Category Archives: General issues in higher education

Response to letter about UBC and immigration, travel ban

In my last post I pasted a letter written by a number of people at UBC, and sent around to a larger number of people via email for feedback, making suggestions about some things UBC might do in response to the recent travel ban in the U.S. (which has now been put on hold but a new one may be coming out), issues around immigration and refugees, hate speech & violence against certain religious groups, the LGBTQ+ community, and more.

We received a response right away from Pam Ratner, Vice-Provost & Associate Vice-President, International pro tem at UBC. I asked and received permission to post that response here because I thought it would be of interest to many. I want to thank Pam for a quick, thorough, and helpful response!

A number of us are continuing to think about how we might work with others at UBC to address these issues and the students, staff and faculty who are affected by them. If you would like to join us, please email me: c.hendricks@ubc.ca.


Dear Christina, Afsaneh, Jenny, Tammy and Amy.

Thank you for your letter about the recent travel ban imposed via the US President’s executive order (EO), and thank you for writing a thoughtful account of the current situation, and for providing some excellent ideas about how UBC can respond.  Several of your ideas were addressed by the task force, when it was in place, and by others who are concerned about the current situation.  I’d like to share some information about initiatives that were launched prior to the EO, which are relevant, and some that have been put in place as a result.  That said, there is more work that needs to be done and perhaps you can provide the leadership as well as the impetus.

An email will likely not suffice to address the several complex matters that you identified in your letter.  I do want to address, at a high level, some of the concerns you’ve expressed to affirm that others have raised similar concerns and that some work is underway to address them.

  1. You recommended that workshops, teach-ins, and discussions be held related to racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-LGBTQ+ violence, refugees, human rights, and immigration.  You acknowledged that many events are taking place and that we might benefit from a fund to support speakers.  There is a project underway at present that is designed to address diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus and a $2M recurring commitment to diversity has been made.  This funding was allocated when the administration discussed the implications of tuition increases for international students with the elected student leadership.  Your recommendation will be shared with the project team which is working with the AVP Equity and Inclusion, Sara-Jane Finlay.
  2. Discussions with the World University Service of Canada Student Refugee program.  UBC is very committed to working with WUSC. UBC committed significant funding to support the housing and tuition costs of WUSC students when the number of sponsored students was increased last year.  We look forward to receiving the recommendations from WUSC and learning how we can better support refugees on campus.  I know that the Registrar, the International Student Initiative, and International Student Development are very committed to WUSC.
  3. Academic conferences:  I appreciate that several academics are choosing not to enter the US at this time and are concerned about the implications of missing out on conferences and networking opportunities for merit, tenure, and promotion considerations.  This was a question raised by Mark Maclean of the Faculty Association, as well Allison Matacheskie, Director of Faculty Relations, Eric Eich, Vice-Provost & AVP, Academic Affairs, and Mark Maclean are meeting to discuss this issue.
  4. An updated webpage – we have been using the President’s webpage to point people to the appropriate government webpages in the US and Canada about the implications of policy changes in the USA.  Your suggestion about adding information is helpful and we’ll explore whether we can develop more resources on the Provost’s website.
  5. Students – we are reviewing students’ applications on a case-by-case basis for both undergraduate and graduate programs that have the capacity to enrol more students.  Dean Susan Porter, Faculty of Graduate + Postdoctoral Studies is consulting with Departments to determine their needs.  The Provost has committed additional funding for 2017-18 to help support late admissions to graduate programs and we are investigating whether there is a need to support postdoctoral fellows, as well.
  6. Visiting scholars – we have been contacted by doctoral students enrolled in US programs who were outside of the country and cannot gain re-entry to the USA, at this time.  We have invited those students to join us at UBC as VIRS students so that they can continue their research and complete their dissertations, under the supervision of their US supervisors.  We have waived the application fee for these students.  And, we are looking at other ways in which we can support scholars who may be in situations where their lives, liberty or wellbeing are at risk.  Early discussions with the Faculty Association and the Executive are very promising with respect to the latter initiative.

Thank you again for writing.  I do hope that upon learning about some of the activities you have some confidence that many people on campus are working to ensure that we contribute to the greater good and advance our community, and society, in ways that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Best wishes,

Pam

Pam Ratner  PhD, FCAHS
Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President, Enrolment and Academic Facilities

Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President, International pro tem
Office of the Provost & Vice-President Academic
The University of British Columbia | Vancouver Campus

UBC and recent events around U.S. travel, immigration and more

When the travel ban put in place by the administration of U.S. President Trump was announced in late January I was devastated. I couldn’t understand what was happening, nor how best to respond. I did the only thing I could think of at the time, which was to ask some questions on social media, which led to a suggestion for something to do by someone else at UBC, which led to an effort to gather people from UBC together into an email list to talk about possible responses by us as individuals and also by the university community.

I was heartened to see that UBC President Santa Ono put together a task force about the travel ban very quickly, and as they were meeting I was discussing with people on our hastily-put-together email list ideas of what we might do. As the suggestions started coming in I kept track of them all and eventually put them on a shared doc in the form of a letter. I was going to send it to the task force (second announcement about the task force is here) but then by the time I and a few other people finalized the letter and who wanted to sign it, we learned that the task force had given a new and final update.

We decided to send our letter anyway, and addressed it to President Ono only instead of the task force (which I believe is now finished, given the latest update being called a “final” one). We had some further thoughts for consideration and decided they were still worth sharing.

I want to emphasize that we appreciate the work of the President and the Task Force so far, and are offering further suggestions we would like the university to consider. I fear that the issues we discuss in the letter are likely to get worse, not better, as the weeks and months go on.

I share below a copy of the letter we sent to the President’s office today. I encourage others to share their thoughts in the comments below, and if you want to join our email list of UBC students, faculty and staff who are concerned about refugees, immigration, travel, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, hate and violence directed towards indigenous and LGBTQIA communities, please email me: c.hendricks@ubc.ca.

This is a long list of issues on the table, and I expect I have left out some groups and how they are being affected by recent events (please let me know!) but sadly I think they are connected. And all I can think of to do, again, is to talk with other people who care and see what we can do, given what we know and who we are and where we are right now. And to listen, mostly: to listen to those who are most affected.


February 20, 2017

Dear President Ono,

We write as members of the UBC community who are very concerned about the recent travel ban in the U.S. that affected so many people around the world, including at UBC, and about the violence committed against Muslims in Québec. Though the original travel ban is no longer in force, the U.S. President has said there will be a new one very soon that will be more carefully drafted so as to be more enforceable. Further, we fear that expressions of hatred as well as acts of violence against Muslims, Jews, and other marginalized groups that we are seeing in several parts of the world at the moment are likely to continue or get worse.

Recently we have also seen evidence of the new administration in the U.S. expending greater efforts to find and deport those who are in the country illegally, which could include students at institutions of higher education or their families. We are concerned about the possible disruption to such students and their families, not just in their studies but in their lives.

We were happy to see you respond so quickly to the travel ban in the U.S. by making a statement expressing deep concern and setting up a task force right away with funding to support it. We appreciate your efforts regarding this important issue and would like to support them.

We are writing with further suggestions of what we think might be useful for the university to do. We would also like to emphasize that the situation with the travel ban is very fluid and could change quickly, and some of the suggestions below are things that could be considered for the longer term even if the travel ban is not reinstated right away.

Actions that could be taken regardless of the status of the travel ban in the U.S.

