “convert.”
“I use that word intentionally. I gave a presentation to some graduate students in our teacher training class, I was invited as a guest speaker, and I had big emoji that said ‘hallelujah’ and there were doves, and I’m like this is literally me with online teaching. The scales have fallen from my eyes, I am reborn. I mean, I was raised Catholic so I’m probably relying too much on these religious metaphors, but that’s how it feels. It really feels like a rebirth as an instructor.”
Needless to say, not everyone is quite that enthusiastic about the prospect of teaching online again. This chart, which is part of the article I’m writing for Computers and Composition Online, indicates the different answers to this question based on previous experience. While almost 70% of faculty who had online teaching experience prior to Covid strongly agreed or agreed about teaching online again and after the pandemic, only about 40% of faculty with no online teaching experience prior to Covid felt the same way. If anything, I think this chart indicates mostly ambivalent feelings among folks new to online teaching during covid about teaching online again: while more positive than negative, it’s worth noting that most faculty who had no prior online teaching experience neither agreed nor disagreed about wanting to teach online in the future.
For example, here are a couple of responses that I think suggest that ambivalence:
“Um, I would do it again… even though I would imagine a lot of students would say they didn’t have very positive experiences for all different kinds of reasons over the last two years, but now that we have integrated this kind of experience into our lives in a way that, you know, will evolve, but I don’t think it will go away…. I’d have to be motivated (to teach online again), you know, more than just do it for the heck of it. Like if I could just as well teach the class on campus, I still feel like face to face in person conversation is a better modality. I mean, maybe it will evolve and we’ll learn how to do this better.”
And this response:
“The synchronous teaching online is far more exhausting than in person synchronous teaching, and… I don’t think we cover as much material. So my tendency is to say for my current classes, I would be hesitant to teach them online at my institution, because of a whole bunch of different factors. So I would tend to be in the probably not category, if the pandemic was gone. If the pandemic is ongoing, then no, please let’s stay online.”
And finally this passage, which is also closer to where I personally am with a lot of this:
“If people know what they’re getting into, and their expectations are met, then asynchronous or synchronous online instruction, whether delivery or dialogic, it can work, so long as there is a set of shared expectations. And I think that was the hardest thing about the transition: people who did not want to do distance education on both sides, students and instructors.”
That issue of expectations is critical, and I don’t think it’s a point that a lot of people thought a lot about during the shift online. Again, this research is ongoing, and I feel like I am still in the note-taking/evidence-gathering phase, but I am beginning to think that this issue of expectations is really what’s critical here.
Ten or so years ago, when I would have discussions with colleagues skeptical about teaching online, the main barrier or learning curve issue for most seemed to be the technology itself. Nowadays, that no longer seems to be the problem for most. At my institution (and I think this is common at other colleges as well), almost all instructors now use the Learning Management System (for us, that’s Canvas) to manage the bureaucracy of assignments, grades, tests, collecting and distributing student work, and so forth. We all use the institution’s websites to handle turning in grades for our students and checking on employment things like benefits and paychecks. And of course we also all use the library’s websites and databases, not to mention Google. I wouldn’t want to suggest there is no technological learning curve at all, but that doesn’t seem to me to be the main problem faculty have had with teaching online during the 2020-21 school year.
Rather, I think the challenges have been more conceptual than that. I think a lot of faculty have a difficult time understanding how it is possible to teach a class where students aren’t all paying attention to them, the teacher, at the same time and instead they are participating in the class at different times and in different places, and not really paying attention to the teacher much at all. I think a lot of faculty– especially those new to online teaching– define the act of teaching as standing in front of a classroom and leading students through some activity or by lecturing to them, and of course, this is not how asynchronous courses work at all. So I would agree that the expectations of both students and teachers needs to better align with the mode of delivery for online courses to work, particularly asynchronous ones.
