Flipping the classroom

My college is talking about “flipping the classroom” and “blended learning” so I went on wikipedia to find out what they were.  Basically the idea is for a professor put his lectures on video so that the students can watch them before class, reserving classroom time for seminar discussions.  Or, as a second stage (except that for many of the people hyping the project this is the first stage, and the whole point) for a school to purchase a set of standardized video lectures which the student can watch before class, again reserving the classroom for seminar discussions.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Video lectures are the equivalent of a textbook.  In disciplines that use textbooks, I can’t see much objection to an on-line textbook as opposed to a hardback textbook.  My guess is that learning the material would take more time, since the video has to be played in real time while a textbook can be read quickly.  But I can see video demonstrations as useful.

2. Video lectures are not the equivalent of a classroom lecture.  The wikipedia article says that flipping the classroom will mean that “a teacher can spend more time interacting with students instead of lecturing.”  This betrays a misunderstanding.  Lecturing live, in the flesh, even to a large class, is already interacting with students.  Think of the difference between theatre and cinema.

3. Much of the hype about this silly project mentions the Kahn Academy, which sells a video textbook on high school math.  When I took high school math, we used a hardback textbook.  Again, I have no problem with one substituting for the other, but neither is an adequate substitute for a good lecture.  My high school math teacher explained how to do a problem while doing it on the board, with supplementary reference to the history of math, to how it fit with other kinds of problems we had learned, to her husband, bridge, and golf.  We had a friendship with her, and that friendship helped us in our initial comprehension of the ideas she was trying to convey.

4. The project has no relevance to those disciplines where textbooks are not in common use, for instance my discipline.  I assign Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem.  I do not, on top of this, assign the relevant chapter in Norbert Samuelson’s History of Modern Jewish Philosophy, nor do I assign a tape from one of the several Open University courses on modern Jewish philosophy, nor would I ever assign a video of me or anyone else lecturing on the material.  I want the students to work through the primary source without help, to make what they can of it.  I want this both because I want them to learn to read philosophy and because I want each one to light on and ponder the parts of the text that are relevant to the synthetic, critical understanding he is building, not merely to buy into someone’s overarching narrative.  A textbook would flatten our subsequent discussion, and a video textbook all the more so, because of the persuasive authority inherent to that medium.

5. The buzzwords attached to this project, not just “flipping the classroom” and “blended learning” but also “backwards classroom,” “reverse instruction,” and “reverse teaching” are laughable.  Those sound like cool concepts.  What they sound like is my learning from my students at the same time as they learn from me, and us all having a philosophical epiphany as we thrash through some difficult material.  What they don’t sound like is what they actually mean:  my assigning a video textbook instead of lecturing.

6. Some things are meant to be watched.  I feel sure our classroom conversations could be deepened by all my students having watched The Wire, not to mention Sassy Gay Friend.  I also have no objections to their finding youtube footage of Derrida or etc.  Lectures, though, are not meant to watched;  they are meant to be experienced.


These comments deal with the situation in my small liberal arts college.  The project would play out differently in the broader setting of the university.  It’s a push toward standardization of thought, and toward the elimination of the professorate;  also it brings all the money there is to be made (which will be less and less, in the case of the increasing success of such initiatives) to a few centres manned by experts in technology.

Grade inflation, and academic incivility (Gill #2)

Earlier this year, I attended a production of 42nd Street at Stratford. It was a satisfactory production, though hardly earth-shaking, but the audience gave it standing ovation. And it was at this point that I realized I had to stop worrying about grade inflation.

What I realized, sitting there in the theatre, was that grade inflation isn’t just an academic problem. It’s a social problem. I don’t want to say that North American society as whole has abdicated its power to judge anything as average or mediocre, but I do want to say that a whole lot of segments of society have: we (whoever “we” are, but bear with me) just don’t ever give anything a B anymore, whether it’s a theatre piece (yay! Bravo! Bravissimo! the best!) or a student essay (good work! A!). It isn’t as if we’re deceived either. I mean, the Stratford audience knew that that production was just pretty good; their ovation was half-hearted and it didn’t last long. And academics know that some of our A’s are, shall we say, A’s of lesser quality. But we can’t not stand up for the show, and we can’t say B.

