The New Information Literacy: Clearing the Fog of “Alternative Facts”

Rosalinda H. Linares (Information Literacy & Special Initiatives Librarian, Oberlin College) and Steve Volk

January 23, 2017

A recent humor piece by Marika Seigel in McSweeney’s lists the “Action Items on Your Radical Professor’s Liberal Agenda.” About a third of the way down, one finds: “Painstakingly write another comment explaining why this particular claim needs to be supported with a credible source and that it needs to include a parenthetical citation formatted — as specified in assignment guidelines — according to APA style…” Another “action item” comes fast on its heels: “Wonder whether supporting ‘claims’ with ‘credible sources’ is even still a ‘thing’ in 2017?”

NPR, in announcing its coverage of the inauguration, noted that it would be “live fact-checking” the inaugural address online.  Was that also an attempt at humor?

Women's March, Washington DC, January 21, 2017. Steve Volk photo

Women’s March, Washington DC, January 21, 2017. Steve Volk photo

Contemplating what it means that a major media outlet is even thinking about live fact-checking an inaugural address is truly dispiriting…but unfortunately necessary. Two days after the inauguration, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to Mr. Trump, argued that the White House had offered “alternative facts” to the media when it stated, untruthfully, that Trump’s swearing-in was witnessed by “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.”

Having been buried under “fake news,” lies, and pants-on-fire distortions for months, we now  witness the distorters not only leveling the same charges at their critics but inhabiting a parallel universe where “alternative facts” bump up against, what?, “real” facts?  It’s enough to make your head spin.

And perhaps that is precisely the purpose.

Politics has always had a fraught relationship with the “truth.” And yet, as many have argued, the challenge which the incoming administration offers to our ability to separate fact from fabrication is significant, and demands a thoughtful and deliberate response from those whose business it is to educate students precisely in the ability to understand information, evaluate arguments, and separate fact and opinion. To do that, we must face up to the reality that this is not actually an easy task, it’s not like distinguishing red from green or one from zero.

Truth and Politics

In “Truth and Politics,” an essay by Hannah Arendt first published in the New Yorker in 1967, the philosopher provides a way to think about what we are up against. She begins by arguing that the “modern age… believes that truth is neither given to nor disclosed to but produced by the human mind.” Truth is not simply what a greater power, either spiritual or temporal, has declared it to be. While she divides “rational truth” (“mathematical, scientific, and philosophical truths”) from “factual truth,” her purpose is to explore “what injury political power is capable of inflicting upon truth,” and, in particular, factual truth.

Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt

“The opposite of a rationally true statement,” she argues, “is either error and ignorance, as in the sciences, or illusion and opinion, as in philosophy.” Einstein, in that sense, didn’t prove Newton to be a fraud, but rather to be in error. (This is something that the general public, not to mention politicians, don’t seem to understand about how science works.) “Deliberate falsehood, the plain lie,” she continues, “plays its role only in the domain of factual statements…” She adds, somewhat depressingly, “Dominion (to speak Hobbes’ language) when it attacks rational truth oversteps, as it were, its domain, while it gives battle on its own ground when it falsifies or lies away facts. The chances of factual truth surviving the onslaught of power are very slim indeed…”

Arendt recounts the story, perhaps apocryphal, of a conversation between the former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and a representative of the German Weimar Republic which took place in the 1920s. They were discussing who was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War. “What,” the Frenchman was asked, “in your opinion, will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial issue?” Clemenceau replied, “This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.” Unless, of course, as Arendt goes on to point out, histories are written to assert just that.

Unwelcome factual truths, shall we say “inconvenient truths,” are “tolerated in free countries,” Arendt writes, but “they are often, consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions.” Climate warming data, the relationship between vaccines and autism, the success rate of for-profit voucher schools cease to be “factual truths” and become “matters of opinion,” or perhaps (as we’re now observing), an “alternative” set of facts. The cynic’s answer to the assertion that everyone has a right to her own opinions but not to her own facts, is to turn all facts into opinions.  But facts, Arendt argues, have a “despotic character;” they don’t rest on how many people accept them. It’s not a popularity contest. “Unwelcome opinion can be argued with,” Arendt continues, “rejected, or compromised upon, but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies.”