The other issue though is in the assumption about the kind of students we have at different institutions. When I first started this project, the idea of teaching an online class synchronously seemed crazy to me– and I still think asynchronous delivery does a better job of taking advantage of the affordances of the mode– but that was also because of the students I have been working with. Faculty who were used to working almost exclusively with traditional college students tended to put a high emphasis on replicating as best as possible the f2f college experience of classes scheduled and held at a specific time (and many did this at the urging of their institutions and of their students). Faculty like me who have been teaching online classes designed for nontraditional students for several years before Covid were actively trying to avoid replicating the f2f experience of synchronous classes. Those rigidly scheduled and synchronous courses are one of the barriers most of the students in my online courses are trying to circumvent so they could finish their college degrees while also working to support themselves and often a family. In effect, I think Covid revealed more of a difference between the needs and practices of these different types of students and how we as faculty try to reach them. Synchronous courses delivered via Zoom to traditional students were simply not the same kind of online course experience as the asynchronous courses delivered to nontraditional students.
Well, this has gone on for long enough, and if you actually got to this last slide after reading through all that came before, I thank you. Just to sum up and repeat my “too long, didn’t read” slide:
I think the claims I make here about why faculty decided to teach synchronously or asynchronously during Covid are going to turn out to be consistent with some of the larger surveys and studies about the remarkable (in both terrible and good ways) 2020-21 school year now appearing in the scholarship. I think the experience most faculty had teaching online convinced many (but not all) of the skeptics that an online course can work as well as a f2f course– but only if the course is designed for the format and only if students and faculty understand the expectations and how the mode of an online class is different from a f2f class. In a sense, I think the “natural experiment” of online teaching during Covid suggests that there is some undeniable self-selection bias in terms of measuring the effectiveness of online delivery compared to f2f delivery. What remains to be seen is how significant that self-selection bias is. Is the bias so significant that online courses for those who do not prefer the mode are demonstrably worse than a similar f2f course experience? Or is the bias more along the lines to my own “bias” against taking or teaching a class at 8 am, or a class that meets on a Friday? I don’t know, but I suspect there will be more research emerging out of this time that attempts to dig into that.
Finally, I think what was the previous point of resistance for teaching online– the complexities of the technology– have largely disappeared as the tools have become easier to use and also as faculty and students have become more familiar with those tools in their traditional face to face courses. As a result of that, I suspect that we will continue to see more of a melding of synchronous and asynchronous tools in all courses, be they traditional and on-campus courses or non-traditional and distance education courses.
Here’s a follow-up (of sorts) on my CCCCs 2022 experiences– minus the complaining, critiques, and ideas on how it could have been better. Oh, I have some thoughts, but to be honest, I don’t think anyone is particularly interested in those thoughts. So I’ll keep that to myself and instead focus on the good things, more or less.
When the CCCCs went online for 2022 and I was put in the “on demand” sessions, my travel plans changed. Instead of going to Chicago on my own to enjoy conferencing, my wife and I decided to rent a house on a place called Seabrook Island in South Carolina near Charleston. We both wanted to get out of Michigan to someplace at least kind of warm, and the timing on the rental and other things was such that we were on the road for all the live sessions, so I missed out on all of that. But I did take advantage of looking at some of the other on demand sessions to see what was there.
Now, I have never been a particularly devout conference attendee. Even at the beginning of my career attending that first CCCCs in 1995 in Washington, DC, when everything was new to me, I was not the kind of person who got up at dawn for the WPA breakfast or even for the 9 am keynote address, the kind of conference goer who would then attend panels until the end of the day. More typical for me is to go to about two or three other panels (besides my own, of course), depending on what’s interesting and, especially at this point of my life, depending on where it is. I usually spend the rest of the time basically hanging out. Had I actually gone to Chicago, I probably would have spent at least half a day doing tourist stuff, for example.
The other thing that has always been true about the CCCCs is even though there are probably over 1000 presentations, the theme of the conference and the chair who puts it together definitely shapes what folks end up presenting about. Sometimes that means there are fewer presentations that connect to my own interests in writing and technology– and as of late, that specifically has been about teaching online. That was the case this year. Don’t get me wrong, I think the theme(s) of identity, race, and gender invoked in the call are completely legitimate and important topics of concern, and I’m interested them both as a scholar and just as a human being. But at the same time, that’s not the “work” I do, if that makes sense.
