An Unhealthy Learning Environment

Technology and social media impact the professor’s and the student’s confidence in freely articulating unpopular positions; activist Jacobins, on the look-out for anything, intentional or not, to take offense at, impede dialectic for instructors and students. The role of at-will Adjunct Instructors also makes likely self-censored, overly timid and accommodating, teaching. Inevitably, these factors affect chosen teaching strategies and the social dynamic of our classrooms–for the worse, interpersonally and intellectually. Here, I mainly just highlight this growing toxicity for students’ and teachers’ academic freedom, leaving possible solutions up for debate (of the open, honest, rigorous kind). Not clearing this academic smog relegates spirited and challenging debate for the barroom or coffee shop or religious social, leaving the classroom for walking on eggshells in an echo-chamber, wearing kidskin gloves, speaking in measured and hushed tones–a “safe-zone” in the worst sense of the word.

Gadgets of Surveillance

As a not-so-tech-savvy man in his 50s, far behind the sophistication of my students raised on social media and the smartphone, I do, nonetheless, have an intimidating surveillance capability. My watch controls my phone, recording audio and turning audio into text. The USB thumb-drive I carry in my pocket audio records files in WAV, picking up any conversation in a large room; my laptop does the same, even when it’s closed. My glasses aren’t fitted with a micro video recorder, activated by a deliberate blink, but this gadget, too, is available. Understandably, for quality control, some colleges listen in on the classroom from the speakerphone. As an FBI director stated in a Senate hearing, Americans have no reasonable expectation of not being electronically monitored in public. We’re aware that, if we speed or run a light, we might open our mail a few days later to find a traffic ticket. We are a surveillance nation. Our awareness of this fact affects how we communicate with one another. This is true, of course, for the classroom, for teachers and students. While we can’t change this, perhaps we can adopt helpful strategies in preventing this reality from stifling open communication.  

   Video to social media

How long might it take, after one has been video or audio recorded, for that file to be available on a variety of social media? One minute? Haven’t we all participated in some social event, even in our homes, and find that our singing “Happy Birthday” is, a few minutes later, getting Likes on Facebook? This can be fun, expanding the celebration. It might not feel so fun, though, as a student or instructor who finds that only one side of one’s presentation on a controversial topic is now irretrievably making its rounds on Minds.com or Gab.

   Using social media/messaging/texting for generating dissent    

Secret surveillance has been used for the good, in many high-profile cases. Had not David Daleiden recorded Planned Parenthood selling body parts of the aborted, who’d have known? Antifa communists and anarchists destroy reporter’s cameras; they don’t want their vigilante destruction of private property and assault recorded and uploaded. Students or teachers have been recorded in the classroom beating another student or teacher. This capability uncovers injustice. It can be used for injustice as easily, though. Flash mobs form by using social media tools, organizing shoplifters into an effective hive. Reputations are quickly destroyed by lies and innuendo. Bots generate pre-fab comments on a plethora of internet sites and social media, only appearing to be persons, deceitfully affecting public opinion. Any group of individuals can create a group message/email/text, with each member able to read and respond to it, allowing plans for action quickly to form. I show my students this capability in our course content delivery system, Blackboard, requiring them to email and to reply to each other, to individuals and to groups; collaborative learning is enjoyable and effective. The closest my generation came this organizational capability, in college, was passing notes under the table and catching peers in the hall after class. This power can be intimidating. Don’t even rationally and politely counter anyone, fearing they might harness such power against you. Whatever is conventional and safe is prudent–not conducive to creative thought, though.

Live Surveillance

   Reporters in the classroom

Twice, I’ve discovered by the end of the semester that a student in my class works for the college newspaper. Both times, I was delighted, having formed healthy working relationships with them. This practice isn’t without its effect on the instructor and on the student, though; for the good, those in the classroom are more likely to be circumspect, civil, self-aware; for ill, people self-censor, stifling spontaneous, honest communication. Who wants to show up in a newspaper article? What if we all decide to act as reporters in the classroom, on behalf of our club or other affiliation?