 

Workshops, teach-ins, discussions at UBC

We would like to see more events related to racism, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, anti-LGBTQ violence, refugees, human rights and immigration at the university in the near future. First Nations and indigenous communities also continue to experience systemic inequalities, racism and violence, problems which are related to those we are raising here. There are quite a few people at UBC with a great deal of knowledge and experience with such issues, amongst students, staff and faculty. It would be helpful if there were a way for people to communicate and coordinate events and workshops around these issues, to avoid duplication and to be able to advertise them in one place.

We realize that such events are often organized by units at UBC rather than out of the central administration, but one thing that might facilitate more such events is to create a fund that could be used by units who wish to bring in speakers.

This is also a longer-term effort that could be undertaken in the portfolio of the Associate VP, Equity and Inclusion. As noted above, rhetoric, hatred and violence around Islam, Judaism, the LGBTQIA community, immigration and refugees is on the rise in many parts of the world, and this is a problem we need to be thinking about in the long term rather than only as a response to the recent travel ban.
World University Service of Canada Student Refugee program

Discussions with WUSC are currently underway to explore how best the university and Faculty can further support this program.  We encourage the University (and/or the task force) to continue working closely with WUSC and consider the recommendations coming from this student-led group.

 

Academic conferences

A number of professional associations are debating whether to possibly move their conferences or meetings outside of the U.S. We would like to ask the task force to consider how UBC might support such efforts, perhaps by providing a reduced price for use of rooms or catering. We recognize that many association meetings in Vancouver are held in hotels downtown, but for smaller meetings that could use UBC facilities we would like the university consider how to support moving such meetings from the U.S. to here.

There are also a number of academics who are choosing not to go to the U.S. at this time, and may therefore cancelling their presentations at conferences. If this is done out of conscientious objection, faculty members could note this on their CV’s and perhaps their cancelled presentations could still count for merit, tenure and promotion as if they had presented in person.

 

Actions specifically related to a travel ban, or to other reasons why students and scholars may not want to or be able to pursue their studies or scholarly work in the U.S.

 

Resource web page

It would be helpful to provide an up-to-date page with information about the current status of this or a future travel ban/travel or immigration concern in the U.S., such as the one at the University of Alberta: https://www.ualberta.ca/travel-ban-information This page could contain continually updated information as well as resources and people to contact with questions and concerns. It could also be a place to list events at UBC related to travel and immigration issues as well as those related to combating racism, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, and the like. Finally, it could contain information and guidelines around data protection and privacy for members of the UBC community who do travel to the US (in light of travellers being asked for device and social media passwords).

 

Students

  • Scholarships: It would be helpful if the university could fundraise for scholarships for those affected by this or a future travel ban.

 

Researchers and professors

Some may not be able to, or may not want to risk, going to the U.S. at this time though they may have been planning to do so (or are not able to return to their home institutions). We think it would be helpful if UBC could find ways to work with departments and research centres to provide temporary placement as visiting scholars. We recognize that this is complicated, of course, by the need for housing for such scholars as well as possibly their partners and families.

 

This letter has been circulated amongst an email list of faculty, staff and students who have come together around a desire to see the university respond in as effective and helpful way as possible to recent events. However, we are only a small number of people. We encourage the task force to consult widely with various people on campus, and in particular with those most affected by the travel ban, concerns around refugees and immigration, and Islamophobia, to ensure that the university’s response addresses what they see as the most pressing needs. We offer the list of things above as suggestions from a group of people who are concerned, some of whom have been personally affected, but who are nevertheless only part of the picture. We stress the importance of also consulting directly with those whose needs are most pressing at this time.

 

Sincerely,

Christina Hendricks, Professor of Teaching, Philosophy, UBC

Afsaneh Sharif, Faculty Liaison, Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology
(Personal viewpoints and do not reflect CTLT)

Jenny Peterson, Political Science, UBC

Tammy Yasrobi, Manager, UBC IT
(Personal viewpoints and do not reflect UBC IT as an organization)

Amy Scott Metcalfe, Educational Studies, UBC


 

UPDATE: We received a response to our letter from Pam Ratner, Vice-Provost & Associate Vice-President, International pro tem at UBC, which I put into a new post because this one is already quite long.

professional ethics in philosophy

I was invited to speak on a panel of people talking about professional ethics to a colleague’s class last week, but unfortunately I was sick the day of the class. So I offered to provide my thoughts on the questions we were asked to talk about, in writing. I figured why not post them here, in case anyone else finds them useful, or the students themselves want to see them later, after discussed in class next week.

I’m organizing the post according to the questions I was asked to talk about.

 

What does the term ‘professional ethics’ mean to you?

For me, “ethics” has to do with the rightness or wrongness of how we act, where those are determined by rules or guidelines or virtues that aren’t only tied to laws or institutional rules. We philosophers often talk about ethics as how we should act even if there are not rules or laws to that effect. For example, there may not be any laws or institutional rules saying that those with quite a bit of money to spare should donate to those in need, but the ethical question is whether it would be morally right for them to refuse to hep anyone else.

Still, what is morally right or wrong may coincide with laws or institutional rules: e.g., lying under oath in a courtroom is against the law, and also could be morally wrong even if there were no law against it. So ethics can be about what is right or wrong to do morally, whether it coincides with laws or not.

When I consider the term “professional ethics,” I think it’s about the way we should act, morally, as members of a particular profession. There might be specific ways one should/should not act as a result of the professional role one plays in a society.

 

What does the term ‘professional ethics’ mean to your profession?

This is a little difficult for me because “philosopher” doesn’t really have a clear job description! Most professional philosophers work as professors in universities, though, so much of what I’ll say here connects with being a professor at post-secondary institution.

The American Philosophical Association (APA) recently (2016) adopted a Code of Conduct. It includes legal requirements (based on United States laws, which is where the APA is mostly housed…many of us in Canada belong to the APA too, though): these include respecting laws about nondiscrimination and avoiding sexual harassment. But it also goes beyond what laws require, to talk about how we should act towards students, colleagues and others as professors in classes and as people dedicated to hearing many sides of arguments and making the best decision after weighing all views carefully. For example, the APA Code of Conduct says that in classes, philosophy teachers should:

  • Treat students with dignity, never intentionally embarrassing or belittling them, and always communicating with them in clear, respectful, and culturally sensitive ways.

  • Nurture intellectual autonomy by maintaining a classroom environment in which students might raise hyperbolic doubts and float views that do not reflect prevailing beliefs and values, while at the same time maintaining a classroom environment in which all students—particularly students from disenfranchised groups—feel welcome and supported.

The first point above is what any professor should do, but the second, I think, speaks to the specific profession of philosophy in that one of the things we do as philosophers is listen to all legitimate arguments for or against a claim, treat them as possible candidates for truth, and make a decision based on which view has the best argument supporting it.

However, this does not mean encouraging or making everyone listen to statements that promote stereotypes or suggest that some people are worth less than others based on their group status (e.g., gender, ethnicity, ability, religion, etc.). The Code of Conduct goes on to talk about bullying and harassment this way:

Bullying and (non-sexual) harassment includes any degrading, hostile, or offensive conduct or comment by a person towards another that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause the target to be humiliated, intimidated, or otherwise gratuitously harmed.

This is somewhat similar to the UBC policy on discrimination and harassment:

Harassment, a form of discrimination, is a comment, conduct or behaviour that humiliates, intimidates, excludes and isolates an individual or group based on the BC Human Rights Code’s thirteen grounds of prohibited discrimination.

