Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rhizomes Against the Tide: The Culture of School

Yesterday I wrote something about MSW and the time management challenges I face as a teacher: each week, I try to interact one-on-one with each of my students (90 total, across 3 classes) in a meaningful way, providing feedback about their semester-long writing project. Teaching online has given me the freedom to arrange that daily work schedule so that I am extremely productive in the time available, following my own daily rhythms and sorting out my tasks to suit those rhythms. I am also really lucky in that I enjoy all of the tasks that are on my to-do list: reading the students' stories and browsing their blogs, helping them learn about different technology tools, and also sharing campus news and online learning resources with them every day.

So, everything clicks, and the flow is good: I'm a little tired at the end of each day, but eager to start work the next day, and I'm pretty seriously tired by the end of the week on Friday, but it's easy to recharge by Monday. Plus, at the end of the semester, the work tapers off naturally, so that I have less and less to do as more and more students finish the class, which suits my end-of-semester energy level.

With my students, though, time management and "flow" are more of a problem. I work really hard with the students on time management options, and my course is designed in a super-flexible way so that they can create their own schedules, and they also have lots of "wiggle room" for unexpected problems that come up (details). You could say that I try to design with flow in mind. To get a sense of what flow means in the context of course design, here's a very nice post from John Spencer's blog: Five Ways to create a State of Flow in the Classroom.

And yes, I am pleased to say that a lot of students really appreciate the freedom and flow that an online course offers. They create their own schedules and they work ahead, and some of the students finish the course several weeks early. I encourage them to work ahead and finish early because I know they have other courses which pile on all the work at the end of the semester (especially the "Capstone" classes which students at my school usually take in their senior year). If they have high-stakes exams or projects in their other classes, being able to get this Gen. Ed. class completely out of the way a few weeks early can be a big help.

Yet I also have students who are really lost without the structure provided by a rigid class schedule in which the teacher makes most or even all the choices about what to do when. For 15 or more years of their lives (I teach mostly seniors), they have gotten used to the idea that someone is always telling them where to go and what to do. It's a Pavlovian thing, which means when I ask students to make their own choices and create their own schedule, I am going against years of behavioral training. Don't believe me? Just ponder this post by Bernard Bull: What behavior is reinforced 16,000 times by high school graduation?

So, here's how that sorts itself out: we are now at the last week of the semester, and almost exactly half of my students are done with the class (43 of them), while the other half are still doing the work for the class (47 of them). Of those who are still doing work for the class, some of them will still be doing work until literally the last minute: this Friday, May 1, at noon. Why? Because they arrange their schedule based on the absolute last possible deadline. Unfortunately, that is a stressful strategy, and it's risky too: the longer the wait, the more likely it is that some unexpected snafu of time or technology might actually prevent them from completing the work they need to do (students do their own grading in my class based on completion of their work; more about that: Grading).

In short, it's a culture clash: I get to spend my entire work week in an environment that I control, but my students do not. The students who are enrolled in my class are also enrolled in other classes which might have a very different culture, not to mention whatever culture might prevail in their workplace (and most of my students work at least part-time, with quite a few of them working full-time... that, in fact, is often why they end up in an online class to begin with). So, if most or all of their other classes are based on a rigid, teacher-driven, standardized approach, it just adds to the cognitive burden when they also have this one, weird, open-ended class. It makes sense that some students (in fact, quite a few students) are going to be reluctant to re-invent themselves just for one class, preferring instead to follow the same routine that works so well in their other classes: wait for the teacher to tell you what to do and when to do it.

Which is not to say that I have any regrets about the way I design my classes, but I'm also very aware that — to badly mix some metaphors here — I am a rhizome swimming against the tide of school culture.

A merry heart goes all the day.
(Shakespeare LOLCats: A Winter's Tale)


  1. Thanks for this - I really liked hearing about how you negotiate these spaces and make them friendlier. Somewhere Deleuze does refer to the rhizome as water... be-coming a flat surface i think is his point.

    1. Thanks, Aaron! I read Deleuze literally DECADES ago in grad school, in one of those "theorist of the week" survey courses... so I can't even claim to have understood him then! I am looking forward to learning more from rhizo adventures now. :-)


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