Toward a Critical Instructional Design

This foreword is part of a new edited collection championing a problem-posing approach to instructional design. Toward a Critical Instructional Design is available in paperback, Kindle, and online in an open-access format. It will be accompanied by a sister volume, Designing for Care. Proceeds from both books help continue the mission of the Hybrid Pedagogy 501(c)(3) non-profit.

Indulge me while I tell a little story about a hypothetical faculty member. Let’s call her “Robin.” Robin accepted an adjunct teaching position at a rural public college in the Northeast United States as she was finishing her doctoral dissertation. As an early Americanist studying at a prestigious R1 university, Robin was extremely expert in several narrow areas related to 17th-century literature and history, which was disappointingly unhelpful to her as she waded into her first assigned courses: “Composition” and “Modern British Literature” (someone was on sabbatical, which still doesn’t explain why anyone thought she was qualified for that last one). In fact, even a year later when she was able to begin teaching “in her field” as a one-year full-time contracted faculty member, Robin realized that her main strategy for course design revolved around adapting 1) the syllabi of her grad school professors (many of them brilliant researchers with no pedagogical training and often very spotty abilities to interact pleasantly with other humans) and 2) the activities of her middle school teachers (particularly Miss McNeil, whose 8th-grade social studies unit on seagull regurgitation is fondly remembered by countless cohorts of Massachusetts public school graduates). When Robin was privileged and lucky enough to land a tenure-track position in English, she realized that she had almost no formal preparation for teaching the four courses per semester—most outside of her specific field—that she was assigned. While scholarship and service were now part of her professional expectations, most of her work hours were focused on teaching, a profession for which she was wholly untrained.

I may as well stop pretending this is a hypothetical. I should also stop pretending it’s generalizable, since any higher ed anecdote that contains the phrase “land a tenure-track job” is already far too fantastical these days. But my story is likely a familiar one for many college-level instructors. With the exception of those who teach education, most of us secure our teaching positions primarily by demonstrating content expertise. Once we join a university faculty, we may have access to professional development workshops run by a teaching and learning center, and we may be lucky enough to have instructional designers to partner with when we need help rethinking an assignment, tweaking a syllabus, or setting up effective discussions in our learning management system. Tenure-track professors at R1 institutions may actually be disincentivized from focusing on teaching, as it can stall their progress towards tenure and promotion by taking their time away from research. Meanwhile, contingent faculty may be balancing high course loads and/or have no access to funding or compensation for time spent in professional development, and community college faculty may find their institutions lack teaching centers or instructional support staff. Even as we realize through our years of teaching that we, as faculty, are both in need of and capable of improving our teaching, higher ed as a whole simply does not prioritize the development of teaching faculty.

For many years, I didn’t really understand how problematic this was for my own work. After all, I was committed to a “student-centered” classroom, genuinely invested in my students and their learning processes, and open to experimenting with new technologies and tricks. Working sporadically with instructional designers and academic technologists was eye-opening, as it dawned on me that people had actual training in the kinds of architectures that underpin a course, architectures that I was certainly using, but which were mostly invisible to me as I remained focused on my all-important content.

More eye-opening, though, was watching the edges of higher education begin to fray, and indeed my own public university begin to unravel as the terrain of higher ed shifted beneath our feet. This ongoing fraying is less a random upheaval than it is a series of revelations about deep-seated problems in how our institutions are structured coming to violent fruition. Some areas of the United States where I live and teach, for example, are wrestling with demographic trends that are eroding college enrollments; combine that with the defunding of public higher education, a massive student loan debt crisis, and a national rhetoric that (given the costs that must be borne by individual families) questions the value of college, and you have a cocktail that has caused many institutions to become austerity-drunk—cutting services, supports, and staffing to the bone. Many states, including my own, have passed “divisive concept” laws preventing teachers at many levels from engaging honestly with concepts such as systemic racism, LGBTQ+ history, and genocide. And COVID has pushed every institution to its limits with bills to pay for testing and PPE; challenges keeping students, staff, and faculty safe in campus settings; and pivoting to online modalities without advance preparation.

On the one hand, we have many students struggling: impoverished and unable to afford food if they purchase the required books for their classes; immunocompromised and afraid to return to class now that mask mandates are dropping and online access is being revoked as an option; suffering deeply from prejudice and discrimination that makes it far less likely for BIPOC students at predominantly white institutions to graduate; suffering from mental illness as counseling centers are overrun; navigating neurodivergence as accessibility services are underresourced; and facing pressure from families to enroll in majors that they don’t enjoy based on often-flawed speculation about which fields will deliver a much-needed return on investment.

On the other hand, we have institutions focused not on these alarming struggles, but on their own. We see the most elite institutions battling each other to prove just how selective they are; in other words, they gain prestige as fewer and fewer students who want to attend are able to do so. At the same time, our open access institutions, our regional public institutions, our community colleges, our minority-serving institutions and HBCUs—the places that actually educate the vast majority of students—struggle, literally, to keep the lights on. And instead of leaning into the equity challenges that have come to a boiling point, they lean into fiscally-focused “solutions” that do nothing to relieve the heat.

If you don’t teach at an elite institution (and most of us don’t!), I bet you’ve felt the burn of these solutions. Has your institution rebranded or spent money on marketing while claiming not to have funding to support expanded instruction or academic services? rallied around majors that are considered “marketable” while cutting majors that are not directly tied to workforce demand? reduced tenure-track faculty and expanded use of adjuncts or “professors of practice?” outsourced to Online Program Management companies (OPMs) to quickly offer high-demand online majors or grad programs? consolidated departments or even whole schools? increased discount rates to undercut competitor institutions and attract enrollments? And if your institution has done any of these things, has that successfully relieved the budgetary pressures on your institution? I am guessing no. And what has been the effect of these things on your struggling students? I can guess that as well.

So while I would argue that it is important that higher ed faculty be offered support and professional development as they embark on teaching careers for which they are generally under-prepared, it’s important to see this support and professional development as part of a critical intervention that speaks to the confluence of storms that are buffeting us. Which brings me to my gratitude for this collection.

“Critical Instructional Design,” as it will take shape in this volume, advocates for a reframing of how we think about the supports that faculty need to improve their course designs. Instead of an outsourcing model, where support staff (or external companies!) provide the design expertise, CID seeks to connect designers, technologists, learning center staff, librarians, and other key pedagogical partners with faculty to help faculty learn what they need in order to make intentional decisions about their course architectures. And unlike de-contextualized and standardized checklists or rubrics, CID seeks to situate course design in time and space, encouraging faculty to think of their specific students and their needs, their specific institutions and their missions, and the specific political and social contexts that surround their courses each time they teach them. What you will find in this volume will be less a roadmap to best practices in instructional design, and more an invitation into a learning community that trusts faculty to engage thoughtfully with the complexities of course design.

We are all keenly aware that the world is currently facing severe crises, and that many of these are changing the shape of our colleges and universities—and perhaps even the shape of learning itself. It’s time for an instructional design that brings the full power of faculty to bear on the challenges that we face. As we design our courses, we are participating in a larger project to design the future of higher education, and as we develop our skills in teaching, we must also develop our engagement with the larger questions of what our students will need to thrive in a world that is currently presenting so many challenges to their livelihood, health, and happiness. I hope you will engage with this book not just as a catalyst for creative inspiration about how to approach course design, but also as a call to action for how our grassroots work teaching and learning with our students can open hopeful and humane futures for both higher education and for our world.