I spent some time this week thinking about tenure, which we discussed in detail in class this week. Since my focus is on teaching and clinical work, as opposed to research, I don’t know if I will ever be in the position to go up for tenure. However, I decided to do some research about the pros and cons of tenure, just to get a better sense of why it is so important, supposing that everyone in higher education is supposed to have the right to academic freedom.
What I came across was a really interesting and poignant speech, “The Great Shame of Our Profession,” delivered by Kevin Birmingham upon winning the Truman Capote award for one of his books. Birmingham, the first adjunct instructor to receive the award, used this platform to discuss the difficult relationship between tenured and non-tenured faculty. He talked about how adjuncting is a precarious lifestyle, one that makes planning long-term risky and difficult, and yet many universities depend on adjuncts to do the majority of their teaching. This is no coincidence: students have most of their contact with adjuncts so that tenured faculty can devote more time to their research. Graduate students and postdocs carefully tailor their projects and experiences in an effort to secure one of those precious tenure-track jobs, and if they don’t obtain it, they sometimes feel that their years of training were wasted.
This speech was very powerful and it struck me after reading it that the author is describing sacrifices at multiple levels. It’s disappointing and a bit ironic that others have to sacrifice academic (and other) freedoms in order to support the tenure-track system, and even more so that graduate students seemingly have to choose between true academic freedom (like pursuing an outside interest or investigating a controversial question) and the kind of path that is most likely to lead to a tenure-track seat. No wonder my image of a tenure-track professor is that of a tired old man who wants to do the least amount of work possible — anyone would be exhausted after that uphill battle. Moreover, who would want to take the risk and spend the energy to try to change the system once you’re at the top?
So many people suffer at the hands of the tenure-track system, and yet it seems like blasphemy to think about getting rid of it. Is tenure necessary to operationalize academic freedom? Or would higher education be better off without it?
When I tried to discover my authentic teaching self, I went through three “wow” moments.
Wow, panic is a common thing. That was the first feeling I went through when I was discovering my teaching voice. When I started to try to picture myself teaching, and search for a suitable and strong teaching image, I felt so embarrassed and panic that I couldn’t really see one, which got me into an even worse situation. I kept this secret to myself at first, I tried to think over and over again, and I still didn’t get an answer or come up with a good model. Then I finally decided to open up to people around me about this, I found I was not the one wondering about their teaching image. Just like if you get a new pair of glasses, you start to pay attention to glasses on the road. Suddenly, I saw the same problem everyway, even in the TV shows. In How I Met Your Mother, the main character Ted Mosby got hired to be a professor at university, he went through a change from an architect to a professor of architecture. He was so panic that he even forgot if there was one or two “F” s in the word professor when he would like to write down his self-introduction.
Wow, role model is important. That was the second feeling I found out about the searching journey. When I tried to anchor myself, I started to think about all the great professors I had courses with before, their teaching voice, their personality, their ways to connect with students. At one level, I noticed that I always talked about the professors’ teaching style with my friends, and always assumed that if I was teaching, I would like to be like them or make improvements. I heard so many other students talk like that too. For example, when I posted about pink time inspired by Dan Pink, I noticed that some comments said that they would like to try so. That is an important kind of imitating and learning, just like the basic one human species did million years ago. At another level, I felt that my teaching voice at this point is still adjusting, so it is always changed according to different professors’ influences. Role model is important to this standard since our teaching, like our lives, are influenced by different people we run into, different incidents happen, different path we choose every day.
Wow, acting can’t last long in teaching. That was the third thing I realized along the searching way. Going back to Ted Mosby, he set himself up as a teaching image too far away from his own personality, all the weird and awkward acting only leaded to those moments made him lose sight of who he was for a second. I felt the same, if we want to follow up a teaching role model that is too different from our true self, acting can’t last long.
Thus, my teaching style and approach so far are as followings. First, I accept myself as a learner when it comes to teach, so I would not be too panic once I feel I am still searching for my style. I would be always trying new activities and approaches to get the feedback from students and adjust more. Second, I gain new knowledge and new teaching images from my professors every day, I always associate their teaching with their personality to see how they fit themselves into teaching, and discover how different people teach differently. Third, I try to keep the true me when I teach, since I recognize myself as kind, energetic, genuine, creative, but I also like to live up to perfection. So I would teach in an energetic and genuine style, filling with creative activities. I would lay down detailed rules about the class and the assignments, and grade students in a strict way focusing on their learning process and learning effort.
