I have to teach outside my discipline using materials I dislike. Help.
September 9, 2017 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Please help me teach some sessions outside my discipline, using curriculum and materials I hate. Please. I'm dreading this!

I am college faculty in a traditional humanities discipline. I have been tasked with teaching some sessions at a mandatory student weekend retreat designed to teach them leadership skills.

Originally I was under the impression my part would involve doing sessions on academic skills--writing, plagiarism, etc. However, it turns out the department needs me to deliver a series of sessions on the teachings of an expert in the leadership and management field. Think Steven Covey and his ilk. This is NOT my area of expertise, I have no familiarity with this stuff and when I started looking through the mandatory curriculum, it made me cringe. In order for the students to receive credit, I must use these materials as a framework. I will not screw over the students by changing the material or curriculum.

This is going to happen whether I like it or not. (This is non-negotiable for this year. Next year it will be different.) However, I would really like advice on how to survive it this year with my integrity intact. A lot of these motivational/leadership experts make my skin crawl. I find them insincere, hokey and evangelical.

I have looked at the principles that are being taught, and they are not the worst--be dependable, be kind to others you work with, follow through on your commitments, help others achieve their potential, work to your own potential. I genuinely believe these ARE good things. I am a very experienced and flexible instructor, well capable of teaching these sessions and doing a good job. (It doesn't hurt that this stuff is extremely common sense and not rocket science.) But I hate the framing I'm required to use (videos from this guru) and the workbooks they will have. It doesn't help that my very nice fellow colleagues are totally bought in to this guy, so I won't have anyone there to privately vent to.

So, apologies for the length of this novel. How can I deliver on my commitment to do this, using the materials I have to use to satisfy curriculum requirements, while not wanting to scream over the course of these sessions?
posted by hurdy gurdy girl to Education (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
As someone who had to teach from materials I wasn't thrilled about (though didn't actually despise), my advice would be to teach the principles that you approve of and can teach with enthusiasm (and thank your stars that such things are involved!), and otherwise present what you are required to present ("Here's another video") but don't force yourself to pretend you think it's useful or important. Students are pretty good on picking up these things, and will probably grok that you approve of the principles but don't like the framing. That way you keep your self-respect and your students learn stuff worth learning. Too bad you won't have anyone to vent to (except us!), but don't bother faking love for the cult guy to your very nice fellow colleagues—just nod and say noncommittal things. And by all means get out of it next year!
posted by languagehat at 12:14 PM on September 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure how secure you feel doing it, but could you highlight what is on the test and still present your thoughts on what you disagree with? I.e. "You'll be tested based on X assumptions, but others make Y assumptions."
posted by ghost phoneme at 12:34 PM on September 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

How much teaching are you required to do? Could you just have them read the material and then "facilitate discussion"?
posted by kevinbelt at 12:39 PM on September 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

I often find it's helpful to just be straightforward with students about stuff like this. Like flat out say at the start: "We need to use this framework to make sure that you all get credit for taking this course. I think there's a lot of useful material that will serve you well here -- such as being dependable and kind, working to your own potential, etc. Being honest, I find some of the videos a little hokey, but we'll all get through it together and hopefully everyone can find a piece of this training that they find useful going forward." If there's something in the material you really disagree with, I think it's also ok to present an alternate perspective IN ADDITION to their required training.

I recently took a CPR class where the teacher basically took this approach -- apparently they have these super over the top videos they are required to use to teach the material, but she just sort of acknowledged that some of the videos were over the top, and also sprinkled in her own practical advice whenever it was relevant.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:50 PM on September 9, 2017 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the thoughtful suggestions, everyone.

I've spent this afternoon going through the materials more thoroughly and I'm getting more and more horrified. They are written in an extremely America-focused and ethnocentric way. I'll have a lot of international students, so even things that most Canadians might be familiar with by osmosis would not necessarily be familiar to them. Some of the examples of good leadership paint colonizers in an admiring light! WTF! There are ZERO women in any of the examples, and only one person of colour.

I recently took a number of diversity related teaching workshops and I just can't with this. I think I'm going to have to sit down with the department chair on Monday and outline my objections to using this video set and workbook. I am willing to teach the principles and concepts, but these videos and workbooks run directly counter to my teaching and personal philosophy. I literally gasped as I made it further through the material. It is so far from what the faculty in my own department (or many others!) would find acceptable, I feel like I stepped 25 years into the past. Ugh!

