the sage on the side

After a summer of teaching–ably assisted, I must add–it’s time to submit grades, clean up desktops (both my work and home computers’ are littered with pdfs of assignments with deficiencies that need to be documented), and try to stop logging onto WebCTVista even 32 minutes to check for email and forum postings. After an online course ends it takes me a few days to catch up on marking marking marking; after I’m caught up on marking it takes a few days to frickin’ let go.

And as a drag kween™ once said to me years ago “honey, everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks in it.” 4 realz.

I’m often wistful and reflective as a term ends; this summer is no different. Power and its manifestations in teaching relatonships is, again, a pre-occupation. Not in a self-flaggelating way though: I’m confident that while I’m not perfect I am a thoughtful, reflective and passionate practitioner.

Front and centre or behind the red curtain

There is, in both education and mentorship literature a popular binary: an educator or mentor as either the guide on the side or the sage on the stage. It’s a great,ostensibly tidy way to introduce discussions (or reflections) about one’s orientation to power and influence in a teaching relationship. Who among us–particularly those of us steadily rolling further down into our decrepitude–hasn’t experienced both? For example: in a FB community for folks who grew up in the same suburb of NYC, there’s been a thread about great teachers. I could name 2 great ones easily: one a sage, the other a guide. Both, as it were, were English teachers. I have visceral memories of sages that weren’t–their approach to the teaching relationship didn’t align with what they actually had on offer. Can’t name names if I wanted to though; I see to have redacted them from my memory. 😉

But I think this binary is more accurately something of a unitary: you’d be hard pressed to find (m)any educators today who would describes themselves as sage/on/stage–even if their inside voice says “hell yeah!” perhaps because it sounds so…presumptuous? Folks seem to clamour towards guide/on/side. So very humble, si vrai canadien. I find this very troubling: am I the only one?

(I) Mind the gap

Right now our world isn’t exactly in a great place–even if Canada’s doing better than most places, in relative terms. The world economy’s in trouble, there’s more than enough strife and violence and oppression to go around, and globalization seems to be entrenching balkanization, nationalism and division–when arguably finding a broader commonness of purpose would be bettter all-around. There’s also something of leadership vacuum–everywhere–with no one seemingly inspired by their leaders. Or the direction of society. It’s a wonderful time for misanthropes though–and those who see division by difference as an opportunity for themselves. I prefer my tea orange pekoe thanks; not tea party: too bitter.

The stakes in governance are always high–and always highest for the most vulnerable in society; education isn’t any different.Educational outcomes can include transformation, the status quo, orintensification of marginality. For some folks only the latter is problematic–those who are usually doing OK and for whom the status quo is ostensibly neutral. But for a lot of us–and I include myself, when I look at my overall life trajectory–the status quo is a trap. If a bear or a mouse can’t get out of a trap set by someone, why do we expect people to have that ability? Traps are traps: they’re not potholes: they’re sinkholes. They swallow things whole. It often difficult to rescue something from a sinkhole once it gets wide and deep enough.

Long arms

We need inspiriing leadership–so long as the rhetoric can be cashed in for results. The same is true for teaching: regardless of how eloquent one’s articulation is of their ethos, if it’s not reflected in their teaching practice it’s not worth much.

Is guide/on/side always what’s best,  or even a good thing–in the pursuit of transforming society? Are things like being “learner centred” always in a learner’s best interests? In particular, can we rely on–or expect–someone who’s been inculcated into a certain sense of themselves and society to be oriented towards transformation–of self and society? Or is that sometimes unrealistic–and unfair?

For myself, as an educator I have to be mindful of power relations. That includes my personal power, that of my students, and the power given to me by my roles as an educator. And the responsibility that infuses it all. Sometimes this means creating spaces where power is acknowledged, surfaced, and distributed transparently.

I am not a sage/on/stage; not guide/on/side either. I’m not neither: I’m both. My commitment to setting high standards of achievement sometimes requires me to say “try it this way.” And others “do it this way.” Initially at least. Which can very much be something of a stretch…

In the fore (rather than the side)

In the course that’s just wrapping up, students do some web design work as part of an overall e-portfolio: there are a couple of specific assignments where creating web resources are required. When I first taught this course a couple of years ago, “fully meets requirement” meant ticking all the (technical and pedagogical) boxes: the quality of the design work was not assessed. Rather quickly I realized some of students might be going into their workplaces–or potential workplaces–booting up their work from this course and using it as examples of their work–without any feedback about the calibre of the design work.

I’m not referring to horrible work–pages or artifacts that are risible–but on the spectrum of what an educational technologist would be expected to produce, these were OK. Fine. Consumable.

Some students are OK with producing OK web artifacts (for example: those who have access to web designers and multimedia profesionals to build things for them to spec)–so long as whomever created the resource is aware of its deficiencies with respect to esthetics. Which is why the overall quality of web design work became an integral aspect of the assessment criteria, including the quality of digital artifacts like audio, video and still images. An effort was acknowledged and to a certain extent rewards–but differentiating based on design quality. Folks whose work met all functional and pedagogical requirements, by the way, still earn a a good mark–just not an awesome one!

There is sometimes some unhappiness about my feedback–but I prefer students to be pissed off at me now for being hardcore, than being pissed off at me later for sending them out into the world without any sense of the calibre of their design work.

As I tell folks frequently: when you design online learning spaces you are your splash page. It’s your calling card, your ironed shirt and shined shoes and fresh breath. Having a nicely designed site in your portfolio might not get you that job…but having a so-so or not great one will quite possibly lose it for you.

For the most part, folks this summer produced materials of which they can be very proud–often exceedingly proud. And no one who made a concerted effort will leave my course with poor skills. I’m pleased with this…not because of how it reflects upon me, but how it reflects upon the hard work of others. Because the other part of this for me is to get out of folks’ way when they’re raring to go. On the side, as it were…at least until assessment time.


As the days of summer also wane, I’m gearing up–slowly–for a fall (non-teaching) term. Yet again this year I let teaching become a barrier to my own professional development: there’s no conferences to submit to this fall now. My bad. Not that there’s a shortage of things I have to get done, mind you…   😉

About John P Egan

Learning technology professional.
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4 Responses to the sage on the side

  1. John, thank you for a fabulous course this term. Your blog inspires me. Within the upcoming week I’ll move mine from UBC’s server to wordpress and continue writing and sharing.


  2. John Egan says:

    Thanks Debbie–your new site already looks great!

  3. Ronna Hoglund says:

    Thanks for a great course John! Always a pleasure to read your blog!

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