“This is my voice, there are many like it, but this one is mine.” –Shane Koyczan, “This is my Voice“
Allow me to complicate things for this week’s topic:
I have two voices. One of them is silent.
Yet, both are part of my authentic teaching voice.
The Non-Silent Voice
When I walk into a classroom on the first day, usually into a philosophy class, I give a brief bio about myself and then jump straight into one of the most important parts of that class: community building and context setting. By context setting I mean being honest and transparent about the often unsaid and left out things.
For the unsaid (but sometimes implied):
We as a class will be creating and making this classroom together
We are responsible and accountable to one another
My students are the core while I am a facilitator of their narrative and
exploration into the topic
I am more concerned with them learning to be honest with themselves about what they believe, and why, than with their actual views
I will invite them to engage in difficult conversations and to lean into the discomfort of challenging discussions, with the hope that they will eventually trust that the conversation will take us all to deeper levels of understanding both about the topic at hand and, more importantly, about ourselves as interlocutors
For the left out (and rarely implied):
We should be mindful of accessibility/We will remake the space as needed to make it more accessible
We will discuss things they never learned or were intentionally not taught in school (null curriculum)
They are welcome to be their authentic selves in the class; they don’t have to hide their beliefs or say what seems “mainstream”
I am more concerned that they leave with transferable skills than knowing the minute details of the philosophers we discuss
I am human, have opinions on these topics and I won’t reveal any of mine until the end of the course.
To this latter point, I tack on the truthful disclaimer that I will at times motivate and defend views I do think are false because they are the topic of the week and it is my responsibility as a facilitator to give them an accurate lay of the land to explore. That last part usually gets left out.
Next we do introductions. We take time, careful time, filling out note cards and an intake form that give background information that I want to know such as:
past history in philosophy
current beliefs (so I can flag the tensions that will pop up sections to section and so that they can reflect on what they believe at the end of the semester)
things they’re actually interested in so I can work in topics/recommend readings
“preferred” pronouns if they should have any
I also ask them to draw me a picture on the note card as well but I don’t tell them why until the end of the semester. Pictures and non-traditional methods of concept presentation/acquisition happen a lot in my sections. Finally, we go around the room and share one embarrassing thing that happened to us to establish lines of common, yet different, experiences (lots of people falling down stairs, I share falling down a hill into my first field hockey collegiate game) and we start talking about the reading.
In a normal class session we do processing to work through anything that folks aren’t quite sure about from the week’s readings, we do a peer led discussion where 2-3 students lead a discussion/activity on a given topic for their colleague, we unpack the activity, do another small group conversation, and end with a participation page where they can ask me questions/reflect on what they are thinking about. This is also where the introverts can participate in a more introvert friendly space.
So far everything I’ve named has been the (usually) audible, present voice I bring into the classroom. It is with this voice I try to nurture, not tolerate or merely accept or support, the voices, opinions and thoughts of the students I work with. It is with this voice I try to support them when they say they “just can’t get it” and challenge them to formulate the argument on behalf of their opposition when they get to haughty.
My teaching self tries to be both high in support and high in what is called “control” in Restorative Practices models but more accurately translates to “challenge”. I try to challenge all my students to improve even when they struggle and to reach out to one another as colleagues in a mutual labor of learning difficult concepts. They each receive feedback on their work and at the end of the semester they get an “improvement” based grade in addition to the university required letter grade since when I said I care about improvement, I meant it.
I try to foster a classroom environment where they are accountable to one another, not merely to me, and an environment where ultimately I would be irreverent. One in which unpopular opinions can be shared openly, honestly, and where we can have a philosophical discussion about the tensions among views without the need for facilitator oversight.
All of this (I hope) sounds pretty decent, right?
What then is the voice that is missing?
The Silent Voice
In the classroom an intentional style, and approach, I take given that it is philosophy is to tell my students almost nothing about my background. I tell them a little bit, like the main areas I work in so that they know I may give more feedback than normal if I know the literature; I flag that I’m a diversity trainer for the university (and that they may run into me outside of class); and give a bit of history (reslife, old majors) with the end note of “I know that unforeseen things will happen in your lives; just keep me in the loop when, and if, you need some sort of accessibility move to balance life’s challenges”. Like I said, high in support and challenge.
But what I don’t reveal is also of import when it comes to my authentic teaching self:
I don’t tell them that I’m a moral realist, intuitionist, and deontologist.
I don’t tell them that I’m a conditional vegetarian who thinks I should be a vegan.
I don’t tell them that I think killing is self-defense may not always be morally permissible (a very unpopular view).
