Losing our nerve

Losing our nerve
Photo by Patrick Mueller / Unsplash

Higher education faces significant challenges on all fronts these days. But in my view, the strongest one we face comes from within. I don't mean nefarious administrators, recalcitrant faculty, entitled students, and the like. In fact it's not about people at all. The challenge, the problem, is risk aversion. I am worried not so much that we are losing students, funding, or our currency with the general public. My worry is that we're losing our nerve.

Here are two anecdotes that put me in this frame of mind. They are not data; they are instead stories to explain why I get worried sometimes.

Risk taking and teaching

I've been doing workshops and talks on teaching and learning for the last decade. Many people classify the topics I deal with — flipped learning, alternative grading, active learning, etc. — as "innovations". I neither agree nor disagree with that label for a variety of reasons. But they are perceived as "innovative", or at least different from the norm, and so there are people exploring them as ideas but who aren't completely sold on doing them in their own classrooms yet. And so, when I give these workshops and talks, I tend to get a lot of questions from those folks along the lines of: What if X happens? where "X" is some event that indicates that the whole thing has gone sideways.

What if students don't do the preclass work? What if my department chair doesn't buy in to what I am doing with my grading system? What if students complain to the dean that I'm not teaching the class and my evaluations tank? These questions are sometimes phrased as What do I do if X happens?

When posed this way, in terms of mitigating the risk inherent in teaching in a different way, these questions are totally legitimate, honest, and clear-minded. Every person in the room probably has them; only a few are brave enough to say them out loud. And from that place of respect, I have always tried to give practical advice on how to mitigate the risk. Make the preclass work minimal and structured. Discuss what you're doing with your department chair well in advance of doing it. Have critical conversations with students about the value of active learning.

But since the onset of the pandemic, I've been sensing that these questions are becoming less honest inquiries about the mitigation of risk, and more about the avoidance of risk. Not always; the vast majority who ask these kinds of questions are still doing so in good faith, looking for a way to teach better and differently. But a small yet growing minority intend these as as trick questions. The question comes in as How do I make sure X doesn't happen (a subtle change in phrasing) – which could still be an honest risk-mitigation question, but it's asked not as a real request for advice and perspective but for the sole purpose of determining that there's a nonzero chance of failure and conclude, See? This is a bad idea.

The narrative is that unless risk is reduced to zero, no reasonable person should engage in the activity. And that's what worries me.

So these days, I add something like the following to my advice:

I appreciate your question and here's my advice. [Insert advice here] But also keep in mind that all of the stuff you just mentioned, or worse, could very well happen. In fact over time, it's almost certain that it will happen. If that's not something you can bear, then maybe this stuff isn't for you right now.

This is not what you are supposed to say to people in a workshop. But I've come to realize that the most helpful and honest thing I can do in workshops and talks is be real about what might happen if you do the things I am talking about. All of it involves elevated levels of risk in your career. You can mitigate that risk by employing good course design practices, showing empathy, engaging in healthy communication, and so on. But you can't eliminate it without reverting back to what you are (supposedly) trying to escape, and I've stopped believing it's helpful to pretend otherwise.

Flipped learning, specifications grading, or just plain active learning by itself  – these are not safe choices for instructors. They involve sticking your neck out. If you are really going to engage in this work then at some level you must be willing to accept those risks; to do it well, you have to enjoy the risk. But the mindset of I won't do it unless all risks are zero is what got us here in the first place.

Risk and the work of higher education

Microcredentials have been in the conversation around here for some time. They came up again recently as we updated our institutional strategic plan, as a way to perhaps engage learners who we don't traditionally reach. Although I'm not an evangelist like some folks, I am generally pro-microcredential and I think it would be a good idea to at least explore expanding our portfolio of offerings to include them alongside traditional degrees.

Reasonable people can have good-faith disagreements with me on this topic and that's completely fine – in fact I welcome the opposing views. I wouldn't have started blogging 15 years ago if I had a problem with being wrong. But recently I've heard opposition that sounds like this:

How can we be sure that there's a market for these things? How can we make sure that we don't waste a lot of time and energy on these?

Like questions about avoiding pitfalls in innovative teaching, these questions can be honest, good-faith questions about what we can expect if we invest in microcredentialing, and how we might mitigate risk. But, also like the teaching questions, they can also be smokescreens to give permission to avoid risk altogether. The first kind of intention is welcome; the second kind worries me.

It worries me because in these times, risk aversion can be deadly for higher education. It seems clear to me that we're at an inflection point in the history of the university. The ways we've done our work for the last 100 or 1000 years, while still having value, are no longer a good fit for all people, possibly even for the majority of people. The so-called fourth industrial revolution is upending all of that. I'm seeing it with the students I have and with the learners – my friends, neighbors, even my own kids – that we don't yet have.

Again, it's not that the traditional ways of doing higher education are worthless now; it's just that now, people want more than that. What we in higher education can provide that best serves the public, is something still being worked out. That is, it's being worked out by the universities that aren't risk-averse. The universities with a culture of learning and innovation baked into them are stepping out to try new things – microcredentials, partnerships, online models, and more – not because they are sure bets but because they might be what people need and therefore worth a try.

In all those cases, it's not completely clear that there is a strong pre-existing market for them. As with innovative teaching, there's an elevated level of risk, and trying one or more of these could entail failure – and over time, continued innovation will almost certainly produce failure. So if you're a university, just like if you are an instructor, you face a choice. Do you push ahead and mitigate the risk? Or do you revert back to the former ways of doing things and avoid risk?

If you sit around and wait for the market for microcredentials or anything else to become a sure thing, then it's probably too late because one of the other institutions is likely to already be in that space, eating your lunch. If on the other hand you are using the "lack of a market" merely as way of deflecting a lack of interest in doing anything differently than we've always done — I'd appreciate it more if we could just be honest and say I am uninterested in doing anything different in plain language and leave the "market" out of it. And accept the consequences.

Nerve and vulnerability

So I am worried that globally in higher education, we're not stepping up to the challenge of innovating in what we do in order to serve the learners that need what we have to offer, because we've become fearful of risk taking. We are getting to the point that a nonzero level of risk shuts our thinking down, and that's not sustainable, or wise, or congruent with who we are as scholars and learners.

At the same time I am also sometimes worried that our institutional cultures aren't helping people get past this because vulnerability isn't normalized. If you're a faculty member, how certain are you right now that if you try something different and therefore risky — in your teaching, or your scholarship, or anything else — and it doesn't go as well as planned, in fact it goes completely south, that you'll be allowed the chance to learn and grow from it? Is vulnerability and risk-taking something promoted and protected in your institution?

This is a real question and I encourage you to actually ask it, to someone — to everyone — above you in the org chart. It deserves real answers. Don't rely on vague feelings of distrust. Ask directly. And if you are the administration, you're on the hook for all of this — both the risk-taking that is necessary for our survival, and the culture that makes risk-taking not only acceptable but expected.

Regardless of who you are, don't lose your nerve.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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