The Politics of Teaching

Teaching is a political act. What we teach, and how we teach it, is all very political and grounded in our ideologies. I am sure you already know that. But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Instead, I want to take a different look at the political process of teaching in higher ed: how courses get staffed.

First, a disclaimer: I fully admit I have a narrow view of how courses get staffed where I work. What I present to you today is my interpretation and my understanding based on my experiences. I know that there are multiple people I could interview about this topic that would likely both broaden and solidify my understandings. So keep all that in mind.

Background on the Course

I was reminded of how courses get staffed the other day. I have just started reading Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It’s a great book, and it’s also an ethnography. And, because it’s an ethnography, I immediately thought how I could use it in the introductory Qualitative Research Methods course (Qual from here on out).

I’ve taught Qual twice, and I loved it. I teach in a School of Education, and the majority of the students are in the field of education. Sometimes we get students from outside the school which is awesome and great as they only add another layer of ideas to our experiences. The majority of the students are working on their doctoral degrees,

I made a very firm – and I think excellent – decision about the readings from the get go. Since most of the students are in education, and since everyone in the class has experience with the educational system, then we would not be reading any books that were based on educational studies. A book like Evicted would be perfect for our course.


qualWell, let me give you an example. My first time teaching it we read The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksWe used this book to discuss issues of ethics in research as well as how researchers establish and maintain relationships with their participants and how they get access to communities for research.

I wanted to use Henrietta Lacks to discuss these larger issues in qualitative research and not get too hung up on the context. I was concerned that if the book was based in education that the conversation would diverge into educational issues and not qualitative research methods issues. So I tried to stick my students into contexts where they could focus on the methods.

Overall, it worked.

If you’re interested, we have also read:

Boellstorff, Tom (2010). Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human.
Everett, Daniel L. (2009). Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle.

So when I started reading Evicted a few days ago, I instantly thought about how I could add this book to the course. And then I remembered I didn’t teach the course anymore, and I didn’t see myself teaching it again anytime soon.

How Does Anyone Around Here Get to Teach Qual?

I have always loved the idea of teaching the Qual course, and I wanted to teach it from the moment I arrived at the university. I started teaching in Fall 2005, I was able to teach Qual for the first time in Spring 2014 and then again in Fall 2014. So it took me a solid nine years to get to teach the class.

There was one reason and one reason only why I was able to land the class in the Spring of 2014. Whoever normally taught it was out, and the other person who would also normally teach it was out as well (either on sabbatical or buy out from a grant). In October of 2013, an email went out to faculty asking if anyone would be interested.

I think – although I do not know for sure – that I was the only person who said yes and could easily make it happen.

But that wasn’t enough. I also had to prove I was qualified.

Now, I get it. We don’t want someone teaching this course – or any course – who isn’t qualified. But I found the act of having to prove my own qualifications to my own colleagues to be degrading. But I did it anyways because I really, really wanted to teach this course.

Proving I was qualified required me to submit my CV. I also provided a brief written justification. I’m not sure if this was required or not, but I remember thinking that it would help to highlight why I believed I was qualified.

All of this went before a group of faculty – School of Education faculty, people in my own building (not outsiders who wouldn’t know me) – and they decided that yes, it would be ok if I taught it.

Gee, thanks. Of course I’m getting this approval near the end of the fall semester. I had to develop my syllabus basically in December. And yes, of course there were pre-existing syllabi to look at. I looked at them. I had zero interest in them.

To sum this up, for my first time teaching the course I had to prove I was qualified and pull it together over my break. Which I did.

I Get To Teach It Again

The next academic year (2014-2015), the course again was available for faculty to teach. Again, the “normal” people (more on that in a moment) were unavailable to teach it. The class is offered every fall and spring. I again made it clear that I would like to teach it again. I understood that someone else wanted to teach it too, but I also understood – and was perfectly fine – with taking one section and having this person do the other.