Finally, the APA Code of Conduct includes a section on “electronic communication,” including online works such as blogs or websites, and social media. Among other things, it says:

  • In a professional setting, it’s best to avoid ad hominem arguments and personal attacks, especially if they amount to slander, libel, and/or sexual harassment.

  • Language used in professional electronic communications should use the same kind of inclusive language and reflect the same kind of mutual respect as is expected in the classroom or other face-to-face interactions.

These both go beyond institutional or legal rules, except if what one says amounts to “slander, libel, and/or sexual harassment.” And they were prompted, in part (I think) by some online exchanges that have happened in recent years.

 

What importance, if any, do professional ethics play in your job?

To me, professional ethics are crucial to who I am as a philosopher, a colleague, a leader, and a professor. Treating people with respect and dignity, treating students and colleagues fairly and equitably, being transparent in what decisions I’m making (regarding my classes or work I do with colleagues) and why, are of utmost importance to me. I couldn’t call myself a philosopher or a professor if I didn’t hold these values to be crucial. And if I ever fail at fulfilling them I want people to tell me (in a respectful manner!) so I can correct what I’m doing.

Beyond that, of course, if one doesn’t fulfill institutional or legal rules of professional ethics as a professor, one can lose one’s job (e.g., for bullying, harassment, discrimination).

 

Describe real-world example(s) of where professional ethics went missing or were called into question.  This can be a personal example or one that you have heard of.

There have sadly been several instances of alleged sexual harassment by philosophy professors, with students or colleagues. Daily Nous, a site with news about the philosophy profession, has quite a few stories about these and related issues, here. This is not an issue that plagues philosophy professors alone, as there are too many other stories of professors (and students) allegedly engaging in sexual harassment.

There has also been, in the past few years, a very significant situation in which one philosopher acted online in ways that many people, including myself, found problematic. The philosopher in question was at the time a leader on a website that ranked philosophy graduate programs, and quite a few philosophers signed a statement in 2014 saying we would not participate in those rankings until the philosopher stepped down from his leadership position with that ranking system. He did eventually step down. The saga continues, though, as some of the original people who criticized that philosopher have been sent feces through the mail by an anonymous source in 2016. This was also covered by the New York Times. There have been threats of lawsuits as well (here is a story in the UBC student newspaper, The Ubyssey, about a possible lawsuit). 

 

Any advice for handling ethically challenging situations? 

One of the best things I can think of is to talk the issue over with someone you trust, and who isn’t directly or indirectly involved but can offer good advice.

And think not just about the impacts on yourself for making one decision or another, but on general practices in your profession: if one person does something, is it an action that you think would be okay if many people did? If not, why should that person be able to do it?

Consider also: would more people be harmed if one doesn’t do anything to resist what’s wrong? Think about the precedent set for the future for people who will be in the profession, and those who are affected by the profession, if a certain pattern of behaviour becomes accepted because people didn’t speak out.

Still, I don’t think it’s morally required for people to sacrifice their own careers for what is right. Seek help and advice to find ways to address problems that could have less ramifications on your own job, or find people who can do something because their position is more stable or they have more power than you do. I feel much more comfortable speaking out these days than I did before I had a stable job, and I will sometimes offer to be the person who does so when others want to say something but their own position is more fragile.

 

Any more general advice for young professionals entering into the workforce?

Often, following rules of professional ethics is not just something one does because one is supposed to; it’s often also a matter of ensuring that the kind of work you’re doing, which should be of benefit to yourself and others, is actually done correctly. Professional ethics for a philosophy teacher and researcher means actually doing philosophy teaching and researching as opposed to just appearing like one is doing them from the outside!

Yes, a philosophy degree has many uses

The headline of a recent article from Forbes:

That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket

http://www.forbes.com/sites/georgeanders/2015/07/29/liberal-arts-degree-tech/

This article gives several case studies of leaders in the tech industry whose liberal arts degrees have served them well, and how tech doesn’t need just people with tech degrees. One of them is the founder and CEO of slack.com, who was a philosophy major.

 

I heard about the article via a tweet:

 

What’s a surprise to me is that this is still a surprise. Well, okay; maybe it’s not a “surprise” to me that this is so, but rather a “disappointment.” Those of us who teach and learn in the liberal arts get it already and try to make the case as much as we can. And some of our students complain about having to try to make the case to their parents. Clearly the message isn’t yet fully being received.

Or more likely, it takes the non-liberal-arts people saying it for the message to be believed.

What kind of position I have at UBC

Recently a colleague at another institution asked me some details about the particular kind of position I have at UBC: a tenurable, teaching position. This is not terribly common in N. America (though I am hearing rumours of some more universities and colleges in Canada looking into it), and so I thought I’d share some of these details also on my blog; others may be interested as well.

Two types of faculty tenure streams

I don’t know when this started, but UBC has two kinds of tenure lines, one research-focused and the other teaching-focused. Sometimes the first is called the “research” stream and the second the “teaching stream,” but these are rather misleading because it’s not as if each group doesn’t do the other thing too (teaching and research). I’ve noticed that the most recent nomenclature (as represented on UBC’s human resources site) is the “Professor” vs the “Professor of Teaching” path.

Which brings up another interesting point about names: the third, top rung of both paths have similar names: Professor and Professor of Teaching. The lower rungs are different.

  • Professor path: (1) Assistant Professor; (2) Associate Professor; (3) Professor
  • Professor of Teaching path: (1) Instructor I; (2) Sr. Instructor; (3) Professor of Teaching

There has been talk of changing the “instructor” titles because they are simply odd (made worse by the fact that there is a role called “Instructor II” but it is not in the Professor of Teaching path at all), but nothing has been set in stone yet.

Different criteria for tenure and promotion

1. Professor path

There is a one-page chart on this HR site, under “criteria,” that gives the basic criteria for tenure and promotion in that path (and you can see on that chart that “instructor II” is actually in that path…very confusing…I think this is going to be changed soon, as noted on our faculty union blog).

There are three criteria; the two that differ the most between the two paths are teaching and scholarly activity, so I’ll focus on those.

  • teaching–for appt. at Assistant professor, one just needs to demonstrate evidence of or potential for successful teaching; for associate,  successful teaching should be above that expected for an Assistant prof.; for Professor, excellence and high quality in teaching
  • scholarly activity–often this is research, but could also be creative and professional work with dissemination
    • The Senior Appointments Committee’s guide to promotion and tenure (linked to on the HR page noted above) notes on p. 12 that Scholarship of Teaching and Learning can be counted for faculty in this stream as part of their “scholarly activity”
  • service

 

2. Professor of teaching path

I can link directly to the chart for this one on the HR site: click here.

Three criteria here two, but one is different than the above:

  • teaching–for tenure at Sr. Instructor, one must demonstrate excellence in teaching; for Professor of teaching, one must have “outstanding” teaching, be “distinctive” in the field of teaching and learning
  • educational leadership
    • for tenure at Sr. Instructor
      • “Requires evidence of… demonstrated educational leadership”
      • “Requires evidence of… involvement in curriculum development and innovation, and other teaching and learning initiatives”
    • “Keep abreast of current development in their respective discipline and in the field of teaching and learning”
  • for Professor of Teaching
    • “Requires evidence of outstanding achievement in…educational leadership”
    • “Requires evidence of… sustained and innovative contributions to curriculum development, course design and other initiatives that advance the University’s ability to excel in its teaching and learning mandate”
  • Service

Note that “scholarly activity” is replaced with “educational leadership” here. Indeed, the Professor of Teaching chart says at the bottom that “Scholarly Activity is not a criterion or an expectation for tenure or promotion through the Professor of Teaching ranks.”