I don’t tell them a myriad of other philosophical views that I, reasonably, think I am probably wrong about at the end of the day.
And outside of philosophical views, I intentionally don’t tell them I’m trans.
In philosophy we have a major problem with bias both in the discipline and about the discipline and, historically, this bias impacts facilitators and students.
On their end, if students know that I believe x they are more likely to focus on either a) catering to my beliefs or b) take any criticism of how they formulate an argument to be only due to the fact that I think a different view is more plausible. There is also a tendency to link identities with beliefs and that’s one of the reasons I don’t say anything; why I don’t “correct” for pronouns and have a mixture of “ma’am/she” and “sir/he” floating around the classroom (and email) everyday. The trans*/minoritized identity=liberal=this belief about x is too pernicious to avoid it any other way. That and the fear of being perceived as “forcing my views onto someone’s child” for merely existing is a conversation I’d rather avoid.
While for some folks reading this, it may not make sense to have to hide, obscure, or simply leave out identities, not everyone can do that. There isn’t usually a lot of risk when someone who is in a different gender relationship/partnership mentions that they have wife/husband, for example. There can be tangible risks if you’re in a same gender relationship, a poly relationship, unmarried with a child, queer, etc.
As I said, I wanted to complicate things this week and this is the complication. Depending on your identities, or more accurately the identities that people perceive of you, this “authentic” self sometimes has to be policed by the very person it is supposed to represent.
We can’t talk about our authentic teaching selves without naming the things that we must leave unsaid.
Bridging the Gap
With my audible voice I “use” this silent voice at the very end of the semester to do a consciousness raising activity in what I think constitutes a type of ethical manipulation. Specifically, I use my silence as a tool to get students to reflect on what implicit bias means for them and their communities. During this class we talk about implicit bias, they do iceburg activities with one another naming the identities and histories they assume about their partner, and then they guess things about me. I don’t answer their guesses just as I haven’t answered their guesses during the other weeks.
In leaving a space of intentional uncertainty, my students get to see that not everyone makes the same assumptions about me, and I leave them with the question of which guesses were right, which guesses were wrong, and an invitation to consider what it would have meant if I walked into a space where folks were making multiple, conflicting assumptions. I end by asking them to take with them the question of what assumptions folks make about them and how those assumptions continue to shape their paths in the years to come.
My silent voice ultimately is not the one I speak with, not the one that shows up to facilitate philosophical conversations with students thrice a week beyond being present in absence.
In being silent, and silenced, this part of my authentic self gets used to at least raise consciousness and make a philosophical point that is memorable, transferable, and, just sometimes, world shattering.
It may be silent, but it shapes my approach to teaching as much as if not more than my non-silent voice.
When we speak about our teaching voices, the kinds of facilitators we are or are working on becoming in the classroom and lab, our approaches, techniques, strengths, oddities, I don’t think we can leave out the fact that some of us, if not all of us, must have dual voices.
Not all of us can be our authentic selves in every classroom without monitoring the plurality of voices that we have; each authentic, real, and felt in a different way.
The Communicating Science workshop we did in class this week was really interesting. I wasn’t sure what to expect when we started, but what I eventually realized is that the workshop was meant to teach me how to monitor my non-verbal cues and show more of my natural enthusiasm when discussing my work. We did an interesting exercise where we went around the circle and introduced ourselves and our research, and then did it again while introducing ourselves and listing some of our hobbies. People seemed much more open, casual, and relatable when discussing their interests as opposed to retreating into their specified research bubble. There was less emphasis on choosing precisely the right words or making your work sound important or complex. It reminded me that all of us in academia have a “private” life (i.e., when we are at home in our sweatpants on the weekends) that is often very separate and different from our “public” and professional life.
The workshop helped me to reflect on the fact that I am lucky to be in psychology. I find that my work, although it requires a knowledge of jargon and appreciation of complex constructs just like any other science, is often more palatable and interesting to the general public, as most everyone has taken a personality quiz or read an article about an unusual social phenomenon at least once in their lives. At the end of the workshop, when we got a chance to practice injecting more passion into our descriptions of our research, I felt like it was relatively easy to connect my work to pop culture and get a few laughs from my audience. I imagine this would have been a more difficult exercise for those in other fields.
I’m curious about what everyone else in class thought of the workshop — share your thoughts below?
The game, called The End, is structured such that it asks a number of questions that philosophy classes might include in their curricula. For example, this game allows you to work through views on what exactly you are (a mind? A body? Both?), beliefs about death, fate, whether it important to have children, alterity, etc.
