Critical, Instructional, Design?

I’m taking a brief online course, Critical Instructional Design, through Digital Pedagogy Lab. This blog post constitutes my response to the first assignment. Here’s the prompt:

For this assignment, consider the problem of the definition of critical instructional design. What do you think critical means? What does instructional mean to you? What is design? What do these words in combination with each other mean? And, more than definitional meaning, what does critical instructional design look like in practice?

Answering these questions is going to require more than a little divagation into autobiography—particularly the first one: “What do you think critical means?”


When I was an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college, the English and American Studies departments where I undertook a good deal of my coursework were, while politically progressive and eager to incorporate diverse artifacts, texts, and perspectives, relatively free of explicit theoretical practice. (There was a junior seminar on literary theory, but I didn’t take it.) Instead, students participated in relatively free-wheeling discussions of texts and other cultural phenomena. (Helen Vendler’s latest book, The Ocean, The Bird and the Scholar is a fine, albeit higher order approximation of how we explicated and interpreted poems.) Never did I have to think, “But what would Derrida—or Marx, Foucault, Saussure, Althusser, or Deleuze and Guattari— say about this text?” At age 20, I didn’t experience the anxiety of applying someone else’s lens to, say, literature or architecture that was, at least for me, already sufficiently complex.

This doesn’t mean we were solipsistic in our readings. We considered the cultural moments in which these works came into being. We applied existing theories and combinations of theories, certainly, but we didn’t necessarily know they emerged from named schools of thought.

When I went to grad school to get an M.A. in writing poetry, my program required us to take a certain number of literature seminars—something to which I initially looked forward. However, soon I realized many of the literature Ph.D. students believed their task for our weekly seminars was to force whatever work we were reading—Thomas More‘s Utopia, for example, or Sutton Griggs‘s Imperium in Imperiothrough the disfiguring filters of their favorite critical theory, then attempt to glean brilliant observations from the pulverized parts, as if reading entrails.

At the time, I found the whole process distasteful. I had planned to move from the creative writing M.A. to a Ph.D. in literature, but my forays into graduate literature seminars turned me off that path.

Instead, I started a Ph.D. in a relatively old-school American studies program that embraced the roots of that interdiscipline—history and literature—while broadly defining what counts as “literature.” I enjoyed it, but for nonacademic reasons, I felt the pull of my home state of California, and I opted instead to enroll in a brand-new cultural studies Ph.D. program, naïvely thinking that “cultural studies” merely meant “American studies methods and interests, broadened to a global scale.”

Long story short: I struggled. There were a few theories I found super useful, particularly those of Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway, Patricia Hill Collins, and some cultural theorists working within museum studies and material culture. Many others—I’m looking at you, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Haraway, and Gayatri Spivak—I understood and found interesting, but I was put off by how the density of their language took their work in a direction opposite from the democratizing, liberatory projects they wanted to construct. It was just too difficult for most people to read and understand, let alone translate into their own lives and work.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in my own work I took a vow of comprehensibility. I wrote a dissertation that would not be out of place in a graduate history program. I drew on the work of a couple of theorists and curtsied in the direction of others, but for the most part, I tried to be more pragmatic in the everyday sense of that term: I wanted my work to be useful to other people. For that to happen, it had to be accessible.

I suppose the tl;dr for this section is: Because of my academic experiences with cultural studies and critical theory, I struggle with the meaning of the word “critical” in an educational or academic context. So much of this particular kind of thinking ends up being intellectual for the sake of being intellectual—for getting tenure, maybe?—rather than lending itself to practical application in the lives of the people where it could effect the greatest change.


In my thinking and, I like to imagine, my own work, “instructional” slides very quickly from its traditional definition in higher ed—the one-to-many models of the lecture or instructor-moderated class discussion—to questions of how I can make a course meaningful to students in their own context while also revealing the narrowness of that context and challenging its constructs. To instruct, for me, means to create a space for learning. That space will vary widely, depending on discipline, students’ preparation (or lack thereof) for collegiate work, and the instructor’s philosophy of teaching and learning.


Last fall I had the opportunity to consider the process of design thinking as practiced by IDEO. Of all the steps in the process, I most appreciated the first: empathize. While I was uneasy with some of the ways the IDEO team recommended practicing empathy, particularly regarding understanding the needs of people with disabilities (e.g., smearing petroleum jelly on one’s glasses to simulate poor vision or binding one’s joints to better understand a user with arthritis), I appreciate that empathy is the very first step.

