A New Model for Academic Faculty II: Further Thoughts

TL;DR Building on the previous post, here are some slightly more concrete thoughts on what may be possible in the future. As a self proclaimed community of problem solvers, we have not done a good job at solving major problems in teaching physics, or teaching in general. Too many of us have ceded authority to outside influences and have become captives of the status quo. Can we finally begin the process of reclaiming that authority? I believe so.

Physicists are frequently marketed as “problem solvers” and this is also frequently stated as an outcome of earning a physics degree. However, I contend that as a community, physics teachers have not been very good at solving problems that most directly affect our ostensible job (teaching physics). I can think of a number of reasons for this. First, though, I suppose I should list at least some of these problems. This isn’t intended to be all inclusive so the list may very well omit some things and include some things that may not belong.

  • large class sizes (think hundreds of students in a large lecture course)
  • loss of classroom autonomy (may overlap with many other items in this list)
  • lack of freedom to employ reformed pedagogy
  • lack of freedom to choose your course materials
  • lack of freedom to create your own course materials
  • lack of freedom to work from home
  • lack of freedom to use hardware and/or software of your choice
  • lack of concern for faculty interests at the expense of the nonsensical “it’s all about the students” mantras
  • workplace bullying or harassment
  • an institution’s business model that directly affects how you teach and assess student’s work and progress
  • standardized testing
  • emphasis on test prep and not actual teaching
  • harassment from antiscience influences
  • denial of opportunities because you don’t have certain credentials
  • intellectual property conflicts
  • classes scheduled at times not good for your students
  • corporate mindsets in public higher education
  • interference from politicians
  • incompetent administrators
  • administrators who misquote or misinterpret accreditation guidelines
  • micromanagement by administrators
  • administrators who mock the scholarship of learning
  • administrators who treat teaching as something that can NEVER be done right
  • administrators who “evaluate” faculty based on unreachable goals
  • administrators who mock faculty who are demonstrably successful teachers
  • administrators who “evaluate” faculty based on loyalty to all administrative efforts (sound familiar?)
  • administrators who define “professionalism and collegiality” as blind obedience to anything they say or do
  • workplace gaslighting
  • interference from internal influences (e.g. IT)
  • unfair treatment of faculty by administration
  • artificial constraints from accrediting agencies
  • adjunctification of the teaching community
  • ubiquitous cheating culture
  • course content dictated by third parties
  • inadequate or inappropriate grading methods
  • lack of appropriate professional development
  • low salary
  • lack of funding to attend relevant conferences
  • social justice issues
  • high cost of traditional textbooks
  • restrictions on use of materials by publishers
  • teaching not valued compared to research

It is certainly true that some (many?) of these problems are beyond our current reach to fix, but I feel very strongly that that is only because we are still thinking, and please pardon the cliché, inside the box. If we are truly a community of trained problem solvers as we like to claim, then I contend we should be able to identify relevant problems and begin the process of solving them. I am almost certain it will require changing how we view contemporary physics teaching, and even the very education establishments within which we currently work. It will almost certainly require creating a brand new model that doesn’t currently exist, and physicists are great at creating models; it’s at the very core of physics (indeed, all science).

As wild as all this sounds, it has been done before. Consider WebAssign. It was literally created by physicist John Risley, later accompanied by Aaron Titus and Larry Martin, for teaching physics. Consider Pivot Interactives, a company co-founded by well known physics teacher Peter Bohacek. These two companies, along with others, literally changed the world in ways that were previously deemed impossible. I propose going even further by creating not just a company that creates and provides content, but an entirely new institution independent of existing ones. I imagine an institution wherein people truly dedicated to teaching physics can do just that, free of all the things that currently limit us. This institution would include students and faculty from across the spectrum (pun intended). Home schooled students, elementary school students, middle school students, high school students, and even undergraduate physics students, including physics majors would be the target audiences. I can even foresee ordinary people outside of academics who want to take a physics course being served. The main idea is that all of this would be controlled by the people who know what’s best for all of these students: physics teachers. Not administrators. Not politicians. Not accreditors. Faculty. It’s that simple. It may even be so simple as to be complex. Imagine being able to run your class as you, not your administrators or not some other institution who does not respect your autonomy, see fit, in accordance with established findings from PER/AER. Imagine being able to do completely away with traditional grades, which are inherently inequitable. Imagine being free to blaze new trails in creating new courses with modern content. Imagine an entire physics curriculum with computation integrated throughout from day one. Imagine enrolling physics students from across the world, not just your city. And I am not thinking about static online courses either. I imagine going further with all types of instruction, including in person and yes, even Zoom. I see so many possibilities.

I can really see all this in my mind, and I think it is possible and doable.

Now, here’s a statement that will be painful to hear and may even cause you to hate me, but I don’t care. Here it is. We, as teachers and especially those of us who can’t work at elite institutions, have ceded our autonomy and authority over the past few decades to just about everyone else in education and those people are now using it against us, to manipulate us, and to prevent us from doing our jobs to the to the best of our competencies. We have been bullied into thinking that we don’t know what’s best when we actually do. We have given in to a status quo that has ruined teaching as a profession, especially in the public schools and community colleges. Merely asking for all of this back will not work. We have to take it back. Laugh all you want, but that’s where we currently are.

Now, I can already hear the objections to all of this. I really can. I plan to sort them out and address them in future posts. Remember, we’re problem solvers.

Feedback is welcome as always.

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