The current Collective Agreement also describes what is needed for promotion to Sr. Instructor and to Professor of Teaching:

  • 3.04 “Appointment at or promotion to the rank of Senior Instructor requires evidence of excellence in teaching, demonstrated educational leadership, involvement in curriculum development and innovation, and other teaching and learning initiatives.  It is expected that Senior Instructors will keep abreast of current developments in their respective disciplines, and in the field of teaching and learning.  A Senior Instructor may be promoted to the rank of Professor of Teaching in the fifth or subsequent years in rank.”
  • 3.05 “Appointment at or promotion to the rank of Professor of Teaching requires evidence of outstanding achievement in teaching and educational leadership, distinction in the field of teaching and learning, sustained and innovative contributions to curriculum development, course design and other initiatives that advance the University’s ability to excel in its teaching and learning mandate.  Initial appointments at this rank are normally tenured appointments.”

There has been a great deal of discussion in the past few years as to what “educational leadership” means. The Senior Appointments Committee’s guide to promotion and tenure lists the following as possible sources of evidence of educational leadership (p. 18):

  • “Leadership taken at UBC and elsewhere to advance innovation and excellence in teaching
  • Contributions to curriculum development and renewal (curriculum design/re-design) within the unit/Faculty
  • Pedagogical innovation
  • Scholarly teaching with impact within and outside the unit
  • Applications of and contributions to the scholarship of teaching and learning
  • Innovative use of learning technology
  • Leadership and contribution to teaching and learning initiatives and programs
  • Advancement of interdisciplinary/inter-professional collaboration
  • Leadership through mentoring
  • TLEF grants and other funding obtained for educational improvement/advising
  • Other activities that support evidence-based educational excellence, leadership and impact within and beyond the University.”

For example, I have taken on a leadership role of late in “open education,” talking with others about the value of making at least some of one’s teaching and learning work open to be used, revised, reused by others. I have given several presentations on this at conferences and workshops, and was chosen to be “Faculty Fellow” with BCcampus’ Open Textbook program this year–I’m engaging in outreach and advocacy about open textbooks and other open educational resources, as well as participating in research about these topics. I think that counts as “educational leadership.”

 

 Different criteria for merit

I have discovered, over the years since I’ve been in the “Professor of Teaching” path (I’m currently in the second level, a tenured Sr. Instructor), that if I do any research in my discipline, it neither counts for promotion nor for merit pay. The reason is because of this clause in the Collective Agreement:

  • 2.04 “Judgments [for merit awards] shall be based on the duties expected of a member in the period in question and shall not be based on activities in which the member had not the opportunity to engage.  For example, a faculty member who is not expected to teach but is expected to carry out research and contribute service should be considered on the latter two criteria.  A member whose assigned duties consist of teaching and service (e.g. Instructor I) should be considered only on those two criteria.”

This language is outdated; it has been the same for many years, and yet in the meantime the requirement of “educational leadership” has come into existence for those who are in the Professor of Teaching stream–so an Instructor I would not have duties only in teaching and service, but also educational leadership.

However, even if we included educational leadership as part of the basis for judgments of merit, it wouldn’t include research into one’s disciplinary area, only research on teaching and learning–see the above examples of “educational leadership,” which include only research in SoTL and not research in one’s (other) discipline.

 

The good and the, well, questionable

There are many things I like about the kind of job I have. It is, for me, a perfect fit between having far too many courses to be able to do anything but teach, and being in a research-heavy position that makes me feel like I should not be spending too much time on teaching or I won’t be able to fulfill the other aspects of my job. Those of us in the Professor of Teaching stream teach more than our colleagues in the Professor stream–some of us more than others, depending on the department and the faculty (Faculty of Arts, of Science, of Education, etc.). But since our jobs include teaching, service and educational leadership, we can at least make the case that we need to have enough time to do the latter two, and can’t be too overloaded with teaching duties to be able to fulfill what is expected.

There are still some concerns, though.

1. That disciplinary research is pretty much discouraged for those in the Professor of Teaching path is one area of contention. Part of the concern is that those in the Professor of Teaching path are also supposed to, as noted in section 3.04 of the Collective Agreement, as quoted above, “keep abreast of current developments in their respective disciplines.” It has been (persuasively, to my mind) argued that one way to do so is to not only read the disciplinary literature in one’s area but also add to it oneself. The answer I keep hearing, over and over, is that it is certainly fine if one wants to do research in one’s disciplinary area, but it won’t count for educational leadership. Perhaps it could count for the “teaching” part of one’s job description. But the message I’ve gotten over the past few years is that it is not to be taken into considerations in judgments about merit. If I publish SoTL work yes, but not if I publish an article on Foucault.

There appears to be a real push to keep the two faculty streams separate in this way. Not only do you not have to do disciplinary research if you go into the teaching stream, you’re actually encouraged not to (because it takes away time from the other things you should be doing), and you won’t get much credit for it professionally. However, I suppose we could look at the parallel in the Professor path: if someone in that stream became an outstanding teacher, earned teaching awards, became an educational leader in various ways, that would be great; but they probably wouldn’t make full professor on the basis of that. So even if I published a lot of great stuff on Foucault (which I haven’t had time to do, but you know…just imagine it’s true) it would be great but I wouldn’t become Professor of Teaching on the basis of that. I guess I can kind of see the point there. It does, however, feel strange that it’s possible for me to publish more in my discipline than a colleague in the research stream and not get merit while that person does. I can see why it’s the case, and I would get merit if I got a teaching award, maybe; would that person get merit as a research prof for a teaching award? I don’t know.

2. Another concern I’ve run across lately is that while there are a number of research grants available for disciplinary research, there is much less available for research in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. For awhile it was the case that most of the research grant money available at UBC was not available for those in the Professor of Teaching stream to apply for. That is slowly changing, at least in the Faculty of Arts, where now, finally we can apply for grants to hire undergraduate research assistants, which used to be off limits for those in the Professor of Teaching path (which made no sense to me). And fortunately, we can apply for grants in the Social Sciences and Humanities from the federal government (haven’t checked for other areas of study outside social sciences and humanities).

The problem is that it’s very hard to compete for grant funding when you’re going up against people who have much more time than you do to devote to research. What I’d like to see is more funding dedicated to research work on teaching and learning. We have a fund here at UBC called the “Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund,” which has quite a bit of money for improving teaching and learning, but it’s quite clearly focused on things that are directly applied to teaching and learning, not so much on research needed previous to application (as I’ve recently discovered! Which is fine…it’s just that I’d like to have a place to apply for money for the research). I have recently put in a grant application to the federal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council on a SoTL project; we’ll see how that goes in the national competition amongst many people who have more time for research than I do.

UBC has an Institute for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and I was happy to be able to apply for and receive funding from them for a project this year. But it’s now time for me to seek sources of more funds than they have, and time for others to have a chance to get funds from them. Plus, next year they are offering grants 1/5 the size of what I was able to get (though I’m not actually using that much, so some of mine will go back to the kitty for others!).

