Digital Pedagogy: Hospitality & The Hot Mess

Sometimes, the people you are expecting are not the ones who show up.

Last month, I spent a week facilitating the “Networks” track at the inaugural Digital Pedagogies Lab Summer Institute in Madison, Wisconsin…an immersive, five-day deep dive into the intersections of higher ed and digitally-networked platforms, practices, and pedagogical implications. Heady stuff…and risky stuff, every time, because questions of open & closed educational practices and open & closed academic systems strike at the heart of people’s most deeply-held beliefs about their professions and their professional identities.

But at #digped, it was MY understanding of my profession that got unsettled and re-aligned. Or rather, re-focused.

Because in the (pretty amazing) collection of 25+ professionals who joined my track, at least half were not the faculty, grad students, and maybe teachers I’d expected would come to explore digital pedagogies. They were instructional designers. Librarians. People tasked with the roles of making “the digital” happen in institutions, but people whose pedagogical audiences are as much faculty as conventionally-designated ‘students.’

I should have expected them. I started off in this field as a proto-instructional technologist myself, back before I’d ever heard the word. I began thinking about digital pedagogies pretty much at the point when I began teaching faculty how to teach online.

But the hierarchy of the academy to which we are actively acculturated in higher ed works to make the labour of digital professionals – particularly instructional technologists – invisible. They are not faculty. They are not admin, at least unless they are Directors. They are not much like the other support staff, in the sense that they interface (in most contexts) far less directly with students than with faculty. They are not students.

And yet in the contemporary university, in North America, they are the people most likely to be actively shaping an institution’s pedagogical response to the Internet.

Where pedagogy intersects with all things digital in higher ed, it’s being outsourced. To a class of workers who do not hold an official position in the academic hierarchy.

I’m not clutching pearls or defending the academic hierarchy, just noting that some pretty vast gaps exist in its version of higher ed and what it’s for.

Because as higher ed has complexified, whole classes of labour have emerged that have never been fully brought into the academy’s vision of itself, and central parts of that vision, such as pedagogy, have become increasingly isolated from the work of faculty.

I’d argue that these gaps – not the people in them but the gaps themselves – operate to further deprofessionalize the professoriate, ironically. Not to mention that digital adoption and online learning demand pedagogical direction if they are even to begin to do more than just move print-era content and its embedded pedagogical assumptions online. At the same time, tech still tends to be gendered male, so there are other – sometimes conflicting – forms of stratification at work at this strange intersection. And then there’s casualization. And the ever-present question of race in the academy and whose knowledge gets to count. And the fact that digital higher ed spaces in particular face enclosure and corporatization by those who see education as a ripe candidate for disruption or whatever they’ve decided to call it this year.

I suspect the technical term for the whole combo is “hot mess.”

I’d almost given up on trying to unpack it all when Tony Bates wrote a piece last week suggesting there’s little future and no career path in online learning. While a large part of me wants very much to agree with Tony’s reasoning – which runs “in the future, we will need instructors who have the skills to decide when and how to use online learning as part of their jobs, and not see online learning as a specialty of someone else” – I recognize that my desire to agree comes from a place of privilege, since I straddle the roles of instructor and online learning specialist. And much as most of my public work is about encouraging educators and faculty to explore digital literacies and digital pedagogy and digital scholarship, I’m not sure that our need for that future will magically create that future.

Sometimes the people you need – or are expecting – are not the people who show up.

Which is where we circle back to #digped and Wisconsin.

My friend Kate Bowles has been talking for awhile now about hospitality in education, about being present to who shows up. It may shock her to learn I’ve actually been listening.

But on the Tuesday morning last month in Wisconsin on day 2 of #digped when it dawned on that my vision for the week wasn’t exactly addressing a large chunk of the people who were paying good money to join me for the experience, it was Kate’s voice I heard in the back of my head.

