Empty desks for taking exams

Why are academic accommodations positioned as “situationally sanctioned cheating?”

If you review a typical college-level syllabus, you will often find one or more standardized statements that describe institutional policies on certain issues. More recently, these “syllabus statements” have evolved to include helpful or supportive information for students such as “basic needs” statements or campus mental health resources. However, in my experience the two most common standard syllabus statements are the “academic integrity statement” and the“disability accommodations statement.” Below are examples of such statements from Penn State University.

In an examination setting, unless the instructor gives explicit prior instructions to the contrary, violations of academic integrity shall consist of any attempt to receive assistance from written or printed aids, from any person or papers or electronic devices, or of any attempt to give assistance, whether the student doing so has completed his or her own work or not. Other violations include, but are not limited to, any attempt to gain an unfair advantage in regard to an examination, such as tampering with a graded exam or claiming another’s work to be one’s own. Failure to comply will lead to sanctions against the student in accordance with the Policy on Academic Dishonesty in the Eberly College of Science.” -Suggested syllabus statement for a course with exams, Penn State Eberly College of Science

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University’s educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides contact information for every Penn State campus…For further information, please visit Student Disability Resources: http://equity.psu.edu/sdr. In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.” -Suggested disability statement, Penn State Office of Educational Equity

Whenever I see these two types of syllabus statements next to each other, I wonder what work is being done by their juxtaposition. In these examples, I can’t help but notice that the accommodations students may request or be granted through an official disability accommodations process are likely to resemble some of the infractions detailed in the academic integrity statement. Disabled students may receive “assistance” from “written or printed aids” in the form of large print or plain language materials or support from a “person” such as an interpreter or aid, or “electronic devices” such as a keyboard to assist with typing or a screen reading device or application. The key concern with all of these potential violations is that a student may “gain an unfair advantage,” a concern that seems to be addressed by the “disability accommodations statement.” 

While the university does “welcome” the participation of disabled students, in order to receive accommodations they must personally contact the correct office, participate in an interview and produce documentation, all just to be considered for services. Accommodations are only granted if the provided documentation “supports the request” and students must repeat this process with regularity to continue receiving accommodations. To the extent these steps create some sort of barrier to receiving accommodations, it is likely to ensure that those accommodations are actually needed by the student, rather than privileges that would offer the student an unfair advantage. However, once the disability is documented, that documentation does provide some official status and protection to the student. The relationship between these two syllabus statements is part of an overall dismissive attitude toward accommodations in higher education: While accommodations are a vital tool for providing every student access to education and a legal right of disabled students, some official language casts them as a fringe part of academic life, separate from and potentially in tension with the norms of “academic integrity.”

Fear of the disability con: creating an academic integrity “gray area”

The concern that some people may identify themselves as disabled in order to gain certain advantages is prevalent outside the context of higher education. In a social phenomenon that Doron Dorfman calls the “fear of the disability con”, whenever disabled people make use of an accommodation, use an adaptive device, or otherwise access the public sphere in ways that work for them, some onlookers become concerned that they are actually “faking” their disability. The “fear of the disability con” is especially pronounced in situations when the accommodation being used is restricted to only disabled people. Take for example a service dog that assists a disabled person. The “fear of the con” would be far less acute (or perhaps nonexistent) in a context in which anyone is free to bring a dog with them (such as a public outdoor park) and is more pronounced in a situation in which only service dogs are permitted (for example a business or a school). This is because the disabled person is perceived as having a special privilege compared to other people, and there is preemptive anger that they might be getting a privilege that they do not deserve. The fear of the disability con is especially pronounced in competitive academic contexts. While some accommodations that disabled students use would not necessarily be useful to all students (such as large print or braille course materials) some other accommodations would theoretically be useful to all students (such as additional time on exams and assignments or a dedicated note-taker).

I think that as a result of this phenomenon, a lot of rhetoric around academic integrity and cheating wrongly positions disability accommodations as a situationally “acceptable” or “sanctioned” form of cheating, or as a gray area between academic dishonesty and upright academic behavior. This approach at least superficially recognizes the rights of disabled students to receive accommodations, while assuring others that the threat of the “disability con” is being taken seriously by maintaining strict and exclusive definitions of academic integrity. Although there are likely many interesting examples of how this rhetorical link plays out, I have identified two notable ones that pertain specifically to exams, which are competitive and high-stakes by nature. One is this way that some college and university disability resource centers that provide exam accommodations go to great lengths to establish themselves as entities that uphold “academic integrity,” seemingly in response to a potential concern that students who use accommodations are getting an “unfair advantage.” Another is how remote proctoring companies and the institutions that use their products concede that some disabled students may be falsely flagged as cheaters by their products, demonstrating that disabled students and the accommodations they use would be considered cheating if not for the construct of formal accommodations. I detail these two case studies below.

Disability resource center references to academic integrity: “Not an incentive to violate the rules”

As I think more about the tension that emerges when academic integrity statements are juxtaposed with disability accommodations statements, it seems obvious that because of needed accommodations, students with disabilities might interact differently with standard concepts of academic integrity that prohibit outside aids or assistance. I have yet to find any university academic integrity policy that acknowledges this. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to find examples of student disability center webpages that are quick to assure the reader that the office takes normative academic integrity seriously (betraying a latent concern that disability accommodations constitute a departure from normal academic integrity norms). 