It’s pretty much this in game form:
While not all encompassing, it serves as a good primer for the types of philosophical questions we might ask in Knowledge and Reality or in a Killing Things course (No creatures, human or otherwise, were harmed in the course except for fictional blue whale, in a helmet, filled with water, on a trolley track…).
During my first semester here at Tech and as a TA for K&R, I had my students play the The End at the beginning of the year. But, I never asked them what they thought at the end of the semester and I didn’t ask them to go play it again to see what, if anything, had changed! Alas, I am not currently a TA for K&R and The End doesn’t quite mesh the class I TA for currently.
Lacking a video game analog for Morality and Justice, I have students in all my sections fill in a “I Believe…” form at the beginning of the semester. This form gives them an idea of the types of questions we will be discussing, allows them to share what they think and why (prior to any philosophical reflection), and it gives me a heads up concerning what weeks tensions are likely to run high in each section. If half of the class thinks Bambi is perfect for dinner and the other half are card-carrying members for PETA, the food ethics week is bound to be interesting, for example.
This form is all on paper and, for the most part, I don’t use it again until the last day of class. After reading the pieces this week, I wonder what would happen if, instead of a form that they get back at the end of the semester, they had a character that they had to interact with for the entire semester. What if, as opposed to abstract concepts and relations of concepts that they struggle to link together, they had a center character, an avatar, that they could manipulate, drop into different scenarios, and reflect on critically without feeling threatened? I’ll come back to this in a moment, since I have an idea, but first I want to process through why I think such an approach works in other ways for philosophy and then bring it back to games (video or, as I suspect is more likely, a group RPG).
When In Philosophy…:
In philosophy we deal with a lot of complex, absurd, and downright awful ideas and beliefs. A struggle many of my students have at times (and that I still have) is working through a topic when you feel something personal is on the line. If you are a libertarian for example, and are against both taxes and reparations, it may be difficult to separate out the implications of the arguments we look at that say “hey, you can’t be a libertarian and against both taxes and reparations” from what that would mean for you as a person identifying as a libertarian. As a TA I want to support my students as they begin to grapple with the arguments, give them space to start linking the implications of various views together, and eventually let them reflect on how that applies to their lives; but when everything is personal, as many ethics questions are, I haven’t always had success with this and they haven’t always been wiling to reflect.
One approach I currently have that has worked to open up a space for reflection is to let my students play “games” when it comes to difficult topics:
During the week when we talk about abortion, we play a game where students are divided into groups and given a third of a dialogue that contains common (but philosophically problematic) arguments for/against abortion. They are then asked to describe the problems with each of the common arguments and they historically do an excellent job at zeroing in on the problems even for views that they may hold themselves. In fact, I usually have 3-5 students tell me that they realized that their own view is problematic for the same reasons they found the character in the dialog’s view to be problematic. Without prompting, they reflect on what the game meant for their own views while, if it was open discussion, usually the conversation tends to devolve into ad hominems, polarization of views, and defensiveness.
For implicit bias week, I have them pair up and do an iceburg activity with one another. They write down all of the assumptions they make about one another, share their assumptions, get to communally guess things about me (it is quite entertaining), and by the end we tend to have an open conversation about the kinds of biases and assumptions we make without the intermediary step of shame and guilt. When I have tried to have more discussion based conversations about bias things have tended to go the “I don’t see color” route and folks get stuck on the carousel of shame. Not so when it’s a game.
Aside from the games, I incorporate two thought experiment animals (Qaly the Koala and Chubby the Whale) in my classes since I have found that they too allow us to have discussions that might otherwise be difficult to process. They also allow my students to visually see representations of concepts (such as validity) and in-text examples that otherwise would be relegated to my badly drawn stick figures on the blackboard. Like the games, I think that Qaly and Chubby allow my students to reach a critical distance from the course material and to conceptualize it in a way that is meaningful, accessible, different, memorable, and ultimately mutable. With this in mind, I want to go back to the games.
Games, much like Qaly and Chubby, would offer my students an opportunity for initial impersonal engagement with philosophical materials and concepts that will eventually come into conflict with one another. In “Four Things Lecture is Good For,” Robert Talbert says that lecture can be great for giving context and to see relations of ideas. I see games as a means to achieving that end. In fact, I wonder if the impersonal nature of the avatar would allow my students to recognize the inconsistencies in the view in the avatar and then later reflect on what that would mean for their own view without feeling threatened or forced to reflect. I wonder if it would allow them to recognize the context of their views and engage with the context and connections more so than traditional methods of presentation.
