Why we build

Why we build

Today, for the first time since March 16, I am working a full day in my university office. March 16, 2020 was the Monday following the then-unprecedented announcement that my campus was closing because of Covid-19 and all classes were being moved online. And now, 164 days later, the circle has closed, because classes start on Monday and I need to get ready to re-enter the classroom after an impossibly long time away.

For 66 of those 164 days, I have been blogging here about how I am building my Fall classes. Now, that building process has come to an end. Nearly all the infrastructure — the learning objectives, the plan for learning activities, the plan for assessment and grading, the materials and tools — is built, with just a couple more videos I need to make this afternoon. The syllabi are written and the LMS sites are live. I didn't make it to my goal of having the first six weeks loaded and ready on Day 1 — this was probably not a good idea in the first place — but I do have the first two weeks done, and done in such a way that I've built routines, templates, and workflows that I can lean on as the semester progresses. I'd say that except for just a few things left to do today, the courses are ready to launch.

But the building process will continue. Because there's one aspect of teaching college courses that can't be built before the semester starts, and doesn't ever get completed during the semester or even after it ends. It's the most important facet of university teaching, and the hardest, and the best.

I'm referring to the building of people and relationships.


The last time I taught a class was one year ago, Fall 2019. The class was a 5-credit Functions and Models (our name for precalculus) course, taught in a hybrid format. That was the only class I taught all last academic year, since I had reassigned time to be interim department chair. And there are two things you need to know about this course. First, it was carefully and meticulously built with all the best practices for online and hybrid instruction in mind; not perfect, but with all the right components in all the right places, put together carefully and with attention to all the proper details. Just like you've read from my posts recently.

The second thing to know is that it was the worst teaching performance that I have had in 25 years of being in this business.

I don't just mean the student perception data I received. The ratings I got weren't awesome, but they weren't terrible either. The main problem was that from the beginning, despite of all my building, I never connected with the students. I was the architect of a wonderfully designed house, but not the host of a meaningfully intimate visit to someone's home. The alignment between learning objectives, activities, assessments, grading, materials and tools was solid. The relationships between people, and between people and ideas, were weak or nonexistent.

I'm not sure why this happened — why do we connect instantly with some people sometimes and only with great difficulty with others at other times? — but basic Relationships 101 states that functioning relationships don't just "happen", they have to be built and this takes time, effort, and a nontrivial amount of risk. It was clear after just a couple of weeks — during which students disengaged from online discussions, resisted working together in F2F meetings, and would not respond to emails asking how things were going — that I needed to do something. And I did, at first. I gave more credit for Campuswire posts; I used more involving class activities; and so on. But this didn't stick. I was still trying to architect my way out of a relationship problem, and I didn't see that I was using the wrong tools for the job.  

After this kept going on — around week 8 of a 14-week semester — I did what you are never supposed to do in teaching. I gave up on my students.

I said: Fine. If you all want to be disengaged, I'll let you. I've done my part and hereafter I wash my hands of the situation. So I stopped all efforts at trying to turn the class around. I stopped checking in with students. I stopped offering help (although I kept my office hours). I stopped posting additional example videos and solution/walkthrough videos for assessments. My motto became, If you want help then ask for it. And not surprisingly this course ended up with highest D/F/W rate of any course I've ever taught.

There was a time in my career when that motto was a fairly accurate 1-sentence summary of my teaching philosophy. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, snowflake. Now, though, I think back about this experience and what I am writing to you today, and it fills me with regret and shame. While it's true that at some level, there is a hard limit on what I can do to help students, and while it's true that students have a responsibility here too, the fact is that you never give up on your students. You keep at it, working on the relationship even when you are ignored, ghosted, or gaslit in your attempts to work with those students because this is what teachers do.  

When the semester was over and I had the holiday break to reflect on what happened, there was a real sense that I had reached the end of my teaching career and that I needed to find another line of work. A person who gives up on his students is not a teacher. The following semester I had the great privilege of spending a week at the University of São Paulo working with faculty on flipped learning and active learning — and I felt like a fraud. What business do I have writing or speaking about education, and collecting a paycheck for it no less? Then, the week after I returned, the pandemic roared into the United States and one week later, it was March 16, and when I wasn't acting as department chair to keep the Math Department afloat, I was thinking about either getting full time into administration — not because I love administration but because I'd shown myself to be unworthy of the title of "instructor" — or out of higher education altogether.