That said, there’s always a bit of something for everyone. Plus the one (and only, IMO) advantage of the on demand format is the materials are still accessible through the CCCCs conference portal. So while enjoying some so-so weather in a beach house, I spent some time poking around the online program.
First off, for most of the links below to work, you have to be registered for and signed into the CCCCs portal, which is here:
If you never registered for the conference at all, you won’t be able to access the sessions, though the program of on-demand sessions is available to anyone here. As I understand it, the portal will remain open/accessible for the month of March (though I’m not positive about that). Second, the search feature for the portal is… let’s just say “limited.” There’s no connection between the portal and the conference on-demand program, so you have to look through the program and then do a separate search of the portal opened in a different browser tab. The search engine doesn’t work at all if you include any punctuation, and for the most part, it only returns results when you enter in a few words and not an entire title. My experience has been it seems to work best if you enter in the first three words of the session title. Again, I’m not going to complain….
So obviously, the first thing I found/went to was my own panel:
There’s not much there. One of the risks of proposing an individual paper for the CCCCs rather than as part of a panel or round table discussion is how you get grouped with other individual submissions. Sometimes, this all ends up working out really well, and sometimes, it doesn’t. This was in the category of “doesn’t.” Plus it looks to me like three out of the other five other people on the program for this session essentially bailed out and didn’t post anything.
To find other things I was interested in, I did a search for the key terms “distance” (as in distance education– zero results) and “online,” which had 54 results. A lot of those sessions– a surprising amount to me, actually– involved online writing centers, both in terms of adopting to Covid but also in terms of shifting more work in writing centers to online spaces. Interesting, but not quite what I was looking for.
So these are the sessions I dug into a bit more and I’ll probably be going back to them in the next weeks as I keep working on my “online and the new normal” research:
Really nice talk that sums up some of the history and talks in broad ways about some of the experiences of teaching online in Covid. Of course, I’m also always partial to presentations that agree with what I’m finding in my own research, and this talk definitely does that.
OD-211 Access and Community in Online Learning– specifically, Ashley Barry, University of New Hampshire, “Inequities in Digital Literacies and Innovations in Writing Pedagogies during COVID-19 Learning.”
Here’s a link to her video in the CCCCs site, and here’s a Google Slides link. At some point, I think I might have to send this PhD student at New Hampshire an email because it seems like Barry’s dissertation research is similar to what I am (kinda/sorta) trying to do with own research about teaching online during Covid. She is working with a team of researchers from across the disciplines on what is likely a more robust albeit local study than mine, but again, with some similar kind of conclusions.
Here’s a link to his video and his slides (which I think are accessible outside of the CCCCs portal). What I liked about Evans’ talk is it is coming from someone very new to teaching at the college level in general, new to community college work, and (I think) new to online teaching as well. A lot of this is about what I see as the wonkiness of what happens (as I think is not uncommon at a lot of community colleges for classes like developmental writing) where instructors more or less get handed a fully designed course and are told “teach this.” I would find that incredibly difficult, and part of Evans’ argument here is if his institution is really going to give people access to higher education, then they need to offer this class in an online format– and not just during the pandemic.
So that was pretty much my CCCCs experience for 2022. I’m not sure when (or if) I’ll be back.
Here is a link (bit.ly/krause4c22) to my “on demand” presentation materials for this year’s annual Conference for College Composition and Communication. It’s a “talk” called “When ‘You’ Cannot be ‘Here:’ What Shifting Teaching Online Teaches Us About Access, Diversity, Inclusion, and Opportunity.” As I wrote in the abstract/description of my session:
My presentation is about a research project I began during the 2020-21 school year titled “Online Teaching and the ‘New Normal.” After discussing broadly some assumptions about online teaching, I discuss my survey of instructors teaching online during Covid, particularly the choice to teach synchronously versus asynchronously. I end by returning to the question of my subtitle.