Concerning personalization of curricula, I think Lacoste (whom I initially misread as Lakatos) is on to something that could be implemented in a philosophical game. While the set up proposed in their “Teaching Innovation Statement” may not work as-is for all classes, I think it is adaptable to the philosophy classroom and a philosophical game. What if, for the subjects a student was actually interested in for a philosophy class, the game spawned additional areas to explore that would go deeper into the questions about, say, the Problem of Evil and the connections that issue has to other areas in the discipline. In current courses we spend a week on each topic at most, but I think a gaming platform would give students the license to continue to explore areas that they are actually interested in and to see the connections they may not have seen before. In seeing these connections, what would it look like if they were building their world with one another outside of the classroom in a forum where they were invested in the communal creation of dialogue and conversation about our more central, sacred, and deeply held beliefs?
Lacking any coding ability, I don’t think a video game like The End is the route I intend to take in furthering the inclusion of games in my classroom. But this idea of a community space and forum where folks are building a community, engaging in intellectual discussion, and being accountable to one another for the space and content has given me an idea of sorts.
The Idea/Initial Musings:
Most of my students are not philosophers and take the course as a distribution requirement. However, there are groups of students that I can group together based on major or area. With a bit of tinkering, I think that at the least I can sketch easily mutable outlines for the topics that can be personalized to hit on questions that are relevant for their areas and, in being so relevant, make the things we talk about more meaningful and applicable to their lives after the course. This is not a full blown game, of course, and nothing compared to what Mark C. Carnes describes in “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire,” but I think it will lay down some important groundwork for an eventual game.
The students will do the “I Believe…” forms just like they normally do but then they will be asked to make an avatar (probably a pretty fantastical one) to use/edit the rest of the semester.
Much like they all have personalized validity animals, they will have personalized philosophy avatars. Maybe the validity animals can be companions for their main characters.
As we progress through the course and the landscape each week their avatars will be asked to address this problem, go on that adventure, relate this new thing back to the old thing, and ultimately they will have to decide the path their avatar takes.
For certain topics, there will be major specific events or prompts that relate the material of the week to their lives and professions.
While not a video game, it can also have additional content that can be co-created by the folks in the class with the facilitator of the course and passed on to the next generation of gamers.
I don’t think I can get a more solid sketch of the idea done until after I try implementing a few things this semester (such as major specific prompts to understand the concepts of utilitarianism vs deontology) and see feedback from my students. But, it’s a start.
When digital learning and social media usage become new trends in higher education, we start to hear so many good things about digital learning, and we begin to get showed by “Big Data” about how powerful social media is. People start to use digital learning on line to deal with long distance. On-line courses are offered more and more frequently to give both teachers and students time and location flexibilities.
However, according to my personal experiences, on-line courses are not always so effective. I took two on-line courses among my two-year PhD study here. Both of them are offered by great teachers, and they both prepared a lot judging from what they offered on line. The way these two courses have been taught in is similar. Teachers offered video lectures on line with the slides and their voices, they assigned a lot of readings according to different topics, and they set up a weekly due day for the assignments.
But I went through so much trouble when I tried to learn from on-line courses. First, I find it is difficult to gain a clear knowledge structure or thought process after I watched the lecture videos. It was usually the case that I tried so hard to follow the content on each slide, but I couldn’t get a big picture after I watched the whole thing. I agree with Robert Talbert, “modeling thought processes” and “sharing cognitive structures” are two important things in-person lectures offered, which are hard to describe or pursue in the video lecture.
Second, it is hard to make deep impression of knowledge and create engagement using video lecture and discussion section. Lack of context and stories, video lectures can be kind of boring compared to in-person lectures. And the engagement of students dropped a lot when we can’t talk immediately face to face. Using the discussion section seems like a solution to the communication problem, but the talk lack of tone and expression tend to lose some of the original meanings.
Third, it is always unspeakable intension in the on-line course. Since the teachers would like to make sure students put enough effort to the courses, they give more readings and assignments to students comparing to in-person courses. The due time is very strict that students always need to submit a lot of materials at the same time every week. So that due time, that day every week suddenly become nightmares. At least for me, nervousness was always there since I took the due time and assignments as the only chances to prove that I learnt. Even after the submission, new kind of intension began because of the grading, and sometimes an unexpected low score came out and limited reasons would be offered on line. That would be so different if students could talk to teachers to see what happened and what could be improved.