One does not simply *ignore* Kate Bowles. ;)

And so we changed gears midstream, albeit with some grinding of those gears along the way. And the whole week was better for it. Powerful, rich, and full of lessons that I, at least, will take forward into future iterations and future work. And this was thanks in huge part to the generous, exploratory spirit of the many instructional technologists and designers and librarians – as well as the faculty – who made up the Networks track and the range of skills and knowledge and conversations between us all.

We benefit from being hospitable to each other, and opening our narrow hierarchies of specialization. And even those of us who should know better sometimes need reminding.



12 Comments Digital Pedagogy: Hospitality & The Hot Mess

  1. Chris L

    Ultimately it seems likely to me that the opportunity presented by online learning—the possible point of intervention to facilitate richer pedagogy through the partial subterfuge of technology—will pass and we’ll find sound pedagogy to play as little part in the online learning efforts of higher ed as we see it has played in the offline efforts that came before. Maybe this aligns me with Tony Bates in some ways, maybe now.

    I HOPE it turns out otherwise, and the quick-change of #digped is one of many efforts by many people to try to avert that pedagogically dystopic future, but I’m not sanguine about the prospects, at least not in the shape of higher ed institutions and change.

    1. bon

      I’m inclined to agree, Chris…it’s not that I disagree with Tony that there’s been a profound failure to integrate instructional technologist and learning design professionals into the already-contested hierarchies of academia. He lays it out extraordinarily well. I’m just not so sure I agree that faculty (conceived broadly) will eventually see digital pedagogy as anything but the specialty of someone else.

      I always thought we’d get there, that participatory mindsets would become daily practice, part of life, expected to be part of education. I underestimated the forces for business and the status quo and how they would combine to drive other narratives even in the face of cognitive dissonance. But I am starting to wake up to the idea that we won’t get there without significant active educational interventions.

      And having pedagogy effectively pushed out of the academic hierarchy makes those interventions difficult.

      But it hasn’t all come to pass yet, so I still find the point about hospitality – now – important as a starting place, for me.

  2. Kate Bowles

    Part of the problem that higher education has created for itself is the framing of improvisation as failure to plan. As syllabi fatten up, and universities become increasingly sensitive to consumer feedback, we’ve created a climate in which improvisation has to be hidden from a surveilling institutional gaze.

    Wait, did you say learning outcomes?

    Having worked both on the faculty and the support/design sides recently, I’m struck by the stories we tell casually about educators. “I know a professor who just … ” And these stories are often heavily penalising because they default to the presumption that everything that isn’t minutely planned and locked down in the syllabus symptomatizes a kind of professional laziness.

    Whatever the truth is to these stories, their impact is on all of us, as we hear of the professor who didn’t even … and so we ourselves become less open to risk and adjustment, and much less likely to be able to embrace a quick change.

    Currently I’m thinking about Derrida’s invocation of unconditional hospitality in relation to university strategic planning, with its heavyweight three year cycles, so this story about who turns up, or doesn’t, is really helpful to me. Thanks B.

    1. bon

      So much this.

      Precarity and casualization and the rise of efficiencies narratives all combine to make everyone involved with pedagogy a bit jumpy about being judged – and while narratives of emergence align with what networked digital tools in particular enable, they don’t reflect the dominant belief systems that make Boards of Governors happy these days.

      One of the things I was trying with #digped that I think *did* work, and even better after I recognized who was walking the road with me, was what one participant called “framing, not filling” – the effort to scaffold new conceptual tools and proof of concept experiences with digital tools, but leave room for people to experiment and apply things to their own contexts and needs. Ongoing learning curve for me.

      1. wrabblr

        on framing/filling … yowza; you knocked that one out of the proverbial park ; )

        And the additional framing, here: thank you for seeking out words for this.

        It’s a much needed & useful provocation to think further, open up, and write / talk more about these topics.

        1. bon

          Thank you. Thank you, hugely.

          I miss all of you. Ping me when this thinking further comes to fruition as this is a conversation I don’t want to let go.