I am saying this is “part 1?” because I might or might not write a recap post about the whole experience. On the one hand, I have a lot of thoughts about how this is going so far, how the online experience could have been better. On the other hand (and I’ve already learned this directly and indirectly on social media), the folks at NCTE generally seem pretty stressed out and overwhelmed and everything else, and it kind of feels like any kind of criticism, constructive or otherwise, will be taken as piling on. I don’t want to do that.
I’m also not sure there will be a part 2 because I’m not sure how much conferencing I’ll actually be able to do. When the conference went all online, my travel plans changed. Now I’m going to be be on the road during most of live or previously recorded sessions, so most of my engagement will have to to be in the on demand space. Though hopefully, there will be some recordings of events available for a while, things like Anita Hill’s keynote speech.
The thing I’ll mention for now is my reasons for sharing my materials in the online/on demand format outside the walled garden of the conference website itself. I found out that I was assigned to present in the “on demand” format of the conference– if I do write a part 2 to this post, I’ll come back to that decision process then. In any event, the instructions the CCCCs provided asked presenters to upload materials– PDFS, PPT slides, videos, etc.– to the server space for the conference. I emailed “ccccevents” and asked if that was a requirement. This was their response:
We do suggest that you load materials directly into the platform through the Speaker Ready Room for content security purposes (once anyone has the link outside of the platform, they could share it with anyone). However, if you really don’t want to do that, you could upload a PDF or a PPT slide that directs attendees to the link with your materials.
The “Speaker Ready Room” is just want they call the portal page for uploading stuff. The phrase I puzzled over was “content security purposes” and trying to prevent the possibility that anyone anywhere could share a link to my presentation materials. Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t that kind of the point of scholarship? That we present materials (presentations, articles, keynote speeches, whatever) in the hopes that those ideas and thoughts and arguments are made available to (potential) readers who are anyone and anywhere?
I’ve been posting web-based versions of conference talks for a long time now– sometimes as blog posts, as videos, as Google Slides with notes, etc. I do it mainly because it’s easy for me to do, I believe in as much open access to scholarship as possible, and I’m trying to give some kind of life to this work that is beyond 15 minutes of me talking to (typically) less than a dozen people. I wouldn’t say any of my self-published conference materials have made much difference in the scholarly trajectory of the field, but I can tell from some of the tracking stats that these web-based versions of talks get many more times the number of “hits” than the size of the audience at the conference itself. Of course, that does not really mean that the 60 or 100 or so people who clicked on a link to a slide deck are nearly as engaged of an audience as the 10 people (plus other presenters) who were actually sitting in the room when I read my script, followed by a discussion. But it’s better than not making it available at all.
Kenneth W. Henderson, the chancellor of Northeastern University, posted a letter on the university website late last month telling students and faculty members that the Boston institution intended to open as planned for the spring semester because “in-person learning remains the gold standard.”
The statement, which was not caveated in any way, struck many in education circles as strikingly unnuanced, especially for a chancellor whose institution offers a robust catalog of online courses. Henderson is not Northeastern’s top administrator, and while at most institutions the chancellor is the top person, in a new structure implemented by Northeastern, Henderson is a cabinet member.
The writer, Suzanne Smalley, goes back and forth between the desirability of the in-person college experience and the efficacy of online classes. She brings up many of the usual examples and quotes many smart experts, though I ultimately think she emphasized the advantages of the online format.
What a difference a global pandemic can make, huh?
By “gold standard,” I think Henderson means that the f2f experience is widely acknowledged as the best and most desirable approach for late teen/early 20-somethings (aka, “traditional” students) for going to college. It is the point of comparison for most people regarding the effectiveness of online courses, as in “online courses are just as effective as f2f ones.” This doesn’t mean folks defending the effectiveness of online instruction are wrong– and I’ll come back to that point in a moment– but I am at a loss who would be “struck” by such an “unnuanced” statement. All of the most prestigious, well-known, and selective universities in the U.S. are residential experiences and they hold the vast majority of their courses f2f. These are the universities that most students want to attend, which is why these kinds of universities are more selective about who they allow to attend. That’s just a fact.