At Wayne State University’s office of Student Disability Services, a page entitled “exam accommodations” begins with the statement: “Student Disability Services is committed to maintaining the highest academic integrity standards when administering exams.” The impression the casual visitor to this site gets is that the primary concern of someone interested in the exam accommodations process for disabled students is not the provision of appropriate space, tools, and supports or necessary coordination between instructor, student, and disability office but the possibility that a student receiving exam accommodations will take advantage of the situation. Accordingly, the rest of the page contains a number of rules and policies related to the prevention of cheating or other academic integrity concerns. Several of these would be confusing for students who receive certain accommodations. One such rule states, “If you are late for your exam, you will not be allowed to make up the lost time.” How is a student who receives extra time on their exams as an accommodation meant to understand this rule? Is their need for this accommodation somehow invalidated if they are not on time for the exam? 

Students are additionally “not allowed the use of any unauthorized aids during an exam. Aids such as calculators must be approved by the professor and written on the test instruction sheet.” While a common policy, it is a strange one to include on a webpage for students who, because they are taking exams with the disability office, are much likelier than the average student to be using some sort of device or aid for their exam. Overall, the page seems to assume a hypothetical student who would attempt to gain an unfair advantage by using accommodations, setting an unwelcoming and unhelpful tone for students visiting the page. 

Similarly, Purdue University’s Disability Resource Center alerts students that they are considered at heightened risk for cheating with a web page entitled “Academic Honesty.”

“While the Disability Resource Center does provide access to accommodated testing, this should not act as an incentive for students to violate the rules of the classroom by providing themselves with extra notes, hints, or other resources which may affect the score of a test. We ask that you please not put yourself in jeopardy of violating the Purdue Honor Pledge when testing with us.”

This statement first suggests that the separate environment of the accommodated testing space would incentivize cheating. One might think that the more intimate nature of the disability office and higher likelihood of detection would actually disincentivize cheating. But, according to the framework of accommodations as situationally sanctioned cheating, students accessing the accommodated testing environment are viewed with increased suspicion because they are already taking advantage of privileges associated with their disability that would be considered cheating in other contexts. This might lead students to see an opening to take advantage of the accommodated testing environment to make use of “extra notes, hints, or other resources” that are not situationally sanctioned.  An alternate, more charitable reading of this statement is that the office is not necessarily more suspicious of students using accommodations, but wants to protect them from accidental academic integrity violations that may result from the blurred lines of accommodations. 

Similarly to the Wayne State page, Purdue’s web content introduces ambiguity about the propriety of accommodations. The “extra notes, hints, or other resources” that are referenced are vague enough to threaten, or at least confuse a disabled student reading this page in preparation for an upcoming exam. Accommodations regularly take the form of extra notes (such as plain language instructions, glossaries, etc), and the catch-all term “other resources” could theoretically include any accommodation whatsoever. This statement could easily have been rephrased “While the …Center does provide access to accommodated testing, this should not act as an incentive for students to violate the rules of the classroom by providing themselves with extra notes, hints, or other resources that are not part of the student’s accommodations…” By leaving out this qualifier, the student is forced to wonder whether their allowed accommodations are worth the risk of putting themselves “in jeopardy of violating the Purdue Honor Pledge.” The responsibility to avoid the semblance of, and presumably the eventual blame for any academic integrity issues is placed on the student, a theme that we will see again in the way that remote proctoring companies talk about disabled students. 

Remote proctoring modifications for students with disabilities: “Settings may conflict with accommodations”

Remote proctoring is a process by which students are monitored by a human or AI software while they complete an exam or other assignment, to prevent them from cheating. Many of these products track student behavior through a webcam, microphone, or by monitoring their mouse and keyboard activity, and have been and can be biased against students of color and disabled students. The false promise of remote proctoring is that there are cheaters out there, and these products can identify them. In reality, there are many ways to circumvent these products if students still wish to cheat, and they may in fact wrongly flag some students as cheaters as we will see1.

Because disabled students are present on all higher education campuses, remote proctoring companies and the institutions that contract with them have had to communicate about how they believe their products should and should not be used by students with disabilities. Highlighting the accessibility of their products, remote proctoring companies are quick to note that accommodations can easily be provided within the testing software (e.g. extra time or high contrast display). Most commonly, these are adjustments to the format of the assessment itself, like additional time or breaks (see Examity’s page on accessibility for examples).

However, on similar help pages, there are references to accommodations which may need to be provided in the form of modifications to the proctoring platform. For example, a common feature of remote proctoring software is browser lockdown, or a set of restrictions that is placed on the exam taker to prevent them from using unauthorized resources or otherwise cheating on the assessment. Browser lockdown functions can include preventing the user from using multiple tabs or multiple windows, preventing the user from visiting other website, preventing other applications from running simultaneously with the exam or proctoring software, preventing the use of additional screens or devices, and limiting user control over the visual quality of the exam, such as font size, color contrast, or brightness. Because these lockdown features interfere with certain adaptive devices or accessibility tools, remote proctoring companies or the schools that use them sometimes recommend disabling these features for students who use such tools.

