Kevin Gannon will launch his book Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto at West Virginia University on April 1. Here we share a conversation with Gannon conducted by Jeremy Wang-Iverson of Vesto PR. [Edit: The IRL book launch has been postponed, but watch for details on a virtual event.]
Why did you decide to write this book now?
I’ve had this book in me for quite a while, to be honest. It’s the product of about 20 years of teaching in higher education, as well as my own journey as a student (in the heady days before the internet was a thing, thankfully). But in the last few years, it became less a matter of “hey, I might write something,” to “hey, I need to write something.” The manifesto had its origins in a blog post I wrote in the summer of 2016, and it resonated with enough people that I was encouraged to turn it into a book. Writing a book on hope has been . . . a journey, in these last few years, that’s for sure.
How has your experience teaching at a small, teaching-focused institution like Grand View University shaped your views on pedagogy and higher education?
So often our public conversations about higher ed are shaped by a handful of folks at elite institutions (educational or otherwise) who work with a pretty narrow subset of students, and do that work much more sporadically and infrequently than someone at a “teaching university.” Yet those of us at the schools with 4-4 (or higher) class loads, as opposed to the 1-1 or 2-2 at R1 and Ivy League schools, are by far the majority of practitioners in this space, and our experiences and perspectives are often quite different from the ill-informed caricatures we see from the scolds in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, for example. Schools like mine—small, under-resourced, access-oriented, student-focused—are where the real work of higher education often takes place, and this environment has profoundly shaped the way I look at teaching, learning, and higher ed at large. We don’t have a lot of 4.0 academic superstars applying for admission, but we do have students who come out of a variety of experiences and have overcome a lot of obstacles to join our academic community. And these are the students who push me to be a better teacher every day.
Our experiences and perspectives are often quite different from the ill-informed caricatures we see from the scolds in the op-ed pages of the New York Times.
What, in your view, is the biggest challenge facing higher education—and how can professors help solve it?
Despair and cynicism. It’s no secret that we face a myriad of problems in higher ed, ranging from starvation-level funding to the adjunctification of the faculty to the inequities embedded in our own structures. But all too often, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by everything we face and simply give up. And often we take that out on our colleagues and students (who are simply the most convenient targets for our angst). If we surrender to cynicism, we abandon the allies and tools with which we can make things better. I’m not saying being more cheerful will fix what ails higher ed. But I am saying that taking a stand in favor of a hopeful vision for the future, and preparing our students to help us make it a reality, seems to me the way forward.
You write that there’s never been a more difficult time to be a university student—why?
Imagine being told by the punditocracy, popular media, and even folks within higher education itself that you’re worse than those who came before you, that you don’t care about learning, that you’re too sensitive, too fragile, too . . . whatever to be successful. Imagine being a student facing the most uncertain post-graduate prospects in the history of higher education, from the cruelties of the gig economy to the fact that the world is literally on fire. Imagine being told you have to go to college, but not knowing how to navigate that landscape, or how to even pay for it. Imagine being admitted to a campus to “diversify” the student body, but finding out what that really means is that you’re expected to simply assimilate to an already existing set of structures. Because that’s the story for more of our students than ever before. And they’re being told by generations that had it twice as easy that they’re not even half as good. The precarity of the future for all but a small minority of students seems to me to be a crushing reality.
At the same time, you say there’s also never been a more difficult time to be a professor. How has being a college professor changed in recent decades?
To begin with, about three-quarters of all credit hours taught in US higher education are taught by adjunct faculty. The professoriate is precarious, in the literal sense. Administrative bloat and market logic have combined with the evisceration of public funding and support to create a university system that says teaching and learning are the heart of their mission, but then subcontracts that work out to contingent, underpaid, and largely powerless labor. Without addressing this fundamental disparity, no meaningful reform in higher education can occur. Even those of us fortunate to be tenured or on the tenure track are seeing tenure under assault across the country, and we know that programs eliminated due to finding cuts don’t discriminate when it comes to faculty status. Our “normal” is unsustainable.
Administrative bloat and market logic have combined with the evisceration of public funding and support to create a university system that says teaching and learning are the heart of their mission, but then subcontracts that work out to contingent, underpaid, and largely powerless labor.
Conservatives love to attack universities as citadels of intolerant liberalism. (Trigger warnings, safe spaces, protests against right-wing speakers.) What’s wrong with this account?
When you’re accustomed to privilege, even the hint of a more level playing field feels like oppression.