Henderson said in-person learning rather than in-person courses represents the gold standard, and that’s important. I think he’s trying to include everything that happens for students in addition to courses. He’s making the connection between learning and the broader college life experience that includes living on or near campus, parties/the Greek system/other social activities, sports, getting into semi-supervised sex/drugs/rock-n-roll trouble, and so forth. But this doesn’t have a lot to do with the mode of delivery of courses.
This is not to say that everyone who goes to college has access to or even wants this “gold standard.” At EMU, we have traditionally aged/right out of high school students looking for the full college life experience with dorms and off-campus apartments and sports and campus activities and all that. But the majority of our students– including the ones in the dorms– are coming to EMU in part because they couldn’t afford the full-on college life experience at Michigan or MSU, or because they didn’t want to move too far away from home. Plus we have a lot of “non-traditional” students, folks who tend to be past their early twenties and who have grown-up responsibilities (jobs, spouses, kids, mortgages, etc.) that are not compatible to the college life experience. It’s kind of hard to go to all the games and parties if you’re a full-time student working two jobs to help pay the bills for school and your new baby.
It’s clear that online courses/programs can be just as effective as f2f courses/programs under the right circumstances, assuming that “effective” means students demonstrate the same level of learning in both formats. But as Van Davis, who is the “service design and strategy officer for Every Learner Everywhere,” is quoted as saying in this article, “The gold standard isn’t the modality. The gold standard has to do with the level of interaction that students are able to have with each other, and that students are able to have with the content, and that students are able to have with instructors.” I agree, and there are plenty of f2f courses with almost no interaction, unless you count some prof lecturing at a captive audience for 50 minutes at a time as “interaction.”
But I also think online courses/programs are most effective for students who have the maturity and discipline to interact effectively online, and in my experience, that means upper-division undergraduates and graduate students. There’s also the issue of what I’d describe as the aesthetics of the experience. I personally “like” teaching classes online, but lots of my colleagues and my students definitely prefer the f2f experience, and a year and a half of teaching all online has shown me that I would prefer to teach a mix of f2f and online classes. Maybe the real “gold standard” here is the flexibility for both teachers and students to engage in a course in the format that best suits their own needs.
Ultimately, it’s like a lot of things we’ve learned during Covid and and how to make do online. We can have a family game night or small party with friends via Zoom, but it’d sure be nice if we could do that more often in person. We can hold large academic conferences online and we should continue to offer some online participation as an option (and I had a long blog post about this before the CCCCs got cancelled in 2020 that I think is relevant here) more or less for the same reason why we teach courses online: to give access to people who otherwise can’t come to the f2f conference. But it’d be sure nice if the 2022 CCCC’s was still going to happen f2f. We can have department meetings via Zoom, but– well actually, that last one is an example where I prefer the distance.
This morning, I read a discussion between Kevin Carey and Doug Dempster in Inside Higher Ed, “Debating the Value of Arts (and Other) Degree Programs.” Carey is a journalist/writer specializing in issues of higher education, and Dempster is the former dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. They were discussing an article Carey wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education back in August called “The Great Masters Degree Swindle.” I haven’t read that original article, but given this conversation, the gist of it is pretty clear. There are a lot of graduate programs, particularly in “the arts” and “the humanities,” which are popular but which also are expensive and have a low return on investment. Carey spent time in that article talking about a very expensive graduate program in film studies at Columbia University and he names some other fairly exotic and expensive graduate programs in things like acupuncture and Positive Psychology (whatever that is). But I’m sure he also means graduate programs in things like creative writing, music of various sorts, acting, painting, etc., etc., degrees where there are few chances of earning a decent living.
Carey and Dempster both agree the arts and similar pursuits are valuable in all sorts of different ways, though also both questioned the extent to which someone who wants to try their hand at filmmaking or acting or journalism needs to go to graduate school. Both talk about and around the problem of the rising costs of higher education generally, though neither of them have any solutions to any of this. And neither of them discussed the wisdom of going to graduate school in fields like this at all, nor do they discuss PhD programs– so I’ll put a pin in that for now.