Empathy has emerged as a driving force in my course design. When I’m crafting learning outcomes, for example, I don’t begin with the knowledge or skills I want students to develop. Rather, I try to get a very specific sense of which students will be in the course. Sometimes this is easy—students have already registered for the course and I can ask them questions. Other times, a course’s future enrollment is less transparent and I have to design the course based on a set of common characteristics among my university’s students. I try to find ways to triangulate among these students’ likely knowledge and skills, the discipline’s expectations of course content, and what might benefit students in their lives beyond and after the course.

So, for example, if I’m teaching a graduate seminar that serves as an introduction to public history, I consider where my students have studied previously and what their expectations of such a course might be. At many universities, this course comprises an introduction to designing museum exhibits, organizing archival or museum collections, interpreting historical sites, and preserving architecture and artifacts. However, in talking with people who work in the field, I’ve learned that while there are industry standards for each of these practices, individual sites of public historical practice are sufficiently idiosyncratic in their approach, methods, and digital tools that many students will have to unlearn their textbook understandings of public history to do their jobs well. There’s also a big push to incorporate more diverse perspectives at historical sites, in collections, and in exhibitions. At the same time, laws regarding collections and preservation have grown increasingly complex.

Accordingly, I’ve shifted my public history courses to emphasize digital savvy, user experience (broadly defined), the realities of federal and municipal bureaucracies, entrepreneurial thinking (even in nonprofits, though also in the conventional definition), and the perspectives of marginalized peoples. Students are often surprised by, and frankly often a bit cranky about, the course’s focus, but once they’re on the job market and in their first career positions, they admit they’re fairly well-prepared.

In this sense, I’m not designing based on the content students say they want (because, honestly, their understanding about what they need to know is often naïve), but rather on deeper needs I’ve identified.

For me, the process of design is inextricably tangled with empathy. I can’t imagine good design that doesn’t take into account users’ everyday experiences and bigger desires.

Critical instructional design

Honestly, I’m not yet sure how the “critical” fits with instructional design. Some first thoughts and hypotheses on what it means in practice:

  • reading against the grain of canonical instructional design theory and practice
  • taking a social justice approach to crafting learning experiences
  • creating learning experiences that make a difference in students’ lives and in the world, in part by making the familiar strange*

I’m looking forward to learning more.


* Here I’m alluding in particular to Elizabeth Walker Mechling and Jay Mechling’s essay “American Cultural Criticism in the Pragmatic Attitude” in the book At the Intersection: Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies. Among their seven “working assumptions” about pragmatic criticism, Mechling and Mechling emphasize that “the pragmatic critic wants to make a difference in the world,” in large part by “making the familiar strange,” “a profoundly radical political act” that can, in the words of C. Wright Mills, “connect private troubles with public issues.” (p. 148) Pragmatism, in this sense, does not mean taking the conventionally sensible path, but rather understanding that radical approaches and marginalized perspectives, while often difficult politically, may offer the best lenses on a subject.

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(From the desk of Pete Brooks)

An experiment in online course evaluation

Back when I was in the cube farm of academic technology, we tried an experiment within our then-new course management system: we had a large class (hundreds upon hundreds of students) pilot a mid-semester evaluation.  The instructor emphasized the importance of the evaluation and reminded students to take it, but our return rate was still only 8 percent.  It pretty much soured me on online evaluations, as such a low return rate renders the evals useless.  (At UC Davis at the time, veterinary students did get an invitation to chat with the dean personally if they didn’t fill out their course evals. Otherwise, there wasn’t any institutional effort to “incentivize”* students–that is, the registrar wouldn’t withhold a student’s grades until she had filled out her course evals.)

Fast forward to today. Boise State is offering online course evaluations, but recently the university announced that whether or not a course participates is not up to the instructor; each department either has to stick with in-class, paper-based evaluations or go all in with the online evals.  In the department meeting where we discussed the issue, we were leaning toward paper, and then one colleague said he had piloted online evals and was getting response rates of 90 percent.  I’d like to see the evidence of that, but whatever. . . it was persuasive enough that the sense of the meeting shifted toward a semester trial of online evaluations.