ACRL FrameworkSo, where does that leave us? Actually, with a lot of work to do. In previous “Articles of the Week,” we have examined the “post-truth” era and our responsibilities as educators. We want to explore this further today, taking into account the Framework for Information Literacy published in 2015 by the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Let’s begin with Arendt’s comment that “truth is neither given to nor disclosed to but produced by the human mind.” If “truth” is not “given,” then we must understand that it is constructed and contextual, which means that even as it asserts its “facticity,” it is not beyond interrogation. Let’s consider this in the light of the “Student Learning Goals” adopted at Oberlin in  2015. The first goal, deepening understanding in specific fields, recognizes that “A deeper understanding of a specific field of study generates the potential for students to move beyond the skills of analyzing and evaluating information and towards the creation of new knowledge or approaches, or the production of original work.” The second goal, broadening knowledge, states that Learning across established fields of study, both within disciplines and in interdisciplinary approaches, cultivates in students a concrete appreciation for different ways of constructing knowledge and different modes of discernment with which one should be familiar.” And the third goal, analysis based on evidence and context, understands that “To engage in critical analysis is to be aware of the social, political, cultural, historical, and scientific contexts that have shaped the development of knowledge and, therefore, to be humble in face of its limits.” All of these demand that we revise our approach to “information literacy,” so, let’s talk about it.

The Old Information Literacy

First, we’ll have to reckon with a somewhat out-dated, inchoate notion of ‘information literacy’ as a discrete and numerable set of abilities that learners simply employ regardless of context in order to find, evaluate, and use information. Once mastered, such learners were considered “information-literate.” This plug-and-play definition divorces learners from the more transformative, reflective, and discipline-specific metacognitive practices and behavioral dispositions that inform the sound and effective pedagogies delineated in the College’s Learning Goals.

Information Literacy at Oberlin College Libraries

Beyond bolstering students’ abilities to find, evaluate, and use information, in the library we strive through the rich resources and objects in our diverse collections to show students how knowledge is produced and how that creation process differs across disciplines. We also strive to show them that scholarship is a conversation and that those conversations have real value.

We want our students to feel comfortable negotiating collaborative, increasingly digital academic spaces and to develop the knowledge practices and dispositions that will take them not only from a novice to an expert in their specific disciplines while in college, but also transform them into questioning, curious citizens of the world after they leave our campuses.

A New Information Literacy

Entities the world over have articulated information literacy models, standards or rubrics. Here at Oberlin College Libraries, we find the above-mentioned Association of College and Research Libraries Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education to be most in line with the Oberlin College Learning Goals. The ACRL Framework is grounded in the reflective pedagogical practices of metacognition, which includes Thomas Mackey and Trudi Jacobson’s work on redefining information literacy as metaliteracy, as well as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s theories of Understanding by Design. The six theoretical frames, each followed by 6-8 knowledge practices and dispositions are also extensible, inviting librarians and faculty to put theory into intentional practice given the subject and context-specific loci of a particular assignment, learning objective, or course.

Opportunities for Faculty/Librarian Collaborations

Click on the links below for each of the six ACRL Frames to read more about the described knowledge practices and dispositions. Under the links are examples taken from library instruction sessions of how librarians and faculty can help students negotiate an over-saturated and increasingly complex information ecosystem and remove the fog of confusion and misunderstanding produced by our political ecosystem as regards to what information actually is and how to best assess its value, provenance, and impact.


Authority is Constructed and Contextual

Students read and compare the texts of short articles stripped of identifying information (author, affiliation, publishing body, etc.) and consider the voice and perspective portrayed in texts. Then, when the identifying information is introduced, students interrogate the authority of the text based on this newfound context.

