Which side are you on? Radical Teaching and Learning support work after the pandemic

The following was actually an article proposal that didn’t get accepted, but I have been sharing it and have gotten a bit of positive feedback, so I am going to leave it up here as a blog post. Note: This article idea came to me shortly after most higher education institutions returned to in-person teaching, so it has a “pandemic flavor.”

Almost all college and university campuses these days have a Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a physical place or team of workers that supports teaching on the campus, often using frameworks such as evidence-based teaching, anti-racist teaching, open pedagogy, or digital education. We workers in these units, along with educational technology workers saw demand for our skills and services explode during the emergency transition to remote teaching at the beginning of the pandemic. Teaching and learning support workers have written about the experience of supporting their institutions during this time, particularly about the grueling work schedule required to prepare entire campuses to teach online but also the new-found recognition that many instructors and administrators had for the work that they do. Teaching and learning support staff have always done important work on campuses, but the pandemic revealed how easily institutions could collapse without them in an emergency.

However, even while doing this essential work, CTL staff can also become the agents of odious administrative priorities. Perhaps an administration wants to ensure compliance with federal or state policies banning equity trainings that reference Critical Race Theory – the CTL could be asked to develop inclusive teaching programming that skirts any mention of systemic racism. Say an administration has decided, against the wishes of the faculty, to hold in-person classes during a pandemic. CTL staff may need to become the happy faces of a “back to normal” campaign. The dean of a college is insisting that all remote exams be proctored with an invasive proctoring technology, and asks the CTL staff to offer a workshop on “best practices for remote proctoring” with said technology. 

The way CTLs and other academic support offices sometimes align with the administration is even a subject of parody by the satirical “Associate Deans” Twitter account. This anonymous account’s tweets often suggest a connection between administrative surveillance of teaching and the CTL (“Please record and send the link to your Zoom class meetings to the Center for Teaching Excellence. They want to help make your class better.”) or that such workers play a role in helping to enforce burdensome mandates (“The students are complaining that the production values in your online course are low quality. Can you fix your home studio to make it more appealing? The Center for Teaching Excellence can help…”). While (mostly) satire, the picture @ass_deans paints of teaching and learning support is a grim one, where we superficially support teaching and student success but actually just carry out the bidding of the administration. We should avoid getting to this dark place, and pursue a different model of teaching and support work informed by the needs of our most precarious students and instructors.

In this essay I will review the history of teaching support and faculty development programming at North American universities, including its origins as a response to the student protests of the 60’s that demanded racial representation and an ethnic studies curriculum in public higher education (Gaff & Justice, 1978). I will offer an autoethnographic reflection on my experience working in teaching and learning support settings as a graduate student, professional development facilitator, and instructional designer, focusing on the tension between work that serves the interests of the administration and work that serves the interests of marginalized faculty and students. To conclude, I’ll propose some principles for teaching and learning support work that resists neoliberal trends in higher education and supports student and faculty freedom, well-being, and empowerment. These principles include a critical stance toward big-data approaches to teaching and learning development and a refusal to facilitate the implementation of academic surveillance technologies (such as remote proctoring software). This resistant teaching and learning support work must also acknowledge that so long as the cost of college remains high to students, the “pedagogy of debt” (Williams, 2006) will run interference against any of the other pedagogies that we employ. It would acknowledge that many of the faculty we invite into reflection about their teaching practices lack job stability and in many cases food and housing security. In summary, radical teaching and learning support work addresses the needs and fights for the rights of the most marginalized within the community, which often necessarily involves resistance to the priorities of campus leadership and middle management. Because of the recent (long overdue) recognition of the essential services that teaching and learning support workers provide, some such workers may find that they have some increased security and confidence to enact change on their campuses in line with these values.

References:

Gaff, J. G., & Justice, D. O. (1978). Faculty Development Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. New Directions for Higher Education, 24, 85-98.

Williams, J. (2006). The Pedagogy of Debt. College Literature, 33(4), 155-169.