3. Finally, there is a bit of disagreement around campus as regards the degree to which these two “streams” should be considered as equal–in the sense of whether or not Instructor I’s should have the same privileges and rights as Assistant Professors, same with Sr. Instructors and Associate Professors, etc. A lot of that is still being worked out. One issue of contention is voting rights within departments: can Sr. Instructors, who are tenured members of a department, vote on the appointment or tenure of Assistant Professors? Associate professors can vote on tenure for Instructor I to Sr. Instructor, but so far, Sr. Instructors (tenured) can’t vote on tenure from Assistant to Associate professor. And same with the third level. It looks like some of this is changing, according to our faculty union’s blog: starting with the next collective agreement, it looks like, “in the case of initial appointments the committee will now comprise all tenured and tenure-track members of the department.” So all tenure-track members of the department can have a say on initial hiring. But I don’t see any changes on the horizon for tenure and promotion.

It does seem a little odd that a Professor of Teaching, the top rung of one of the streams, can have no say in the tenure and promotion of someone moving from Assistant to Associate Professor. Surely, just as those focused on research can be counted on to make intelligent decisions regarding quality teaching for those of us going through tenure and promotion in the Professor of Teaching path, those of us in the latter path can be counted on to make intelligent decisions regarding quality research. It seems questionable to me to have this disparity.

 

Conclusion

I have to say I’m really happy with my position at UBC. I am thrilled that I can focus on teaching, which is what I love, and also have the job security of tenure and the chance to move up to a higher level of recognition of my work and become a Professor of Teaching. I feel incredibly lucky that I was able to get a job like this! Which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement in some areas (as there is, I expect, with most jobs).

It still happens here (and there, and there, and there…)

Every year, whether it’s explicitly on the syllabus or addressed in readings or not, questions about gender relations and gender inequalities come up in discussions in one or more of my classes. And most years someone asks something like: is gender inequality really still a problem here in (Vancouver, Canada, N. America…etc.)? Usually another student will reply with examples of how it is, but not always. And when I reply, I don’t always have the evidence on hand to support the examples I give.

I come across articles, reports, blog posts, etc., all the time that talk about yet another, and another, instance of how gender inequality is still a problem even where some students in Canada might think it’s not. But I haven’t kept a list so I could point to them.

I decided to create one, collaboratively. I started a list, but want additions from others, please.

I know the issue is so big that this document could go on nearly forever, but please put in examples that you think would help students understand that there is still a problem, in multiple areas (I have some sections for higher ed and philosophy, and there are several links about women in tech and gaming, but what other areas should be covered here too?).

To clarify, I am not meaning to say that gender inequality in the area in which I live is the only important thing to focus on. This is just one gender issue that comes up in class discussions, and I want to have a quick list of things to point to for that. There are obviously numerous gender inequalities around the world, and I would appreciate having links on the document about those as well.

The link to the document is here: http://is.gd/genderinequalitylinks

The doc is also embedded below.

 

MOOCs and humanities, revisited

In the last post I discussed how I have come to learn about the different kinds of MOOCs through my participation in etmooc. I also said that through learning about a new kind of MOOC, the cMOOC or “network-based” MOOC, I was reconsidering my earlier concerns with MOOCs. Might the cMOOC do better for humanities than the xMOOC?

A humanities cMOOC

“Roman Ondák”, cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Marc Wathieu

I haven’t yet decided whether or not one could do a full humanities course, such as a philosophy course, through a cMOOC structure. Brainstorming a little, though, I suppose that one could have a philosophy course in which:

  • Common readings are assigned
  • Presentations are given by course facilitators and/or guests, just as in etmooc
  • Participants are encouraged to blog about the readings and presentations and comment on each others’ blogs (through a course blog hub, like etmooc and ds106 have)
  • Dedicated Twitter hashtag, plus a group on a social network like Google+, and a group on a social bookmarking site like Diigo (see etmooc’s group site on Diigo)
  • Possibly a YouTube channel, for people to do vlogs instead of blogs if they want, or share other videos relevant to the course

Would this sort of structure be more likely to allow for teaching and practice of critical thinking, reading and writing skills, as I discussed in my earlier criticism of MOOCs (which was pretty much a criticism of xMOOCs)? I suppose it depends on what is discussed in the presentations, in part. The instructors/facilitators could model critical reading and thinking, through explaining how they are interpreting texts and pointing out potential criticisms with the arguments. They could talk about recognizing, criticizing, and creating arguments so that participants could be encouraged to present their own arguments in blogs as clearly and strongly as possible, as well as offering constructive criticisms of works being read–as well as each others’ arguments (though the latter has to be undertaken carefully, just as it is in a face to face course).

This would involve, effectively, peer feedback on participants’ written work. Rough guidelines for blog posts (at least some of them) could be given, so that in addition to reflective pieces (which are very important!) there could also be some blog posts that are focused on criticizing arguments in the texts, some on creating one’s own arguments about what’s being discussed, etc.

What you wouldn’t be able to do well with this structure are writing assignments in the form of argumentative essays. These take a long time to learn how to do well, and ideally should have more direct instructor/facilitator feedback rather than only peer feedback, in my view. Peer feedback is important too, but could lead to problems being perpetuated if the participants in a peer group share misconceptions.

Another thing you can’t do well with a cMOOC is require that everyone learn and be assessed on a particular set of facts, or content. A cMOOC is better for creating connections between people so that they can pursue their own interests, what they want to focus on. Each person’s path through a cMOOC can be very different. Thus, as noted in my previous post, there is not a common set of learning objectives; rather, participants decide what they want to get out of the course and focus on that.

One would need to have a certain critical mass of dedicated and engaged participants for this to work. If it’s a free and open course, then people will participate when they can, and can flit in and out of the topics as their time and interest allows. That’s fantastic, I think, though if there are few participants that might mean that for some sections of the course little is happening. So having a decent sized participant base is important. (How many? No idea.)

I envision this sort of possibility as a non-credit course for people who want to learn something about philosophy and discuss it with others. Why not give credit? There would have to be more focus on content and/or more formal assessments, I think (at least in the current climate of higher education).

A cMOOC as supplement to an on-campus course

Even if a full cMOOC course in philosophy or another humanities subject may not work, I can see a kind of cMOOC component to philosophy courses, or Arts One. In addition to the campus-based, in-person course, one could have an open course going alongside it. This is what ds106 is like. One could have readings and lectures posted online (or at least, links to buy the books if the readings aren’t readily available online), and then have a platform for students who are off campus to engage in a cMOOC kind of way.

Then, those off campus can participate in the course through their blog posts and discussions/resource sharing on the other platforms, like we do in etmooc. Discussion questions used in class could be posted for all online participants.  Students who are on campus could be blogging and tweeting and discussing with others outside the course as well as inside the course.

Frankenstein engraved

Frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1831),by Theodor von Holst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. One of the texts on Arts One Digital.

Discussions would expand to include many more people with many more backgrounds and things to contribute, which is likely to enrich the learning experience. There might get to be too much for each individual to follow, but then one just has to learn to pick and choose what to read and comment on (more on this, below). All participants could make connections and continue discussions beyond the course itself.

Arts One has already started to move in this direction, with a new initiative called Arts One Digital. So far, there are some lectures posted, links to some online versions of texts, twitter feed, and blog posts. This is a work in progress, and we’re still figuring out where it should go. I think extending the Arts One course in the way described above might be a good idea.

