A few years ago, I scrapped with instructional designers on Twitter about non-faculty involvement in the curriculum. Specifically, I said that forced collaboration between faculty and those without faculty status is dangerous. They understandably took umbrage, but I stand by my thinking. And I think recent events show why.
It’s not that faculty don’t stand to gain from working with instructional designers. Often we do. Designing a course is requires care and attention, and most faculty members don’t have training to do it. Add in challenges associated with adopting new pedagogical techniques or learning online or through hybrid instruction, and help from an instructional designer is probably a good idea. Faculty can improve their teaching and produce more thoughtful classes when they collaborate with experts in instruction.
So my issue is not with instructional designers or collaboration or even with academics who aren’t faculty members involved in the curriculum. My beef is the idea about forcing a faculty member to collaborate, and therefore involuntarily give up some control over the curriculum.
Instructional designers often work with a good deal of autonomy, have command over an abstract body of knowledge, and are guided by epistemic norms. In many ways, they are professionals
. But they don’t have academic freedom protected by tenure. They are not primarily accountable to peer review. Usually, instructional designers can be fired by administrators. There are somewhat less protected from the influences of administrative preference, vendor (ah-hem EdTech companies) priorities, or even partisan political pressure. Because instructional designers don’t enjoy the same protections that tenure system faculty do, mandating collaboration cracks open the door for eroding academic freedom. That’s my argument. It’s not about who’s worthy or who is valued. It’s about professional realpolitik.
Faculty should collaborate with instructional designers but on faculty member’s terms.
Now, you might think I am taking an arbitrary, needlessly absolutist, and self-serving position. And you’d have a point. None of us are above a little motivated, reasoning from time to time. Academic freedom is not some cloistered gem, unblemished by the world around. Hell, most classes are taught by faculty who don’t have and can’t earn tenure
. Faculty are real people in the real world subject to all kinds of social and political influences. Faculty members aren’t special guardians of the truth because we are uncommonly intelligent or wise. To the extent that faculty do protect truth (whatever that is), it’s because of the organization of the academic profession.
Recognizing what is good about US higher education.
An aside, the US academic labor set-up, the source of a lot of justifiable dissatisfaction, looks reasonably strong in comparative context. Yes, contingency is a major challenge. I’m not trying to minimize that. But there is a pretty robust tenure track system that still works (even though I entertain some reform ideas) that does not exist in many countries. For instance, check Jelena Brankovic
‘s reflections on the situation in Germany.
Who decides what academic freedom and tenure are?
Academic freedom is not some absolute right to say whatever you want. You don’t have to take my word for it. Check out what the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) says. You will recall that I said that higher education is an institution
guided by professional norms and expirations. The AAUP helped to codify those professional norms.
(I’ve excerpted extensively below, you can skip to the next section if you don’t need or care for this refresher and not lose anything.)
Tenure is the way to protect academic freedom. Here is what the AAUP 1940 Statement, the backbone of the US conception of academic freedom and tenure, says about academic freedom:
Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, … but research for pecuniary return should be based upon an understanding with the authorities of the institution.
Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their controversial teaching matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. … As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
And here is what it says about tenure:
The precise terms and conditions of every appointment should be stated in writing and be in the possession of both institution and teacher before the appointment is consummated.
Beginning with appointment to the rank of full-time instructor or a higher rank, … but subject to the proviso that when, after a term of probationary service of more than three years in one or more institutions, a teacher is called to another institution, it may be agreed in writing that the new appointment is for a probationary period of not more than four years, even though thereby the person’s total probationary period in the academic profession is extended beyond the normal maximum of seven years.
During the probationary period a teacher should have the academic freedom that all other members of the faculty have.
Termination for cause of a continuous appointment, or the dismissal for cause of a teacher previous to the expiration of a term appointment, should, if possible, be considered by both a faculty committee and the governing board of the institution. … In the hearing of charges of incompetence the testimony should include that of teachers and other scholars, either from the teacher’s own or from other institutions. …
Termination of a continuous appointment because of financial exigency should be demonstrably bona fide.
Back to my problem with forced collaboration.
I’m no lawyer but from the AAUP statement, forced collaboration with instructional designers might not violate academic freedom on tenure in some strict sense. Things hinge on what “freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject” means. I’m sure there is case law on this and a body of legal scholarship and opinion. I don’t know it and that’s not really the point. The point is that as soon as you force faculty to plan, design, and conduct classroom (virtual included) activities you cede some control of the academic profession over to other organizational interests.
At a minimum, if mandated collaboration is going to be part of the faculty job, it should be one of those conditions made clear at the time of appointment. But, I don’t like the idea of it anyway. Mandated collaboration is a space bad faith actors could use to exploit.
Again, I don’t think nor do I have any reason to believe that instructional designers are bad faith actors looking to corrupt academic work (the opposite is often true). That is not my argument. My argument is that they don’t have the professional control over their work sufficient to resist such coercion from other bad faith actors.
So explain how you think this could happen?
The most obvious and, in a sense, the least problematic tension is when instructional best practices (which may or may not be best, but that’s another question) conflict with the way the professor wants to present ideas. Again, this is not because the professor is necessary “right.” I, and other faculty members, stand to learn from people who think a lot about instruction. I, and some other faculty members, are likely open to ideas offered by instructional designers and can and have included those ideas in our teaching practices and course design. But faculty might want for good or not good reasons (it actually doesn’t really matter) to teach ideas a certain way and forced collaboration could result in coerced abandonment of those practices. The ideas about how to present disciplinary knowledge, by the way, is disciplinary knowledge and protected by academic freedom. So that’s one reason why I don’t like forced collaboration.
If the issue is that we need to make faculty more accountable for teaching, fine. That’s a legitmate goal. I know student evaluations are a damn mess
, so we need another way. But forced collaboration isn’t it.
Another reasonably plausible problem is that forced collaboration increases exposure to pernicious surveillance. I don’t know how to understand the raft of legislation banning or limiting the use of Critical Race Theory and other ideas in education
other than as proto-authoritarian censorship. To comply with bans or even in anticipation of potential political blowback, some colleges and universities are identifying
where CRT might appear in their curriculum, an issue that is identified in Twitter and then verified by standard reporting, and even canceling classes
based on vague allegations by white students. If faculty are forced to collaborate with institutional designers - who again, I do not think are culture war narcs - then the content of classes will be easier to scan by administers looking to comply with bad faith curricular oversight.
The threat, by the way, is real. The University of North Carolina (UNC) Board of Governance, for one example, is refusing to re-appoint
the faculty member who runs the UNC Press, presumably because that person has criticized the university and board in the past. Not a violation of tenure. Not a violation of academic freedom in a limited sense, but the situation does demonstrate the real potential for political retaliation.
I’m not saying the content of classes should be a secret, especially at public universities where they are subject to open records laws and where some level of public oversight is appropriate. I am saying that we don’t want to build systems through well-intentioned collaborations that are mandated and tracked that provide an entry point for authoritarian censorship. The pillars of academic freedom and tenure are already imperfect protects of inquiry, and we shouldn’t weaken them.