   Club member look-outs sent by activist leaders and professors

Isn’t it good for clubs to form and to protect their interests? Shouldn’t interested faculty and staff support student clubs that interest them? It’s good, and they should. When a club adopts a “by any means necessary” or “the end justifies the means” activist ethic, as practically all Leftist organizations do, though, injustice, in the name of social justice, is the inevitable result. If professors and clubs radicalize students, turning them loose on unsuspecting peers and instructors, a climate of fear and intimidation ensues. This stifles any hope of a Socratic dialogue in the classroom, fostering an echo-chamber, instead. No teacher or student wants to challenge the view of a gang member. Why risk the vehement, emotional, ad hominem attacks? Who wants to be called a Nazi, a Fascist, a bigot, a hater, a deplorable? This list of disparagement goes on and on. Better just to be silent–not better for fostering a thought-provoking class, though.  

   Anonymous student evaluations

Revealing the lack of civility generated by the anonymity of social media has been reported on extensively. People treat others in ways they wouldn’t if face to face. This applies no less for anonymous student evaluations. Notice, we don’t hold such evaluations at the end of the semester or academic year for instructors to write on their department chairs. Am I suggesting that some students use this venue for character assassination, placing the instructor’s job in jeopardy? Yes. Vindictiveness, for a wide variety of reasons, is as old as Cain and Abel, and as common as snow, if not in Michigan, then in Ohio. What instructor wants to have to defend himself against an anonymous claim, possibly by an offended student? With heightened sensitivity among Americans the last few years, one can feel she’s walking through a minefield. Use the wrong pronoun with someone and you might have heill to pay! Again, this helps ensure hyper-cautious communication, not so much civil as impersonal–bad form, if minds sharpening minds is the goal.

Ramifications of a misstep

Even when an accusation doesn’t lead to job termination, it does lead, understandably, to administrators needing to look into the poor evaluation; that’s an important administrative duty. Investigating the import of an anonymous comment, though, seems like reading tea-leaves, and takes up much time and energy for both administration and instructor. The instructor is placed in the upside down position of having to prove her innocence. Why not play it extremely safe in the classroom, then? Don’t play the devil’s advocate in any debate, no matter how effective that might be in sharpening minds. Don’t expose students to content not fitting the going narrative. Take your cue from popular culture and from your students or peers; preach to the choir, it’s what they like to hear–however unfortunate for expanding students’ intellectual horizons.

Hate-speech, triggers, micro-aggression

Jonathan Haidt, Janice Fiamengo, Gad Saad, “The Rubin Report,” and Jordan Peterson, among many other YouTube and main-stream-media educational commentators, have covered these terms in detail. Generally speaking, Millenial Leftists, the Regressive Left, have been taught to believe that speech they don’t like, speech that counters their beliefs, is hateful and violent, and thus, must be shut down, even by violence if necessary. The customer isn’t always right. Let’s not pretend that segments of our population don’t support domestic terrorist ideologies of one flavor or the other. College presidents who have catered to these type of groups over the last few years have seen great losses in their enrollments and endowments, Missouri State University, for example. Allowing students to form mobs, wear masks, and shut down campus events that they disagree with is bad for business, bad for character formation, bad for the mind, and bad for society–enough already. Rather, perhaps colleges should actively pursue guest speakers from an array of reasonable viewpoints, for enhancing character, mind, and society. Or is it true that anyone supporting a policy proposal by President Trump, for example, is a racist, sexist, homophobe, transphobe…? Accepting sloganeering and cliches in place of arguments do our students a terrible disservice–malpractice!  Enough with word-police, right-think, mob rule, Cultural Marxism.

The adjunct’s job security

   At-will employees

Adjunct instructors know they can be let go after a semester, with no reason given; common termination procedures don’t apply. Why take any creative risks? Creativity and innovation are not possible apart from risk. This laissez-faire capitalist approach didn’t survive the Industrial Age, except in the academy. Odd, given that academics generally think themselves to be progressive, liberal, socialist. The mentality this helps foster in adjuncts, who teach nearly half of the courses in many colleges, degrades the quality of education.  