Information Creation as a Process

Students are each assigned a periodical and asked to find, access, and report back on not only the purpose and audience, but also authorial credentials, article selection process, content and language, circulation, among other factors.

Information Has Value

Students can explore the philosophy of attribution and its inherent value by creating their own citation styles in groups and providing reflective justification for these styles, given an assigned article, after reviewing the citation style of their specific discipline.

Research as Inquiry

Students work in groups on a specific topic and spend time searching in multiple resources (e.g., encyclopedias, subject-specific databases, Google Scholar) and report back on the similarities, differences, tips, tricks, and the overall relevance of each diverse source relative to their topic

Scholarship as Conversation

Students trying to identify scholarly conversation are given topic-specific articles where they are required to trace citations through the bibliographies (both backwards and forwards) in order to create a citation timeline of scholarly thought on a stated topic.

Searching as Strategic Exploration

Students leverage Google to conduct preliminary searches on their topics in order to determine key stakeholders, and use a brainstorming worksheet to develop a search path to consider in order to identify broader, narrower, related, and synonymous keywords for more efficient and effective searching on their topic.

Next Steps in Information Literacy

Humpty-Dumpty and Alice, Through the Looking Glass, John Tenniel, illustrations, 1871. Public Domain

Humpty-Dumpty and Alice, Through the Looking Glass, John Tenniel, illustrations, 1871. Public Domain

We are teetering at the edge of a world where, as Humpty Dumpty told Alice: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”  When Alice questions “whether you can make words mean so many different things,” Humpty reveals the relationship between truth and power: “The question is which is to be master—that’s all.”  Approaching the demands of this new understanding of information literacy must be the work of the entire educational team at Oberlin and elsewhere, particularly librarians and faculty. It is work that needs to be stressed in introductory courses in every discipline, and continue on through higher level courses.

As you work on your class prep and syllabi for the Spring Semester, consider contacting your Liaison Librarian in order to collaborate on incorporating information literacy into your assignments. You can also contact Rosalinda Linares,, directly with further questions or help scheduling a library instruction session for your course or Steve Volk ( for further conversations on truth, politics, and pedagogy.

As you develop assignments for the new semester that take advantage of the ACRL Framework, we invite you to send them in to CTIE ( where they will be posted for others to learn from. Further, you may want to consult the very useful CORA website: Community of Online Research Assignments, where faculty and librarians have posted a large number of assignments that utilize Framework approaches as well as blog posts on this topic.

Women's March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

Women’s March, Washington DC. @LisaBloom

Why Studying Sexually Dystopian Themes in 14th-century Epic Poetry Matters… and other thoughts on an education in the liberal arts

Steve Volk

January 16, 2017

Konrad von Altstetten embracing his lover. (Codex Manesse, UB Heidelberg, Cod. Pal. germ. 848, fol. 249v)

In Starving the Beast: The Battle to Disrupt and Reform America’s Public Universities, a film about higher education that came out late last summer, Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, commented, “If somebody wants to write about sexually dystopian themes in 14th-century epic poetry, I think that’s fine.” But, he continued, “I have no earthly idea why taxpayers are supposed to subsidize this or subsidize students to learn it.”

Hess’s comments echoes the sentiment emerging from a considerable number of state houses lately, particularly as governors and state legislators feel emboldened to dictate what should and should not be studied at public universities and colleges in their states. Examples are not hard to find:

Governor Rick Scott (R) of Florida took a pot shot at the study of anthropology on the Marc Beiner show:

“We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state,” he argued. “It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

Speaking with Bill Bennett, U.S. Education Secretary during the Reagan administration, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) stated: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job…So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum,” he stressed, “to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt.”

Senator Marco Rubio (R), during a presidential primary debate, argued that “Welders make more money than philosophers.” And, he went on to assert, “We need more welders and less philosophers.” (Perhaps he would have said “fewer” philosophers, if he had taken that English course.)