In general, I feel that the knowledge gained from the video lectures is like being fed by a puzzle piece of other people’s brain set, which would make you so confusing and nauseous even if you try so hard to swallow it. And the communication difficulty and higher expectation of yourself always make you nervous and shaking, and did worse in on-line courses.
In addition, some students around me also hold weird thoughts that if you choose on-line courses, you are trying to take the easy cut to get credits. I would say that is not the case at all.
Call me old fashion, but I will say do not throw away the in-person lectures. New media can be used in the classroom to help with the in-person lectures, I think that should be a better solution to bring in the benefits of social medias and digital learning. Creative lectures, activities and interactions should always be the core of the course, I call that my “teaching innovation statement”.
As a clinical psychologist, you would think I was an expert on self-care. And I’m great at reminding my clients about the importance of their self-care. I am quick to tell my students and research assistants that it’s okay to take a day off if you’re feeling sick or overwhelmed, no worries, we can always catch up when you’re feeling better. All the while, I’m thinking about which “healthy” freezer meal I picked out for a meager lunch today and worrying about where I can possibly fit in 1/2 an hour of exercise in my busy schedule this week. I’m pretty sure the last true vacation I had was eight years ago, when I was on my honeymoon (and between college and grad school). When I take a weekend off, I get that irritating itch — should I spend it doing schoolwork or housework?
Over the past year or so, I have become more intentional about taking care of myself. Partly, this is because I have simply run out of juice and could not delay my self-care any longer. Part of it, though, is because I’ve come to recognize that a critical piece of my vision for post-grad school life is a good work-life harmony. I’m never going to be one of those academics who works 80 hours a week chasing grants and top-tier journals. I want my life to be more balanced, such that I enjoy my work and find it productive and fulfilling, but with a healthy dose of time with my family and time to myself, doing things I enjoy. So, as I approach the conclusion of my time as a graduate student, I have begun to shape my life to better match my vision of the future. For me, this means that I spend less time typing while I watch TV and instead enjoy a show or movie without distraction. It means that every 2 weeks or so, I turn off my phone and enjoy a hot bubble bath or trip to the nail salon. Do I still try to save money? Heck yes. But I also feel less guilty for “turning off” when I get home.
Graduate school is what you make it, to one extent or another. If you want to work all the time and never take a break, I doubt there is anyone telling you not to do that. (If you have someone, that is wonderful and rare, and be sure to thank that person and keep them close!) But I see people burn out, just like I have, all the time. There comes a point where you cannot do good work anymore, because you are hungry and exhausted and isolated and can barely think straight about your project. I challenge you to learn how to act before you reach that point, so that you may prevent the worst of it. It’s like dehydration — learn to realize you are thirsty and drink some water before you collapse. I think this is doubly true in the current climate, when many of us are working overtime to support social justice on top of our many 8-to-5 obligations. Sit for a minute before you fall over.
I am hopeful that VT GrATE will be able to bring some cool self-care events, opportunities, and ideas to you this month. Regardless, you have to figure out what works for you. Learn to recognize small moments and use them to support yourself in meaningful ways. Don’t force yourself to wait until graduate school is over before you start to live your life. There will always be “something else.”
And about those people who are reminding you to publish or perish:
Sometimes you are all you have, and that’s good enough. Don’t forget it.
“We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.” — The Wave in the Mind by Ursula Le Guin (2004, p. 220)
What would a world without oppression look like? What would a world with out gender look like? How about a world without governments, anarchism? How about a world in which women hold positions of power and political rule?
These questions, and more, have been addressed historically, and sometimes only, within the realm of science fiction. Repeatedly, we see questions of dominance, subordination, and alternative possibilities created, destroyed, worked, and rewritten in a genre that isn’t just fiction, but a fiction far removed from the realities and constraints of this world and universe. A fiction in which time travel is possible, dragons fly in space, and tribbles spell trouble.
In science fiction, we find impossibilities and, sometimes, those impossibilities eventually become tangible realities. Some of the notions below will, like science fiction, be engaging in a conversation that may at times be unimaginable for at least some of us. As such, I want to extend an invitation: if the concepts I present, the questions I ask, and the customs I question seem too absurd, then imagine that this too is a piece of science fiction. Start there, and then at the end we can try to re-imagine it once more.
When we think about grading and assessment within the US a common narrative may emerge for many folks educated within this system. As Alfie Kohn points out in “The Case Against Grades” we have a system of assessment that does a very good job at one thing; testing your ability to take a test. I frame Kohn’s paper in this manner as to gesture at the complexity of what is, and is not, tested for within this system and what is, or is not, encouraged among peers.