I find it laughable that, in a landscape littered with Koch-funded “institutes” and shadowy right-wing organizations infiltrating campuses nationwide (Turning Point USA comes to mind) that there’s this sort of victim complex on the right. As I argue in the book, concepts like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are actually sound pedagogical practices (based in research and evidence) whose meaning has been so warped by right-wing caricature that the terms themselves have become verboten. What this stuff really is, to be honest, is an attack on the humanities in particular; I notice the “intellectual-diversity,” “marketplace of ideas” crowd isn’t advocating for the business school to hire heterodox economists, for example.
Finally, I would suggest that we look really carefully at calls for “civility,” in terms of who is making those calls and who is supposed to heed them. Because it’s docility, not civility, these folks really want.
You write candidly of your own mistakes as a teacher, especially early in your career. Why did you decide to be so open about your past failures?
We know that failure is an excellent opportunity to learn, and we tell our students that all the time. If I want my students to take risks and not be afraid to fail, then I need to be willing to do the same. But really, I made a lot of mistakes, and I had a lot of help in figuring out how to move past them and become a better teacher and scholar as a result. To me, being honest about that process is really important—it honors those who helped me, and I hope it helps others give themselves permission to acknowledge missteps and find ways to be more skillful as a result.
I made a lot of mistakes, and I had a lot of help in figuring out how to move past them and become a better teacher and scholar as a result.
You also discuss your own checkered undergraduate career. Has that experience made you more compassionate toward the struggles of your students?
Absolutely. I made a ton of poor choices as an undergraduate, some of them with lasting consequences. So when I have a student who does something where my first reaction might be “oh my god, what the hell were you thinking,” I have to stop and realize that I was that student back in the day. I’ve learned, often the hard way, that we often have no idea about the battles some of our students are fighting. Just as I had professors who gave me the benefit of the doubt more times than I deserved, I want to be able to do that for my students, too. Not every story has a happy ending, but I find that compassion and kindness cost me nothing, and can make a world of difference for a student.
What would you say to charges that your pedagogical proposals amount to a “dumbing down” of higher education?
Is a monotonous lecture to a several-hundred-person auditorium not “dumbing down” our fields? Is not paying attention to research-based strategies for effective teaching the way to avoid “dumbing down” education? One of the most unproductive and dangerous assumptions we make in higher education is that compassion and student-centered pedagogy somehow equate to “less rigorous” learning. Rigor is for corpses. And the way we weaponize “rigor” is so often where learning goes to die. If our students can’t do something up to standard, how is it effective to require them to do more of that thing but twice as fast?
Is a monotonous lecture to a several-hundred-person auditorium not “dumbing down” our fields?
I would submit that the best learning occurs when students feel totally present in the learning space, they see themselves as active agents (and not simply passive recipients) in the learning process, and they are secure and confident that they can take risks, stretch themselves, and perhaps even be wrong in this community of practice. Then, and only then, can we get the most out of challenging them and pushing them beyond their comfort zone and prior assumptions. Trying to do those things without paying attention to the environment we’re doing them in is hazing, not teaching.
In your view, what is the goal of higher education? To create informed citizens? Job-ready workers? Critical thinkers? Something else?
That’s the key question, isn’t it? We say we want higher education to create all of these things—or at least our publicity and admissions viewbooks list those as our goals. And all of those are fine, sure. But I don’t think that can be the ultimate end we seek.
I think higher education should create people who know how to make our world better, and are committed to doing so. I know that sounds like a Hallmark card, but isn’t that why we’re doing what we’re doing? Because we think our efforts will produce college graduates who make things better than they were and are? Why else would we revise syllabi, teach multiple sections of the survey course back- to-back, or put up with that annoying colleague in the faculty meeting? I mean, we all love our disciplines and the life of the mind, but those avail us nothing if we can’t reproduce them in the next generation. So that’s what it’s about, I think: making the world better by helping students fully become themselves, and use the things we’ve helped them acquire to create something better than what we have.
It’s one thing for a student to say, “I’ve acquired an enormous range of tools that I can do anything with,” and then go manage a hedge fund and cannibalize other companies for a career. It’s another thing entirely for a student to say “I’ve discovered how to use all of these amazing tools, and I’m going to build a better engine/treatment center/classroom/game/arbitration process/community/food supply chain/etc.” We need the latter. That’s the goal for higher education, I think, and the work we ought to be about.
Kevin Gannon will appear at West Virginia University’s Mountainlair Ballroom on April 1 at 7PM. The event is open to the public.