The Human Work of Higher Education Pedagogy

How can we address the needs of our increasingly diverse students?
By Jesse Stommel

An instructor teaches to a diverse group of students.

In December 2018, I coauthored a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education with Sara Goldrick-Rab, “Teaching the Students We Have, Not the Students We Wish We Had.” We wrote about the need to adapt pedagogical approaches for the real and complexly human students who show up in our classrooms. We ended that piece with the following sentence: “This is not a theoretical exercise—it is a practical one.” Those words were a call to action for institutions, for teachers, and also for us. The following summer, we taught a weeklong intensive course, Social Justice and the Curriculum, at Digital Pedagogy Lab, an international series of professional development events for students, teachers, librarians, and technologists. Together with a roomful of educators, we considered how faculty members can better support the broad and diverse population of students that today’s colleges and universities serve.

The price of college continues to rise at a rate much greater than increases in financial aid. The cost of textbooks has increased over 1,200 percent in the last forty years (three times the rate of inflation). More than 70 percent of college teachers are precariously employed. And Sara Goldrick-Rab’s own research through the Hope Center has found that one in two college students (across different institution types) has experienced food insecurity in the last thirty days.

There are necessary policy solutions to these problems, but I’ve found myself wondering how knowledge of these facts must also change the work we do in classrooms. How must we approach our pedagogies differently in light of what Goldrick-Rab calls “the new economics of college” and in the face of the increasing precarity of both faculty members and students?

A university provost recently asked me, “What innovative or disruptive thing in education are you currently most excited about?” I responded, without a bit of cheekiness, “Efforts at supporting teachers and the work of teaching.” Teaching is a radical act. Supporting the work of teachers is even more radical. It shouldn’t be.

Most university and college educators receive little to no direct preparation for the work of teaching. I recently conducted an informal poll on Twitter (which got approximately 2,800 responses), asking the question, “How much training in teaching or pedagogy was/is included in your graduate program?” The results were stark: 52 percent of the graduate students and higher education faculty members who responded said, “Basically nothing.” Only 12 percent of respondents had taken more than a single course in pedagogy. For-credit courses in higher education pedagogy are not available at many institutions, and some programs offer no incentive and even actively discourage graduate students from taking those courses when they are available. And the lack of pedagogical support is similar for new faculty. A survey of two hundred faculty members in Florida by Terrell E. Robinson and Warren C. Hope found that 78 percent had received no preparation in teaching as graduate students, and 62 percent still had no preparation after becoming new faculty members.

When so many higher education teachers have almost no training at all, it’s hard to imagine how faculty could be adequately prepared for working with students who are increasingly nontraditional and often lack access to basic needs such as food and housing. (What even is a nontraditional student? The notion of a “traditional college student” is eroding and was, I’d argue, a fiction to begin with.) A few workshops or pre-semester intensives would barely begin to address the problem. Too often, the work of teaching is seen as instrumental, reduced to a stack of “best practices” that simply don’t transfer from an elite institution to a community college, or even from one individual teacher to another. I was recently told by another provost, this one less sympathetic, that “a teaching center should be like a cafeteria,” a one-stop shop for cheap, packaged support and development. Far too many development initiatives for new faculty members are focused less on pedagogy and more on the “administrivia” of teaching—how to access the learning-management system, when to upload grades, or where to make copies.

And the syllabi we give students also feel instrumental, weighed down by policies that we’re required to copy and paste without much consideration of the purpose of a syllabus in the first place. In my first teaching job nineteen years ago, I was given a stock syllabus and told that I couldn’t change anything. “Why would you need to change anything? Everything you need is right there.” That syllabus had one blank line for me to write my name. I couldn’t help feeling like a cog in a machine I didn’t yet understand.

The bureaucracies of schooling attempt to flatten our differences—reducing teachers and students to rows in a spreadsheet and our work to columns. Teachers are meant to imagine that students are interchangeable—that whether they are food insecure, queer, disabled, or homeless is of no real consequence to a system (of grades, tests, and credentials) that attempts to rank them tidily against one another.