Manuscripts, British Library

Even President Obama has found occasion to observe that students aren’t not going to do well with an art history degree: “[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career,” he offered. “But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” (Obama, it should be noted, quickly apologized for what he called his “glib remark.”)

The link between what one studies and how much one earns seems to be the central, perhaps the only, consideration for many legislators regarding the purpose of post-secondary education. Missouri state representative Rick Brattin (R) recently submitted a bill (HB 266) that, besides banning new determinations of tenure after January 1, 2018, would require public colleges to publish the estimated price of individual degrees, employment opportunities expected for degree earners, and a summary of the job market for each degree, among other things. “Students are getting degrees that have no real-world applicability,” he concluded.

So, we’ve now trashed the study of English, anthropology, philosophy, art history, and gender studies. And this doesn’t even take into account the legislatures that have threatened to cut funding to public higher education institutions in their states because of the summer readings they have assigned (South Carolina, North Carolina), the courses that they are offering (Wisconsin), the research conducted by faculty (Michigan), environmental lawsuits that faculty have filed (Maryland, Louisiana), academic boycotts supported by national organizations (New York, Maryland, Illinois), and the list goes on. One would almost think that the real intent of state legislators was simply to find reasons to slash funding to higher education. (Oh, wait. That’s just what they’ve done. From 2000-2012, state revenues to higher education, adjusted for inflation, fell by 37%.)

College Board:

College Board:

So What’s the Link between Liberal Arts and Earnings?

I am, of course, preaching to the choir. But the constant drone from lawmakers, Republican in their overwhelming majority, that the study of liberal arts is not something the public should either care about or pay for needs to be addressed because it is flat out wrong on (at least) two grounds. It is mistaken on a (sigh) factual basis, and it suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the liberal arts. Let’s begin, briefly, with the first.

Would it be churlish of me to point out, as many have, that philosophers actually earn more than welders? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for postsecondary philosophy and religion instructors is $63,630, while the median for welders and related fields is $37,420. (Even if one takes the starting pay of philosophy professors, the figures are virtually the same: The average annual salary of welders, cutters, solderers and brazers was $40,040 in 2014, in line with the $39,900 median salary of newly minted philosophy instructors.)

Staying only with financial outcomes of a liberal arts education for the moment (which, again, seems to be the primary consideration of many legislators), here, too, critics of a liberal arts education would do well to examine the research. One thing to keep in mind is whether a student’s education prepares her for her first (i.e., entry-level) job, or for her subsequent jobs, i.e. for the variety of jobs and employment levels that can open over a lifetime if one has the proper training. Richard A. Detweiler, the president of the Great Lakes Colleges Association, recently presented his on-going research at the winter meetings of the Council of Independent Colleges. Detweiler’s research suggests that while liberal arts graduates tend to earn less than others for the first few years after graduation, students who take “more than half of their course work in subjects unrelated to their majors (a characteristics of liberal arts colleges but not professionally oriented colleges) are 31 to 72 percent more likely than others to have higher-level positions and to be earning more than $100,000 than are others.”

Various studies commissioned by the American Association of Colleges & Universities have yielded similar conclusions. In the 2014 report, How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment, for example, authors Debra Humphreys and Patrick Kelly mined data from the 2010-11 US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to conclude that “at peak earnings ages (56-60 years) workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities or social sciences earn annually on average about $2000 more than those who majored as undergraduates in professional or pre-professional fields.”

So, on evidence-based grounds alone (should anyone still care about facts), the arguments of state legislators who have sharpened their knives against liberal arts majors as a waste of taxpayer money are (shall we say), “just sad.”

What We Do in the Liberal Arts

Yet I would argue that the misunderstanding of what happens in liberal arts higher education, whether deliberate or uninformed, is cause for greater concern. Above all, the argument for liberal arts is not an argument against welders (even though the argument “for” welders has certainly been deployed as an argument against the values of the liberal arts). This equation was perhaps best expressed in the early 1960s by John W. Gardner (1912-2002), President Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare and president of the Carnegie Corporation.  Gardner observed that “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water” [Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? 2012 reprint edition (1961)].