If it turns out I have to use the materials for the students to receive credit, I will spend time critiquing them through a lens of gender, race, and culture with the students, in addition to teaching the good concepts. If the department doesn't like that, they can find someone else to do it.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:18 PM on September 9, 2017 [8 favorites]

oh my god you can absolutely use this framework and curriculum to teach academic skills without changing out any of the content. teach them how to think critically about it! get them to evaluate the authors' credentials and background, and then get them to evaluate the actual content of the presentations/readings -- does it stand on its own merits, would it still be convincing with a different author bio attached? ask them who they think reads these books or listens to these gurus (other than college kids forced into it in orientation) and who benefits? If they are all being taught "leadership" equally, who are they going to lead? Or whatever. There is sure to be more than one student there who thinks these books are dumb bullshit -- you don't have to say it yourself or actively subvert the program, just create an atmosphere where they can do it themselves.

if you're being observed or if there's a test at the end it's a different story. but not all that different. Someday these poor kids will most of them be working in a cubicle for a company that gets carried away by dumb management trends, and you can give them a really wonderful grounding in how to read this kind of crap with an open mind and give it the assessment it deserves, not just believe it because their boss said they heard it was terrific. or not be the kind of boss that makes everybody read the latest dumb airport book on leadership.

(saw your follow-up just after I posted. If you can actively subvert it, even better.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 4:24 PM on September 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

I would encourage critical discussions of the material. "FamousGuy's example uses colonizers. In what ways might this not be a great example of leadership?" and "In what other ways could you view the colonized people as leaders?" and "What examples from your own knowledge of human history could you suggest using here instead?" and "Do how people view leaders change over time?" and "In what ways does privilege influence this writer's view?"
posted by shockpoppet at 7:47 PM on September 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

Now is your chance to teach a class on critical thinking about marketing and advertising. "You'll notice that this video is making assumptions about gender..." "This video is a commercial product that the university has to include your our curriculum due to a contract with the manufacturer. You may or may not want to take this part of the video as advertising... However, the next part is going to be on your test. The core concepts stand up well as a set of ethical practices. Their examples, as you will see, are more than dubious...."

Very likely the university will not mind in the slightest if you add your commentary to the leadership skills curriculum. As long as a representative from the manufacturer is not going to be present to make trouble about it, they really only want to fulfill whatever contract they made with the supplier of the program, or at least to not have the program refused so that whoever made the decision to purchase it looks bad.

So you want to be honest with the students "Ouch! This bit is extremely paternalistic," and still support your higher ups at the college. The college needed to have a program on leadership and this is, for whatever reason what they got stuck with. They are trying to make the best of it, by being enthusiastic about it. You can do that too, in your own way.

There will be many occasions during the years ahead of you that you will be teaching using sub-optimal materials. You'll be teaching from the textbook your school or your students can afford. Or things will change so fast that material you are teaching from becomes out of date before you present it. One problem that schools have is that they fall into teaching one truth because they have to grade. So in 2008 they teach something like "C++ is the best language for this kind of project" and by 2017 that is no longer true. A new language like Swift has become the best language for the coding project. Or they teach that Pluto is a planet, and then that it isn't, and then that it might be... The information that you teach will be changing and yet you will be teaching it as if they are absolute eternal facts. You will be providing much more if you provide a context for the one right answer to the test question.

One of the most valuable things you can teach your students is that they have to write their tests as if the information is absolute and eternal, but that in most cases an entirely different answer was required 100 years ago, and an entirely new answer will be required in another 100 years - so you are teaching our best understanding and consensus on a subject at this time. Columbus as he was taught in 1917 is not the same as Columbus taught in 19567, is not the same as Columbus taught in 2017 because our perspective changes. The facts haven't changed; it's that we changed what we think is important, and what we pay attention to.

This is just one of your first opportunities to teach, putting your own critical thinking stamp on the material, and reinforcing the fact that there is usually a difference between the test answers and what the students take away from the course where they learned those test answers. Leaders question, look deeper, change their plans to work with the team they have, and think about social implications. Get your students to do that a bit with the program. Meanwhile you model an awareness of the deficiencies in the program. "Since all the leadership examples the program gave us are of white Anglo-Saxon males, I'm going to request that you try and come up with examples from any other demographic."
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:49 AM on September 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Jane the Brown, I get what you're saying. I suppose I've been fortunate; for probably the last 15 years or so, I've been able to choose my own teaching texts. Prior to that I was an adjunct who got assigned work at the last minute and sometimes I had to use the text that had been ordered months ago. In those cases I did suck it up, but the materials were never actually racist or sexist.