Again, the main problem with this idea (beyond the fact that yes, it will require more personnel to design and run the off-campus version of the course) is getting a high number of participants. It won’t work well if there aren’t very many people involved–a critical mass is needed to allow people to find others they want to connect with in smaller groups, to engage in deeper discussions, to help build their own personal learning network.

Looking back at previous concerns with (x)MOOCs

Besides general worried about their ability to help students develop critical skills, I was also concerned in my earlier post with the following:

  • In the Coursera Course on reasoning and argumentation (“Think Again”) that I sat in on briefly, I found myself getting utterly overwhelmed by the number of things posted in the discussion board. I complained that I could scroll and scroll just to get through the comments on one post, to get down to the next post, and repeat for each of the thousands of posts. Even for one topic there were just too many posts.
  • I felt that the asynchronous discussion opportunities weren’t as good as synchronous ones, which allow for groups to be in the same mind space at the same time, feeding off each others’ ideas and coming up with new ideas. With asynchronous discussions, one might not get a response to one’s idea or comment until long after one has been actively thinking about it, and then at that point one may not be as interested in discussing it anymore (or at the very least, the enthusiasm level may be different).
  • The synchronous option of Google Hangouts seems to be a promising way to address the previous point, but I noted in my earlier post that there had been some reports of disrespectful behaviour in one or two of those in the “Think Again” course. I said I thought a moderator would be needed for such discussions, just as we have in face to face courses to ensure students treat each other respectfully.

Can a cMOOC address these concerns?

  1. From my experience with etmooc, the discussion does not have to get overwhelming. The thing is, each person focuses on what they want to focus on from the presentations, or from what others have said in their blogs, or from resources shared by others. There is no single “curriculum” that we all have to follow, so it’s not the case that everything posted by each person is relevant to everyone else’s interests and purposes for the course. This could be true of a philosophy or Arts One cMOOC as well, so it could be easier to pick and choose what, amongst the huge stream of things to read and think about, one wants to focus on.
  2. Synchronous discussions are difficult in a large group. In etmooc we have some opportunities for them in the presentations, which allow for people to write on the whiteboard, engage in a backchannel “chat,” and also take the mic and ask questions/offer comments. One could have the presentations have more time for discussion, perhaps, which could take place in part on the chat and in part via audio. It’s not as good as face to face discussions, though–much more fragmented.
  3. Google Hangouts are an alternative, though I haven’t tried doing one in etmooc. Some have, though, and reported success. However, the people taking etmooc are mostly professionals, both teachers and businesspeople, and they are both highly motivated and responsible/respectful. Having Google Hangouts where anyone in the world can show up could be inviting trouble. I don’t see a cMOOC addressing this problem.

cMOOCs in humanities–what’s not to love?

What other problems might there be with trying to do a cMOOC in humanities, whether on its own or as a supplement to another course? Or, do you love the idea? Let us know in the comments.

UPDATE: I just found, in that wonderfully synergistic way that etmooc seems to work, this blog post by Joe Dillon, which explains how well a cMOOC like etmooc stacks up to a face to face course. It’s just one example, but it can provoke some further thought on whether a cMOOC for humanities might be a good thing.

A MOOC by another name

 cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Cikgu Brian

Last October I posted some criticisms of moocs (massive, open, online courses) in humanities as too massive to really deal well with promoting critical skills in learners.  Recent experience has made me change my mind, but it’s going to take two blog posts to explain. This is the first. (The second is here.)

Part of the issue with MOOCs that I expressed in my earlier post was that they were too content-focused, and seemed most conducive to topics in which that content can be machine-assessed (with multiple-choice or other automate-able question/answer formats). I wondered whether critical thinking, reading, writing and discussing skills could really be done well in a MOOC.

The problem is, at the time I wrote that I fell into the common trap of thinking that MOOCs are a monolithic type of entity. I may, perhaps, be forgiven this as most of the press about MOOCs is about the Coursera/EdX/Udacity type (as Alan Levine notes in a blog post–see below). It was only through participating in etmooc, a mooc about educational technology and media, that I found that there are other options.

Not all MOOCs are equal

One way of distinguishing types of MOOCs (at least at the moment…things are always changing) is to break them down into two categories: xMOOC and cMOOC. What do these categories mean? The “c” in cMOOC stands for “connectivist,” but I am not sure what the “x” in xMOOC stands for. [Update May 27, 2013: This Google+ post by Stephen Downes says he started calling them xMOOCs because of the “x” used in things like EdX–which stands for the course being an extension of regular university course offerings].

See here, here and here for some explanations of the differences between cMOOCs and xMOOCs. [update March 17, 2013:] Here’s an even more detailed discussion of the differences, by George Siemens. Lisa M. Lane has come up with three categories for MOOCs, though I’m not familiar enough with the “task-based” MOOCs to really comment on them.

Alan Levine has a thought-provoking blog post on the numerous experiments in open learning (should we call them MOOCs?) that are going on at the moment, and how they are very different from the xMOOC model. The range of possibilities in courses that are open to anyone and everyone is astounding.

The etmooc course I’ve been participating in since Jan. 2013 is in the cMOOC category (or, in Lane’s three categories, it’s a “network-based” mooc). The “connectivist” aspect of it is obvious, as it seems clear that one of the main points of the course is to help people forge connections in order to learn from each other. There is a set of topics, one every two weeks, with presentations by various people working in those fields (all archived here). But the emphasis is not at all on learning content. Rather, participants are encouraged to watch the presentations they are interested in, and then (and mostly) to interact with the rest of the community in various ways: through twitter (#etmooc), a Google+ community, a community-curated list of links on Diigo, and posting and commenting on blogs (syndicated in an etmooc blog hub, though many of us read them on an RSS reader). We also have a weekly twitter chat (#etmchat) in which we discuss issues related to the topic for the week.

There really is no single “place” where the course is; it exists in the discussions we have with each other, the blog posts and digital stories we create and share, the connections we make with others and the conversations (about etmooc and teaching/learning generally, and other things) that we have. I haven’t watched all the presentations, and don’t plan to. Nor is it encouraged. Over and over we are reminded by the course “conspirators” and other participants that etmooc is driven by our own interests (and our own schedules…some have more time than others), and that there is no such thing as being “behind” in etmooc. You dive in when and where you want, and the most important part is to engage in discussion when you can. Blog, comment on others’ blogs, participate in Twitter and G+, or whichever of those you feel you can do.

Among other things, the “about” page for the course says:

Sharing and network participation are essential for the success of all learners in #etmooc. Thus, we’ll be needing you to share your knowledge, to support and encourage others, and to participate in meaningful conversations.

Without the various conversations going on in and around etmooc, there really wouldn’t be a course at all. It exists in our connections and discussion, in the things we share and the comments we make.

In addition to forging connections, etmooc, and other cMOOCs from what I understand, are focused on content creation rather than passive learning of content. In etmooc we contribute to content creation by writing in our own blogs and commenting on those of others. Recently we did a segment on digital storytelling and we created numerous digital stories (see my blog post here for links to a few examples). Right now we are talking about digital literacy and are invited to participate in Mozilla’s work to develop a framework for web literacy (open to anyone to contribute).

Etmooc also requires self-directed learning–participants must choose what to focus on, what to read, what to write about, whether to keep up on twitter and G+ or not, etc. There is no set of course objectives that are decided in advance, as explained in this conversation about learning objectives and cMOOCs on Storify. Rather, as Alec Couros puts it in that Storify conversation, participants are to develop their own learning objectives. Different people will engage with the course for different reasons, pursue different paths. And that’s the point.