We’ve been told we should “incentivize” student participation in online evaluations, for example by offering perks (e.g. students could bring a 3″ x 5″ note card with them to the final exam or we’d drop the lowest quiz grade) if the class return rate reached, say, 80 percent.  And yes–those are the actual suggestions from the administration.  Never mind that I don’t give quizzes, and my students already can bring essay outlines on notecards to the final–I’m not going to reward students for doing something that I see as part of fulfilling the social and intellectual contract for the course.

So instead of offering to bribe my survey students, I spent an entire class talking (as I often do, but this time more frankly and comprehensively) about why I’ve taught History 111–U.S. history to 1877–the way I have.

Topics covered, and student reactions to each one:

  • memories of high school history, what they learned, and what they’ve used since then: mostly not good, dates and events, and not much, respectively.
  • experiences with, and feelings about, lectures in college, regardless of discipline: mostly bad, crappy PowerPoint presentations; suspicions that a professor or two is bullshitting them full-time.
  • political versus social and cultural history: prior to college, students haven’t been exposed, by and large, to social and cultural histories, except in very small amounts; they find it refreshing, particularly if we’re doing “history from below.”
  • students as vessels to be filled with “content”**  and the relation of this approach to online courses and pedagogies of scale: resentment, boredom, disbelief.
  • survey textbooks***: expensive, unreadable, useless–pretty much unadulterated loathing.

Our conversation lasted 45 minutes, and at the end I made another pitch for them to fill out course evaluations, saying that their feedback is not only valuable to me individually, but it also allows instructors to make a case to deans and provosts and beyond that customers students do think about learning in ways that should matter to us.  I then reiterated to them that I really do make changes in my course structure and teaching style based on student feedback, and that since I may have 30 more years (!!!!) in the classroom, they have the opportunity to make a big impact on future students’ learning experiences.  I encouraged them to take ten minutes or so to fill out the evaluation as soon as possible.

This class’s online response rate thus far, more than halfway through the response window? Twenty-one percent.  Anyone care to guess how little that number will rise, even with repeated urgings, by the time the survey closes on Friday evening?  Leave your bets in the comments.

* Worst word ever?  Possibly.

** Remember when we used to say “knowledge” instead of “content”?

*** For the record, I used  Major Problems in American History, Volume I by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman et. al.; Abraham in Arms by Ann Little; Mongrel Nation by Clarence Walker; and They Saw the Elephant by Joann Levy.  Each book takes a very different approach to history, with Little’s being the most traditional (yet also very readable!), Walker’s serving as a witty and searing examination of why different American demographic groups view the Jefferson-Hemings liaison in divergent ways, Levy’s book offering thematic chapters but not footnotes or endnotes, and Major Problems bringing together eight to ten primary sources in each chapter with two essays usually excerpted from books by academic historians.  My students found Little’s book challenging at first but conceded they enjoyed each chapter more than the previous ones.  Walker’s book was puzzling but made for the best class discussion because it was the most explicitly provocative. Levy’s book was the most accessible, and my Idaho students seemed to appreciate its focus on western women’s history, as their exposure to regional women’s history (or, actually, any women’s history) previously was via pioneer wives and Sacajawea.  I suspect most students stopped reading the essays in Major Problems as early as a third of the way into the semester, and many students needed a great deal of guidance in interpreting primary sources.

Whiteboard image by Skye Christensen, and used under a Creative Commons license.

Random snapshots of summer life

I had an awesome birthday (#36, for those keeping track) on Thursday.  Fang wrote me a very sweet blog post.  Lots of thoughtful gifts came my way.  A colleague was kind enough to bring me flowers and a fancy cake:

I received my first evaluation as a faculty member here. The chair was very kind in his review, and he (very thoughtfully!) took the time to point out that although I’ll likely meet the traditional requirements for tenure, the work I’ll do will look quite different from that of other department members, and that I shouldn’t be adversely affected by that difference in future reviews. After five years of job-market beat-downs, I’m glad to see I’m fitting in, even though it means there has to be a recognition that I’m on a slightly different path from my (exceptionally supportive) colleagues.

I took the boy to the local nature center today because he said he wanted to go to “that place with the dead animals.”  He was way into the taxidermy today:

I’m (still) wondering how the boy managed to get ringworm on his butt.