Teaching critical thinking is something I do in all my regular classes and have done for the last couple of decades. However, I've been unpacking this situation and I guess this AskMe has evolved considerably--the more I learn about the materials I'm supposed to use, the more I've decided I'm just entirely opposed to using them at all. I'd prefer not to make lemons out of lemonade and use these, their only required text for the course, as an opportunity for meta analysis. I just straight up don't think they're appropriate and no one should be using them.

The tricky thing with this situation is that there is no college contract with a manufacturer; the department in charge of this weekend chose these materials of their own accord and they really like them. My own department is very aware of privilege, oppression, intersectionality, etc., and we all are on the same page about the (different) materials we use and approaches we take. We all have a media literacy component in our courses where we examine marketing and advertising (among other things) through a lens of race, class, gender, etc. I'm confident I'll be able to infuse the sessions with plenty of opportunities for the students to think critically WITHOUT using departmentally-endorsed racist and sexist materials.

As an outsider, I just need to find a good way to approach the department members about it, because they're the ones who chose the materials, and I'll essentially be saying, "Hey, you know these materials you love? Well they're actually racist and sexist and totally problematic and I'm not going to use them." But I do need to be careful and realistic, because just as I have the academic freedom NOT to use them, I also cannot dictate what they DO use. It would be more fruitful for me to have an honest but low key discussion about it with them. I have zero standing to demand of them, as a department, that they change their set text, but I can refuse to use it myself and try to show them why they should change the text. I just need to figure out the best way to approach that conversation.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:16 AM on September 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I've been following this thread with interest. It'd be great to hear an update, at whatever level of detail you're able to publish, after you've discussed this with the department.
posted by d. z. wang at 9:48 PM on September 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Leaving aside the problematic stuff (which seems well covered in this thread) I'd like to address the idea of "common sense." I've had many a manager tell me that common sense is not that common, so that might be something to tell them for framing the otherwise hokey aspects of the course as well.

For instance, if you've spent most of your life in a competitive academic context, the idea of helping others achieve their potential might not line up with their reality so far. But in the context of a business or a group trying to achieve some goal, it does make sense.

Best of luck!
posted by purple_bird at 9:27 AM on September 11, 2017

I wouldn't approach them and ask to not use it, as if they didn't realise the program is problematic and love it after looking at it they are probably not going to be comfortable hearing it and it is too late for them to fix it now. There is nothing to be gained by telling them before you teach the class. I would provide them with positive feedback after the class saying that you were able to adapt the material to use it with a class that has different ethnic and cultural background, and let them draw the conclusion from that as to why or how it might have been a poor choice.

"Oh, it wasn't bad at all. I just let my students use all female examples, since the examples in the program were all male."

It's just not going to be practical to try to re-educate them, and get a different program with the time you have. You can assume they will be defensive rather than suddenly thinking their program sucks. So ruthlessly prune the program until it is usable, and let them know tactfully that you had to do that. You are laying the groundwork for a different program next year - and you want them to be the ones who refer to it as "That racist program we need to replace..." rather than "That top of the line program that Hurdy Gurdy Girl is being a bitch about."

If other teachers are using the program I would contact them with information on how you adapted it, "because it made my students really uncomfortable..." so that they can get on side with you, and be prepped to defend their students from the micro-aggression in the material.

And if your students provide negative feedback for the program, and positive feedback on how you helped them deal with it, that is a bonus too.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:35 AM on September 11, 2017 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, so I think this has been resolved enough to update: I ended up identifying the department member who seemed most receptive and with whom I'm the most friendly, and I just laid out all my concerns with the material. Interestingly, this person admitted they also had issues with it and said they were so relieved I was bringing this up (!). So, together we approached the other department members about changing the material.

To make a long story short: the other instructor and I who are supposed to present this material will not be using the videos and instead will come up with our own way of delivering the material including a much more updated and diverse collection of examples.

I think there is still one department member who thinks there is nothing wrong with the material or at least not enough wrong with it to ditch it, but he's polite enough not to say so overtly or try to block those of us who don't want to use it.

So all in all I'm pleased and relieved with how things turned out and am really glad I just decided to be honest and approach the department directly. This is making me realize there is a lot to be said about just being upfront about stuff like this, but it's tricky to do when you also have to be very diplomatic.

Now I just need to come up with a list of 20 leaders that includes non-Americans, women, and people of colour in various combinations. (Any suggestions are welcome!)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:07 AM on September 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

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