The value of a cMOOC

Does it work? Do people learn? All I have at the moment is anecdotal evidence.

I have learned more in the last few weeks in etmooc than I ever did in any other professional development opportunity. It’s because of the connections and discussions: I read others’ blog posts (only a few a week, really; don’t have time for more), comment, and get conversations going. And the same thing happens now on my blog. My twitter lists have expanded widely, and I am getting so many links to articles, blog posts and other resources that are useful for topics I’m interested in.

I agree with Michelle Franz, though I’d say it’s not just twitter I’m learning from in etmooc:

See also Paul Signorelli’s mid-term reflections on etmooc, where he gives this list of what he has done and learned so far (among other things):

I have become an active part of a newly formed, dynamic, worldwide community of learners; continue to have direct contact with some of the prime movers in the development of MOOCs; had several transformative learning experiences that will serve me well as a trainer-teacher-learner involved in onsite and online learning; and have learned, experientially, how to use several online tools I hadn’t explored four weeks ago.

MOOCs and feedback, interaction

Ted Curran notes in a recent article (found via @jackiegerstein) that MOOCs–or rather, xMOOCs–are “the internet-scale version” of huge  introductory courses at large universities with hundreds of students: “massive, impersonal, and uninspiring exercises.” He notes that this model works well if you want to save money (more students, fewer faculty), but it doesn’t work very well pedagogically. What is needed for both the online and in-person teaching and learning platforms, according to Curran, is more emphasis on faculty interaction with students: “personalized timely feedback and frequent interaction with the teacher is more important to student success than the quality of lecturer, the quality of the textbooks, or the use of technology in courses” (emphasis in original). What MOOCs, and online learning in general, can do is to allow faculty

to automate the less effective activities (lecturing, exams, grading) so they can spend more time interacting with students (discussions, online office hours, targeted interventions when students fail assignments.) In short, online teaching tools let teachers spend more time on students and less time regurgitating content.

I agree that faculty/student interaction in courses can be important; it’s one of the most-cited things that students in Arts One said in a recent survey that they valued about the course. But realistically, is this possible in a MOOC that has thousands of participants? How many faculty can actually interact in a meaningful way with students in a course whose enrollment is upwards of 10,000 students or more?

Enter the cMOOC.

Must the interaction that is necessary to student success come from the instructor? Why not set up and foster a space in which interaction is encouraged amongst participants–indeed, where interaction and discussion are as much of (or more of) the focus as content delivery?

I don’t think the discussion boards on most or all xMOOC courses are enough. Discussion boards are limited as a technology: for example, I think blogs are better for posting lengthy reflections, including links and photos/videos, etc. Following blogs and Twitter feeds also promotes more lasting connections to foster learning after the course is finished. Encouraging participants to blog, comment on blogs, and interact in other ways such as Twitter and Google+ (or similar) has, in my experience with etmooc, worked very well.

The experience is still huge–there are far too many blog posts, tweets, G+ posts to follow. But the conspirators and participants are constantly reminding each other that keeping up with it all is not the point. Again, diving in where and when you want is. That, and creating smaller groups organically, through creating connections–deciding which blogs and twitter accounts to follow regularly, for example. Or creating your own smaller group within the larger group, with its own wiki, as another example.

In etmooc the “conspirators” tweet regularly, join in on some discussions in G+, comment on a few blogs here and there, but they don’t even try to interact with everyone. Instead, they have managed to create a space where participants engage mostly with each other.

Now, a purely connectivist mooc won’t work for all purposes; I’m not arguing for replacing xMOOCs with cMOOCs entirely. After all, in some disciplines there is a certain amount of content that simply must be grasped before one can really engage in meaningful discussions with others about the field. Further, for participants to thrive in a cMOOC, they have to be self-directed learners, as noted above, and not everyone is comfortable with this sort of learning.

But why couldn’t xMOOCs take some ideas from the successes of cMOOCs and incorporate more connectivist principles and practices alongside the traditional methods of learning they tend to use?

MOOCs and the media

Alan Levine points out, in the post linked above, that in mainstream media outlets you won’t hear about many of the “experiments in open courses” that some cMOOCs could be called (including etmooc). While drafting the first part of this post I was also engaging in a Twitter conversation with Rolin Moe (@RMoeJo) about how the hype about MOOCs in the media focuses on one type of MOOC only, even though there are at least two. As he noted, the “connectivist” MOOCs tend to be popular amongst educators, academics, and a few others, and they aren’t winning the PR battle.

The other problem, as we discussed in our twitter conversation, is that cMOOCs are often run by volunteers, because they believe in open learning, and there isn’t much in the way of trying to monetize the efforts. That doesn’t make for interesting news, apparently.

A different name?

Since mainstream media has hijacked “MOOC” to mean xMOOC, perhaps it’s time to call the cMOOC something else? Which is ironic, since apparently the whole idea of MOOCs started with cMOOCs (see “connectivist MOOCs” here).

Nevertheless, would a new name help to avoid the confusion? Or is it enough to try to push the xMOOC vs cMOOC distinction?

*** Update March 14, 2013 *****

I just found this blog post by David Kernohan that points to a third option: open boundary courses, in which an on-campus course is opened to outside participants (usually not for credit). It seems to me the “open boundary” courses could be either more like cMOOCs or more like xMOOCs in structure.

Resources on rhizomatic learning

For anyone interested in rhizomatic learning, as discussed in my earlier blog posts (here, and here), you might also be interested in the following.

I recently came across this glossary entry for “rhizome,” via a tweet by George (@reticulatrix). It is from a Theories of Media Keywords glossary, which appears to have been created by students in a course from 2004. I found this discussion of rhizomes extremely clear and grounded in theory. Especially helpful is the contrast between rhizomatic models and “tree” models.

In addition, through a comment on one of my blog posts, I found this blog, by Keith Hamon, called Communications and Society. It’s subtitled, “A blog to support Keith Hamon’s explorations of the rhizome,” and there are many, many posts there about rhizomatic learning. He discusses numerous theorists whose views are relevant to this topic. I plan to spend some serious time exploring Keith’s posts. He has continued the conversation started on my blog over at his, and he recently joined etmooc. I look forward to learning more with him!

Finally (though this does not exhaust the resources out there, I’m sure), I found this article by Tanya Sasser over at Hybrid Pedagogy. In this article, entitled “Bring Your Own Disruption: Rhizomatic Learning in the Composition Class,” Sasser argues for a rhizomatic learning approach to first year composition courses. It’s a good example of how to apply rhizomatic learning to a writing course. I have to think about it more carefully, but I plan to comment on this article soon. I am in agreement with the basic idea, but still am a little hesitant. Probably that’s because I’ve been fully immersed in, and convinced by, the idea of using rubrics and step-by-step learning for teaching writing. Still, I’m questioning at least the rubrics part–see this post.

Do you have any other rhizomatic learning resources you’d like to share? Please post them in the comments!

etmooc: Rhizomatic learning–a worry and a question

Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf, Flickr (links below)

In my previous post I talked about the notion of “rhizomatic learning” and how it might be implemented in a philosophy course. Here I bring up a worry and a question, things that came up for me after I thought about this idea further.