But I was surprised neither of them brought up the obvious solution to the problem of paying for graduate school– or at least the obvious way for graduate students in many fields to greatly reduce the amount of debt. This solution has been around in the U.S. for at least 60 years, long before I started my MFA program in fiction writing in 1988, and it’s the way that everyone I know who is now in academia in some way got started in the profession.
It’s called a “Graduate Assistantship.”
When I applied to MFA programs in the late 1980s, I didn’t know much about graduate assistantships and I didn’t think much about how I would pay for graduate school. I just applied to what I thought were some of the best creative writing programs in the country and where I thought I might be able to get in. One of the places I applied– kind of on a whim– was Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, Virginia. I got in, and Greg Donovan (who is still a professor at VCU and who was at the time the director of the MFA program) called me on the phone. “Steve,” he said, “I’m calling you to let you know we want to admit you to the program, and we also want to offer you a graduate assistantship.” He made this call to everyone who was offered an assistantship.
So, cocky young person that I was, I said this was exciting but I also had been admitted to some other really strong programs, I’d have to think about the pros and cons of it all, etc. etc. etc. Greg listened patiently and said “Those are all good points and also good programs, Steve. But listen, it’s not worth going into that much debt for a degree in creative writing.”
That sealed the deal for me, and the rest (as they say) is history.
The details of graduate assistantships vary a lot, but generally, “GAs” (sometimes called something like “Teaching Assistants” or TAs or “Research Assistants” or RAs) are competitive positions where universities pay graduate students a pathetically small amount of money and free or nearly free tuition to attend graduate school. In exchange, GAs perform some sort of labor, generally related to their studies. In English departments (and that usually includes creative writing), that means labor like teaching first year composition and sometimes introductory literature courses, assisting professors in teaching (especially large lecture hall courses), tutoring in a writing center, or working as an editorial assistant for a journal of some sort. I think there are analogous teaching/tutoring/editing positions in most of the humanities. In most of the sciences, GAs tend to work with/for professors in labs.
As far as I can tell, there are very few opportunities for graduate assistantships in fields where the potential earnings are higher– disciplines like medicine, business, law, and so forth. But for most of the fields these two are discussing, GA positions are more common. Even with the meager resources we have at EMU and even with our modest graduate school reputation, we still offer a number of GA positions in our department and across the university.
Furthermore, these positions offer the kind of workplace experience that Carey says (and Dempster kind of says this too) is something these outrageously expensive graduate programs lack. Everyone I know who has a career in higher education– including in staff positions like advising– got their start as a graduate assistant. Again, these folks don’t discuss PhD programs at all nor do they discuss the challenges of getting a faculty position of any sort (and so I won’t go into that either), but I’ve been a part of a lot of faculty searches over the years, and there is no way we would ever hire anyone for a faculty position who had not had experience as a GA.
Now, GA positions are far from a perfect solution. For starters, this does nothing to deal with the debt from undergraduate studies– that’s a whole different problem. The pay (“stipend”) can be ridiculously low and the positions can be very exploitive, which is why there are a number of institutions where GAs have unionized. The free or dramatically reduced tuition GAs get is usually worth much more than what GAs actually see in a paycheck, and that pay is also typically not enough to live on. That is especially true at underfunded universities like EMU. Most of our graduate assistants still end up borrowing at least some money and/or working part-time outside of the university. But the alternative is to pay all the costs of graduate school out of pocket, and that is obviously a worse situation.
The other potential problem with GA positions is because they are competitive, not everyone can get one. Then again, maybe if you’re an aspiring actor or journalist or painter or whatever and you want to go to graduate school but you are unable to find a university willing to fund at least part of the bills in exchange for labor that will also give you some valuable workplace experience, well, then maybe you should rethink those plans.
Anyway, it’s not that Carey and Dempster are wrong in their discussion, but I’m just surprised that they present going to graduate school anywhere and for pretty much anything as being only possible if students pay for everything themselves. That’s simply not true, and it is especially not true for a lot of the degree programs in fields where the ROI is more suspect.
