Thinking Critically about Scholarship, Teaching and Learning

city-of-charlotte

Downtown Charlotte, NC, on the morning of the UNC Charlotte-Kingston University London Critical Thinking Symposium, October 2016.

I have been recently following the #edu16 Educause tweets, and the responses to the recent NMC report on digital literacy.  The rhetoric coming from Educause (excepting the talk given by Chris Bourg, of course) and contained within the NMC report seemed very much the sort of thing I (not alone, of course) have argued against in the past–a model of teaching and learning and technology that focuses on problems to be solved, and solutions that can be purchased.

I have been more fortunate, in the last month, to have had the opportunity to attend two different events that have challenged me in very different ways to think about the outside-of-academia forces that shape the ways we approach teaching, learning, and research.  

At Triangle SCI we worked in teams across a range of scholarly communication challenges

  • the need for the integration of Global South scholars and scholarship into conversations and processes that continue to be dominated by the more resource-rich Global North
  • the desire to provide a solution for scholars to make their web presence, network of colleagues, and scholarly content connected and visible independent of commercial platforms  
  • to move away from the quantified scholarly self and towards a set of values that are more humane, less gamified, more oriented towards living a good scholarly life
  • to provide structures for small scholarly societies to persist and serve their communities
  • to get a handle on and move towards solutions for the range of issues that arise with digital editions

A persistent theme that emerged from all of the teams (more details on each challenge can be found here) was the need for collective action, for consolidated work that is accountable to many parties, for solutions generated from consortia and groups rather than handed to us by commercial products, and an underlying feeling that we must be in control of our own destiny, not swept along by the “solutions” being handed to us.

A consistent worry was the pressures of assessment, of tenure and review processes, of accreditation that push scholars and their universities towards assuming that measuring scholarship, quantifying impact, are the right things to do to demonstrate value.  These pressures come from political pressure, from skepticism about the worth of universities, increasingly framed with language such as “Return on Investment.”  Our search for solutions was in part a reaction to these pressures, and attempt to take back the rhetoric around scholarship so that it is not reduced to an economic model of value, but that retains and expands our notion of worth to include human, collective, unquantifiable (dare I say qualitative) values.  We as a room were pushing back against the quantified scholar, the transactional university, the techno-solutionism that reduces teaching, learning, and research to problems to be solved.

And then I attended the UNC Charlotte-Kingston University London Critical Thinking Symposium, where we spent an earnest two days talking about, collectively defining, and thinking about the role that our teaching and learning practices do or don’t facilitate critical thinking, and how important it is to effective scholarship and citizenship.  The 200 or so people attending the symposium were a mix of interested parties from across the Carolinas, from academic departments, assessment offices, centers for teaching and learning, libraries, administration, writing centers, and even some vendors.  And in our conversations, it was clear that we were trying to revive and recenter the values of a liberal arts education, we were trying to both respond to and counter the “employability” narrative that reduces education to a professional qualification.

The thing is, in that room, we were having earnest conversations about teaching and learning and citizenship and the crucial role critical thinking has to play.  But outside of the room, the conversations around the buzz-phrase “critical thinking” aren’t coming from any of those concerns, but rather from a desire to control and constrain the academy, and universities in particular.

All of these conversations are taking place in a larger context (#anthropology #drink) of suspicion of universities and the role they play.  The call for “standardized tests for critical thinking” don’t actually come from a concern for that capacity, they come from a place of surveillance and suspicion.  This is assessment as controlling process.

There are so many tools and platforms to facilitate that paradigm of education, one overdetermined by quantification and technology.  The collective critique by Audrey Watters of not just edtech but of the ways education is approached regardless of technology is instructive here.

I am thinking aloud about all of these things because of this recent post from Jisc by Lawrie Phipps, asking for feedback about “next generation learning environments.”  So I have some hopes and fears for this

My fears are that “nextgen learning environments” will be amplifications of all that is problematic in current platforms and systems that take as their assumptions the closed, controlled, quantified, content-based education that many see in now-traditional VLE/CMSes. That the desire to control the academy will result in more reification of silos, more ways to measure, more attention to buckets of content.   That the result will be to remove more people from the workflows of teaching and learning, and leave more work for the algorithms to do.

My hopes are that this is an opportunity to de-center platforms, and to re-imagine teaching and learning around the values of scholarship that we discussed at length at TriangleSCI, and were earnestly trying to get at during the Critical Thinking Symposium.  That is be a way to enact and make visible the networked human processes of scholarship.  That it be a way to fight the reduction of academia to a factory for publications and “employable” students.   A way to have more humanity, and more and more varied kinds of humans, participating in and producing  scholarship.  That this can be another chance for us to direct more of the conversations around teaching and learning and scholarship, rather than simply react to these persistent outside forces.

Do you share the same hopes and fears?  Do you have different ones?  Then I will suggest you go tell him your thoughts – go tell Lawrie, and Jisc, what we need to be built, and what not to build, what is important, and what is a distraction.

Please.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Critically about Scholarship, Teaching and Learning

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  2. Cindy Jennings

    I’ve scanned this several times now, read it deeply twice. I am still digesting – and struggling to articulate all the “thinks” it is evoking for me. I am going to take a stab at a few of them (acknowledging that some of this is from my own very personal and not-necessarily-evidence-based other than my own anecdotal experience as I am not a researcher, don’t have a body of work to point to as grounding).
    First, I fear that any focus on tools/systems/solutions – and they are after all just that – tools – misses the point entirely. I have taken to telling folks a lot lately that the most important technology tool they will ever use is the one they see when they look in the mirror. Thus, the emphasis needs to be on THE PERSONS involved in the teaching encounter….not on the tools, or the content even.
    Second, to get to a point where the persons are the focus, well they ‘gotta wanna’. There has to be some sort of desire present. I’m not sure how to articulate this really. It’s like my own weight loss attempts over my life time. I can expose myself to all the diets and programs and trendy plans out there, but if I don’t have my head in the right place….nothing will happen. In the case if things like open education – there is to be a desire first – a generous spirit that desires the connection the sharing with enable. The head is first. So, if faculty (and students/learners) don’t come to this place we call an educational encounter with THEIR heads in the right place…nothing happens. We need to work harder on heads, rather than tools.
    Third, I see people over and over see a cool thing: tool, piece of tech, classroom set up, etc…and they jump to that and back into some sort of rough connection. This is not always a wrong way to start….but I’d rather they think first (there’s that head thing again) about why. Why is this thing compelling? Why explore it, try it, experiment with it? Is there a good fit with what you already know about yourself as teacher and your students as learners? Do the head work first…..then move to the ‘solutions’.
    I need to write the more fully, and with links to other folks who say things about the head work I mean. I’ll let this suffice for now just to throw these thoughts into the early mix.
    Thanks for this provocation! 😉

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