It’s nice to have administrators you can trust


Last week, our campus had its back-to-school events. Our administrators talked about their big plans.

There was one Thing that the President talked about for a few minutes.

The Provost talked about the same Thing for a half hour.

My Dean talked about It for about twenty minutes.

When I had lunch next to my Associate Dean, the conversation was about this Thing for about fifteen minutes.

Then when my department met, the Thing was discussed for about another half hour.

So what is this Thing? We are bringing three trailers on campus which will have technology-rich “smart” “brilliant” classrooms inside. They will be “active learning” classrooms, with circular tables and enough digital devices to choke a robot. It’s hard to believe that, at any other university, the installation of three trailers would generate so much hubbub.

Meanwhile, the Provost spent about fifteen seconds explaining that several classrooms were renovated over the summer. Without tables, just individual desks. On our campus, we are making a huge frickin’ deal about new “active learning ‘brilliant’ classrooms,” but when we had the chance to remodel many classrooms with tables instead of desks (which I’ve been wanting for quite a while), we just buy more desks.

You and I know that active learning doesn’t take technology-rich classrooms. It just takes faculty who engage students in group-based activities and students physically arranged so that they can work together. You could ask students to move their desks around in a classroom, though tables would be nice.

At this moment — better late than never — we have a huge administrative push for “active learning.” I’m putting “active learning” in quotes because, in this version, it means a very specific Thing involving the use of lots of computer screens at various tables and having students share their screens with other students and who knows what else. It involves professional development supported by little faculty stipends. We remodel many classrooms to support traditional lectures, but are training faculty for active learning? Though this might seem like nonsense, there is a method to this apparent madness. The President, who wants these classrooms, is just playing the long game for big-time funding.

Though we know active learning doesn’t need big fancy classrooms, this is probably not obvious to obscenely wealthy donors. The next big project for our campus is the construction of a new science building, which is already a couple decades overdue. (I’m not joking, our labs are worse than those the high school in your neighborhood, even if you’re in an underfunded part of town. Our labs are nothing short of shameful. Everybody freely admits to it. If my admins somehow find their way to this post, then they’d be the first to agree with me.)

Though our labs are a downright shame, getting the funds for new ones still isn’t easy. Our President has the wisdom to see that the best sales pitch involves building the stuff for a state-of-the-art education. (We can’t get donors to fund research because, well, we don’t do enough of that.) So, what’s high tech in teaching? Lots of digital stuff that will go obsolete in a few years. It looks like “active learning” is trending. So, that’s the angle. Our donors can look inside this trailers, which look gorgeously high-tech and interactive inside. Your dollars can revolutionize not only how faculty teach but also how well students learn!

The revolution doesn’t require much money, it just requires faculty that give a damn (and they don’t have to use a specific manifestation “active learning” even if that’s my favored approach.) However, our admins must reckon with the perverse logic that if we convert classrooms for active learning, then we won’t get donors to pay for new active learning, which is apparently a key selling point. Thus, we are holding strong pedagogical practices hostage for construction dollars. I’m putting faith in my President, and those who are carrying out his orders, that he knows what he’s doing. I wouldn’t say that our students are suffering for lack of poor quality instruction at the moment.

I’d would rather not think about these politics. When I’m done with this post, I’m done with these politics. I’m here to research, teach and work with my students. This semester, one of my priorities is to keep my head down and convert data into manuscripts.

It really looks like our admins, this time around, are doing what’s in the best interest of the students. Regardless, I’m not inclined to look hard at the pieces on the financial chessboard. I have the luxury of that liberty as long as my lab is productive and as long folks think I’m teaching well. After all, we have no shortage of faculty who are attempting to keep administration accountable.

13 thoughts on “It’s nice to have administrators you can trust

  1. I feel your pain. Our college discovered that it doesn’t have the funds to “replace” or “update” the high tech classrooms that it raised funds for. Donors don’t donate for upkeep or replacement. High tech companies make money by making new models. Be careful what you wish for.

  2. Good observation. I am pushing for active learning among faculty, meanwhile, in addition or in spite of any change (or not) in facilities.

  3. I’m with you. My favorite classroom (for classes <20 students) has just one conference table that can be broken apart so we can work in groups / as a group / on the floor as needed. That, flip charts, markers, and lots of student-directed breakout sessions are often all we use to make classes a cut above.

    Hang in there.

  4. I read your post last night and then went into one of our “Learning Innovation Studios” where all the tech had been knocked out by a thunderstorm and noted the change in student-student/student-professor interactions. I penned a quick post over at about the experience with some questions about tech and active learning. Thanks for the post. It was so timely.

  5. Dear Terry,
    It is a bit narrow to equate “active learning” with “classroom furnishings.” As you and I both know, our field research with undergraduates certainly counts. Active learning includes writing intensive courses, group projects and presentations, capstone seminars and many other forms of instruction. I have literally had some of my most effective “active learning” experiences while teaching from the hood of my Jeep in Baja California. And as you note, nearly anything we can do to improve our labs at CSUDH will be an improvement.
    Jerry Moore
    Professor of Anthropology
    CSU Dominguez Hills

  6. I think there’s been a misunderstanding. I just want to be super-duper clear, that I’m not equating “active learning” with technology, though this seems to be the strategic funding move by our administration.

    I’m in love with active learning approaches to work in the classroom and argue for them every chance I get. I’ve redesigned my classes so that I don’t lecture. I would hope that every moment I spend interacting with students in an academic setting is designed around active learning.

    I found it unfortunate that on campus some of the admin are confounding “active learning” with “technology rich classrooms.” I put active learning in quotes to refer to the way it was used by our some of our admins, who have a narrowly construed and perhaps myopic view of what we’re doing in the classroom on a day to day basis.

    It’s not helpful when so many of us are actively doing genuine active learning, and then are told that new expensive classrooms need to be built to somehow engage our students better. I’m not sure that the implementation of sound pedagogical approaches should be used as rationale for garnering money for new construction on campus.

    I do find it unfortunate that our campus passed over an opportunity to remodel many classrooms this summer on campus at CSUDH in a way that promotes active learning strategies that appear frequently in the science education literature.

  7. The one piece of infrastructure that does make active learning tough: the lecture rooms with stadium-style seating. The seats don’t move, and students can pretty much interact with only one other student at a time, namely the student sitting right next to them. There are still a few classroom techniques that one can use in such a situation: clickers, and various pair-and-share activities (but about half the rows will have an odd student who has to physically move to find a partner or gymnastically crane to be a third wheel in an existing pair).

    I agree that the rest of the fancy technology, remodeling, infrastructure, etc. is a side issue. Forget about tables; I would’ve been happy to have moveable desks.

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