A Case for ‘Radical Simplification’ in Higher Education

We’re about to start our third year of teaching in this pandemic, and it seems like a good time to think back in March 2020 to think about the new things I’ve started to adapt to the disruptions of COVID-19, what I’ve stopped doing and what I plan to continue on for 2022.

This practice is a common retrospective technique known as Start/Stop/Continue, and it asks three questions:

• What are we not doing, that we should start with?

• What do we do, and what should we stop doing?

• What do we do, and what should we continue to do?

Sitting at my desk at home going through this mental exercise, this is what I came up with:

Beginning: Time for reflection and revision

I was the head of the mathematics department when the epidemic broke out. Within ten days, we had to reinvent college-level math education at scale—more than 100 sections of courses and nearly 3,000 students—without proof. Many of our faculty, all of whom are experienced and skilled instructors, were not only exhausted, but on edge. While it was difficult in those first weeks, we eventually succeeded (and discovered some new departmental strengths) mostly because of the unwavering commitment to frequent, transparent, and totally honest communication with one another.

But have we made a similar commitment to this kind of connection to ourselves?

I’ve been involved in morning and afternoon rituals for a long time: 30 minutes in the morning to read, plan the day, and have coffee; and 30 minutes in the afternoon to clear out the inbox and jot down a diary, before moving on to family time. But this has always been accidental: if I had things to do, I would skip the afternoon shutdown/reset. However, early on in the pandemic, I realized that reflection and revision daily are essential to putting the work into a coherent context. Without it, I’m at the mercy of the “latest and loudest” and never engage in important but not necessarily urgent work, and lose myself.

So what I started doing was keeping those times safe. They go on the calendar and everything else flows around them. As a result, I’ve maintained some perspective and peaceful cohesion through all of this. I am more able to be fully present with the people and tasks that need me.

Pausing: Doing Pointless Tasks

I love making trustworthy plans and systems for everything from teaching to what I do on the weekends. But through this pandemic, I’ve learned that highly complex systems, far from being trustworthy and robust, can actually be fragile — prone to collapse when something overwhelms them. So I stopped prioritizing time and energy for anything that didn’t seem important, and to stop feeling guilty about it.

For example, in the fall of 2020, I decided to remove four big topics from my calculus class, because I felt it was best to spend the time digging into the other stuff. As a department head in April 2020, I looked at a few tedious and time-consuming processes of questionable value that every department head was supposed to perform, and decided to just skip them, and see what happened. If I say what things I cut from the syllabus or the duties of my department head, I would probably have a problem. But so far, no one has noticed.

I conclude that there are many, many things in higher education that we simply don’t need to do, we shouldn’t do, and we have to ask for forgiveness rather than permission because we happily cut it short. It is better for higher education to make radical simplification a priority over the next ten years. Individually, while not all faculty members are completely free to decide whether or not to be removed from their work, you might be surprised at what you can get rid of if you do what seems to be the best.

Keep going: focus on solutions while not ignoring problems

Finally, I am committed to continuing to take a problem-solving approach in every situation. This doesn’t mean ignoring problems and engaging in toxic positivity or viewing broken people or systems as just things to “fix.” This means being fully aware of the seriousness of the situation, and instead of putting myself completely at his mercy, I choose to believe there is always something I can do to make things better, and then do what I can.

We are well aware of the problems we face in the world and in education in particular. Continuing to focus on how bad things are now seems redundant. At this point, I ask myself and others: What do I do and what do we do to make things better? This is a real question. Answering it takes courage. I believe that higher education professionals have this courage and are in a unique position to make a positive difference. We are highly trained to handle big and complex problems that no one has ever solved before. We have an opportunity to lead society, especially our students, with intelligence, determination and compassion.

Things are tough now and people are tired. But I still hope that 2022 will be the year of solutions in higher education, and we can do what teachers do best – learn and lead – to succeed.

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