Twitter was all afire with news of the forming of The University of Austin by a group of right-leaning academics, pundits and gadflies, primarily led by Bari Weiss. Here’s a link to the announcement, written by who will be the new “university’s” president, Pano Kanelos, a post titled “We Can’t Wait for Universities to Fix Themselves. So We’re Starting a New One,” which was published on Weiss’ substack site “Common Sense.”
It’s an easy story to make fun of because all the people involved in this new “university” have found themselves criticized or canceled for one reason or another, and the announcement’s tone is classic “I am taking my ball and going elsewhere” pout (more on that below). What makes this even more amusing is the University of Austin happens to be located in the same city as another well-established university. Somehow, I expect a lawsuit of some sort that will result in either a name change or a move to a new city.
When I first heard this story, I tweeted and compared these plans to MOOCs, and I thought about the book I published two years ago, More Than a Moment: Contextualizing the Past, Present, and Future of MOOCs. The book is for sale of course, and it is also available in its entirety on JSTOR here. Unfortunately, the book was published just as Massive Open Online Courses were no longer a threat to traditional higher education and after MOOCs morphed into a series of training courses and “edutainment” (think MasterClass). Fortunately, my book is actually about the history of efforts and failures to “disrupt” higher education.
In my book, I argue that MOOCs were not an unprecedented innovation in distance education, but rather a continuation of previous innovations like more “traditional” online courses and programs that began getting traction in the 1990s, along with correspondence courses and programs from the early 20th/late 19th centuries. Since the demise of MOOCs (and since my book was published), there have been several other lukewarm at best attempts to change everything about higher education. There was the launched and now largely failed Global Freshman Academy part of Arizona State’s enormous online presence. Frank Bruni wrote last year about Minerva University as an alternative for going to college online during the pandemic, but as far as I can tell, Minerva remains an eccentric school of about 1000 students. There was Outlier, which was pitched as a better version of MOOCs, and while it still appears to be around, they seem a long ways away from “disrupting” higher education as we know it. And so forth.
But as I read and re-read and thought about Kanelos’ announcement, I realized there actually is something different. The University of Austin is trying to create an entirely new kind of “higher education,” one completely devoid of students, courses, degrees, and research, and one sustained entirely by the presence of cancelled faculty and disgruntled quasi-intellectuals. Kanelos is not the first academic to imagine how much better the university life would be without students, but he may very well be the first one to actually write this down and announce it to the world.
More details than perhaps you want after the break.
I met William Pannapacker in 2014 at the HASTAC/digital humanities conference at Michigan State, at a reception if I remember right. We only talked for a few minutes, exchanging stories of blogging from the “old days” and some of his columns for The Chronicle of Higher Education when he wrote under the name Thomas H. Benton, which always struck me as sounding less like a pseudonym than his actual name of Pannapacker. So after a seven or so year break, I was happy to see what I assume will be his last column, “On Why I’m Leaving Academe.”
It’s surprising he’s opting out because Pannapacker has a sweet gig. Besides being a tenured full professor, he has been an administrator since 2020, the “Senior Director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Programs and Initiatives” at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Pannapacker explanations for leaving academia are similar to those who have written similar columns in recent years. He writes about the demise of the humanities, the changing demographics that have contributed to falling enrollments everywhere (and that’s even more true at very small and private liberal arts colleges with a explicit religious mission, like Hope College), and the difficulties of being able to just “keep up” with the field. Etc.
As usual, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with him throughout this essay, but I wanted to write a bit about his perceptions that he’s part of “the problem” as a senior and tenured professor. He writes:
At this point in my career, at age 53, the costs of employing me are becoming greater than what I am likely to contribute. I am an impediment to solvency, diversity, and innovation for my institution. Tenure could keep me in this position until my 80s, while most new doctoral graduates went jobless. Tenure should not have become a lifetime appointment for a shrinking percentage of the profession subsidized by everyone else.
It’s not fair. And it is rife with professional hazards for those who receive it. Administrators talk about “dead wood,” and professors talk about “golden handcuffs.” If you’re an aging professor, like me, why not choose to set yourself free to explore more-challenging possibilities?