There are good reasons for this, and they are well known. The push toward critical reflection has made us unsure of our standards. The drive to listen, to be changed by others, to consider different points of view — this makes it awfully hard to pinpoint some views as inferior. In short, it’s hard to be nonjudgmental and to judge at the same time. This is not the place to go on about these matters, though, because I want to say something else.

Taking up one of the themes from my last post, I’m thinking that this nonjudgmental quality, this restraint, might provide another reason academics are so uncivil about one another’s work when sheltered by anonymity. Maybe what’s coming out when we blind review each other with comments like “this is a piece of crap” is the suppressed desire to judge something, anything: we can’t give our students the B’s they deserve but we can damn well give our colleagues a D- or an F. “This is a piece of crap,” should therefore be read as saying: “it’s true I don’t apply any real standards in the classroom, but god dammit I still have them, so my field of study continues to have integrity!”

Of course academics have always exaggerated their petty disputes: the narcissism of small differences has characterized the academy for centuries. We’re all used to back-stabbing and we’ve all been back-stabbed. But still, the nastiness of the new style of peer-review might well be a backlash against our own uncertainty.

And so our internecine hostility grows — so much so that we will never come together against today’s real threat: anti-intellectualism. It is anti-intellectualism, rapidly spreading and intensifying in bitterness, that is behind the accountability culture that seeks to drown us in overwork. We all resent it. We all know that it is we who ought to be in a position to judge: we are the thinkers, we are the judges, we are the people who reflect and compare, we invented the goddam standards! — and it drives us crazy that we are being subjected to treatment we should be meting out. But we collaborate: because our ability to reflect has taken us to a point where we are no longer sure of our own standards and therefore in no position to judge others, and, even more, because we can use the accountability culture to fuel our petty grudges against one another and further our struggle for tiny gains in hallucinatory power.

Internalized oppression in the academy (Gill#1)

I’ve just read a piece by Rosalind Gill of King’s College, London trying to describe something I’ve also been trying to describe for years: the pressures of contemporary academic existence. When I talk about it I usually start by laughing at how we continue to speak of the tension between research and teaching while our daily practice has increasingly nothing to do with either, but instead involves us in middle management roles that come sometimes under the heading of “faculty governance” and sometimes under the heading of “accountability” and mostly in any case just involve writing emails, and answering emails, and filling out surveys, and building websites, and making excel files, and checking other people’s excel files, and attending meetings from which we emerge with more emails to write. My personal approach to email has become almost entirely whack-a-mole. If I see it when I have a minute I’ll bang off an answer, but if it slips away it might as well be gone forever, since every time I sit down at my screen there are 30 more waiting to be dealt with. While I wouldn’t go so far as to describe my situation with the words “a punishing intensification of work,” or “a profession overloaded to breaking point,” I know what Gill is talking about. I rarely read any more, let alone think.

Where Gill is particularly good is in the sense she provides of our acceptance of the new normal, acceptance and collaboration. We recognize that we’re overworked, sure, but we don’t question the sources of the pressure, for instance the bizarrely augmented demand for accountability (or what they call in Britain “audit culture”) which, there as here, was “once treated with scepticism,” but “has now been almost perfectly internalized.” Nor do we raise questions about whether the “’freedom’, ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of [the academic job] has proved far more effective for extracting ‘surplus value’ or at least vastly more time spent working, than any older modalities of power.” These are just two of several directions that could be followed up if one wanted seriously to consider how and why we work ourselves to bone, putting up so little resistance to these new demands.

There are a couple of other things Gill doesn’t mention that might augment an account of why we don’t resist. One, not just an academic problem, is the proliferation of distractions, for instance what are technically known as “stupid games” (on which subject see this excellent article). Academics don’t play Angry Birds more than anyone else, but they do play, and they play for the same reasons the rest of the world plays: not to avoid work, but to avoid the guilt that would otherwise fill the hours in which they find themselves unable to work, guilt which, if indulged in, reflected on, and criticized, might lead eventually a desire to change our conditions and those of others. Distraction can’t help but dampen resistance.

Also relevant to the question of collaboration is Gill’s discussion of how peer reviewing has become so much less civil in recent years. “When,” she wonders “did it become acceptable to write of a colleague’s work ‘this is self-indulgent crap’ or ‘put this manuscript in a drawer and don’t ever bother to come back to it’ — both comments I have read in the last year on colleagues’ work.” She suggests two analyses: “repressed rage bursting out as an attack against someone who is not the cause of it” and “[peer reviewing] as one of the few sites where academics may feel that they can exercise some power — thus they ‘let rip,’ occasionally cruelly, under the cloak of guaranteed anonymity.”