A worry

I worry that rhizomatic learning, at least as I described it in the previous post, might promote learning within already-established interests, beliefs, values, etc. What I mean is, if one were to let students create their own PLN’s and focus only on things they are interested in, it may be less likely that they’ll stretch the boundaries of what they already believe and value, and the assumptions underlying their views will go unquestioned. One of the many roles that instructors can have is to goad students into investigating and questioning their own beliefs, values and assumptions–as we philosophers might put it, to act as Socratic gadflies.

In my own connected, networked learning experiences I have tended to focus on those people who agree with me, on sites that talk about things I’m already interested in, etc. If I am pursuing what is most meaningful to me in my current state of being, as rhizomatic learning suggests, then I am missing things that might be meaningful in the sense of jarring me, showing problems with my assumptions, and perhaps also pointing out that the way I am speaking and acting might be contributing to exclusion or oppression of others.

This kind of problem could occur with any practice that focuses wholly or mostly on getting students to pursue their own learning paths according to their own interests. If we only ask them to look into what seems most interesting, what they’re excited about, they might miss out on exposure to things that they aren’t interested in but that can really be valuable for them in terms of thinking critically about their own views.

Two things came to my attention this week that really brought this concern out for me.

First, I received this post from the Tomorrow’s Professor email list (the link to the post is to a blog that’s hard to read because there are no paragraph breaks; it’s easier to read once it’s at the Tomorrow’s Professor site, but it’s not there yet. Soon it should be: search for post 1225). It’s from a book by Mark Tennant called The Learning Self: Understanding the Potential for Transformation (Jossey-Bass, 2012). In this excerpt, Tennant talks about different ways of conceiving of autonomy and what it means to promote autonomy for students in teaching and learning. I won’t summarize the whole thing here, but just look at a couple of parts of it.

In the first part of the post, Tennant discusses the “humanistic” version of learner autonomy, which (he claims) underlies “learner-centred” educational practices inspired by Carl Rogers, among others. Tennant quotes Pratt and Nesbit (2000) on the topic of learner-centred education:

This was an important discursive shift….Now content, and the specification of what was to be learned, was subordinate to the learner’s experience and participation….Learners were to be involved in specifying what would be learned, how it would be learned, and what would be an appropriate indication of learning….The learner’s experience, as a form of foundational knowledge, replaced the teacher’s expertise as the primary compass that guided learning. As a consequence, the primary role of teacher shifted from teacher-as-authority to teacher-as-facilitator (p. 120).

In the learner-centred view, the instructor is a neutral, nonjudgmental facilitator.

 In the last part of the excerpt, on “critical” autonomy, Tennant notes that those who adhere to the “critical theory” view of teaching (e.g., Stephen Brookfield and Jack Mezirow),

… don’t accept at face value the beliefs and values of learners—quite the contrary, the whole point of education is, they believe, to challenge accepted beliefs and values. …. In the critical theory approach the teacher is anything but neutral, always challenging learners’ assumptions within a framework that recognizes the power of social forces to shape needs, wants, and desires.

Much of the point with critical theory is not just to question assumptions and how one has been socialized, but to do so in order to combat inequality and oppression–it can often be the case that the dominant discourses in which one is raised and feels comfortable, that shape one’s assumptions and beliefs, perpetuate oppression in subtle ways that are not obvious unless pointed out.

The second thing I came across this week was a blog post by @Edu_K, which raised the issue of rhizomes easily becoming “weeds” in the sense of taking over gardens:

Bamboo and other rhizomatic plants are great at spread, survival and colonisation of new territories. But as ecologists and gardeners know, if unchecked they become weeds and can dominate and suppress a plant community or a garden instead of enriching it. They are also clones – the rhizomes produce exact copies of the ‘mother’ plant.

So instead of free exploration and exchange of ideas leading to rich and unpredictable learning – the story of rhizomatic learning can equally be a story of domination and monoculture, with rarer and more delicate ‘flowers’ getting pushed out, suppressed – not able to grow.

To me, this sounded like what can happen in face-to-face courses, where ideas that are shared by many end up becoming dominant, either because those who disagree aren’t comfortable speaking up because they may feel they are alone, or because of the power of popular views to seem right and gain more and more adherents–creating clones. Similar things can, of course, happen in larger groups of connected persons.

I suppose this concern with rhizomatic learning could be mitigated through ensuring that one’s networks have people in them who act as gadflies, who make good arguments on the “other” sides of what one already thinks, who point one to new resources that make one reconsider one’s beliefs–even if only to decide one’s original beliefs are right and reaffirm them. And somehow encouraging ourselves and others to listen to those people, rather than rejecting them out of hand (as happened with many people in their encounters with Socrates, if Plato is to be believed). But if that is hard enough for us to do as instructors (at least it is for me), then it’s likely hard for our students to do as well. And we can’t do it for them.

A question

The more I think about it, it seems that rhizomatic learning is something many people do for much of their lives–at least insofar as we have connections with others, we are often continually learning from them, and forming new connections when we need to learn new things. The technologies of the 21st century have made our capacity for connections grow exponentially, so we are no longer able to connect only with those that we already know, or can be introduced to by those we do know. We can connect much more quickly and easily with potentially thousands of people around the world.

But if it’s the case that many people often learn through connections with others, whether within or outside of educational institutions, then why not think of the courses we teach as just part of the connections students are making in terms of their lives as a whole?  They have connections with their family, friends, people on social media, their fellow students, and also with us as professors. We, and our classes, are another connection in their lives.

Some of those connections, on blogs and Twitter and more, will speak as experts, as authorities, as providing top-down information transfer. Why can’t we do some of that in our courses too, since we do have useful information to share, and still think of their whole learning process as rhizomatic, even if in our particular course the learning is more top-down rather than lateral? This isn’t to say that there might still be areas in which the teaching and learning should, appropriately, be more rhizomatic (though the above concern still holds), but rather to say that maybe all learning is part of a bigger network each person experiences in their lives (or rather, one of a series of continually changing networks, to keep to the rhizome idea).

I don’t know if this is a criticism of rhizomatic learning or not, since Cormier specifically says it’s not appropriate for all teaching situations so information-transfer in courses sometimes is appropriate. But perhaps even that is part of a larger sense of rhizomatic learning?

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on my concern and my question(s)! Are there dangers with learner-centred models such that they don’t emphasize enough the important role an instructor could play as gadfly, or the need to seek out gadflies? Is most or all learning already rhizomatic?

——– UPDATE ———-

In a Google+ conversation, Shuana Niessen said the following about this post: “This Ted talk (http://www.thefilterbubble.com/ted-talk) adds to the problem of learning that caters to our own interests and choices rather than challenging us to move beyond.”

This is a TED talk by Eli Pariser, talking about how search engines and other applications (like Facebook) filter internet content for each one of us differently, based on our activity within them. Obviously, this is for marketing purposes, but the result is that we may think we have access to all kinds of information, views on different sides of issues, etc., and we are finding a path of our own through that. But often our access is very small, actually, filtered already before we even get to it. Thus, it’s hard to do rhizomatic learning well in the current internet environment, because we may not even be able to make the connections or find the information that would help us think more critically.

The filter bubble website and blog has much more information on this. Thanks to Shuana for pointing all this out to me…I had heard of the issue, but didn’t know about Pariser and his work.

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Image: Socrates Eyes, by pj_Vanf; CC-BY 2.0

 

Works cited

Pratt, D.D. & Nesbit, T. (2000). Discourses and Cultures of Teaching. In E. Hayes and A. Wilson (Eds), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.