Is it time to be a ‘slow professor’?


In a post like this, there are so many things I could share – brilliant resources, great examples, tips and new technologies from my own practice and from other generous practitioners around the globe (Twitter’s #pivotonline hashtag is a mine of good resources and advice). But ‘more’ isn’t necessarily the answer right now.

When you’re done with fast, go slow

When Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber wrote their book, The Slow Professor, they were searching for ways to counter the myriad of job-related stressors of being an academic. They both strongly agreed that life as an academic should be more than what their working lives had become.

The main message of the book is about adapting, but also about demanding the time to be deliberately slow (and by that, they definitely don’t mean unproductive). They argue that we need time to think and make considered choices about what we do – in some cases, to rethink practices that have become almost automatic and unquestioned.  In the rush to do more and meet insane deadlines, we rarely find this time.

For me, once the dust has settled, that’s what the next few months should be about.

What I’ve chosen to do here is share some pieces of wisdom from just a few online educators who I greatly respect and admire. I hope it’s a chance for you, if you haven’t encountered them already, to get to know some of their work, and perhaps follow them more closely.

Why these educators? Trust me, it’s taken a LONG time to decide. But in the end, these educators stand out for their highly empathetic, or humanising teaching approach. There are many more outstanding educators who make great contributions in this area, such as Michelle Pacansky-Brock, who offers a very practical, technology-focused approach to humanising the classroom. But in the end, I went with who felt right for now. These educators are constantly evolving and improving their craft. They express vulnerability, and listen to students.

And above all else, that’s what we need.

Simplify: Your students will thank you

I just want to say…for those who are new(ish) to online teaching and are learning fast, know that what you are doing right now is ‘good enough’ if not amazing for times like these. It’s a starting point from which you can carefully and consciously build. The best advice? Keep it simple.

Jesse Stommel is arguably best known for his work on Critical Digital Pedagogy, co-founding the Hybrid Pedagogy site, and the Digital Pedagogy Lab (which is fully online for the first time in July 2020). His work on Ungrading is absolutely essential for conversations around assessment – definitely worth a followup when you have the time. What I want to share though is something he reposted recently, originally from a student. Click to read the whole thread.

Why share this? In times of crisis, it’s a natural tendency to throw everything at people.

Here’s 10 new online meetings that I’ve provided for you, and 20 new resources to support you, and look at these flashy new technologies for you to learn ….

It comes from a good place – we all feel the need to give in a time of crisis – but it can be overwhelming for students (not to mention you), and add to any anxieties that already exist about moving online. Ironically, it can also lead to more shallow learning as they struggle to ‘cover the content’. And that’s exactly what Jessica is saying in this post.

The wisdom here is that now is about simplicity, empathy and compassion. Learn from your students and what they tell you they need. Scale back and focus on what’s important. More than ever, connection through a mentoring approach really matters. Zoom works for office hours just as well as it does for a lecture.

I’m OK with teaching online, but it’s new for my students…

For the majority of FoBJBS educators, who have been teaching online – and smashing it – for many years, you’ll likely be experiencing different challenges to others. How can I stop my kids running into my Zoom meetings? How can I best support students who signed up for a face-to-face experience, and believe online represents ‘second best’?

This new book by George Veletsianos (2020), another great online educator with a strong focus on open and networked scholarship, is a quick read that might be useful.  The chapters are clearly organised to focus on specific kinds of student experience, with summary points to help guide those who need to be very strategic with their reading time. And it’s free right now.

George follows Oliver Sacks’ approach in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, first sharing a real story of a student, and then explaining that from the point of view of recent research. For example, the learner who compared online courses with face-to-face courses, or the one who dropped out, or who needed to use the family computer. It won’t give you a quick fix, but it offers research-based insights that can help you form your own (justified) strategies for working with students who have different needs.

Experiment with one or two new strategies

When you’re comfortable that your students are OK, it’s time to experiment.

The next person I’d like to introduce (or likely reintroduce) you to is Michael Wesch, an educator from Kansas State University who first became known to many of us in his (now classic) 2007 video, Web2.0…The Machine is Us/using Us.

