Personal, Psychology, Word Nerdery

Good Teaching: Is It Project Management or Product Management?

The things my mind cooks up when I’m trying to distract myself from politics …

When I started thinking seriously about leaving my adjunct teaching job a couple of years ago, one of the first things I did was research other work that a social scientist with a PhD could transition into. Project management was either a very good fit or a hot prospect at the time; I got a lot of recommendations for it. Looking into it, it does seem to be a strong candidate, but I’m not sure if it’s something I’m well suited for. (Hello, my old friend Analysis Paralysis.) Project management flow chart

A few months back, I started following a product manager’s Substack, The Product Bistro; his comments on the political site we both subscribed to were uniformly insightful, informative, and/or humorous, and I was curious about what product managers actually do. Which leads me to last night …

I’ve been a political junkie for decades. Despite trying to quit it for good, I simply cannot ignore it—for good reason; but not always the best choice for my health. I guess I should add “teaching junkie” to my list of qualities, because I can’t seem to get out of an educational mindset. So yeah, last night …

Angry about a news report and needing to get to sleep early, I tried to distract myself with more neutral thoughts. Somewhere from the depths of my mind arose the question of whether good teaching is best considered project management or product management. (I did not get to sleep as early as I needed to.)

Are the students a product, with my mission being to inform them about the topics the class covers and to foster their critical thinking about them?

Or is the academic term a project—one that can be planned out pretty easily and has inflexible deadlines, yet may need to be revised for any number of reasons?

I didn’t reach an answer last night, but now it seems pretty clear. Treating a course as a project that must go forward as planned (as much as possible) can easily become an unhappy environment for all involved. My community college’s mid-semester shutdown of all in-person courses due to the Covid-19 pandemic was a painful primer on that. Some of my colleagues tried to shift everything from in-person to online with absolutely no other changes to their syllabus, workload, etc. It did not work.

A big part of the failure (besides the stupid inflexibility) came from the fact that many of our students are working and/or parents. Since psychology courses are required for nearly all healthcare-related programs, most of my students were working in a healthcare-related job, and their schedules were turned upside down by that alone. Add in having children at home since their schools were also closed, and the impossibility of keeping to a scheduled class time for an online lecture is obvious.

Does that mean that the product manager analogy fits better? I’m not sure it does. From my very first teaching experience as a graduate student, I’ve wanted my students to be engaged in the class, so I encouraged participation in a variety of ways. The stubborn fact is that some students—for whatever reason(s)—will resist these efforts. And it’s impossible for a teacher to individualize a course for each student’s needs and preferences. This might be my individualist bias showing, but this framing felt a lot like commodifying my students: my ideas entered their minds and changed them in some way, and when I was done, they were released back into the wild, so to say.

Looking back at my courses once I was comfortable in my role as educator, I see that I approached my teaching as a little of both. I built a calendar for each course that allowed plenty of time to cover all the required material, and with some wiggle room in case a topic sparked students’ interest. I also told my students on the first day of class that if they had a specific question they wanted answered or an issue of particular interest, they could let me know and I’d do my best to address them.

That general invitation (with gentle reminders through the term) led to some really great discussions in my courses, and a lot of learning for me as well as the students. I even added a couple of new topics to some modules because the material was that important. It seemed that many students appreciated that I listened to their input and took it seriously; the data from my course evals backed that up.

I deeply enjoyed being a professor, but there’s no way I’ll return to academia again. Even so, this mental exercise has been quite valuable for me. Nearly every question, problem, or issue can be framed in more than one way, and having the ability to adopt those differing frames is much more fruitful than being stuck in one perspective.

Addendum: In case it isn’t clear, I have a superficial (at best) understanding of product and project management. I didn’t speak to Geoff about his work before writing this, so any errors are mine alone.

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