There are many reasons to study “sexually dystopian themes in 14th-century epic poetry,” to pick just one of the subjects that legislators have deemed unworthy of the taxpayer’s hard-earned dollar. How many students who take such a course hope to specialize in that field or even become English professors? I have no idea, but I’d hazard a guess that it’s less than one out of a hundred. There are, however, other reasons why a student would take such a course: to learn to read closely and reason critically, to learn to communicate clearly, to develop intercultural skills (perhaps the epic poetry under consideration was French, German or Arabic), to learn to be a better writer, to develop narrative skills, or perhaps, just because one finds epic poetry, or the 14th century, or sexually dystopian themes interesting and worthy of study. The same, of course, can be said about courses in other liberal arts fields.

I am uncertain as to why legislators think that course selection should only be transactional, that students should only take courses in the subject area in which they plan to get a job, particularly in the 21st century, and particularly when young people are likely to hold a dozen or so jobs by the time they are 40. Skill-training for future employment is certainly a consideration of course selection and the determination of majors, but all the evidence points to the importance of liberal arts as developing both broad-based skills as well a set of dispositions that are increasingly important in the world. Not only will these courses help students think critically, communicate clearly, solve complex problems, but they can give them a strong grounding in moral and ethical reasoning, the capacity to work collaboratively and with a wide variety of people, and the ability to take charge of one’s own learning.

Imaginary debate between Averroes and Porphyry. Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century.

Imaginary debate between Averroes and Porphyry. Monfredo de Monte Imperiali Liber de herbis, 14th century.

Thankfully, not all lawmakers are so myopic. One visionary model of understanding in this area was recently highlighted in The Guardian (January 9, 2017). In 2013, as Ireland struggled with the after-effects of the financial crisis that crashed its economy, the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins launched a nationwide initiative calling for debate about what the Irish people valued. The answers revealed that it wasn’t stronger banks, more science and math training, better golf courses, or even more jobs. It was a realization that Ireland needed people who were “prepared to ask, and answer, the questions that aren’t Googleable: like what are the ethical ramifications of machine automation? What are the political consequences of mass unemployment? How should we distribute wealth in a digitised society? As a society,” the results indicated, Ireland needed to be “more philosophically engaged.” The result was that for the first time philosophy was introduced into Irish schools in September. As Higgins stressed in a speech last November “The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected, and uncertain world.”

Philosophy in the classroom, in the main, is not about graduating more Platos, Kants, and Rawls, but rather, as Higgins emphasized, to offer a “path to a humanistic and vibrant democratic culture.” Similarly, a liberal arts education can give students the ability to enjoy, appreciate, and value what nature has created over billions of years and what humanity has created over thousands of years. That we need plumbers to fix our pipes, welders to build our bridges, and nurses to ease our pain goes without saying. That plumbers, welders and nurses should be able to share in the delight of all that life provides, should equally be true. Studying poetry, anthropology and art history, to the extent that they enhance the value of lives of all members of society and not just those who can afford them, is a public value which is not only worthy of taxpayer support, but is essential if we are to create the kind of society we truly want to live in, a society which respects plumbers and philosophers equally.

Finding our Voice in a “Post-Truth” Era

Steve Volk, December 12, 2016

Where to begin?

(Photo: Judy van der Velden/flickr/cc))

(Photo: Judy van der Velden/flickr/cc))

Why not with a definition of “post-truth” from the Oxford dictionary: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oxford has selected “post-truth” as its “word of the year,” narrowly besting “bigly.” (OK, that last part was my own rocket into the post-truthian universe.)

Or perhaps we should start with a New York Times headline from the December 7 edition:


From there, it’s but a quick hop to this clip from a CNN interview with a small group of Trump supporters on December 1. You’ve probably seen it, the one where Paula Johnson, a Trump enthusiast from New Hampshire, informed CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that at her (Johnson’s) polling station in Nashua, she caught people voting illegally who told her: “The president said I could vote, I’m here illegally.”

