A case for radical simplification in higher education

A case for radical simplification in higher education
Photo by NordWood Themes / Unsplash

This article originally appeared on December 30, 2021 at EdSurge, as part of their series Survival Mode: Educators Reflect on a Tough 2021 and Brace for the Future. For this reprint version, I've added some links, and check out the end where I include a few thoughts that didn't appear on EdSurge.

We’re about to start year 3 of teaching in the pandemic, and it seems like an appropriate time to think back to March 2020 to think about what new things I’ve started to adjust to COVID-19 disruptions, what I stopped doing and what I plan to continue for 2022.

The practice is a common retrospective technique known as Start/Stop/Continue, and it poses three questions:

  • What are we not doing, that we should start doing?
  • What are we doing, that we should stop doing?
  • What are we doing, that we should keep doing?

Sitting in my home office running through this mental exercise, here’s what I came up with:

Start: Dedicated time for reflection and review

I was chair of the Math Department when the pandemic hit. In ten days’ time, we had to reinvent college-level mathematics instruction on a large scale—more than 100 sections of courses and nearly 3000 students—with no playbook. Many of our faculty, all experienced and skilled instructors, were not just overwhelmed but on the brink. While it was rough going in those early weeks, we eventually made it work (and even discovered some new departmental strengths) mostly because of an unwavering commitment to frequent, transparent and radically honest communication with each other.

But have we made a similar commitment to this kind of communication with ourselves?

I’ve engaged in morning and afternoon rituals for a long time: 30 minutes in the morning for reading, planning the day, and coffee; and 30 minutes in the afternoon for zeroing out inboxes and journaling, before transitioning to family time. But this was always contingent: if I had stuff to do, then I’d skip the afternoon shutdown/reset. However, early in the pandemic I realized that daily reflection and review is essential for putting work into a coherent context. Without it, I am at the mercy of the “latest and loudest” and never engage with work that’s important but not necessarily urgent, and I lose myself.

So what I started doing was making those times inviolable. They go on the calendar and everything else flows around them. As a result, I’ve maintained some perspective and peaceful coherence through all this. And I’m more capable of being fully present with the people and tasks that need me.

Stop: Doing pointless tasks

I like having plans and trustworthy systems in place for everything from teaching to what I do on the weekends. But through the pandemic, I’ve learned that overly complex systems, far from being trustworthy and robust, can in fact be brittle, and prone to falling apart when something overwhelms them. So I’ve stopped prioritizing time and energy to anything that doesn’t seem to matter, and to stop feeling guilty about it.

For example, in Fall 2020, I decided to remove four big topics from my Calculus class, because I felt the time would be better spent going deep on the other things. As department chair in April 2020, I looked at a handful of tedious, time-consuming processes of questionable value that every department chair was supposed to do, and decided to just skip them, and see what happened. If I said what the things were that I cut from my syllabus or my department chair duties, I would probably get in trouble. But so far, nobody has even noticed.

I conclude that there are many, many things in higher education that we simply don’t need to be doing, and shouldn’t be doing, and we should ask for forgiveness rather than permission as we happily cut them away. Higher education would do well to make radical simplification a priority for the next ten years. Individually, while not all faculty have complete freedom to decide whether or what to eliminate from their work, you might be surprised what you can get away with if you simply do what seems best.

Continue: Focusing on solutions while not ignoring problems

Finally, I’m committed to continuing to take a problem-solving approach to every situation. This does not mean ignoring problems and engaging in toxic positivity or viewing broken people or systems as things merely to be “fixed.” It means being fully aware of the gravity of a situation, and rather than putting myself totally at its mercy, choosing to believe that there is always something I can do to make things better, then doing what I can.

We are well aware of the problems we have in the world and in education specifically. Continuing to focus on how bad things are, seems redundant now. At this point, I am instead asking myself and others: What am I doing and what are we doing to make things better? This is a real question. Answering it takes courage. I think higher education professionals have that courage and are uniquely situated to make a positive difference. We are highly trained to tackle big, complex problems that nobody has ever solved. We have a chance to lead society, particularly our students, with intelligence, determination, and compassion.

Things are hard now and people are tired. But I’m still hopeful that 2022 will be The Year of Solutions in higher education, and we can do what educators do best—learn, and lead—to turn the corner.

Bonus extra thoughts

  • I read EdSurge every day and I am deeply grateful for their continued support of my writing. As of January 5, this article is the most-read one on their website, which is awesome.
  • BUT: I have to say I'm not a fan of the name of the series where this article appeared. I am not in "survival mode"; I didn't think 2021 was any harder of a year than any other year I've taught; and I am not "bracing" for the future like one might brace for an airplane crash. In fact 2021 was an outstanding year for me professionally. I understand not everyone has the same experience. But, I want to be clear that I think part of what I mentioned in Tuesday's post this week involves approaching 2022 with a different mindset than "surviving" the present and "bracing for" the future. The present is what it is, and we have no control over the future. Instead, re-read my third point above about adopting a problem-solving approach to things, and working to make 2022 the Year of Solutions.
  • How does one get to the point where they have the mental space to adopt this problem-solving approach? Here are some ideas:
  1. Start taking control of the "stuff" in your life, like I write about in my GTD posts. This includes getting your inbox under control, having systems and workflows in place to handle projects and tasks, and focusing on the Next Action. I've written about this stuff for ages but frankly, academic types tend to have no interest in it. I'm not sure why; maybe because it seems too hard, or too silly, or somehow counter to how people should live in "academe". But I am not kidding when I say that adopting habits and structures to take control of things is now a matter of life and death for people in higher ed.
  2. Drastically cut back on social media. Twitter, formerly a fun and useful outlet for connection and communication, is now driving a toxic echo chamber among academics that makes conformity to a negative, doom-scrolling mindset a requirement for fitting in with your "friends". It's time to cut way back on it, or cut it out entirely.
  3. Take steps to cut "stuff" off at the source. Refuse in 2022 to engage in pointless tasks (unless you truly want to). This includes especially meetings. Say no to more requests than you might feel comfortable doing. As you gain further control over your stuff (see #1) develop an explicit statement of your values and short- and long-term goals, and say yes only to things that align with those. Cal Newport's recent New Yorker article on slow productivity has some clues about this.

I feel like there's a lot more to say about this last point.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.