  3. Cindy Jennings

    Dear Bonnie,
    As I am reading this again this morning I am moved to comment and thank you most sincerely for writing this so eloquently-putting words to thoughts I clumsily attempt to share with colleagues here in my small corner of the higher ed world – to try to explain what it is that I/we do in my area (We are instructional designers/I am also faculty). So much here to digest and agree with. Suffice it to say that I am now resolved to share it with a few select colleagues in ‘higher’ places to try to help them see us more clearly. It is why our consistent message is that we cannot help faculty thoughtfully consider the implications of apprehending all the possible affordance of technology (including connectedness it makes possible) of we don’t first ask them to reflect upon who they are as teachers – their very ‘teacher selves’. There is when we are accused of intruding on the turf of others.
    Anyway, many thanks and keep on writing please.

    1. bon

      Cindy, thanks for being willing to take this conversation further than I can…glad to have sown some seeds, anyway. I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had, at many tables.

      And this issue of turf and territoriality in higher ed is structural and broad-based – and growing with contingency and efficiencies and the show-me-the-evidence climate we’ve created. Yet this gap is a weird one…with much at stake that doesn’t align with that show-me-the-evidence climate. I worry about what gets lost if we don’t manage to broader the conversation, soonish.

      1. Cindy Jennings

        The broader conversation indeed. Such an interesting juxtaposition of local and broader conversations I’ll quickly share: At the same time that you shared these insights we are trying to nurture a very beginning dialogue here about merits of and interest in a ‘digital studies’ effort. My whole vision for such a thing is that it absolutely positively MUST from the very inception be created so as to feature ‘interdisciplinarity’ at its very core. Folks nod in the appropriate places, but when the more practical matters arise – getting said courses/programs of study in whatever form they take – through the usual approval gauntlet…it makes eyes glaze over. “What department ‘owns’ the course/program? How will this affect faculty load in their home department? Who is the ‘instructor of record’?”

        What do students really have in the end?

        Can we really do this atypical thing situated in the mire of tradition and convention and policy “the way we’ve always done it?”

        Which brings me to the assortment of colleagues who have interest in this project (for lack of a better work) – colleagues who have exquisite expertise to bring but who are not pedigreed in the traditional higher ed sense. (So who really IS the expert? How do we decide that?)

        So, we are thinking about all the things…including how we ‘allow’ such an emergent thing to…well…emerge.

        Anyway, carry on here…and please keep the ideas bubbling for sure.

  4. Maha Bali

    Hey Bon. I am so glad I came across this post. It interesects with and extends the convos Lee Bessette and I are inviting re a critical approach to faculty development and asks more questions.
    I wonder if the issue isn’t necessarily re online learning but “innovative” pedagogical practices coming from outside the classroom in the first place – i.e. if faculty ever adopt online learning wholeheartedly, something new that someone who isn’t necessarily teaching (or at least another person teaching somewhere else) will come up w something else and it will get hyped up and it will be new and administration will want to make it happen and a new wave of fac development would appear. Does that sound too slippery slopey?

    It seems different to look at the role of ppl who are both teaching faculty AND faculty developers vs those who are only faculty developers and do their job really well. I am not being coherent i think coz i have a lot in my head. Will come back. Look fwd to discussing this w u more. #facdevchat?

    1. bon

      Thanks for the comment, Maha. I think there’s a huge range of variance on this and how faculty development works and is integrated into the institutional structure – probably globally but even just within institutions across town from each other.

      #facdev is an interesting framework to place around the conversation, certainly…shifts it a bit from the faculty/instructional tech binary I’ve created here even though I straddle it myself and don’t really believe in it. So definitely a worthwhile conversation to continue… :)

      The piece that I keep coming back to is status. Academia is a prestige economy. Currently a very confused one – or rather, a contested collection of them. In a time when jobs and security are also highly contested. And there’s a need for pedagogical (as well as technical) support and PD for faculty, but that does not factor into those prestige economies. And I think that in itself creates a great deal of the gap and tension I’m on about here. How to address? Ideas welcome. :)


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