Taken from the perspective of what we naively referred to as “reality,” you’ve got to admit that Johnson’s statement is, well, nuts. I mean, why would someone expose her illegal activity to a total stranger? But let’s leave that aside and go on because the entire panel of Trump backers agreed that President Obama told undocumented people (“illegals” as they prefer to call them) that they could vote. Camerota asked Johnson where she heard that President Obama said the undocumented could vote. “Google it,” Susan DeLemus said. “You can find it on Facebook.” After “Googling it” on her phone and finding a video that had been falsely edited, the CNN reporter observed that Obama “had said nothing of the sort.” This was not a problem for Johnson who, with the endorsement of the other Trump supporters, clung to the belief – now known as “fact” – that “there is voter fraud in this country.”

“There’s no such thing…[as] facts”

scottie-hughesCome along next to the Diane Rehm show from November 30, 2016. Among other guests including James Fallows of The Atlantic and Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, Ms. Rehm spoke with Scottie Nell Hughes, described as a “former Donald Trump surrogate” who is a political editor of and a contributor to the aforementioned CNN. Hughes joined the program about 20 minutes into the show and was brought into the conversation by Rehm in the following manner:

Rehm: Now I know you’ve been listening since the top of the program, and I’m sure you’ve heard James Fallows talk about lies that Donald Trump has put out there in tweets, in things he’s said. What do you make of that?

Hughes: Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s — on one hand I hear half the media saying that these are lies, but on the other half there are many people that go, no, it’s true. And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.

There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up. So…

When the other journalists gathered their “jaws up from the floor” — and one could fairly ask why Ms. Hughes was given space at a table of journalists — James Fallows, concluded: “I think it actually is an intended result of this campaign and administration to think, well, really there aren’t any facts, it’s all opinion, so we’re going to sort of manipulate the things that we care about.”

The Past of Post-Truth


Is post-truthism a peculiar and ugly side effect of the 2016 presidential campaign? Yes and no. Certainly, anti-intellectualism has long been an observable part of U.S. history: the road from the Know Nothing Party to McCarthyism has been well traveled. Nor is the rejection of observable facts (only) a contemporary malady. As educators trained to pay attention to historical realities and to raise critical questions about them, we should keep in mind that for many members of the U.S. community, the willful and persistent denial of facts all too familiar.

To cite only two examples: On December 6, 2016, a jury of six white men, five white women, and a one black man was unable to come to a unanimous decision that a police officer unlawfully killed Walter L. Scott, a black man who had been pulled over for a broken taillight. This is the case despite the existence of a video that recorded how Scott, who was running away, was shot in the back some 17 feet from the officer. If this stirred memories of the Rodney King trial, it should have. A video showing Rodney King being unmercifully beaten by the Los Angeles police in 1991 was not accepted as fact in the officers’ trial for assault; all were acquitted. As Jelani Cobb recently observed, “Taken in total, the reluctance of juries to hold police accountable is an inversion of the ‘fake news’ crisis in the Presidential election. There, a gullible public believes outrageous claims that reaffirm its world view. In the criminal-justice system, as black America has long known, an indifferent public sees evidence of outrageous actions but chooses not to believe it in order to preserve its world view. We have moved far beyond facts.” Large parts of white America have never accepted many of the facts that smack black Americans in the face every day.

In a similar vein, Elizabeth Kolbert observed that the current political climate suggests not that “too many people do not seem to care about the truth (though this is certainly a huge problem); it’s that a lot of people—an increasing number of them in high government positions—insist that their ravings are true, and try to act on them. This naturally brings them into conflict with those whose job it is to distinguish fact from fiction; hence the subpoenas and attempts to intimidate [journalists and others seeking the facts].”

