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.