The boy can sing most of Tom Jones’s “Did Trouble Me”:

Tom Jones – Did Trouble Me

(Clearly the video owes a huge debt to Johnny Cash’s video for Hurt.) This latest earworm is a big improvement over the boy’s perpetual singing of phrases from Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and Queen’s “Radio Gaga.”

The boy has taken to drawing everyone–even his dear mother–with a penis.

Because it took until, oh, today for the weather to get nice, I’ve been getting my craft on during the evenings. This week has featured watercolor sketches and miniature landscape dioramas.

I’m having middle-of-the-night panic attacks over a grant deadline.  I can only work on it for so many hours a day before the quality of my research and writing begins to decline.  (The crafts are currently more a therapeutic outlet than a creative one.)

I sent off an article to a publication I really admire. Only once I sent it off did I realize I cited 75% of the authors appearing in the first issue of its relaunch. I’m hoping that means it’s a good venue for my work, and not that I’m a huge kiss-up.

Last weekend we went to see Shoshone Falls. They’re going full-force. The photos I took don’t really do them justice, but here’s one:

I found some lovely white nectarines at our local produce stand.  Yes, they came here on a truck from California, but their sweetness was a much-needed reminder that summer should be here any minute.  (We seemed to have skipped spring.)

I walked through a shadow cast by a tree yesterday and was startled and delighted, both because the trees have taken forever to leaf out and because it was sunny.

Many of the seeds I started committed suicide. Or, rather, that’s what I’m telling myself–it certainly wasn’t my fault. :\ I don’t think they had sufficient sunlight, which is certainly not something I could control this spring. Anyway, they grew all lanky and never put out true leaves, then they fell over from the weight and shriveled up. Grrrrrrrr.

What are you up to this summer?

Four twenty

I still remember watching the events at Columbine High on April 20, 1999 on the tiny TV in the tiny storage loft newsroom where I worked at the time, and heading down the stairs to share birthday cake with the odd art director dude in the graphics department. I couldn’t believe he was 37–he seemed much younger.

Sweetie, were we ever really this young and skinny?

Today (April 20) Fang turns 49.

I’m so very lucky to have him in my life. He’s funny and smart and politically savvy and interested in topics adjacent to what I’m interested in. (He asked for Foner’s latest Lincoln book for his birthday, as well as for a once-a-year cholesterol splurge at the Cheesecake Factory. That’s my kind of guy.)

We always sort of draw into ourselves and cringe during Fang’s birthday week. After all, the Revolutionary War started on April 19, so all kinds of lovely people are drawn to take all kinds of lovely action on that anniversary. We’re talking Waco big. Oklahoma City federal building big. But we appear to have made it through April 19, in the States at least, without incident. Still, April 20 is not only Fang’s birthday; it’s Hitler’s birthday, too–which brings out wackos like the Columbine High School shooters. (See also.) Robert E. Lee went over to the Confederate side when he resigned from the U.S. Army on April 20–it’s the sesquicentennial of that one. The Ludlow Massacre took place on April 20. The Bay of Pigs Invasion failed on this day. More cheer: Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” on April 20. Plus, it’s an unlucky day. Last year we “celebrated” April 20 with a particularly sick kind of fireworks—the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Things have been looking up for Fang lately. He’s been dealing with a lot of. . .well, let’s just say stuff, so it’s nice to see him start to flourish again in so many different ways.

Let’s hope, then, that today is a good one. Like the April 20 that saw the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1871. Or the day Pasteur and Bernard completed the first tests of pasteurization. Or the April 20 that Apollo 16 landed on the moon. Fang may not know that he shares a birthday with George Takei and John Paul Stevens, as well as a Fang favorite, Crispin Glover. You’re in good company, Sweetheart!

Fang’s celebrating not only with us, but with a marijuana legalization rally at the statehouse, because it is, after all, 4/20.

Here he is as I’d like to remember him on this day–wearing his worn “Black Expo” t-shirt, playing the guitar he first picked up a couple years ago:

Happy birthday, Fang! Here’s hoping your day is more Civil-Rights-Act-of-1871 and Apollo-16-landing than, well, the alternative. I’m so glad we found each other. (Kindly stick around for another 49, OK?)