Pertaining to the testing, it historically is claimed to serve as a fair means of evaluation among and between different individuals; a way to figure out who is the best and most likely to be successful at x, y, or z. It tests, in other ways, how well you have learned the script that is expected of you and compares you to how well other folks have learned the script. Concerning what it encourages, with stakes on the line cheating increases, students truncate their time as to do the work required, and within this framework they are encouraged to memorize what they need to know. They are, more problematically to my thinking, encouraged to be individualistic competitors fighting over a scare resource of jobs, school, and access.
What then doesn’t it test for or encourage? Is doesn’t test resilience in applying what has been learned across disciplines or with respect to problems not included in the curricula. It doesn’t encourage collaboration, to work with and learn from one another, as the norm but rather as the exception.
When we look at goals illustrated, for example, by Donna M. Riley’s piece “We Assess What We Value: “Evidence-based” Logic and the Abandonment of “Non-assessable” Learning Outcomes” (Feb. 2016), it is clear that the assessment based system is not setting people up for success even within the system. Rather, it is setting them up for eventual failure. If, as in engineering and the sciences, elements of collaboration are important for working and living in the “post-schooling” world, what happens when a person who has been raised in an “it’s me against everyone else” world has to suddenly work with people as opposed to against them? What happens when this person is asked to be creative and work outside of the constraints in which they have been taught?
Yes, folks are forced to do group work every once in a while and, as such, may receive some education in collaboration. But note what happens when we step back and look at the interactions inter-group as opposed to intra-group: competition to be the best group. Up additional levels: competition to be the best class, cohort, college, or university. The problem I am gesturing at here is not just with individual lessons, inclusions, or exclusions. It is with the entire system.
Now, by now some readers are wondering “when is it going to go back to the science fiction stuff…that was more entertaining”. Well, I’m getting there, but I had to paint the picture of the world we are about to destroy first.
With the previous (current) world in mind: what would a world without grades and traditional assessments look like?
Instructors use rubrics created in tandem with those they instruct to evaluate progress and improvement concerning problems, questions, or issues as opposed to self-created (or externally dictated) metrics.
Students work in groups on assignments and in addition to being evaluated by their instructor they evaluate one another.
Students compile portfolios that serve as a space for reflection on the intersections, changes, and improvements in their work for a project.
Now, let’s add a few other points from Kohn:
Rather than receiving grades, students receive feedback and comments on their work.
If needed, grades are determined collaboratively with the instructor and the student.
This world is probably still imaginable so let’s get a little more heretical:
Get rid of the instructors and replace them with facilitators whose are trained to work with and guide students in the process of investigating various problems, questions, or issues.
Most work is now done as group work and peers are responsible for giving feedback to one another about not only their participation in the process but also the outcomes of the process.
Facilitators give both group and individual feedback and are on hand to facilitate conversations should tensions arise within the groups.
Progress is “evaluated” collaboratively with facilitators and students using continuously revised goals, and hopes, that the student proposed to guide their own improvement.
The school day, for at least non-secondary education, includes portions in which older students are responsible for facilitating groups of younger students and in which students of like ages/peer groups are responsible for facilitating conversations and lessons with one another. 
Imagine that this is another world: Is it a possibility?
Imagine that it is this world: Is it no longer possible?
If your answer to the second question is “no” then what is it about this world that seems so unimaginable? Is it the lack of explicit authority? Is it the lack of seemingly “assessable” (and comparable) outcomes?
If it’s hard to figure out the “what” underlying the apprehension then let’s approach it through a different, and, political lens. Consider the following poem:
“I Want A President” by Zoe Leonard
In the above poem Leonard asks us to imagine imagine a person, a president, who is very different than any president we have ever seen or, plausibly, imagined before. What is it about our current world that makes imagining a president with the above histories and experiences nay impossible? Might the limitation on *that* imaginatory possibility be similar to the one that whispers “that educational system would never work”?
My reason for this roundabout approach is two fold. On the one hand, as Riley pointed out there are political elements that we cannot forget in these conversations and this is a political poem just as the question of education is a political one. On the other hand, it can leave us with a starting point:
I want an educational system…
In writing the rest of this poem, let’s imagine the currently unfathomable and attain it.
 This approach was proposed by Dr. Naomi Zack (University of Oregon) in conversation with Dr.Matheis.
