“[S]olitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

11 07 2012

Given the task of teaching all of Western History and Culture here in Korea in only four weeks, I made no pretense at coverage when I designed my syllabus. My strategy was to pick through the Milestone Documents available on the subject, and assign ones I was already acquainted with to some degree. Since I was actually a political science major back in college, it turns out that I’ve been discussing an awful lot of political philosophy in the last couple of weeks.

One of those philosophers is Hobbes. What had stuck in my mind about Hobbes’ Leviathan was, of course, his notion that life in a state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short.” On one level, this suggests that human beings are awful people deep down inside, ready to bonk you on the head and take your cave if they decide they want it. However, what I had forgotten was Hobbes’ idea that people form governments in order to protect us from one another. I’m not sure even a big government liberal like myself could support making the ruler of any such government a Leviathan, but even that beats dying of exposure.

[Here comes the pivot. I know it’s forced, but please don’t groan too loudly. People will wonder whether you’re reading something that you shouldn’t be reading.]

Online education today is currently kind of in a state of nature too. There is little oversight and no rules at many schools. People throw up courses because they think students will pay to take them (or at least borrow government money to take them), not necessarily because they’re the best way to educate students.

In this state of nature, some people still create structures that encourage people to do the right thing. Take John Thelin and the distance education staff at his school, the University of Kentucky:

To convert a graduate course I had taught in “traditional mode” for many years, last September I sought out my campus’s director of distance learning programs offered by the university library and met with her and the DL staff for a long series of work sessions and carefully monitored progress reports. At each juncture the DL staff patiently yet firmly showed me why and how it was important to understand the logic and logistics of course preparation and presentation. One had to have course materials – including syllabus, weekly content, discussion topics, assignments, and links to materials – clearly in place before starting to teach.

Bravo. I’ve heard from a few online educators who are actually masochistic enough to read this blog regularly despite my rantings that the courses they run are similarly well-prepared, thoughtful and rewarding for yourselves and your students. I believe you folks. Honest. But do you really think that you’re in the majority?

Imagine you’re an extremely poorly paid adjunct, struggling to prevent your life from being solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Do you have the time and (more importantly) the initiative to put this kind of care into your classes? But why just pick on adjuncts? This comes from a post I did last year after attending a seminar on “Making the Move to Hybrid and Online Courses” that was pitched at my university’s tenured and tenure track faculty:

When discussing discussion boards, our facilitator mentioned that he thinks that you can only have a good online discussion in groups of twenty people or less, so if you have a class with a hundred students in it, you should break it up into five groups. In response, I asked, “Isn’t that five times as much work for the professor?” To which he suggested that faculty shouldn’t read everything that gets posted.

Try handing back graded papers with marks and no comments on them and your angry students will line up at your department chair’s door in a heartbeat. However, since online ed is the new Wild West, why not cut corners? When your once manageable discussion-based class gets scaled up fivefold online, it’s every professor for themselves.

Just because I have a cynical view of human nature doesn’t necessarily make me a Hobbesian. I think it makes me a realist. Just because some people are willing to show uncommon altruism when encountering the state of nature that is online ed doesn’t mean that the rest of humanity is going to behave as magnanimously as they are. After all, are you going to let your students take their online exams on the honor code? Oh, wait a second, lots of schools basically do.

I guess those online diploma mills and the people who want to turn fine bricks and mortar universities into online diploma mills are the people with the clubs in this state of nature. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that they’re all headed for my nice, warm cave and the rest of my tribe is practicing unilateral disarmament.



One response

11 07 2012

Not a forced pivot at all–I was already going there! The only tweak I’d offer for this excellent and (as always) thoughtful post is to add to the question addressed to contingent faculty “Do you have the time and (more importantly) the initiative to put this kind of care into your classes?” the phrase “or the institutional support.” And by “support” I mean both “access” and “PAY.”

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