It’s related to the question of collaboration because for sure we’re never going to gang up on the masters if we keep tearing away at each other. But it’s still unclear why we’ve taken to doing so. I’m going to take a stab at this in the next post.

Students speak

The two student speeches at graduation yesterday were structured loosely around the usual themes:  how nice life had been at college, how scary it was to be leaving, and how the members of the graduating class should forge ahead and make their mark on the world.  Given the content of the speeches, though, it is entirely mysterious how this mark is to be made, as for all one could gather they might have spent the last four years at summer camp.  Memories of drinking featured prominently, as did sex:  the first speaker mentioned her bikini wax in the course of a list of “firsts,” and the second speaker opened with a joke about how he too was going to speak of her bikini wax, with apologies to her boyfriend.  (Likely it was this that prompted Eila’s third grade teacher, who had attended the ceremony to see her student helper graduate, to ask me whether I found the speeches “inappropriate.”  The word vulgar is no longer in common use.)  Neither of them said anything about politics;  neither took a stand in any way on any topic whatever.  And neither mentioned a class, or a professor, or a book, or an idea.

Part of what accounts for this might be the college’s focus on we used to call extra-curricular education and now call co-curricular education.  One could imagine two reasons for changing the term from extra- to co-, the first being to emphasise the interplay between the two, such that ideas in the classroom were discussed and tested on the playing fields, in public debates and lectures, and over beer — and vice versa, with the things they were thinking and experiencing outside the classroom brought up in seminars where they might be reflected on and challenged.  But I think the actual reason is simply to imply that what they do outside the class is of equal importance to what they do inside.  Which is a short step to more important, or all-important, and in any case severs what should be a meaningful tie.

As I listened to the students speak, I cast my eyes over the list of prize winners at the back of the programme.  It was a heartening list.  I know these students.  Many of them have taken my classes.  They are fabulous, smart people.  All of them, any one of them, would have given a very different kind of speech.  So how are the valedictorians chosen?  And could we change the way?

Secular Studies at Pitzer

Pitzer College has a new program in Secular Studies.  The courses listed in the catalogue to date are:  Sociology of Religion;  Secularism, Skepticism and Critiques of Religion;  Seeking Human Nature: The History and Science of Innateness;  Explorations in Deep Time;  Anxiety in the Age of Reason;  Introduction to Knowledge, Mind and Existence;  Monkey Business: Controversies in Human Evolution;  and History of Science.

I applaud these courses, all of which strike me as rich.  I wonder, however, whether, insofar as these classes deal with secular movements in thought or politics, they might not more naturally be taught under the auspices of my department, the Department of Religious Studies.  Secularism is, by definition, a counter-movement to religion, and thus would seem to fall under our umbrella.  And when I think of potential majors in such a program, it seems to me that the broader study of RS could give them some important historical context.  After all, a student majoring in Secular Studies should have a solid understanding of what the secularists define themselves against.

Of course there might be good reason for an independent Secular Studies program, namely if the Department of Religious Studies at the institution in question were theological, teaching religion instead of studying it.  But I can’t think of an RS department, outside of those in Christian colleges, where that’s true, and it certainly isn’t true of our department.  Meanwhile I worry that the existence of a program in Secular Studies will make students think that it is.  Even the most reasonable student might be led to conclude, from the existence of the two programs, that we are pushing religion and they are not.

I expressed this concern in an article in the student paper.  In the same piece, one of the founders of the Secular Studies program is quoted saying that “ Religious Studies isn’t necessarily trying to win converts to religion.”  These words caused an absolute furor in one of my classes.  “Not necessarily!  How dare they?”  This was the unanimous sentiment of the class, who explained to me that they are already misunderstood by friends and parents who expect them to go on to graduate work in seminaries, with an eye to the ministry.

I’m not sure if any action would be worthwhile at this point.  But it did occur to me to lobby Secular Studies to cross-list all our courses, in return for which we would cross-list all of theirs.  That way students could take the program, and call it Religious Studies or Secular Studies as they pleased.

The nature of things

My rental car astonishes me.  The doors lock by themselves when I pull out of the driveway, the windows come back up washed, the radio tells me what’s playing.  I finally get the jokes people were making ten years ago about cars that would make you breakfast.

