Simpsons screenshot of the Simpsons family watching a tumbleweed roll by

Thanks to the folks who have been spreading the word about this newsletter (and thanks for subscribing, subscribers!). I am still figuring out the regular schedule for these missives so please bear with me on that front. But I did want to check in one more time this week beyond my initial navel-gazing post so folks get an idea of what to expect from this little project. Unfortunately it is also a holiday week and there are tumbleweeds rolling through my various feeds (in addition to the Twitter exodus and the rise of Threads and a bunch of other platforms some of us feel obligated to join and cross-pollinate until the new social media champions emerge). But I did find a few things to talk about before I put my laptop in a drawer for the weekend and hit the beach.

I am a regular reader of "On Teaching," a Chronicle of Higher Ed newsletter primarily authored by Beth McMurtrie. I'm impressed by the consistent high quality of her writing and by the community of educators she's cultivated via guest posts and the responses to questions she poses there.

That being said, I was a little reluctant to dig in to her latest installment, which offers a report on a recent conference hosted by the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE). As Beth notes, ACUE situates itself as a resource for "institutions [who] don't have the internal capacity" to support professional development via staffing or other resources. My current employer has previously worked with ACUE and may work with them again. As someone currently employed in a role where I provide professional development and "evidence-based teaching practices" to our teachers, I am naturally a little worried about administrators who might compare paying for ACUE to paying for, say, a team of instructional designers on a permanent basis.

I don't think the dynamic between ACUE and teaching centers needs to be inherently oppositional; in fact, their own website references collaborations with teaching centers already set up on campuses. But Beth is definitely right to note that at many institutions "it's hard to focus administrators' attention on teaching when so many other efforts demand their time." Statements like that may seem amusing to folks outside of higher ed, given the (in my opinions correct!) assumption that an institute of higher ed should probably prioritize the whole teaching thing. And ACUE is very good at disseminating their preferred narrative of impact via press releases, nice-looking PDFs, search engine optimization efforts, and email messaging.

Sometimes I do wonder about the perceptions of the data driving those narratives. For example, a 2022 press release notes that "ACUE partners can expect on average 1 percentage point increase in course completion rates," then goes on to note ("for perspective") that "if approximately all 16 million college students nationwide experienced high quality, evidence-based teaching, an additional 160,000 would successfully complete their courses and be more likely to persist into the next semester." That perspective does certainly paint ACUE in a rosier light (and I imagine that ACUE would love to be getting paid to support that many students!)! But I guess I want to scale things back down and focus on that one percentage point number. It's moving things in the right direction re: course completion, but is it really impressive enough to shift institutional funding to ACUE in lieu of developing and sustaining local institutional support resources?

Again, I am not suggesting that ACUE is in the business of putting folks like me out of business by choice or by design, but I do worry about administrative decisions made when resources are scarce. I do think that local faculty support could (and likely are) think about how to bring their work (and perhaps more specifically, the ways they talk about the impact of their work) into conversation with some of the rhetorical, design, and data-oriented strategies deployed by companies like ACUE.

At the end of Beth's reflections on this recent ACUE conference, Beth asks what it would take to value good teaching more and to measure what good teaching looks like. I was going to respond to those questions with a few bullet point remarks, but I think these questions get complicated quickly when we think about, for instance, how many institutions rely heavily on adjunct labor, how those instructors are onboarded and supported, how often those instructors take on large teaching loads and spend time worrying about the uncertain nature of future course assignments. Creating conditions of labor where an adjunct instructor did not have to worry as much about the precarious nature of their positions would be an obvious start. And the factors making this situation "complicated" are often a resistance to investing long-term in more permanent teaching positions with more realistic teaching loads. The question about measuring what good teaching looks like also gets tricky pretty quickly. A data-oriented approach to measuring good and effective teaching over time could also lead institutions to difficult questions about accountability and faculty autonomy, for instance. I think these are important threads to pull on, but I worry that many institutions will be quick to toss those tangled balls of yarn into a closet and hope for the best.

Creating conditions where instructors and faculty support collaborate to assess specific courses and programs is difficult work, especially when instructors may not be used to viewing faculty support as collaborators with their own data-driven expertise, research bona fides, and teaching backgrounds. At the same time, faculty support team members may need to remember the many directions that faculty members can be pulled in by an institution's expectations regarding publication, service, community engagement, student advising, additional course preps.

Over the course of this newsletter I'll try to think through and highlight generative work happening by faculty and faculty support within these conditions and constraints. For now I guess I'm worried about companies offering tidy solutions to the challenges we all face in higher ed.

OK, that was cheerful! Definitely not what I had planned to write this time around but clearly something struck a nerve there. Let's wrap this up with a few stray links and thoughts:

Pens and Pixels: Generative AI in Education is a virtual conference that will be running on Thursday, July 13th from 9am-3pm PST. Sponsored by UC-Irvine and the Spencer Foundation. I'll be popping in when I can during the day and I'll report back here if relevant. I've been holding off on AI conversations this week but there will definitely be some AI links and perspectives coming to this newsletter soon!

My friend Brandon Walsh recently wrote about the ways that The Scholars' Lab at UVA have been re-thinking its approaches to digital pedagogy. I really appreciate the candor here, as well as the perspectives on reimagining the roles that digital projects and pedagogy centered on technical skills play in program design.

Sara Weissman at Inside Higher Ed wrote this week about the demand for online courses at community colleges in the United States. In the California community college system "A 2021 system survey of 400 prospective students found that more than half of respondents favored hybrid courses, 27 percent wanted all-online instruction and 18 percent preferred in-person classes, according to a report from the system chancellor’s office." I'm personally excited about these trends, though I'm curious to see how universities respond in terms of effective course design, staffing (instructors and faculty support), and in terms of acknowledging that student interest in online courses may run counter to longstanding assumptions about in-person learning (as well as the economics tied to investments in those modalities).

“I find myself having to be defensive about the work that I’m doing and be very clear about the fact that even though I’m using computation, I’m not trying to produce things that put poets out of a job.”Joanne McNeil wrote about Allison Parrish's poetry and large language models (LLMs) over at Filmmaker.

I absolutely loved reading Patricia Lockwood's thoughts on David Foster Wallace. I wrote a bit about Lockwood's poetry in my dissertation and really enjoyed her last two books (Priestdaddy and No One Is Talking About This) so I am probably biased. I also presented a paper at a DFW conference a few years back on reading Infinite Jest on a Kindle and the audience reaction was...not great lol. I still really like that piece though.

OK, that's all for this week! I'm going to listen to the latest Doughboys podcast at the gym (which I saw live in Medford!), eat a Jersey Mike's sub in my car and immediately erase all the gains I made at the gym, and then ease my way into a relaxing weekend of beach times and park times (with the Glitter Boys, no less!)

Thanks for reading! Feel free to check in via Twitter while it still lasts (or Mastodon), or you can email me: jimmcgrath[dot]us[at]gmail[dotcom]. You can also learn more about my interests and work on my website.

UHK #1: The Costs of Outsourcing Faculty Support