Against Scaffolding

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “The Case for Inclusive Teaching,” Kevin Gannon writes, “Traditional pedagogical methods—traditionally applied—have not served all of our students well.” Even progressive pedagogies are often ill-suited to address all of the students we now work alongside. There is no one-stop shop for one-size-fits-all solutions to the knotty problems of teaching. This is why I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with unexamined pedagogical “wisdom,” ideas we’ve taken for granted as necessarily good without leaving one eyebrow always raised.

Rubrics, backward design, learning objects, Bloom’s taxonomy, instructional design, outcomes. Too much of what we do breaks learning down into neat chunks, discrete linear steps, carefully “scaffolded” to control for anxiety and distraction— without being responsive to the specific contexts, backgrounds, and experiences of students.

Instructional scaffolding is a pedagogical method that emphasizes a structured framework of support for students as they proceed through deeper and deeper levels of learning. In practice, though, too much of this framework is built in advance, during the design phase of a course, before teachers have even met the students. In “Subversion and Instructional Design,” Sean Michael Morris, director of Digital Pedagogy Lab, writes, “Any effort on my part to scaffold . . . would be colonial, patriarchal, and disempowering. Instead, I wish to lay upon the table before you the works which can—do, should, maybe will—inform what each of us also brings.” Scaffolding can create points of entry and access but can also reduce the complexity of learning to its detriment. As a metaphor, scaffolding hasn’t been adequately interrogated. It is too often a mechanism of control that operates under the guise of care—with much of the work done presumptively, sometimes patronizingly, in advance of students arriving upon the scene.

The concept of “scaffolding” instruction was developed in 1976 by psychologists David Wood, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross in an influential article, “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving,” published in Child Psychology. Wood, Bruner, and Ross write, “Well-executed scaffolding begins by luring the child into actions that produce recognizable- for-him solutions.” Their “six steps” for scaffolding include “reduction in degrees of freedom” and “direction maintenance.” There’s something almost authoritarian about the language they use. According to the authors, the scaffolding process “enables a child or novice to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which would be beyond his unassisted efforts. This scaffolding consists essentially of the adult ‘controlling’ those elements of the task that are initially beyond the learner’s capacity, thus permitting him to concentrate upon and complete only those elements that are within his range of competence.” Luring. Enables. Controlling. Permitting. These are the words they use. The work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was popularized around the same time, and it has a decidedly different flavor. Freire’s emphasis on “liberation” in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed and his notion of “problem-posing education” is a far cry from Wood, Bruner, and Ross’s “reduction in degrees of freedom.” While they wrote about “the transactional nature of tutoring,” Freire pushed back against the “banking model” of education.

Learning cannot be reduced to or packaged as a series of static, self-contained content modules. Rather, learning happens in tangents, diversions, interruptions— in a series of clauses (parentheticals) . . . and gaps. Helping students “get from point A to B” should give way to “giving students space to get to B or J or N.” And we need to leave gaps in any plan, space for student contribution. We haven’t been nearly imaginative enough with outcomes. Too much of what we might describe as “peak learning experiences” aren’t articulated as outcomes because they can’t be measured by “objective” metrics: having epiphanies, changing our minds, sitting comfortably (and uncomfortably) in our not knowing, and sharing what we learn with people outside a course.

There is a valuable kernel in the idea of educational scaffolding, and it’s the piece many excellent teachers have worked to apply to their teaching in thoughtful and meaningful ways—that students need to be able to take learning in stride, that they need pathways and not just destinations. As Cathy Davidson has remarked, “You cannot counter structural inequality with good will. You have to structure equality.” Especially when they are marginalized or struggling, students (and teachers) need support systems and safety nets. And those supports need to be both structural and pedagogical.

