SR Education Group Publishes Kirstein Interview on Online Education: Reprinted Here

I received several email from Program Managers at SR Education Group asking me for an interview. I was somewhat surprised since they are an online education company that brokers for online universities or mortar-and-brick universities that have online programmes. I was somewhat surprised since I am no devotee of online learning or distance learning but I am not utterly doctrinaire in my opposition to such educational venues. I tried actually to dissuade them from pursing this due to my not being perhaps “a company player.” Yet to their credit and contrary to my initial assumptions, they showed courage and intellectual breadth in publishing it. Kudos to the SR Education Group for soliciting and publishing an interview that does not advance their bottom line: unless it impresses those who are attracted to a corporate intermediary that accepts criticism of its business model:

This is link to interview:

Not my favourite logo. I recoil at such a crass monetary emphasis while recognising that education is appropriately construed as a means toward both knowledge and financial viability within the cash nexus of monstrous Goldman Sachs capitalism.

Peter N. Kirstein is a professor of history at St. Xavier University in Chicago. He received his B.A. in Government from Boston University and both his M.A. in Political Science and Ph.D. in History from Saint Louis University. He has been published by The Historian, Situation Analysis, Journal of Mexican American History, and many others.

In this interview, along with other scholars, Professor Kirstein discusses why he became an educator, some of his biggest challenges and greatest rewards, his views on online education, and more.

When and why did you decide to become an educator?

I had a love of teaching that emerged during my fellowship in the Political Science Department and continued after receiving my master’s. I was in graduate school pursuing a Ph.D. in history when that desire became more formalized. I also felt that academia would be a place where critical thinking, progressive change, and intellectual creativity would afford me the opportunity to continue my work as a change agent after graduate school.

I should add that Howard Zinn, my advisor and frequent professor of Government at Boston University set me on my intellectual journey. Patrick Dougherty at Saint Louis University continued the inspiration of critical thinking in graduate school. Only two professors really started me on my journey, but that’s all it takes.

What has been the most surprising challenge you have faced as a professor? How have you handled it?

I never thought I would be suspended for opposing the Bush administration war policies and American imperialism in general. I did not believe I would become embroiled in a national controversy due to an e-mail response to an Air Force Academy cadet and—to put it mildly—it was a “surprising challenge.” I have written extensively and lectured widely on it because “to be silent is to lie.” I am also a fighter and can handle unusual situations of great stress and fervor with a cool, calculated, determination. I am a tough person to silence and marginalize because of my passion for values and ethics that supersede all else.

It was a triumph of the will. I handled it in such a manner that it launched my career as both a public intellectual and scholar. It enabled me to rise within the organization of the American Association of University Professors as an academic freedom advocate and to have a heightened sense of self-esteem: predicated on toughness, persistence and courage. I am stronger, wiser and more confident in my capacity to work for social change having been suspended by those who so fiercely resisted it. I have imperfections that I recognize, but it is not for David Horowitz or the Wall Street Journal right to define me. I define myself.

Can you talk about a recent rewarding experience you’ve had as an educator?

I received the Teaching Excellence Award in 1997 at St. Xavier University and was nominated again this year for it. Also a graduating senior, who won the History/Social Science Education prize, dedicated his gift to the university to me. These two events are so rewarding and so nice. They mean so much to me. I love the students and love teaching and have since I first taught at Saint Louis University. I love it just as much now as when I was a graduate student.

Do you use any tools or technologies that have enhanced your teaching experiences?

I use Blackboard, PowerPoint images prepared by others for me, document cameras, CD players for music, and occasional video. I have a blog and a website, but I don’t know if folks consult those. I am going to learn how to actually make PowerPoint slides, text, and clickers this summer. I am not the worst in terms of applying technology in my classes, but can improve in this area. One cannot become too resistant to technology or one may lose the advantages that come with it. On the other hand, a healthy skepticism about the latest gadget is prudent.

