Re: The last artisans

By Gregor Kiczales posted on March 28th, 2014

Underlying much of the discussion about digital learning is a sub-current of tension about the changing role of faculty in undergraduate education. In a piece called The Last Artisans, David Paris brings this tension into sharp focus by likening the traditional faculty teaching role to that of artisans and by extension the evolving nature of that role to a kind of unbundling and professionalization of the separate aspects of teaching. He starts by using the current state of faculty teaching work at small elite liberal arts colleges as a model of the traditional ideal:

With regard to teaching, faculty members individually have tremendous autonomy and nearly complete control over curricular materials and course content, pedagogical strategies and classroom tactics, and assessment. Although there may be some departmental or institutional requirements for offering certain courses or having certain assignments (e.g., in writing-intensive courses), the norm is for each faculty member to develop and teach courses according to his/her own best lights as part of a department’s disciplinary offerings. There are few specialists that assist faculty members in any aspect of this process, save perhaps for library assistance and technological support for a course management system. There are few if any design specialists for electronic materials, few or no assessment personnel, or technical staff to move courses into online platforms, etc.

Simply put, the idea of unbundling the faculty role, whether in terms and conditions of employment or in instruction, has not reached the shores of the small elite liberal arts colleges. Faculty members are fairly autonomous artisans who craft the process of learning in their own ways without much if any specialized help; the specialization and division of labor involved only pertains to their and their colleagues’ disciplinary training. Indeed, the faculty as a whole, like the disciplines/graduate schools that produce them, operates something like a medieval guild that provided entry to employment via apprenticeship, set craft standards, and resisted interference from authorities and potential competitors. Finally, the “bundled” role of faculty members at liberal arts colleges is dual, since it also extends to their broader role as community members relating to students in many ways beyond the classroom.

By contrast a number of forces are leading away from this artisan model to an unbundling of the faculty teaching role.

Learning research continues to produce new insights into how students learn.  While results are sometimes misinterpreted, and adoption can sometimes be fadish—are you not flipped, flipped or flipped-flipped—there is no doubt that new expertise is being developed in how best to instruct our students. Our basic commitments to scholarship and doing what is best for our students demand that we move towards incorporating this expertise into our teaching.

When well used new technology can help our students master new material. From very simple online discussion groups, to curated video, to adaptive online assessment and more we are learning more and more ways to enliven classes and learning with technology. But that technology can be complex, and it can be inordinately difficult to make wise choices in how to use it effectively.

Our students also increasingly demand flexibility in how they access and consume educational materials. At a minimum they want lecture notes online and expect online access to the instructor and TAs. And of course they want that on mobile platforms as well as laptops. Again the management of this technical infrastructure can be complex.

At the same time  several forces are increasing transparency into the classroom. Technology makes it possible now for our students to see multiple different ways to teach our course. Whether we like MOOCs or not, our students are going to compare what we do to the MOOCs they watch. They can also capture our classes on video to share with their friends, or to post online if they think we do poorly. Years of asking them to compare and contrast will now come back as they apply those skills to our work.

As learning goals become more common they also increase transparency. If we all have to summarize what a course covers in the form of learning goals then it becomes easier for others to assess that aspect of our course separate from its execution.  It will now be  easy to ask questions like “why does your magic 101 not include this goal when all these other magic 101s do?”  That will probably lead to coarse standardization of learning goals for many courses. Any shift to competency based assessment will reinforce that.

These trends all have the potential to make undergraduate education  better, but they definitely make undergraduate teaching more complex. Subject matter expertise is becoming just part of the equation; we also need to stay abreast of the learning literature as well as have some mastery of an ever changing technical infrastructure. Many schools do not expect faculty to do this alone, instead there are support organizations of various kinds to help. But that typically means multiple experts to work with. That has caused a resurgence of the course designer as someone who plays a role somewhat akin to a movie producer and director rolled into one.

But a world in which multiple people are involved in designing and delivering an individual course, together with increasing transparency into the classroom is very different than the artisan ideal. The teaching role of faculty will be very different in this setting.

What’s an artisan to do? Some of us may be able to stick with artisan teaching—there are still blacksmiths after all. But most of us should embrace this professionalization of the different aspects of teaching and use it to provide our students a better learning experience than ever before.  We can of course both embrace the new and have warm feelings about the old. I’m a sucker for visiting a blacksmith demonstration; but I also like being able to buy perfectly formed machine made screws cheaply. I’ll miss the days when I taught by instinct and ran my own show; but if the students really do learn better I’ll be proud to play a part in that.


Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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