When we started to talk about the next topic “Assessment” in class, we watched video, called “Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, created by Dan Pink. The unique last name “Pink” suddenly caught my attention, related to his lecture’s topic, I finally realized a interesting fact that my past experience about a special class activity, called “Pink time”, in my research methodology class, should have something to do with this person. After I watched his video of TED talk, “The puzzle of motivation”, I was pretty sure that my special class activity came from his thoughts. So I decided to share a real Pink Time experience.
Pink Time activity I went through came from a research methodology course taught by Dr. David Kniola from Educational research and evaluation program, VT. He told everyone at the first day of class that he would have a Pink Time this semester. Everyone would get the same week off to do anything they would like to do, he called it “Pink Time”. The only rule was people need to share about what they did and what they learnt from that one week later. The surprising part came next that he announced that students didn’t need to worry about the score part, since the score would be self-judgement, that students should just told he how much points they would like to give to themselves out of 10 full points, and the reason of the certain self-judgement.
This should take off the pressure since the assessment of the assignment was always the focus of a lot of students. However, that wasn’t the case. People were panic after he explained this Pink Time activity. I still remember the the most common question that day, “You mean anything can be done in that Pink Time? Anything? Do we need to do something related to research or methodology?” He smiled and said, “Anything. There is no limitation.” Actually, at that time, I was a little bit confused too.
It took me weeks to finally decide that I would like to do interior design for my new apartment I would move in soon. That was something I always want to do and I didn’t really have time to actually do it. After I made the decision, I was very excited about it, I took the week he gave us to view examples of different designers, research on how human use spaces, figure out my needs of the functions, and analyze my new place. I even spent all my spare time that week to finish my design drawings.
At the sharing week, I brought my hand drawings of design, and intention pictures to share with the class, and I was so confident and happy to talk about my design, and the knowledge I learnt about interior design and furniture arrangements. That was the same case for most of the other students, especially the ones did something creative and unique. What impressed me the most was a student showing how he tried to make his own wine. And at the end of that semester, he actually brought the wine he made at the Pink Time to share with everyone. I also actually carried out my Pink Time design at my new place after I moved in at the summer break.
I felt so inspired and cheered by Pink Time. Just as Dan Pink said in the TED talk, it was a FeDex Day that we knew we had to deliver something over certain time. At the same time, we tend to achieve more under self-direction. I was so engaged in the Pink Time that I forgot I was in the middle of a special assignment. Here, I really want to thank Dr. Kniola to give me the chance to discover the fun of self-direction and creativity.
Dr. Kniola didn’t show us the talk from Dan Pink right away when he announced the Pink Time. I guess he didn’t want the purposeful talk form Dan Pink influence us when we carried out Pink Time. He would like to see the real situation if that fitted into Dan’s theory.
I think it was a successful experiment. Now, after I read and watched Dan’s talk, I start to look back at the Pink Time, and think more. First, it was sad that us, students were panic and confused when we got autonomy of our time. The doubt of what could we do was the result of the mind set trained by modern education. We always wait for instructions when we are carrying out the mission of learning. We always know there are a lot of limitations, and we tend to think less, especially about what we want to do and what we can do. Second, Pink Time was a good activity to test “autonomy, mastery, purpose” in educational settings, I think when I start to teach on my own, I would like to carry out Pink Time with my students. I would like to help them see the value of self-direction and the potential of themselves.
I am of the opinion that education, by its very nature, is threatening. True education, not indoctrination — the kind that involves critical thinking, open discussion, and questions that may not have one right answer, or a right answer at all. More than ever, though, it seems like teachers are now in the position to make a major difference in how the upcoming generation perceives and responds to our political climate. There is a sense of urgency in my teaching now.
In conferring with colleagues from various disciplines and in various positions, I have come to realize that many of us share this sense. Every day there is a new example that I can use to bring the message home to my students. It’s hard not to care about stereotype threat when people are being actively blocked from entering this country based purely on their religion or national origin and people already in the U.S. are scrambling to distance themselves from the image of an ISIS terrorist. Healthcare access issues just became very, very relevant for my ongoing Abnormal Psychology class.
Of course, getting political in your teaching tends to draw fire. I have puzzled for long hours over how to balance my gut feeling that I need to say certain things in my class — things that should be nonpartisan facts — with my desire to be supportive and inclusive for all of my students, even those who voted for Trump. After all, talking over them is no way to help them see the mistake they made. No one has made waves about this yet, but I do worry sometimes that I will say something that goes too far or talk about something in the wrong way and the complaints and censorship will roll in.
So, I reach out to my colleagues — are you bringing current political issues into your classroom? How are you walking this balance, if at all? And what is your view on your role as an academic or educator in this very unfriendly time?