Free college; Free Training for College Teachers

I am a huge proponent of free college. Especially free community college. Especially free community college for returning non-traditional students.

There is much to read on this front. You could start here in the New York Times, where Sara Goldrick-Rab writes, “How we finance public higher education is a matter of political will. Universal public higher education recognizes that college must be affordable for all if it is to help drive our economy and our democracy.” You could also read this piece by Tressie McMillan Cottom in Dissent Magazine, where she writes, “I do not care if free college won’t solve inequality … Today’s debate about free college tuition does something extremely valuable. It reintroduces the concept of public good to higher education discourse.”

The gist: free college is possible, it is a political decision, it is not a solution to all the inequalities of education, but it is an opening to an important conversation.

I am also strongly in favor of free Bachelor’s degree “finishing” programs designed and suitable for “continuing” adult students. Many of these students have attended multiple colleges in several states and have amassed a degree’s worth of credits in all manner of disciplines. The moniker “continuing” has an almost Orwellian ring, since many of these students are struggling hard to finish but finding their path frustrated by bureaucracy, accreditation standards, or curricular inflexibility. In fact, the continuing students most determined to finish are often the same ones finding themselves unable to finish (or deterred from finishing by inadequate curricula, course formats, and scheduling) within traditional 4-year institutions. Those most likely to take ownership of their own education also seem more generally unwilling to suffer the absurdity of mindless box-checking and hoop-jumping.

And the students most dedicated to finishing their degrees frequently end up in online / hybrid courses where they face the worst of what Sean Michael Morris describes as the “monkey see, monkey do, monkey hit submit” of bad instructional design. I have worked with these students at the community college level and in a 4-year liberal arts program for non-traditional adults. I currently have one of these students among the very close circle I call my “family.” Every one of these students is brave, brilliant, and persistent. They deserve the best possible education we can collectively muster.

What I would propose.

If we are to make higher education a public good, and I think we should. If we are to open education to those for whom it might not otherwise be available, and I think we should. If we are to make college free, we must also offer free training for college teachers — as part of and also beyond graduate degree programs.

Adjunct teachers must no longer be required to attend unpaid required job training, as they are by many institutions. Any required training should be subsidized. Kathi Inman Berens takes this one step further to say, “Don’t just make tools freely available. Pay adjuncts and other teaching-only faculty for their time to learn them.”

And if graduate programs and employers of faculty are currently unable to offer free pedagogical training (or to pay adjuncts for participating in this training), how about offering any pedagogical training at all?

Graduate programs should incorporate more courses focused explicitly on pedagogy. If teaching is 40 – 90% of most full-time faculty jobs in higher ed., pedagogical study should constitute at least 40% of the work graduate students do toward a graduate degree. I was recently laughed at by someone in a traditional academic discipline when I offered this as a provocation, but it feels hardly provocative to me. For some programs, even requiring a single graduate course in pedagogy would be a step in the right direction, but 40% of coursework seems an incredibly reasonable bar (even if also well out of current reach for many programs).

It would mean offering more courses (or components of required content-focused courses) dedicated to pedagogy. It would also mean discipline-specific pedagogies would be a significant component of comprehensive or qualifying exams. It would mean 40% of the dissertations or research projects in a field would focus (at least in part) on pedagogy. And it would mean the culture of every department would acknowledge pedagogy as a respected sub-discipline (as well as a discipline in its own right).

And, if 75% of university faculty are adjunct, graduate programs should be helping prepare students in very specific ways for this work. Or, even better, helping prepare “future adjuncts” to resist the increasing adjunctification of higher education.

Through my work with Hybrid Pedagogy, I have engaged many folks at many different kinds of institutions across the country and around the world. I have myself taught at a community college, three public R1s, one public liberal arts institution, and one private liberal arts institution. What I have heard most commonly from other college instructors is that they received zero training in pedagogy as part of their graduate degree programs or upon starting a faculty position at another institution. What I have heard less frequently are accounts of one or two seminars, courses, or workshops incorporated at some level during their work as a graduate student. I recognize that the culture and conversations are different at different kinds of institutions and in different disciplines. And, of course, there are outliers we should hold up as models.

I myself took one required pedagogy course in my own graduate program, two elective graduate courses, and also a handful of workshops that added up to a graduate teaching certification. I certainly wouldn’t diminish the amazing work already being done at a few institutions to offer training in pedagogy for future or current college teachers.

But it isn’t enough.

Digital Pedagogy Lab, which I co-direct, has begun offering low-cost opportunities for professional development including online courses and in-person institutes. They are offered as part of the outreach mission of the Hybrid Pedagogy 501(c)3 non-profit. We give significant discounts to adjuncts and full fellowships. We have also offered entirely free professional development opportunities since 2012. There are a few other groups offering similar opportunities, some for-profit, some not-for-profit, some within institutions, some peripheral to them.

But it isn’t enough.

Until 40% or more of the courses in graduate programs are pedagogically focused, I would argue we are doing a disservice to graduate students.

Until continuous, not continuing, education in pedagogy becomes the norm for college teachers, we are doing a disservice to all college students.

By “pedagogy,” I mean something much broader than just preparing graduate students to teach in university classes. I also mean preparing graduate students and new faculty for outreach, activism, work in libraries, instructional design, public scholarship, educational journalism, etc. Work that moves beyond content to consider how our study of that content gets shared with others or inflected in the world.

Training college teachers can’t be an afterthought or an add-on (and by “training” I mean engaging future teachers thoughtfully in praxis-focused pedagogical work).

Ultimately, this work is for the public good and should be supported by our public educational institutions.

If college is ever to be “free” in any broad or expansive sense of the word, we must start by fostering pedagogical work as an ethic.

I recently offered a keynote inspired by this piece at University of Delaware:

[photo “scaffold” by flickr user Erik Refsdal]