Schools that use remote proctoring tools sometimes explicitly alert instructors that there may be false positive behavioral flags when students with disabilities use their products. For example, The University of Wisconsin – Madison’s knowledge base article for faculty about Honorlock, a remote proctoring platform, states:

“Honorlock provides standard exam settings that you can enable for all students.  While most of these are intended to make exams more secure, they may also conflict with student accommodations. When starting an exam, Honorlock presents the instructions that you provide.  The tool itself does not explicitly state behaviors, resources, etc. that are prohibited.  However, the auto proctoring artificial intelligence (AI) may flag certain behaviors for review.  For  example, if the student leaves their seat to stretch, take a break, use a medical device, or use the restroom, you may receive a notification that indicates “Face not clearly visible.””

Here too, we see a tension between “academic integrity” and “disability accommodations”: if the settings in question are designed to promote academic integrity, but they must be turned off for disabled students to use the product, disabled students are put in a gray area with respect to normative academic integrity.

Proctoring companies are even sometimes explicit that disabled students will need accommodations to use their product, even in situations when they might not ordinarily disclose a disability. In a blog post entitled “Myths About Remote Proctoring: Accessibility,” the company SmarterServices discusses how a student with a tic disorder (e.g. Tourette’s) would interact with the proctoring system:

“This condition (Chronic Tic Disorder) is an example of a disorder for which a student may not formally request an accommodation through the disability services office of their institution. However, if the student will be utilizing virtual proctoring, they should be encouraged to request an accommodation.  When the student has formally requested an accommodation then that notice will be viewable to proctors and faculty.”

This statement is ambiguous and avoids stating outright that disabled students can experience false positive cheating flags. Students are obviously not required to disclose a disability to their instructor unless they are requesting accommodations. Disability services offices at colleges are not registries of disabled students, but rather are organizations charged with ensuring that disabled students receive the accommodations that they need. In fact, some college disability services web pages will specifically mention that one of the rights of disabled students is to not self-identify (as disabled) if they are not requesting accommodations. SmarterServices recognizes this right and reality (“this condition is an example of a disorder for which a student may not formally request an accommodation through the disability services office”) yet suggests that the student must be encouraged to self-identity if they are using remote proctoring. The way this company would have it, private information such as disability status must be available to instructors at all times in order not to compromise the “cheating detection” functionality of the product. Thus, in this case, documentation and accommodations cease to be a method of providing disabled students access to learning, and become simply a shield against accusations of cheating.2  Not only are accommodations considered “situationally sanctioned cheating” here, but some disabled students would be forced to disclose a disability in violation of their rights to avoid suspicion of academic dishonesty.

A different path: Accommodations as a part of, not a challenge to academic integrity

Returning to the tension between the common academic integrity and disability accommodations syllabus statements, I want to propose we integrate accommodations as a normative component of academic integrity. The current model in which accommodations are positioned as situationally sanctioned cheating harms and further marginalizes disabled students as well as the learning environment as a whole by implying that common necessary adjustments to academic activities would constitute breaches to academic integrity were it not for their situational sanctioned nature. While it would take some time to draft a whole new policy or statement, policies could include that “students should be provided appropriate supports to complete assignments to the best of their ability, including appropriate disability accommodations and accommodations for other life circumstances that may affect students’ ability to complete assignments.” Thus, while the policy might still state that “no student should receive any unfair advantages,” accommodations would be less likely to be viewed as such.

Certainly, an important component of such an approach would be to lower the barriers to receiving accommodations. While the need for documentation in order to receive an accommodation seems like it must have a strong legal basis based on its prevalence, the truth is more complicated. Kat Macfarlane argues persuasively in her article “Disability Without Documentation” that the ADA might not strictly require medical documentation of disability for the purposes of accommodations, and that documentation requirements place an unfair and unnecessary burden on disabled people. Additionally, the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) suggests that two important forms of evidence for a student’s disability are 1) the student’s self-report of how they may be limited by their disability in an academic context and 2) “the impressions and conclusions formed by higher education disability professionals during interviews and conversations with students” as a means of validating a student’s self-report. Documentation from a medical provider is considered a tertiary form of evidence according to AHEAD. These alternative approaches to disability documentation could radically expand access in the educational environment, especially because the barriers to traditional medical disability documentation are higher for multiply marginalized students such as disabled students of color and queer disabled students.

Disability services offices do and will continue to do critical work advocating for the rights of disabled students and ensuring that the learning environment is accessible. I suggest that we take the pressure off these important offices by trusting students more and asserting that accommodations do not conflict with academic integrity. These offices should be free to do their job of supporting disabled students without having to constantly signal their worthiness. 

1 Shea Swauger’s piece “Our Bodies Encoded: Algorithmic Test Proctoring in Higher Education” makes a persuasive case that algorithmic proctoring is by definition ableist. My colleague Autumm Caines and I summarize the numerous harms of remote proctoring in our recent paper in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. 
2 While remote proctoring providers and schools that use them acknowledge the narrow category of “registered” disabled students for whom the proctoring products may not work as intended, there is not necessarily anything specific about disabled students as a group that would cause this “malfunction.” Ultimately, when remote proctoring companies or the institutions that contract with them admit, whether implicitly or explicitly, that their products do not work as intended or need to be modified for use by disabled students they expose that they have limited utility in general. That is to say, an instructor using a remote proctoring technology would not take behavioral flags very seriously were they fully acknowledging the full diversity of human bodies, behaviors, cultures, family situations, and modes of communication.