But we need to find more ways to involve students in the design of their own learning, scaffolding with students and not for them. We can invite them to design rubrics and leave blank spaces on the schedule, syllabus, and lesson plan for them to fill. In class, students should have the opportunity to do metacognitive work—to reflect on and write “process letters” about their learning and to evaluate their own progress. Teachers can design learning spaces together with students, engaging them as coauthors of the policies set forth in syllabi.

In saying this, I am not throwing teachers under the bus. The work of teaching is hard. And much of the work is unexamined, exactly because the work is so precarious—because many teachers are not given the space or the support they need to improvise and experiment in their classes. Questioning ubiquitous, tacit, or compulsory practices (like scaffolding, outcomes, or grades) is a way of championing the autonomy and idiosyncrasy of teaching approaches by standing in the gap between teachers and administrations, institutions, and predatory ed-tech companies. When the work of teaching is ill-supported and when teachers are ill-prepared, we become easy targets for corporate interests and abusive labor markets.

Inclusive and Adaptive Approaches

The Oxford English Dictionary defines scaffolding as “a temporary structure on the outside of a building, made usually of wooden planks and metal poles, used by workers while building, repairing, or cleaning the building.” It is designed not to provide one linear path up the side of a building but rather to offer a near-infinite number of paths, so that a person can start from any point on the ground and get to any point along the side of a building. Different people at different times with different purposes use the scaffolding in different ways. And they reconstruct it on the fly. Then the scaffolding falls away: it isn’t an end unto itself.

How can we design policies, write syllabi, and construct assessment mechanisms that function more like this temporary structure? What would it look like to design adaptively, to listen more intently, to reimagine our teaching as a creative act we take up together with students?

I rarely think the solutions to problems like these can be reduced to pithy lists, but there are specific practices—specific ways to reframe the work of education— that faculty members should adopt not as “best practices” but as necessary ones.

First, we can front-load support by hard-coding it into curricula. We must design syllabi and course materials for humans, not machines. And we should use language that honors the complex humanity of students. We need to stop writing cruel and inflexible course policies. Syllabi should be less like “contracts” and more like letters teachers write to students, a space where we lay out our intentions, invite students into the process, and point to supports.

Second, staff, administrators, faculty, and students need to come together, across institutional hierarchies, for inclusivity efforts to work. At many institutions, a faculty-staff divide is one of the first barriers that needs to be overcome.

Third, we need to practice self-care and support our contingent, adjunct, precarious, or otherwise marginalized colleagues. Fourth, we should recognize that the path toward inclusivity requires structural change but starts with small, human acts. Consider doing the following:

  • Walk around campus to assess the accessibility of common spaces and classrooms. An accessible desk in every classroom doesn’t do much good if students can’t get to that desk because the rooms are overcrowded.
  • Invite students to share their pronouns. Model this behavior, but don’t expect it of every student.
  • Make sure there is an easy and advertised process for students, faculty, and staff to change their names within institutional systems. Be sure chosen names are what appear on course rosters and ID cards.
  • Add statements about basic needs, like food and housing, to your syllabi. Invite students to ask you for help. Suggest other places they can go for support.
  • Regularly invite the campus community into hard conversations about inclusivity. For example, how do race and gender bias affect grading and course evaluations?

Finally, and most important, we need to start by trusting students. Ask them when and how they learn. Ask what barriers they face. Listen. Believe the answers. With regard to everything we do or attempt to do, we need to stop having conversations about the future of education without students in the room. And when we invite students to participate in those conversations and they don’t show up, we need to think carefully about what we might have done to make the environment hostile to them and their work.

Jesse Stommel is a senior lecturer and digital learning fellow at the University of Mary Washington. He is cofounder of Digital Pedagogy Lab and Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal of learning, teaching, and technology. Stommel has been teaching for twenty years in higher education pedagogy, film, and digital studies. He is online at and on Twitter @Jessifer.


Well done, Prof Stommel!!
We will be disseminating your piece through our global professor networks - one of which is
Internationasl Professors Project

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