Instructional Videos

In case you don’t know, there are numerous companies that create videos lasting for 45-75 minutes on a variety of topics that might be covered in college courses. They work as substitutes for lectures and cost between $200 and $350 each.

I remember the exact moment when the Instructional Video Craze started. It was 2002, and the university where I worked at that time assigned a massively popular course to be taught by somebody who had no qualifications to teach anything anywhere. Delivering 3 lectures a week to an audience of 100 might be quite hard if you don’t hold a single degree in the discipline. So the person in question got the department to buy a bunch of videos to the tune of several thousand dollars and limited his teaching to putting on these videos. Understandably, the enrollment in the course dropped to under 20 within 3 years.

Of course, this is an extreme case. However, the Instructional Videos Craze has been following me from one university to another. Colleagues and administrators have exhorted me to use these videos in lieu of my own lectures. One supervisor even told me that my insistence on preparing my own lectures for 100% of classes was evidence of poor teaching skills.

“You need to learn to be less controlling of your classroom,” she said.

It is true that the idea of ceding control over my classroom to the makers of commercial instructional videos or to supervisors is unacceptable to me. I show movies and documentaries in class but only the real kind, not some overpriced commercial product.

These instructional videos were the first step towards MOOCs, and neither they nor MOOCs have any relation to higher education. If people want to use them as a form of entertainment, that’s up to them. Serious education, however, is something entirely different.

“On the Value of an Independent Faculty Senate” by Leslie Bary

Today, I want to share with you a powerful piece on a very troubling developing in academia. Leslie Bary’s “On the Value of an Independent Faculty Senate” demonstrates that academic activism is not dead.

Bary begins her article with an observation that I find absolutely crucial for the understanding of how the academic world gets manipulated into sacrificing true teaching and scholarship for the benefit of turning universities into useless diploma mills:

The defense of face-to-face teaching is reinterpreted as a lack of care for students “shut out” of traditional courses. The sharing of original insights based on current research is the dull practice of “writing one’s own lectures” or “one-way delivery of content,” while the use of class time to administer a commercial educational product is “student centered” and modern.

Academics who are not prepared to withstand this barrage of verbiage that sounds so progressive and appealing end up ceding ground to the administrators who want us to sell goods to students instead of educating them.

The same pernicious practice of using pretty verbiage that will soften most academics’ hearts is now being used to demolish one of the few remaining bastions of scholarly power on campus: the faculty senate. Administrators slowly creep up on the institutions of faculty self-government and erode the power of academics to decide how universities are run:

In the 20122013 academic year I had occasion to observe the use of similarly soft language in an attempt to revise and “update” the Constitution of a Faculty Senate. The proposed changes were presented not as amendments but as “edits,” although some were more substantial. There was also discussion of possible future changes to “make the Senate a more effective body,” as one administrator put the issue.

This is a phenomenon that is not limited to Bary’s university. Encroachments on the faculty governance are happening everywhere. Bary is calling our attention to the pattern of rhetoric that is now being commonly used to undermine higher education:

This rhetoric is not neutral and does not serve us well; we should not take it as our master. Its hallmarks include a call to revise or abandon allegedly outdated practices which in fact are either (a) straw men such as the deadly “one-way” lecture or (b) principles such as academic freedom, that are time-honored because they are valuable.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I agree with this. I’m sick and tired of seeing these straw-men being discussed to death by people who know nothing of pedagogy and academia.

An assault on the power of the faculty senate at Bary’s institution utilized all the right vocabulary:

To increase democracy and reduce patriarchy, it was suggested, Full Professors should stand for election and the ratio of less experienced faculty on Senate should be increased. At the same time the size of the Senate should be reduced, on the questionable or even specious premise that this would result in all members being engaged.

Of course, the intended goal of the change was not democracy. It was to fill the senate with faculty members who would be a lot easier for the administration to bully and silence than Full Professors. As Bary explains:

A small group of midlevel to contingent faculty may not always be as strong or as representative of informed faculty opinion as is a large group including as many as possible of the faculty most likely to be national figures.

Of course, the administration knows this and tries to manipulate faculty members into doing its bidding by using the rhetoric of inclusion, resistance to patriarchy, and democracy.

Leslie Bary’s article is not one of those pieces where we all scratch our heads, say “Yeah, it’s too bad,” and then forget all about it. This article is a call for action. We all need to do the following:

1. Read the article in full.

2. Make a list of institutions of self-governance that are still present at our schools.

3. Begin to pay a lot of attention to every communication from our colleagues and the administration that mentions them to see how these institutions are faring these days.

4. Make a list of activities each of us is willing to engage in to support and strengthen self-governance. Visiting the next meeting of Faculty Senate might be one such activity.

5. Get involved with AAUP.

People, remember, if we snooze on this one, we might find ourselves managed right out of having any university or college worthy of the name. Leslie Bary is a brave academic who has risked a lot to publish this piece. Let’s not let her act of bravery go to waste because of our inaction. If we don’t govern ourselves, we will be governed by others.

The Myth of the Other Courses

I find it really boring when students attempt to get me to revise my grading criteria based on what some mythical “other courses” were like.

This semester, for instance, I learned that:

– other professors encourage students to repeat the same statements word for word within a single essay;

– in other courses, not knowing the difference between “their” / “there” and “its” / “it’s” does not impact your grade for written assignments;

– a sentence that starts with “In this painting it shows the picture depicting the owl” is highly appreciated in other courses;

– other professors do not require that an essay have either an introduction or a conclusion;

– in other courses, professors believe that Incas lived on the territory that is now the United States;

– in other courses, professors do not insist that students sign their emails because they can always do online searches to figure out the author of each email;

– other professors do not believe that confusing Spain with England in 3 different assignments is that big of a deal;

– people who can’t write a single sentence without 5 spelling, 3 lexical and 2 syntactic mistakes got praised for their impeccable writing style in other courses.