Photo by Akshay Chauhan on Unsplash

clown with circle and slash in red

Is it possible to ban remote proctoring?

This post is co-authored by and jointly published with Autumm Caines.

The harms of remote proctoring have been so extensively documented that some educational institutions have now instituted formal recommendations or policies against using remote proctoring. 

But, is it possible to ban remote proctoring on campus? We have found that even when these decisions are made, the goal of protecting students from the harms of remote proctoring is not completely achievable. This is because directly purchasing a proctoring service from the provider is only one way to make use of proctoring software. Many other educational technology companies offer proctoring services, often for “free” or passing the cost on to the student. 

While our own campus has a formal recommendation from the Provost Office against remote proctoring, and no contract with a remote proctoring company, we noted that proctoring was available on our campus for free through McGraw Hill Connect’s partnership with Proctorio. Our experience was that Proctorio became available without the consent or even the knowledge of the instructional technology staff on our campus and we only discovered its availability after learning about the MH-Proctorio partnership through outside professional networks.  

Because of these vendor to vendor relationships, students and faculty can easily be exposed to these products without any oversight from educational technology, data privacy, or accessibility professionals. Because many of these proctoring options operate with a “freemium” model, students are potentially required to pay fees in order to complete their assessments. 

It is useful to know which educational technology companies have agreements with proctoring companies and integrate their services into their products. After many months of communication we were able to get McGraw Hill to remove the proctoring functions for our campus. However, even those with proctoring in place at their institutions should be aware of these kinds of offerings as the training materials are not always consistent between the provider and the reseller with respect to the product’s functionality. For instance, we found examples in which the company purchasing and reselling the proctoring options was presenting the technology as being able to “detect cheating” while most proctoring companies are very clear that the technology alone cannot determine cheating and that human verification is required to be certain.

The following are some examples of educational technology companies and products that currently offer some form of remote proctoring for free or by charging a fee to students. There are likely to be many more examples, but this list represents ed tech products with which we are familiar in our work. These relationships are also liable to change at any moment, for example a company initiating a new proctoring partnership or ending one. Are you aware of vendor to vendor relationships that bring proctoring into your campus or school?

Primary ProductProctoring ProviderNature of partnershipReferences
McGraw Hill ConnectProctorioFree settings available on all assignments, “Proctorio Plus” settings available for 15$ per course, paid by studenthttps://www.mheducation.com/highered/connect/proctorio.html
https://www.mheducation.com/highered/connect/proctorio/compare.html
TopHatProctorioAnnounced that Proctorio protected exams would be available for free on April 2, 2020 – current status of partnership unclearhttps://tophat.com/press-releases/top-hat-partners-with-proctorio/https://success.tophat.com/s/article/Teaching-Online-Remotely-Proctored-Tests
McGraw Hill ALEKSRespondus LockDown/Monitor“Secure testing with LockDown Browser, always free. Deter cheating with Respondus Monitor via institutional agreement or $10 per student for the entire term.:https://www.mheducation.com/highered/support/aleks/how-to-move-your-course-online.html
https://web.respondus.com/aleks/
Derivita ProctorioLockdown settings available at no extra cost, unclear how payment for additional features workshttps://www.derivita.com/proctoring
https://www.derivita.com/lockdown-settings?_ga=2.54833771.1798584622.1626192772-1122037571.1621811441
GradescopeRespondus LockDownWhile currently in Beta, LockDown browser will be available to courses subscribed to Gradescope Complete, their paid product. Instructor or institution can decide to pay for Gradescope Completehttps://help.gradescope.com/article/gm5cmcz19k-instructor-assignment-online#additional_security_with_lock_down_browser_beta
Pearson MyLabRespondus LockDownIf the university does not have an existing license with Respondus, the instructor can choose for students to be charged $10 per course https://web.respondus.com/pearson-mylab/
Wiley Online HomeworkRespondus LockDownAppears LockDown is free for students, but hard to find current informationhttps://wileyplus.gallery.video/instructors/detail/videos/legacy-wileyplus/video/5827956956001/how-to-use-lockdown-browser-with-wileyplus
Cengage WebsAssignRespondus LockDownLockDown browser available for freehttps://www.webassign.net/manual/instructor_guide/t_i_installing_webassign_lockdown_browser.htm

Cover image by succo from Pixabay

Syllabus basic needs statements and instructional flexibility

The practice of including a basic needs statement on a syllabus which directs students to affordable and free food, housing assistance, and health services is rightly gaining more widespread attention. Many colleges and universities now provide sample language that instructors can incorporate into their syllabi and some instructors will go further to say that if students need help accessing any of the services or are experiencing a personal issue like food or housing insecurity, that they are invited to discuss it with the instructor or dean directly.

These are all important practices, as they help connect students to vital resources and also demonstrate that the instructor understands the injustices that many college students face and is prepared to help. But I also hope that writing or incorporating a basic needs statement prompts instructors to reconsider their syllabus as a whole. It seems incongruous to acknowledge the reality that many college students lack stable housing or food, may not always have access to the technologies they need for their course work, or may be in need of mental health services and also outline punitive and arbitrary course requirements and grading schemes on the very same document.