It worked out like that. Sort of.

See, at the time, this other person was in a position where they got to put down who would teach what courses. Now, this person didn’t get to assign faculty to every course we offered, but this person did get to put down names next to a portion of them. This person just wrote their name both times next to the Qual course.

Not cool. Not cool at all.

I didn’t even bother going to this individual. I knew it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I went one above. I explained the situation and received an email back saying that I could not teach both sections of Qual when another faculty member wanted to do so. I would have to share it.

Are you confused? You should be because that response missed the mark a bit.

I followed up again explaining that was exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to teach one section of Qual and couldn’t the other interested individual teach the other? Couldn’t we share it? Or, I asked, is it ok to just write your name down next to both sections of the course because you are in a position that allows you to do so?

I didn’t get a response. All I know is that I got to teach the course again in Fall 2014. This other person taught it Spring 2015. Fine by me. Seems fair. But still – it’s a lot of damn work to just get this course assigned to me.

What Is Fair Anyways?

After Spring 2015 I started hearing that the two faculty who regularly taught Qual were coming back, and they wanted to teach it. I heard all kinds of rumors about how different faculty were going to argue that one or both of these people should really be the ones teaching it.

Yeah – teaching qual just got highly political. In fact, it got too political for me.

See, it was bad enough when I had to justify myself to my own colleagues. But now, apparently, I was really going to have to justify things or have someone go to bat for me or who knows what. Are you kidding me? Over a course?

You can have your course. I have better things to do with my life than get into extended arguments over who should teach it.

But it’s not right. Because here’s the thing:

  • no one should get to own a course. when someone “owns” a course what it does is limit what that course can look like. students benefit when they have the opportunity to take a course with a different faculty member


  • when you teach the same course over and over again, it can get stale; trust me on this – I happen to teach a couple of literacy classes over and over again. this has more to do with context and who can teach what more so than me having a hissy fit over wanting to teach it; when someone else does get to teach one of these classes that I normally teach, I learn so much. that’s right. I learn so much. Because I have conversations with whoever this is about what I have done, and I always want to hear about what they did; people who are new to a course bring new perspectives to it and breathe new life into it; when i go back to teaching it, i am always inspired and benefit from the work they did.


  • is there some reason why we cannot share? i mean really, actually share? can we not work up some sort of sharing agreement? can we not have a civilized conversation about this? but if i have to raise this as a serious point then i’m just going to bow out. having to raise it as a serious point suggests there is a much larger issue at play that i am not interested in dealing with.

So earlier, when I made references to the “normal” people, I was referring to the people who normally get to teach Qual and (according to rumor) are prepared to battle it out for the right to keep teaching it. I don’t know these people that well. I don’t know their back story or why they believe they should be the ones who teach this course. Maybe they have perfectly good reasons. I want to stress that my knowledge is limited here. I want to remind you that I am simply sharing my experience and my interpretations of it.

I’m Not Engaging

I find this system of: (a)  having to prove myself worthy to teach Qual and (b) possibly going up against people who normally teach to be totally out there. When I spoke to a department chair at another university about how courses get assigned, and shared my experiences, this person was at a total loss as to how to respond. It didn’t even make sense.

If you want me to teach Qual – or any other related research methods course – you know where to find me. If anyone would like to have a conversation about what classes I think I am qualified to teach and am interested in teaching, shennigans2again, you know where to find me. I’m all for having conversations. But this – I don’t know – bureaucratic and political nonsense is just not for me. I don’t have to engage in it and so I won’t. I am sure there are issues to be had with my approach, but I have to make a choice about what I am willing to do, and I’ve made it. There is plenty of work for me to do that doesn’t require me engaging in these types of shenanigans.

That said, I do have lots of thoughts on qualitative research methods courses, and I’m going to start spending some time using this space to think that out a bit.


One Year Ago Today

Next Week: Concerns I have about qualitative research courses.


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