   New, less expensive adjuncts

Colleges seek to save money, to lower tuition costs for students; this is responsible management. Once an adjunct has been teaching over ten years, though, one realized the pay one receives is about 35% higher than what a new adjunct instructor gets paid. Before long, one observes the college hiring many new adjuncts in most departments and does the math–not that he didn’t already feel fully expendable, as an at-will employee, not being privy to department meetings where his performance and upcoming class availability are discussed. This, too, chips away at the quality of education. Rather than giving courses to proven adjunct instructors, to those who have taken dozens of pedagogy training seminars and who have taught over a hundred courses, a variety of them, why not keep a steady supply of inexperienced and less trained adjunct instructors? While this cuts costs, it’s not in the students’ interest. In this vein, why not pay the instructor minimum wage simply to walk students through a fully pre-packaged set of online assignments, strictly facilitating? This automation method worked nicely for Henry Ford, but we’re not cranking out cars here.

   The Chair is in the union

Adjuncts of the world unite! Instructor solidarity! Not so fast! To whom might an adjunct address the concerns we’ve been considering? One’s chair is a member of the faculty union, so don’t bother starting there. The adjunct union representative is afraid for her own prospects of receiving enough classes the next semester, so leave that option alone. The union supports the full-time faculty, primarily; it wouldn’t be much help. An adjunct has nowhere to turn, with no sense of security in addressing one’s concerns, though I have always freely spoken with my Assistant Dean. (I’m speaking up here, just for holding on to my self-respect–something precious and easily lost in this environment.)

 

As a long-time Adjunct, you’ve likely taken teaching seminars on: Online Teaching, Using Poll-Tracking Tools in the Classroom, Academic Service Learning, Setting Tables Into Groups for Collaborative Learning, Using Blackboard Tools (Wiki for group papers, podcasting select audio readings, using Rely Screencast for posting instructions)….Fantastic new methods and tools, promoted by the Teaching Excellence Department–eager and ready to try anything that might help students learn! Watch it! Is your department on board with any of this? Give it a try at your own peril. At best, one’s chair might simply say, “delete everything off of your Blackboard, keep the tables in rows, drop ASL, and teach strictly from the textbook.” Worse, you hear nothing, and won’t, given that you’re exempt from department meetings–one simply finds that fewer, or no, classes are being offered to teach next semester.

Teaching Strategies

Knowing that you’re likely being audio or video recorded and have official or unofficial informants in the classroom, how might this affect teaching strategies?  With all we’ve considered so far, is it any wonder any instructor or professor likely teaches with great timidity, always holding a moist finger to the breeze? Rather than risking lecturing at all, why not divvy up the textbook readings among groups of students, having them discuss their section, privately writing on their understanding of the material and on their views, and reporting to the class for a general discussion–minimally directing that discussion, avoiding countering any views (which could result in hurt feelings and charges of micro-aggressions/violence). Comment, on most views, “that’s interesting,” and move on. Of course, with students also not wishing to speak, having been enculturated to walk the halls with headphones on while staring down at their phones, this results in a pretty dull class.  

Student fears

   Students, too, might have a video posted on the web.

Much of what we’ve considered so far applies equally to students. They, too, have academic freedom that we must vigilantly protect. Students stunt their development in keeping silent, in not engaging in dialogue and debate, which they do in an environment that doesn’t foster freedom. Given their increased screen time, fostering beneficial face to face interaction is especially needed. It’s necessary then to set the right atmosphere for our First Amendment–that doesn’t apply only to a campus designated “Free Speech Zone”!

   Notes placed on student transcripts

Students are aware that, after any class session, the instructor might post comments on one’s college transcript, regarding academic or social performance.