The basic needs statement should not be able to stand as a separate part of the syllabus as a whole if we are to take student well-being seriously.

How will a student who may need to use the emergency mental health services you recommend feel about an exam to be completed during a narrow time window with no exceptions (perhaps even remotely proctored through her web camera)?

If a student is genuinely not sure where their next meal is coming from and benefits from your information about the campus food bank, how can it make sense to apply harsh penalties for late assignments?

How will a student whose only device is the free Chromebook from your campus technology access program submit an assignment with strict and complex formatting requirements?

Matthew Cheney has compellingly argued against the “syllabus as an instrument of abuse.” As basic needs statements are starting to move from a grassroots initiative to an institutionally recommended or even required one, I think we have to resist the syllabus becoming a site of hypocrisy as well. While I think “ungrading” and other flexible and student directed grading strategies are likely the most compatible with a full acknowledgement of the complexity of students’ lives, at minimum a “basic needs” or “well-being” statement should never be on the same syllabus as the words “no exceptions.”

Critical labor literacy is the “future faculty development” we need now

By the time that I left my most recent job in graduate student and post-doc teaching development for my current one (working with tenure track and non-tenure track faculty), I had a bad taste in my mouth about some of the trends in so-called “future faculty” development. Recently encountering the term “critical labor literacy,” coined by Bowles, Zamora, Caines, & Bali, helped me understand why. They call critical labor literacy an attempt to see “an alternative future that can emerge if we speak candidly and with solidarity about the hidden dimensions of work.” Responding in particular to the COVID-19 labor conditions in universities, they write that we, high education workers, must center “critical literacy about work in our teaching, while recognizing that our own working habits are part of a pedagogy of learning to work that currently models competitiveness, reward scarcity and surge work as liveable moral norms.”

I believe such a critical literacy is badly needed for the programs that aim to prepare graduate students and post-docs for their next steps in academia.

What is the problem with future faculty development? 

Before I state my case I just want to clarify that I worked with wonderful, caring colleagues and mentors during the time I did future faculty development work, not to mention the many talented and idealistic (meant in the best possible way) students and post-docs from whom I learned a lot.

This is more of a structural critique. I think the problem with future faculty development can be distilled down to this: a vanishingly small number of graduate students and post-docs will ever obtain tenure track faculty positions. While the activities and programming we offered surely had some independent value (inclusive teaching workshops, mentorship trainings, teaching portfolio reviews), they were almost always marketed to graduate students and post-docs as opportunities to increase their odds of getting a job, with the shared background assumption that everyone will need some sort of edge in the current academic job market. I fear that this approach clouds the way that departments and institutions admit far more graduate students than can become tenure track professors, and also are increasingly shifting teaching responsibilities from tenure track faculty to casualized teaching staff. It almost seems like the response being offered to that structural crisis is a “certificate in college teaching and learning.” As Vander Kloet & Aspenlieder write about their experience doing similar work at a teaching and learning center in Canada,

“Part of the function of the certificate programs is to address graduate student anxiety about their employability by suggesting that with the aid of certificates they may be more marketable. This link is made without any evidence, suggesting that inadequate professional development is the cause of underemployment and unstable employment in academia. By urging graduate students to complete these professional development certificates, we felt we were actively distracting from questions and concerns expressed by students about changes in the makeup of employment in Canadian universities. Importantly,by encouraging graduate students to complete certificates, responsibility for securing stable employment is positioned squarely on individuals who will fail to take up these opportunities.”

I certainly think that it is important for graduate students and post-docs to have access to quality teaching and other career-related professional development. The teaching support is particularly important because in most cases this is not even strictly about a future career: a large amount of research university teaching is done by graduate students. It just seems very wrong to construct a program around the tenure track career that most students will not achieve, through no fault of their own, with or without a certificate. What would it look like to address some of the issues that affect non-elite academic workers in through professional development programs?

Critical labor literacy in graduate and post-doc development programs: A few ideas

  • A job search workshop that helps people parse temporary, non-tenure track, and alternative academic job postings. 
    • What does “one year with the possibility of extension” really mean? 
    • How do I find out if the adjunct or non-tenure track workforce at this institution is unionized? 
    • On an hourly basis, does this position pay more than my graduate student assistantship salary? 
  • A book, article, or other resource about how to deal with a failed job search.
    • What are the relative benefits of staying in grad school, graduating and adjuncting, and taking a salaried position outside your desired field if you can’t find a tenure track position?
    • What are the realistic probabilities of getting a tenure tenure track offer the more time you spend as an adjunct instructor or a staff member?
    • How do you deal with knowing that a failed job search was the result of discrimination or bias when there is often very little recourse?
  • Learning from past labor organizing in academia.
    •  How did graduate student unions around the country win the benefits and protections that they have now?
    • What is current state of adjunct, non-tenure track, and staff labor unions in higher education? If you find yourself in a non-tenure track job, how would you go about organizing for protections? What barriers can you expect to face?
    • If you do end up in a tenure-track faculty position, what can you do to support your colleagues that do not have the same benefits and protections? What can you do to “recover” stable jobs from adjunctification?

Yes, I know these are unlikely to be priorities for institutions or granting agencies. However, to the extent that already precarious academic staff and grad students are the ones running many of these programs and other graduate students and post-docs may have some role in shaping them, there seems to be room for grassroots work. This type of critical labor literacy seems crucial for preparing for actual academic labor and organizing in participants’ future positions.