As I wrote about last month regarding EMU’s faculty buyout offer, I can relate to the midlife crisis fantasy of leaving academia for a different career, though after I thought about it for fifteen minutes, I concluded that’d be a terrible idea. The only other “careers” I’m interested in at this point are lottery winner and/or retiree, and the last thing I want to do is “explore more-challenging possibilities.” Though I bet Pannapacker didn’t take this leap without having a new job already lined up. Perhaps he is going to end up in some sort of humanities/arts grant writing position in his newly adopted city of Chicago. Good for him if that’s the case.
He’s right about the “golden handcuffs” of tenure in the sense that it is almost impossible for senior tenured faculty like me and Pannapacker to move on to a different university even if we’re willing to give up tenure and take a big pay cut. There are just not a lot of senior level faculty positions offered in any given year, and I couldn’t get a job as an assistant professor in my field someplace else because the hiring committee would think “Why would this guy apply for this job? There must be something wrong with him.” I know this is the case because I’ve been on several hiring committees and that’s what has happened with candidates like that every single time.
But I also think a lot of what Pannapacker is saying here is wrong.
First off, saying he’s stepping out of academia and thus improving the lives of graduate students and supporting the good work of the institution is the kind of virtue-signaling few of us can afford. We all have bills to pay. Second, there’s a BIG difference between a professor in their 50s who is perhaps disengaging a bit and someone who is in their 70s or 80s who should have retired long ago. My students remind me every moment that being in my fifties means I’m old, but c’mon, not that old. Besides, the era of automatically replacing a retired/leaving tenured professor with a new tenure-seeking professor ended about 20 years ago. If Hope hires anyone to replace Pannapacker, it’s most likely going to be a non-tenure-track or part-time job– not exactly coveted positions.
Then there’s the “dead wood” thing. I like to describe myself as beginning the dead wood/no longer giving any fucks stage of my career, but I’m of course mostly kidding. As I mention in my previous post (and as I’ve “vague-booked” on Facebook and elsewhere), I’m making a point of opting out of situations and meetings to avoid the toxicity that flows freely amongst some of my colleagues. But all that really means is I’m skipping a lot of meetings and I’m not putting my name in to be on any sorts of committees. Since I spent years doing that work, I kind of feel like I’m getting out of the way to give some of my other colleagues a chance to do these service and quasi-administrative things. I’m still active as a scholar and still taking teaching seriously, so I guess I’m less dead wood than I am an “old growth” tree of some sort– nothing like a Sequoia, but like some kind of scraggly shrub that somehow is still there after decades of forest fires and floods. So sure, there’s a difference in the amount of work I’m willing and able to do now versus when I was in my 30s or 40s, but that doesn’t mean I should be put on an iceberg and shoved out to sea.
I think the real definition of a dead wood professor is someone who is so checked out they are a burden and they drag down everyone else around them. The example that immediately comes to mind for me is a guy here who was finally forced into retirement a couple years ago. I will skip the details, but trust me: anyone reading this who has been a professor in my department in the last 20 years knows exactly who I’m talking about.
Now that’s dead wood, and I’d argue that the correlation between age and being dead wood is fuzzy. People are more likely to become a detached burden on their colleagues and students after they’ve been on the job for 20+ years, but correlation is not causation. I’ve met and worked with people who are as active and involved well into their 70s, and I have met and worked with people who started “dying” in their thirties the moment after they got tenure.
Retirement is not about money or age but the annihilation of any sense of purpose and meaning in your professional life. Once you accept this, you will quickly see how retirement really is for you. And we have greatly streamlined the process. To retire, all you need to do is find a quiet corner of a building (but not mine!) and say, out loud, in a determined voice, “I retire and release the university from all current and future financial obligations!” Being already in your head, I will hear you very clearly. Then you can let out a small whimper and crumple to the ground in a heap of deflated good intentions.
In any event, good luck in Chicago and beyond, William! Back here in academe, I’ll keep the lights on for you– at least for another 10 years or so.