Post-Truth and Our Responsibilities as Teachers

If journalists are having a hard time rethinking their role under the coming Trump Presidency, what does the post-truth era that he has ushered in mean for educators, we who are tasked with helping students recognize and appreciate the difference between facts and opinion, between informed and uninformed opinion, and between all of the above and a steaming pile of poop? We chuckled when Stephen Colbert invented the idea of “truthiness,” but have stopped laughing in an environment where facts are scorned “because nobody knows what’s really true anyway.”

Here’s a reality check: We are teaching – or attempting to teach – at a moment when the scientific consensus that climate change is both caused by humans and poses a massive threat to the planet’s future is ridiculed by half the population including the incoming head of the EPA.  We labor with our students to insure that they are able to craft evidence-based arguments at a moment when Republican-controlled state legislatures (as well as  the incoming Attorney General and the President-elect who appointed him) cite articles which claim that “millions of voter registrations are fraudulent or invalid.” This although evidence points to incident rates of voter fraud as lying somewhere between 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent. Why trust social science research when you can reference an article in the Federalist which discloses, “stunningly,” that in Colorado, “a woman named Sara Sosa who died in 2009 cast ballots in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013”? (What are the chances of two people named “Sara Sosa” living in Colorado? Just saying…)

Pew Research

Perhaps we can take a small morsel of consolation from the fact that the truth-crisis that surrounded the election of 2016 can’t be deposited on higher education’s doorstep. After all, Clinton carried college graduates by a 9-point margin. And yet I have felt unnervingly at sea writing this post because my arguments, conscientiously authenticated by links to authoritative sources, would only serve as proof of their irrelevance, if not contemptibility, in the eyes of millions of voters. If Mr. Trump were to tweet that he actually received more votes from the college educated than his opponent, his claim would be accepted as truth by many, if not most, of his supporters.

What is to be done?

So, what is our role as classroom teachers, members of institutions of higher education, and intellectuals who are also concerned citizens?  The past few weeks have produced a profusion of commentary about how those of us in academia should situate ourselves in the post-truth world of President-elect Trump. You can read some general propositions about the stance to take here, here, or here. You can read statements that many college presidents, including Oberlin’s, have signed on to. You can investigate the sanctuary campus movement (which we are a part of), or take advice as to how we should react to threats to academic and intellectual freedom that can emerge when Trump takes office (and have already emerged in the transition period).

Beyond that, here is my own list of 7 propositions that those of us in higher education can do to challenge the threat of post-truthism in a time of Trump:

(1) Take even more seriously the task of helping students evaluate sources of information. Nicholas Lemann, a professor of journalism and former dean at Columbia, recently made the case for a new kind of core curriculum that includes “information acquisition” as the first item in the list.  We can argue about the value of a core curriculum later – an argument I’d relish – but now the focus is not just on our long-standing responsibility to teach “information literacy,” but on the consequences of not taking that responsibility seriously.

For those who seem to think that our students have no trouble identifying credible information sources, think again. Stanford University’s History Education Group recently tested nearly 8,000 students for “civic online reasoning” skills, i.e.  the ability to assess the credibility of information served up by smartphones, tablets, and computers. From January 2015 through June 2016 the group collected and studied responses from 7,804 students from 12 states. The schools ranged from “under-resourced” inner-city schools in Los Angeles to “well-resourced” suburban schools in Minneapolis. Testing in colleges ranged from large state universities with near-open enrollment, to Stanford University. What they found was that more than 80% of the tested students couldn’t tell the difference between real news articles and fake news.

For those of us who teach at selective liberal arts colleges, our concern as educators is not – or not solely – that our students are likely to be sucked into the dark vortex of whole-cloth fabrications whose most recent poster child is the Comet Ping Pong insanity (although the fact that such invented conspiracies are being circulated by an important member of the incoming Trump administration, should lead to much concern).