What if my instructor suspects I’m a member of a hate-group/militia, for having supported the Second Amendment, or for arguing against abortion or open borders? The vast majority of professors, after all, vote Democrat. What if a peer reports me to the authorities through some anonymous dropbox? Just earn my grade. Don’t speak up unless it’s for the politically approved view.

It’s easy to dismiss this sentiment as paranoia; perhaps, though, it helps explain why professors increasingly complain about the difficulty in maintaining a thoughtful class discussion, with many students participating.

The instructor must create this “safe-space” for students from each other. If one holding a minority viewpoint feels intimidated by the crowd, she won’t speak up. Say a student’s ethic is unsound; if it’s not expressed, it won’t be evaluated–perhaps eventually expressing itself in violence rather than orally. A university’s emphasis on tolerance and diversity rarely emphasizes the type most needed, that concerning philosophy and ethics.

What to do?

  • Forbidding laptops, smartphones, and recording devices, or installing signal jammers in the classroom isn’t practical (or legal?). Students and professors must face the intimidating fact that anything they say, anywhere, anytime, can almost instantly go viral on the web. This is our new world, brave or not.
  • Any disgruntled or nefarious group, using instant messaging or social media, almost instantly can mobilize a mob. Choose your words carefully.
  • Newspaper reporters, club-member look-outs, activists, all are students needing a quality education, same as anyone. Understanding that there quite possibly are people around you eager to pounce, silence, ridicule, is to be forwarned and forearmed.  Prudence.
  • Anonymous teacher evaluations are necessary for administrators to receive needed feedback. Without being anonymous, students would fear future retaliation and with-hold honestly evaluating. While this is sometimes abused, administrators know to look for patterns, not taking a stark outlier too seriously; at least that’s normally been my experience. If you’re not so fortunate with your administrators–good luck!  
  • The Regressive Left militancy against free speech, against the academic freedom of instructors and students, employing “repressive tolerance,” “micro-agressions,” “hate-speech,” and other forms of bullying and ad hominem attacks must be countered. Universities have a clear option: go the way of The University of Chicago, clearly defending the open pursuit of truth or further erode a reputation for fair-minded and rigorous education. Choose the latter and change your name: “The University of Indoctrination,” “Harper Communist College.” Even without the name change, that will be the earned reputation–not good for enrollment. Young men, especially, are increasingly opting out of college.
  • Concerning the Adjunct plight: it’s been active for decades and it’s only increasing. Only outside influence, perhaps from the State Legislature or from Congress, Senators and Representatives not beholden to the union or to administration, might this change, for the benefit of Adjuncts and their students.
  • Teaching strategies will inevitably favor small group work, minimizing lecturing, for better or worse. Given recording hardware, social media, and a public that’s increasingly looking to be offended, professor and student speech must be increasingly guarded. Challenging views, even just for the sake of argument, is risky; hence, minimum lecturing or probing class discussion. Students feel more comfortable answering questions and discussing textbook passages in small groups. The instructor is a facilitator, organizing these groups and answering any objective questions students have. Grading, too, should be most objective. Students need to know they’re being graded fairly, not based on the instructor’s ideology or whim. I help instill this reassurance by having my students post all their work to Discussion Board, and interacting with each other’s work. I mostly grade by completion. They know, as I tell them, that if my grading ever is partial, holding me responsible for that is simple. If their work is acceptable, showing a good-faith effort in understanding and arguing, writing well mechanically and stylistically, and following the assignment instructions, they’ll receive a 100%. Without student confidence, how is one to hold an honest and challenging conversation?

Concluding

I write this in the hopes of bettering our learning environments. Grumbling about my status as an adjunct instructor isn’t the point. I much enjoy communicating with present and former Department Chairs, Assistant Deans, Deans, Provosts, and Presidents, and with my peers, professionally and personally. Similarly, with the vast majority of my students. Academic freedom for instructors and for students is essential for developing minds and hearts. This has been my intent here, airing out the climate of fear, bringing back the scent of free enquiry. Vigilance in this endeavor always is needed and worth the fight.

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