P.S. I also recognize that a lot of this knowledge and organizing can be found in informal groups and mentoring relationships, and is very much already being discussed. Other writers have made important observations that could inform critical labor literacy for graduate students. Lee Skallerup Bessette recently wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about the lack of promotion opportunities for academic staff, and Jesse Stommel recently tweeted about the exclusionary nature of one-year visiting professor positions. I wonder what ways there are to integrate these conversations into the formal opportunities available to grad students.

References:

Bowles, K., Zamora, M., Caines, A., Bali, M. (September, 2020). Bodies of Work: a proposal for critical labour literacy in the post pandemic university. The Post-Pandemic University.

Vander Kloet, M., & Aspenlieder, E. (2013). Educational development for responsible graduate students in the neoliberal university. Critical Studies in Education, 54(3), 286-298.

Pedagogy Can’t Solve Everything: Student Debt and Educational Development

“I put my absolute best foot forward in the classroom, but sometimes I just wonder if the amount of debt they are taking on could ever be worth it,” a biology instructor recently told me. I am often struck by how present financial issues are in conversations that are on the surface about pedagogical practice, and it is rare that I go a day as an educational developer without discussing student loan debt and student basic needs insecurity with instructors. (Note: I use the term “educational developer” to refer to people who do teaching and learning support work or instructional design in higher education). The teachers I work with feel guilty assigning additional readings or assignments that would in theory support student learning because they know that students may need to choose between paid work (to service or avoid debt) and their coursework. Others want to create an atmosphere of trust, honesty, and academic integrity, but are all too aware that students feel let down and punished before they even walk through the (proverbial, in the case of remote learning) door of their first class, having just taken on their first student loan. 

I am therefore surprised that the issues of the high cost of college tuition and student debt are rarely mentioned1 in the pages of To Improve the Academy, the journal of record for educational developers in the US, or other similar journals. When student debt is mentioned in the context of educational development scholarship, it is sometimes cited as a factor that should motivate us to adopt and advocate for evidence-based teaching practices. For example, the authors of a review of evidence-based teaching in higher education argue: “Given that college and university education is expensive and at many institutions the quality of education students receive may be questionable, it seems reasonable to ask, if not demand, that teachers modify their approaches to instruction and use the most effective teaching methods currently available.” This strikes me as both true and also potentially dangerous. While I agree that it is vital to build a culture of student-centered, reflective, and evidence-based teaching and learning in the university, I fear that connecting good teaching to the cost of college leads to a false conclusion: That if we could succeed in getting every instructor to engage with the evidence about how students learn and implement evidence-based teaching practices, then universities could have a better claim to the prices that they charge, and student debt would not be as morally reprehensible as it is now.

If educational developers aim to help “colleges and universities function effectively as teaching and learning communities,” it seems that we should also have a position and advocacy agenda regarding the cost of education. The process by which states have systematically withdrawn public funding from colleges and universities, transferring the financial burden to individual students has been well-documented as has the incredible burden that student debt and financial insecurity place on students and their families while they are in school and after they leave. Student debt disproportionately affects students of color, especially black students. “Crisis” doesn’t even feel like a strong enough descriptor at this point.

I recently read a blog post by English professor Marcia Klotz in which she writes about her changing relationship to her job as the costs of education have been shifted from the public to the individual. She recalls,

“When my paycheck came largely from state and federal taxes, I felt I was contributing to a broadly recognized public good, which (if pushed) I might have defined as maintaining an educated citizenry. But now that the biggest part of my salary is paid by my students, on borrowed funds that they will be hard-pressed to pay back (the job market being what it is), I can’t help but feel guilty, worrying that my own well-being comes at the direct cost of their future…No matter how critical the content of my class may be, its very existence contributes to student exploitation, generating debt that increases their precarity and limits their future options.”

As Klotz explains, debt isn’t just an unfortunate side effect of our educational system, it runs interference against education’s liberatory potential.

Jeffrey Williams coined the term “pedagogy of debt” to describe this phenomenon in his collection How to Be an Intellectual. No matter what we teach or how we teach it, there are nefarious underlying lessons taught by the student finance system, and debt more generally. These lessons include that “higher education is a consumer service” and that the worth of a person is determined by their productivity and ability to provide a return on investment. When instructors recognize these underlying lessons, they can address them and resist them, but at least in my experience, they are a major obstacle to creating the kind of learning community that most educators aim for.

Because many educational developers support student learning through faculty development, it is worth also mentioning the ways in which debt and its pedagogy affect instructor’s lives and career trajectories. Researchers and educational developers have noted the importance of hiring and retaining a diverse faculty for student learning. However student debt that “trickles up” to the instructors (tenure-track and more commonly non-tenure-track) significantly affects the demographic composition of faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences. A recent report from the Hope Center at Temple University, “23% of educators with student loan or credit card debt experienced food insecurity, 40% experienced housing insecurity, and 8% experienced homelessness.” This is of course an outrage on its own, but from an educational development perspective, co-author of the report Prof. Sara Goldrick-Rab says it best: “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”

I recognize of course that educational developers (and faculty developers, instructional designers, etc.) are not politicians or public policy experts. We as a group may not be be the best equipped to propose the exact mechanism by which college tuition should be made free or student debt be forgiven, but I do think that we have an obligation to support and advocate for these things. I also think we need to resist any narrative that claims that good pedagogy can make student debt “worth it.” Infusing our teaching with care, reflection, and evidence is a professional responsibility and an ethical obligation to our students. Professional development and support related to teaching are necessary services that universities should provide to their employees, and are fundamental to student learning. But pedagogy can’t fix the cost of education. Advocating for free college and student debt forgiveness seems crucial to the mission of educational development right now.

