Teaching Thursday

This post is probably a bit too ranty for a lovely fall Thursday, but the pandemic has pushed me to think a good bit about my teaching. As a mentor once told me, years ago, it’s really not about what we teach, but how we teach, because the goal in the end is to prepare students to learn things, not to prepare students to know things.

Last week, I attended a workshop on hybrid and something called “hi-flex” teaching hosted by our hard working crew at our teaching and development “academy.” It was among the more bizarre experiences in my time at my university. The session started with our (zoom) host excitedly informing us that we had “a lot of material to cover today so we gotta get started!” This made it clear that this workshop would not be a relaxed session dedicated to the sharing of practices and approaches across disciplines.

The leader of the workshop then proceeded to spend the first 20 minutes of the session reading from powerpoint slides dutifully shared over The Zooms. This was a bit awkward, but I full expected our host to stop the session and ask those of us in the workshop how this approach made us feel. We could then start to unpack what most educators in the US (and in the world) know as the “banking model of education” (h/t to Paulo Freire!). To leaven this otherwise rather flat presentation, we had brief commercial breaks from a mid-level administrator who excited told us about an “opportunity” which involved signing our classes up for a platform that pairs classes with companies who have problems that need solving. This allowed our students to get real time experience in the world of uncompensated labor and for companies to crowd source their way to increased profitability! E’rybody wins! 

This most striking moment in the workshop was when one of the workshop’s leaders started to read from a powerpoint slide a list of applications that might help us with hybrid teaching. Most of these were plug-ins for our LMS (the much maligned by ubiquitous Blackboard) and probably were useful enough.    

Despite the strange emphasis on the delivery of “content,” the session was fine. The faculty participants did eventually find a way to share their experiences and approaches between powerpoint slides and litanies of potential technological “solutions.”

A few days ago, a colleague sent me blog post by Audrey Watters titled “Cheating, Policing, and School Surveillance” that developed Jeffery Moro’s much celebrated “Against Cop Shit” blog post from this summer. For folks concerned about the increasingly use of technology to track and surveil students, Watters’s post won’t say anything particularly new or shocking (which isn’t to say that it’s not worth reading). Moreover, most of us accept that higher education (in fact, most formal education) is at least partly designed to create compliant workers by introducing them to the expectations fo the workplace. Students, who generally retain more of their human still than faculty, resist through a wide range of practices – from simple lack of compliance to forms of academic dishonesty, and faculty try to co-opt, curtain, and contain their resistance. 

Watters argues that ed-tech particularly anti-plagiarism software, which is quintessential “cop shit,” has worked hard to make surveillance technology the solution to many forms student resistance. This is very much in keeping with the increasing use of surveillance technology in the workplace and the culture of suspicion in the classroom prepares students for a world where they’re constantly being tracked and monitored.

Companies that produce anti-plagiarism software, for example, that checks student work against a growing database of papers (archived, in part, from previously submitted student work, of course), have an interest in promoting the idea that students will plagiarize if left unsupervised. Plagiarism is a particular nefarious sin in a world that celebrates originality and creativity and devotes a tremendous amount of resources to the protection of intellectual property. University faculty, whose careers in some ways, are built on their claims to distinct intellectual contributions, have long seen plagiarism as the height of intellectual dishonesty because it allows an individual to get ahead on the basis of someone else’s originality and hard work.

Anti-plagiarism software, then, plays on our general anxieties regarding the theft of intellectual property and our specific professional anxiety over someone getting credit without the hard work that original scholarship entails.

More than that, this software offers a kind of technological solutionism that both removes plagiarism enforcement from our growing list of things to do and conforms to institutional expectations that instructional technology will allow it to advance its educational mission more efficiently and effectively.

All this is to say that plagiarism detection software, is not just “cop shit” but also “capitalist shit.” Our war against plagiarism (fueled by the academic arms industry) hinges, then, on our fetishization of the original and our desire for efficiency.  

This returns us to my disappointing faculty teaching seminar. In many ways, the goal of the seminar was not to make us better teachers or to make our teaching better, but to reinforce the role of technology in making us more efficient and making our students more compliant. 


  1. yes, yes, and yes. and probably not “ranty” enough. I join you in feeling dismay about uncompensated student “experiences” (=labor), emphasis on content transfer as opposed to metacognitive process, and the whole issue of surveillance through BB. On the plus side, I think that we may all be better teachers in a year or two, because we will have had to shed some of the complacency about our teaching that accumulates after a couple decades.


  2. I have to say, I don’t agree. In the environment I’m teaching in, surveillance seems like a prerequisite to any sort of rigor. I am not sure that I have “fetishized the original,” but maybe I have. Getting students do any kind of labor is a challenge, whether I unfairly appropriate it or whatever. Personally, I don’t trust the students after five years in big state universities, and I relish the idea of tech solutions to what the social scientists like to call “the problem of trust.” Honestly, I have been naive years, thinking when I walked into the classroom that we were going on a journey of discovery together, “entering a conversation.” So, yeah, I need a lift from the software to try and make this meaningful work. In my postdoc, I taught in the University of Haifa, Israel, and students had life experience and the relevance of the ancient world and the pre-modern archaeology was obvious to them, even if my job was to denature it. Here, you are trying to convince them to care and honestly not try and scam your class.


    1. Hey Noah,

      I get it. It’s been a long time since I’ve taught at a big state school, but my experiences are a bit different. If I have to use surveillance technology to convince them care, I’m contributing to emergence of a kind of dystopian future that I’d rather not contemplate. In other words, I remain committed to the naive position that it’s possible to get students to care and to do good, rigorous work, without surveillance, without “cop shit,” and without contributing unnecessarily to the privatization of my state university.

      It may be that the students I get out here are a bit more Western and a bit more rural and that makes them a bit more receptive to the idea: “I’m not going to surveil you, but, if you want to get something out of this class, you gotta do the work.”



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