Everything Everywhere Already At Once
Counting down to the launch of a new semester
My university has, for mostly good reasons, shifted its academic calendar to a late-starting spring term. As a result, whereas my colleagues at other schools have been toiling in the gestalt mines for weeks already, I have been swanning about salons and gallery openings, enjoying the “time off” that is the greatest perk of the academic lifestyle.
The impending start of term, however, has interrupted this achronic bliss, rather like the Big Bang irritated a perfectly pleasant void. Suddenly, I’m confronted by not one but several course-related deadlines—all of which involve course management. The deadline to finish each syllabus, in other words, is a deadline to set deadlines—a lot of them for each course.
I’ve written before about the process of making a modern syllabus. Gone are the days when professors could write one page (front and back, or maybe just front) with an aspirational list of readings and expect—well, if not compliance, at least feigned deference. In their place are documents that specify expectations, assignments, and, well, deadlines. (I say “documents” metaphorically: my syllabi are increasingly native to the learning management system, so all of these policies and reading lists live happily-ish in Moodle and Blackboard.)
And this, too, is a mostly good development. There should be some transparency and accountability in courses.
It’s way more work. And the tools of the trade are not designed to make any of it easier. If you like interacting with janky, 2000s-looking websites, it’s a breeze! If you like the fact that this software is all purchased by people who haven’t taught a course since Jack Kennedy was thinking about making the leap to the Senate, if ever, then you will like it less.
Take something as simple as disability accommodations—the absolute most mandatory thing we have to deal with. It’s not just a part of the use case—it’s a question of legal compliance. And most of these are simple: extending time by 50 percent, adding deadline flexibility, etc. But is there an easy, legally compliant way to make these adjustments in Moodle for every assignment? No. And as a bonus, many of the relevant Moodle forums feature a very diligent poster arguing that accommodations are weakness. What a productive debate!
The real drain, however, comes with the hard part: the constant assessing of course policies and deadlines to see whether they will stand up to a real-world, adversarial environment. Some of those challenges involve explaining college policies to an audience that needs additional background information or greater socialization, which is the good part of the job since it means I’m teaching beyond the already-privileged! (I do, in fact, like to put the “public” in public education.) Other challenges are just drafting, like deciding whether to write “midnight” or “11:59 p.m.” to clarify deadlines. And still others involve applying experience and judgment to outwit classroom lawyers.
All of this is part of the job, sure. But it’s all auxiliary to the point of the job. It’s scaffolding—at least some of it is necessary, but, well, maybe it can be overdone, and we should actively be trying to make it as modular and easily removable as possible so we can let the structure stand on its own.
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