Do you use any online resources that you would recommend to other professors or teachers, like social communities or textbook review sites?

How about my website and blog, to be a little facetious. I don’t use textbooks generally because I feel teachers should use books they would read: not books they don’t read. Professors don’t read textbooks so why should their students? It is a personal decision not an overall statement of what others should do. I do use links such as the New York Times and show some classes how to use databases such as JSTOR or Academic Search Complete.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing higher education today?

Tenure is under assault as the new proletariat emerges with contingent faculty who are at-will employees. Stopping the contingent off the tenure-track flood would address a primary threat to our educational system. Higher education is in some ways a scam as Barbara Ehrenreich notes in This Land is Their Land. Tuition increases regardless of the external economic order and students are nickel and dimed to death for stupid fees on top of $100,000 in debt.

The humanities and social sciences are being corrupted by assessment, student outcome mania testing, and a liberal-conservative Schlesingerian “vital center” of stultifying proportions. Teaching to the test as administered by state-accrediting agencies is epidemic. Professors are silenced or intimidated by other professors, administrators, governing boards or external groups. Critical thinking is under assault. Financial exigency is growing. I believe that a new conformity, not seen since McCarthyism, has descended upon post-secondary education and that it is casting a “pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” Quotation from Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York case (1967).

What advice would you give a new professor before his/her first day of class?

Remember your humanity and forget the rest.

What reservations do you have about online education?

I wonder how a science lab is conducted? I wonder how class discussion can be replicated digitally? I wonder if all professors engaged in this work are appropriately compensated and rewarded due to the burdens of management that I hear about. I wonder if their workloads are adjusted particularly if they have real classes as well in a traditional setting. I question how a student can meet with a professor in her office in an online environment, unless it is part of a real university. I question how modern languages can be taught online. I question whether the interaction between professors and students, and between students and students in a quad, in a hall discussion, in the cafeteria, etc. can be replicated merely through online contact.

I also am struck that the technology that creates online learning is really anti-technology. How does one use the technologies in a classroom such as audio-visual materials on a dumb computer screen? I would not rule out online teaching in all circumstances. I understand it may suit the convenience of the student learner: but it is something that I believe is not as beneficial to the student as direct personal contact with an instructor. I also wonder how a professor can grow and develop as a teacher in this environment. I suspect less than one who is engaged in teaching in a real classroom or lab: I recognize there maybe hybrids of folks who do both online and real teaching in a university setting, but I would not be the teacher I am today if confined to a desk and a computer. Maybe some forms of distance learning with visual means of communication might work. I don’t know.

Could you imagine an online teaching environment that you would enjoy using and that you think would be successful?

No. I want to teach, not preach. I want to talk, not only write. I want to see people, not just words. I want to be human and enjoy the potential humanity of teaching.

Can you talk a little about the type of relationship you have with your students and also, if/how you think that relationship would be different in an online setting?

I encourage debates. I encourage a lot of student participation in class. I encourage group discussion. While I realize through e-mail one can have meaningful conversations, I think technology can be a very destructive educational tool as well as a liberating one. I don’t see how a teacher whose use of technology avoids visual contact with a student augments the teaching experience. I wonder if a professor online is as likely to inspire as one in person.

I have not taught online and do not want to be disrespectful or question the professionalism or capacities of those who do. I do have, however, grave and serious concerns about the advancement of academic freedom online for both teacher and student, and whether a faceless educational experience inevitably leads to an environment of impersonal learning.

Do you have any other thoughts on online education?

Maybe some students who are incapacitated can benefit. Maybe some who are in an area without adequate postsecondary education could benefit. Yet universities, who can teach Goldman Sachs a lesson or two about scams, do this for the money and not for the educational benefit of professors and students. It’s all about cash flow, not idea flow.

Full Disclosure: The interviewee received compensation in the form of an online (what else?) $50 gift “card” for purchase at Amazon.com.

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