‘Inspirational’ is overused, but hey, it’s appropriate when it comes to Mike. He continually reflects on and questions his teaching, learning from his students and how they experience his subjects, and engaging them in deep, real and highly valuable learning about themselves and their world. I’d sign up to a class just to have him as my teacher.

In this short video, he shares 10 tips for online teaching. There’s LOTS of videos out there at the moment with quick tips (Dave Cormier’s Online Learning in a Hurry is another useful one to follow – quick, fast, valuable), but they are mostly for people new to online teaching.

I’ve selected this video not only for the great advice it offers, but also because it models a great video – it has personality, humour, vulnerability, demonstrates huge levels of expertise and value and doesn’t waste your time. Note that he also doesn’t try to be too formal or too slick…which looks professional, but can also increase the distance between you and your students. It’s a fine line that Mike gets right.

My personal favourite: Tip #8. Why? This is pure cognitive apprenticeship, modelling how an experienced academic reads and thinks about a text, weaving in expert commentary that will help them both understand what’s being said and relate it to their world – great for first years! Also a great way to show your passion for your field, and why it matters.

If I was to focus on revising my strategies during this time, I’d probably pick these as being the easiest and most appropriate for now:

  • Develop a weekly subject routine (#2) – when we’re dislocated, we need routine more than ever
  • Justify your decisions (#3) – good for you, good for them

And in a world where connection is key, I’d also try experimenting with providing feedback by voice or strategies to support students in developing their online discussion skills. Being able to quickly respond in social networking sites is very different to participating in a deep, constructive academic discussion online. We assume it will just happen. It doesn’t.

For those who have time, another great strategy right now is to be a critical online learner yourself, learning something new but, at the same time, thinking deeply about the design choices in the course you’re participating in, and their effects.

There’s a course that is taking shape in edX right now called Pivoting to Online Teaching: Research and Practitioner Perspectives, led by George Siemens. This would be a good addition to add to your Scholarship in Teaching and Learning portfolio (many other MOOCs on online teaching won’t be). George has been a leader in the field for many years and, along with Stephen Downes, was running brilliant connectivist MOOCs way before edX and other big providers entered the scene.

Think slow to think ahead

Finally, I’m going to head back to Mike Wesch to help you think ahead beyond this period of self-isolation.

As you’re stuck inside, take the time to think about what ‘real education’ means to you, and to your students (yes, back to listening to them again). This video is a longer listen, but worth it (at least I think so). So grab a coffee…

At the 34 min mark, Mike challenges us to look under the surface of what we’re teaching and draw out what we’re truly trying to say.

His own, open online class – ANTH101 – is a great example of this. Take a look at how he’s reframed his whole curriculum into 10 core lessons and associated challenges. I’m not suggesting every class does this; distilling your content and pulling out those core, meaningful takeaways may lead you to other, equally innovative / successful approaches. Or at least get you to a place where you can discuss your ideas with learning support staff to consider options. It’s the continual reflection and thinking that matters.

And that’s probably enough. Or maybe too much (restraint is SO hard, isn’t it?) But I hope for some of you, I may have introduced you or reminded you of at least one leading online educator from whom you can draw inspiration, and encouraged you to take this time to first empathise and simplify, then question and reflect on how you engage your students with the most important lessons you have to teach. You can only do that from teaching a subject multiple times, and knowing it deeply.

No one can do that but you.

And remember, if all else fails, just watch this on repeat. It has brought me endless happiness. 🙂

I’m not sure how many of you are disconnected from networks where you can share both the individual challenges you’re facing and solutions you’re finding as we all work from home. If you don’t have a network for this and would like to be part of one, send me an email. I can set up a quick, social networking site (in Campuswire, which we’ve been using in the new Grad Cert Community Leadership & Resilience) where you can share with each other or direct message between individuals, have private chats etc from a browser or your phone. New connections bring new learning…if this would help, let me know. If you already are connected to support groups, that’s fantastic.