cannibalism and teaching

I have two books on the table right now. The one I choose to read, and in fact have a hard time putting down, even late at night, is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I’ve never read McCarthy before, but his acclaim from friends and the supposed experts in things literary have put this on my list. On New Year’s Day, my family took part in our tradition in which we splurged at a sale at the bookstore, and this was among the top of my purchases.*

I can’t stop reading this book. Even as it’s about a post-apocalyptic world, burned out and gray with ash that mixes with everything, even the snow; and even as a father and young boy are just trudging through the country trying to stay alive with the supplies in their grocery cart; and even as most everyone else in the world is dead, and those that aren’t are cannibals and attempt to hunt them down; and even while the language is sparse and jarring to match the stark dystopian landscape, I can’t put the book down. It’s chilling and brilliant and haunting and awful and wonderful. It’s the worst thing to be reading as I’m getting ready to fall asleep, but I can’t not keep reading it.

But I’m not supposed to be reading this book about a couple of starving people trying to outlast the apocalypse and its associated cannibals. I suppose that should go without saying.

What I’m supposed to be reading is a text that’s associated with a class/workshop/professional development thing I’ve signed up for. I’m supposed to have a summary of the text completed by tomorrow. The text is entitled Blended Learning in Higher Education, but it may as well be about the apocalypse. Blended learning, according to the authors, “represents a distinct design methodology that transcends the conventional classroom paradigm.” That is, it’s something they more or less made up in order to either get a book deal or place a name on something that others could cite or further describe and cite other terms they’ve made up in other texts — which they seem to do often.

I’m jaded. I wouldn’t normally be — I try to be the person who welcomes all schools of thought and attempts at reform or just general improvement — but this just depresses me. For one thing, the notion of “blended learning” is simply a way to oversell the promise of incorporating online tools with face-to-face instruction. This is all fine, but it isn’t reform. It’s a new crescent wrench in the toolbox, or perhaps an additional socket set (metric!) we add to the workbench. In some cases, I’m sure it will just be window dressing. But what especially bothers me is based on what I realized at a meeting a few months ago.

There’s an entire group of academicians known as “instructional designers.” As someone who was brought up in a school of education and who teaches teaching methods courses, I should be sympathetic to these designers, and I am. Really. But reading this text has just reaffirmed something I had gleaned at that previous meeting. “Instructional design” is based on the premise that teaching and learning is something that is just architected in a generic way for all disciplines, skills, and learning objectives. Learning historical facts or learning scientific practices could be designed in the same basic manner, and could be designed in a way that is largely independent of any understanding of the content. And that’s where I loose my shit. It’s as those the designers are the cannibals — out to absorb whatever nourishment they can get from the multitudes of classes they can imagine a given design to provide instruction for.

I, as a student, meet with this class in just a few days. It’s probably not healthy for me to look at the instructors as cannibals. At the same time, I’m compelled to keep reading The Road and see how it’s going to all turn out. I’ll read Blended Learning as well, but I’m not as certain that this will be as informative.**


*Of late, I’ve been reading a lot, for me. I just finished The Rosie Project, which was delightful and easy. It also hit close to home as the main character was himself easily placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum and worked in a scientific field, all the while trying to connect with others in social and romantic relationships while adhering to strict rationality and scheduling. It also hit a little too close to home sometimes. I mean, it reminded me of people I know.

**Although this is mostly whimsical, I’m also looking at this as part of a long term piece of research. I need to continue to sort out the ideas, but I’ve put in for a sabbatical, cited some research, and basically proposed that I should be looking at the act of teaching and learning in multiple contexts to look for what takes place beyond the design model. So, I have a disposition that’s already biased against the notion of design; but I’m also using it as a model to contrast what I’ll be looking into in the coming year.


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