In a recent conversation, Gardner and I talked about whether or not one can be open to genuine teaching innovation without considering new media. This is a different question from whether or not (some) technology is embodied in all teaching practices, which I believe is true. For this conversation, Gardner was specifically referring to the tools of Web 2.0. I think this question relates back to the panel discussion I moderated at the Faculty Academy this Spring. Why are faculty so resistant to incorporating new media in their teaching? Why are they so conservative to change in their teaching generally? And what was apparently of interest to Gardner, why am I not? Why I am open to trying new things?
One of the observations that we came up with is that most faculty seem to see choices as constraints. There is an issue of path dependence here: During the 1960s, there was a theory of business investment called “Putty-Clay.” The idea was simple: a business could build any size factory it wished—investment opportunities were malleable like putty. But once the decision was made, they became hard like clay. Once the investment was made, the firm had to work with the factory it had built, whether business increased or decreased. This is an example of path dependence. Where we are now, what our options are now, is based on our history. Decisions made in the past, limit our choices in the future. I could (perhaps) have become a physical therapist, but once I began graduate study in economics, that decision put me on a different path in life.
What does this suggest about teachers and change? I can only speak from my experience, which is, of course, subject to the fallacy of induction. Lecture notes are an example of path dependence. They are also a metaphor, I think, for our teaching in general. When I began teaching at UMW, I taught eight courses/six preps the first year. I had complete lecture notes for only one of those courses (Environmental Economics, which I had taught twice as a graduate student.) I also had partial notes for principles of micro and macro economics. (I had taught a one semester Intro to Economics course in graduate school.) That left three courses to develop from scratch, two of which I had never even taken as a student. Those first few years, course development was a real time sink, and by course development, I mean just putting together rough lecture notes. While I no longer teach some of those courses, the ones I do teach still reflect, at least in part, those original lecture notes. Putting those notes together took so much effort that I am reluctant to get rid of them. It’s like writing. Those lecture notes are part of my identity. Throwing them away would be like throwing away part of my self.
Over my career, I have revised my courses, sometimes very substantively. But why has it been so difficult to make the decision to do so? For a number of reasons: Because my old courses worked adequately. Because substantive rethinking of a course takes a huge amount of time and effort. Because throwing away my previous course is painful.
Gardner asked me some probing questions which revealed some interesting thoughts and which he urged me to blog about. That was the impetus for this post. I think many faculty see choices as constraints. Choices that they have made in the past become constraints on their future behavior. That’s the idea of path dependence again, but the thing is, this path dependence is not absolute. Just as businesses can decide over time to either expand or contract the size of their factory, so can faculty revisit their past choices. When looked at in this light, constraints become choices again. I think to a modest extent, that’s what I do.
Why am I willing to do this? Why am I not satisfied with the status quo of my courses? I’m not sure. One thing I know is that I’m regularly inspired by what I learn at workshops offered by our Writing Program, our Speaking Program, our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, and most recently by our First Year Seminar Program. I hear things at those events and find myself thinking: What a cool idea! I could use that to teach [insert course or topic]. I don’t feel that way about every idea I learn about. But I do about enough of them that I regularly have rich ideas about ways to tinker with my courses.