I’m sure it’s been suggested before, but why doesn’t Toyota produce a car called the Retro?  It would look like today’s cars, and have all the features that are actually useful (I feel sure there must be some) but it wouldn’t do the things my rental does.  Because I can lock my own doors.  And I don’t want my radio to flash ANTONIO… VIVALDI…, since one of the pleasures of listening to KUSC is to test my knowledge of classical music.  Above all I want manually operated windows in case I drive into a canal and my electrical circuits stop working.

Another news item on the Welcome to the Twenty-First Century front.  My alma mater has subscribed to a program called Grammarly which promises to be able to check students’ writing better than their own computers, the advantage presumably being that it pops up a short grammar lesson every time it identifies a mistake (see? so it claims to be educating as it corrects, as if any student is going to read all that mush, come on).  But now get this.  One of the first sentences in the demo is, “The emphasis on nature, the supernatural, and superstitions were all part of Irving’s works.”  And Grammarly suggests changing “nature” to “the nature.”  Haw!

Check it!  See how many errors you can spot.  It’s quite fun.

Back to basics

I want my life back.  I have to get to the gym, and I have to blog.  By way of catching up, I’ll describe something that’s been bothering me all year:  Eila’s schooling has been abysmal.

Last year, when she was in first grade, the teacher tested all the kids to diagnose their levels and taught them accordingly.  This meant that Eila was mostly doing second grade math and that her spelling words were things like “eclipse” and “gravity.”  This year the teacher also did diagnostic testing but seems to have ignored the results, explaining to me when I asked for harder work that she’s a “believer in drilling the basics.”  This means that Eila is re-doing math she mastered more than a year ago and that her spelling words include “to,” “an,” and “for.”  I have trouble getting to her to do homework, as she’s lost all respect for assignments, in class and out.

Eila’s class is a one/two split, which means it includes both first and second graders — and there happen to be 17 first graders to 8 second graders.  So I can see why the teacher might be focused on easy material.  But split-level classes are one of the things this school is famous for, and they are supposed to ensure that a teacher doesn’t follow the curriculum by rote but instead finds the students’ levels.  The policy of the school is that in a one/two split, kids should be doing work that ranges in difficulty from K to fourth grade.  I know for sure that no one in Eila’s class is asked to do any work above second grade level.  But even worse:  as far as I can tell the work that the second graders are doing now ought, by the curriculum, to have been done in around October.  Right now, at the beginning of the spring semester, we’re about a third of the way through the fall semester math workbook.

Each week a little newsletter goes out to parents.  Here’s a bit of this week’s.

“Reading:  Please talk about “character” when reading and personification.  Math:  We are working on all kinds of things.  Please continue to help with money & time.”

I find the teacher an enormously pleasant person.  And everyone is entitled to a fallow year every now and then.  Still, I’m distressed.  Elementary school teachers should teach to the curriculum if they can’t teach more.  And they should have a grasp of basic grammar.

Notice, btw, that I leave double spaces after a period.  In fact I feel strongly enough about them that I do them twice:  WordPress corrects them in my draft and I have to go in and put them all back.  Take that, Mr. Manjoo!


I happened to be chatting a couple of days ago with a professor from Harvard about grade inflation.  He is not worried by the fact that the scale’s been reduced so drastically.  For him, A,  A-, B+, and B (the only four viable grades at Harvard, as here) work perfectly well.  They are a code, he says, and we can all decipher it.  These four grades convey as much information as a broader scale would.  The finessing can be done in letters of recommendation.

It took me a while to figure out why he and I differ on the issue.  He teaches in a graduate school.  For him, grades are primarily an admissions tool:  he uses grades to work out whether a student should be allowed to enter his program.  From this perspective, he is right.  There is a code;  we all do understand it;  and the four-grade scale gives us as much information as we need.  But I do not think of grades primarily as conveying information.  I think of them as challenging a student to do her best.  For this, I need sometimes to be able to give a student a lower grade without it destroying her career.

One possible solution is to give two grades, the code-grade that goes on the transcript and the grade you think the work actually deserves.  This system is widely associated with Harvey Mansfield, but I’ve recently learned that Gayatri Spivak uses it too.  The problem, though, as a colleague points out, is that our students aren’t likely to care much about the second grade.  We aren’t Mansfield or Spivak, and work marked A-/B- is more likely to make our students resent us than to spur them to more effort.