But here I am, about to get back into the classroom again. Why?

The purpose of building

One of my mottoes as interim department chair last year was "Shut up and take notes". I feel like administrators stop being effective the moment they start talking more than they listen; and with my lack of experience I had no basis for talking much. So I observed, listened, and took notes a lot. And one of the areas I observed the most, was the teaching of my colleagues. Not for personnel evaluations but because I knew I had a lot to learn.

What I learned from watching my colleagues and listening to them talk about their teaching is that, while you do have to have good design in your courses — no matter the modality — that design is not an end in itself, and design alone will not create meaningful, significant learning experiences. The course you design has to be inhabited. It has to be filled with the intention of the professor to enable all students to learn; the persistent and sometimes thankless work of attending to students even when they may not deserve it; and a spirit of genuine caring, which at its best is two-way but often has to start as a unilateral decision to care strongly about student success and then act accordingly.

You don't design and build a house or an office building just so people can marvel at the cleverness of the plumbing or the aesthetic quality of the windows. You do it so people can live and work there. You build a house with the intention of it being a home for someone.

Likewise, I've written a lot here about building Calculus. But in no way do I mean that building the infrastructure of a course and getting it to check off 85% of the Quality Matters rubric means that the course is going to be a meaningful experience for students. To do that, there's an entire next level "building process" that has to take place, one that properly starts on Monday. This is the building of the students themselves, from novice learners to a few steps closer to expert, lifelong learners; the building of relationships between people, and the relationships between people and ideas; and finally the building of myself as a person who is not just an architect but a guide, a mentor, a host, a partner — someone who cares and does not give up so easily.

My plans for building on this level

...are basically nonexistent, except for a few principles. Building relationships is not like building an office building. There are no blueprints, no Gantt charts and no budget. Instead, you do the architecture first and let that clear the way to allow you to focus on the people instead without having to worry about how you're going to assess things, what technology to use, and so forth. This is why we pay so much attention to details and alignment during the course build: To allow ourselves freedom to focus on people once the course actually launches.

I'm operating on three main principles here:

  1. Every student can learn, and wants to learn.
  2. Every student, as a human being, has inherent dignity and value.
  3. I'm in the unique position of connecting students to the ideas and people they need to connect to, in order to learn.

Sadly, if you look around at the writing of some faculty, you will see strong doubts or even denials of at least one of these. And if you read Twitter, for the last six months you've seen university faculty not really deny these principles themselves but deny that they can be realized in an online, hybrid, or socially distanced situation. So it's no surprise that some of the early reactions to being back in the classroom are tales of sadness and depression, in no small part because since at least May, some of those faculty have been telling themselves that it's going to be nothing but this.

But I take a more optimistic view, even if my optimism is highly tempered not only by the realities of Fall semester but also by my most recent teaching activity, which as I described above was a failure. I enter Fall 2020 with serious doubts not only about the sustainability of our approach but also my own personal fitness to be doing what I'm doing, and if I'm honest I think the latter is more of a threat to students. Nevertheless: I do think all students can learn and want to learn; I do believe in the inherent value of students as humans; and I think I am beginning to comprehend that I'm of much more use to students when I stop trying to be a "thought leader" all the time and start trying harder to tap their abilities, give them opportunities to connect, and help them to see the first two items themselves, possibly for the first time. So I plan on trusting in my architecture, and then focusing my energy on becoming what I am describing. That's my plan, and I think it's stronger than Covid.

Also, shutting up more often and taking more notes.

Thank you for reading this and the other posts in this series. I will continue the story of these classes as the semester unfolds, as we move from building those courses to making them work. So keep coming back every Thursday for that. If you're teaching this fall, no matter what level, just know that you are seen, you are valuable, and you are doing important and meaningful work. And remember to take care not only of your students but yourself as well.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

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