Notes

  1. I know this is a crude measure, but other search terms such as “tuition,” and plain “debt” do not turn up much of interest either. I am currently working on similar searches of other journals.

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Instructors are Learners too! My workshop at the UDL in Higher Education Conference

In November 2019 I presented a workshop entitled “Instructors are learners too: UDL for faculty and future faculty development.” I also had the opportunity to speak to Lillian Nave of the ThinkUDL podcast about the workshop (here is the link to the episode and my post about it).

Use this link to download the workshop handout

Rationale for the workshop: Most conversations about faculty development and UDL in higher education focus on strategies to convince instructors on campus to adopt UDL approaches in their teaching and to support them in doing so. However, surprisingly little attention has been given to applying a UDL approach to support faculty and future faculty as learners in their professional development.

As student bodies become more diverse and more colleges and universities introduce online and hybrid courses, there is a need for faculty development programs that are effective and widely-accessible. Additionally, faculty and future faculty learners are as diverse as the students they teach, and include instructors who may be disabled, parents, caretakers, long-distance commuters, tenured, tenure-track, adjuncts, or graduate students. (All of these factors have been intensified by the COVID-19 crisis, which has moved a large percentage of teaching online and created additional barriers and challenges to engaging in teaching professional development programming. Yet, teaching support is more important now than ever as instructors adapt many previously face-to-face courses to online or hybrid formats).

 

 

A discussion protocol for teaching communities of practice

A key feature of teaching communities of practice (CoP) is the sharing and receiving of feedback on current teaching challenges. Often times, this activity looks like one participant orally sharing a teaching challenge followed by an unstructured discussion where other participants respond to the challenge with advice for how to address it now and how to prevent it in the future. In my experience facilitating a teaching community of practice for Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs), I have found that this activity can be challenging for participants for several reasons:

  • In a group of 10-15 participants, different people will process and be ready to respond to the teaching challenge at different speeds. Some participants may need to more information from the speaker to provide feedback, but don’t get a chance to gather it before other participants jump in with feedback. This results in the discussion being dominated by those that process information quickly or those that feel comfortable giving feedback without as much context.
  • Participants may be reluctant to share their own teaching challenges, because the flow of the conversation is unstructured and may drift away from their needs with respect to the teaching challenge. Additionally, some participants may refrain from sharing a challenge because they are not confident in their ability to pinpoint the challenge such that the other participants will be able to understand it and give suitable feedback.

I wanted to share the discussion protocol I developed to use in a teaching community of practice to address some of these issues. Feel free to use it or adapt it, and let me know how it goes!

Discussion protocol for “just-in-time” teaching feedback activity

Note on facilitation: Although I facilitate most of the teaching CoP meeting, I allow the speaker (i.e. the person presenting the challenge) to run this part of the meeting. As part of this role, they can decide whether they want people to raise their hands to speak, just start speaking when they have something to contribute, or some other system.

Speaker: Gives a brief (2-3 min) overview of challenge(s). Makes sure to mention:

  • Who is involved? (students, other instructors, others?)
  • What is the challenge and why does it feel challenging to you?
  • What teaching theme is at play (classroom climate, student preparation or misconceptions, group dynamics, assessment, feedback, instructor of record – TA relationship, etc.)
  • What can the group help you with? 

Listeners: Listen actively, and then:

  • Responses round 1: Ask clarifying questions. The group cannot give advice or feedback during this round. They can only ask questions to help them understand the speaker’s teaching challenge or what they need support with. (The point of this round of questions is three-fold. One, this helps folks who need more time to process the challenge to make sure they understand the situation, and have time to gather their thoughts. Two, it gives the speaker another opportunity to highlight the points that are important to them and what kind of support they need. Three, it helps the whole group fill out the details of the scenario to support the next part of the discussion).
  • Responses round 2: The listeners now have a chance to respond in keeping with the speaker’s “ask” (i.e. what they asked for support with). The facilitator and group members hold other group members accountable when they are offering feedback or advice that wasn’t requested by the main speaker.
Image of Think UDL podcast twitter banner. A photograph of podcast recording equipment with an inset of the Think UDL podcast logo

My ThinkUDL Podcast experience

As a learner, I have a strong preference for taking in information aurally, and thus listen to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. I had been listening to the ThinkUDL Podcast hosted by Lillian Nave for several months when she asked me to come on the podcast to discuss my recent workshop at the Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education Conference at Goodwin College. I was honored to have this opportunity as a listener of the podcast and an admirer of the work Lillian does with her team to bring conversations about teaching and UDL to a wide audience. I especially appreciate that one of the goals of the podcast is to bring conversations and content from conferences to wider audiences, as there are many barriers to in-person attendance at conferences.

Knowing that my interview would be available to the public was slightly nerve-wracking, but Lillian did a lot to make the process fun and accessible. She let me know a few of the questions she would ask ahead of time so I could prepare notes, and also let me know that the recording would be edited and that I could “do-over” a sentence or thought if I needed to. I think those are important teaching principles too (clarity around expectations, and opportunities for students to correct mistakes).

During the podcast, Lillian and I discuss a model of instructor development that has been very important in my work as an educational developer –  in which teachers’ concerns progress from personal credibility, to content delivery, to facilitation of learning, and eventually back again to the beginning of the cycle in new teaching contexts. Please read my detailed post about this model of instructor development here.

Title: A model of instructor development. A flowchart with three stages connected by a circular arrow to indicate a cycle. The three stages are 1. Personal credibility and control, 2. Content delivery, and 3. Facilitation of learning

A model of instructor development – adapted from Richlin, L. (1995). Preparing the faculty of the future to teach. In W. A. Wright’s Teaching improvement practices: successful strategies for higher education Bolton, MA: Anker.

Lillian and I discussed the idea that even experienced instructors cycle back to “stage 1” when they start teaching in a new environment, be it a different physical classroom space, a course they haven’t taught before, or even just a new semester with a unique group of students.  Thus, this model focuses on the present experience of instructors and the unique situational factors they may be facing at a given moment, and less on their “seniority” or “career stage.” A TA who has been teaching the same discussion for several years may be exploring student-centered learning approaches in stage 3, while an associate professor teaching a survey course for the first time may be focused on classroom management techniques in stage 1.

The UDL approach acknowledges and celebrates learner variability, and provides multiple ways to engage in any given learning experience. This model of instructor development helps me think about the variety of faculty learners who might be in a workshop or course that I facilitate, and helps me design different activities and engagement strategies for participants at different stages of the cycle. I also use this model as a metacognitive exercise for participants, asking them to identify where they see themselves in the cycle that day. This activity both normalizes the dynamic and cyclical nature of teaching development, and helps participants focus their learning for their current state of mind and teaching context.

Check out the rest of the ThinkUDL podcast episodes on the podcast webpage. I especially recommend the episode on “decolonizing the music curriculum” with Prof. Andrew Dell’Antonio.

 

 

A model of instructor development

Early on in my training as an educational developer, a mentor introduced me to a simple yet profound model of instructor development, based on one developed by Laurie Richlin (1995). I want to thank my mentor and colleagues at the UC Davis Center for Educational Effectiveness for introducing me to this framework.

This model breaks instructor development into three stages.

Title: A model of instructor development. A flowchart with three stages connected by a circular arrow to indicate a cycle. The three stages are 1. Personal credibility and control, 2. Content delivery, and 3. Facilitation of learning

A model of instructor development – adapted from Richlin, L. (1995). Preparing the faculty of the future to teach. In W. A. Wright’s Teaching improvement practices: successful strategies for higher education Bolton, MA: Anker.

Stage 1 – Personal Credibility and Control: At an early stage in an instructor’s development, they may be primarily concerned with establishing their authority and credibility in the classroom, wondering “will the students like me and find me to be engaging?” or “am I qualified to teach this topic?” Developing skills in classroom management, answering student questions, and effectively communication with students may be goals for instructors at this stage.

Stage 2 – Content Delivery: Instructors at this intermediate stage are focused on effective delivery of content, and may be concerned with their presentation style, efficiency in preparing for their classes, and effectively using technology. These instructors may be comfortable in the classroom, but still developing their skills in assessing student learning.

Stage 3 – Facilitation of Learning: Instructors at the most advanced stage of the cycle are transitioning from an instructor-centered to a student-centered perspective, and tend to be focused on understanding their students’ needs and how to collect evidence of student learning in the classroom. They may also be thinking about how students will build upon the knowledge and skills they learn in future courses or learning experiences.

So why is this model presented as a cycle? Once an instructor moves through the three stages in a given teaching and learning context, changes to the classroom environment, the course content, or the instructor’s personal situation may bring them back to another part of the development cycle. For example, Teresa, an experienced instructor who is teaching a survey course for the first time may have reached stage 3 after several years of a seminar course in her field of research, but is now overwhelmed by the large class size (an accompanying diversity of learning needs and interests) for her new class. She may place herself in stage 1 as she gets the hang of the new context (and new content!) for this course. Thus, this model focuses on the present experience of instructors and the unique situational factors they may be facing at a given moment, and less on their “seniority” or “career stage.” Roy, a TA who has been teaching the same discussion for several years may be exploring student-centered learning approaches in stage 3, while Teresa, the instructor from our previous example who is an associate professor, may be focusing on classroom management at stage 1.

This model of instructor development helps me think about the variety of faculty learners who might be in a workshop or course that I facilitate, and helps me design different activities and engagement strategies for participants at different stages of the cycle. I also use this model as a metacognitive exercise for participants, asking them to identify where they see themselves in the cycle that day. This activity both normalizes the dynamic and cyclical nature of teaching development, and helps participants focus their learning for their current state of mind and teaching context.

 

References:

Richlin, L. (1995). Preparing the faculty of the future to teach. In W. A. Wright’s Teaching improvement practices: successful strategies for higher education Bolton, MA: Anker.