Most of what our students absorb via social media or other internet sites is usually of a lesser order of preposterousness (one hopes).  But to the extent that the flow of pixels is constant and constitutes the largest part of the information ocean in which our students (and we) swim, we need to pay attention to how they (and we) are navigating these waters. Take the following tweet which was evaluated as a part of the Stanford study:


The authors of the study found that:

Only a few students noted that the tweet was based on a poll conducted by a professional polling firm and explained why this would make the tweet a stronger source of information. Similarly, less than a third of students fully explained how the political agendas of and the Center for American Progress might influence the content of the tweet. Many students made broad statements about the limitations of polling or the dangers of social media content instead of investigating the particulars of the organizations involved in this tweet.

Faculty have work to do, in close partnership with the library, about basic online information literacy and cannot assume that our students have a sophisticated understanding of how information is generated in a content zone that has developed outside academic or journalistic oversight, as limited as that might be. Nor is the problem lessened because our (largely progressive) students aren’t likely to submit as evidence data that originate on white nationalist sites. We need to ask whether we are we equipping students to bring the same critical eye to more progressive media sources. Do they know what questions to ask about information sources and how to answer them? We need to develop new and sustained ways to help students navigate this information world. We need new courses in information literacy and the funded development of media literacy segments for on-going courses in the regular curriculum.

2) Help students understand (and question) the unspoken authority of the text. If we are not to spend the next 40 years wandering around in an epistemological desert, where all utterances are judged to be as valid (truthful, factual) as any other, we need to help our students understand where the authority that underlies knowledge comes from – and that means being able know on what grounds that authority can be sustained or challenged. And we need to empower students to question authority when necessary.

Especially as liberal arts institutions, we need to build into our courses not only a greater ability to assess information, but a deeper understanding of the ways in which knowledge is generated and the legitimate grounds on which it can be challenged. Acknowledging that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity reworked Newtonian physics does not prove the scientific method of knowledge-generation to be untrustworthy and that, in consequence, anything that Rush Limbaugh has to say about climate change is as valid as the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The above may be a handy exaggeration, but I would argue that we often fall short on one of the central tasks of liberal arts colleges: engaging students in the central (and different) ways our disciplines produce and authorize knowledge, and that a critical and historical approach towards knowledge-generation is a fundamental part of the on-going work of disciplines. For those who maintain that critical views towards “established” knowledge areas only enhances the arguments of “post-facters,” I would counter that not to question where and how knowledge is generated and established not only leaves the door open to those who would freely invent realities to further their interests, but leaves us poorly positioned to defend the work that we do in colleges and universities. At the end of the day, the best way we can enhance our students’ understanding of the difference between fact and crap is to make them aware of how knowledge is generated, and the ways it can be legitimately challenged.

(3) Be the critics that we are trained to be. Emphasize, at every turn, evidence-based reasoning and the importance of transparency regarding sources and information. Help our students (and our colleagues) question not just the assumptions of others, but their/our own assumptions as well. As Cornel West observed, “It’s not a matter just of having the courage of our convictions, but the courage to attack our convictions.”  We need to challenge arguments based on blind appeals to authority. We need to do this not just in our classes but in the broader decisions we make as an educational institution; not just in our institutions, but, as a national community of educators, from early childhood to higher education. And, as a community of educators we need to demand that local, state, and national governments make evidence-based decisions, are transparent about the evidence they bring to decisions making, and are open to discussion, information, and challenge.

(4) Fight ideological and political blacklisting. A variety of news sources have reported that the Trump transition team “wants to know who at the Department of Energy attended domestic and international climate talks. It wants emails about those conferences. It also asks about money spent on loan-guarantee programs for renewable energy. … The Trump team questionnaire also asks… for the 20 highest paid employees at the department’s national laboratories.” The educational community is painfully familiar with ideologically inspired firings and the blacklist, and even the hint of retaliation against those who come to fact-based but inconvenient conclusions cannot be allowed to be normalized. It’s not enough to challenge false news in a “post-truth” environment, we must strongly defend truth and evidence, and those in the academy and outside who produce them.

(Image: Federico Calandria - Flickr cc)

(Image: Federico Calandria – Flickr cc)

(5) Understand why many are pissed off at higher education – and do the work to show what is generating the most serious problems in higher education. Higher education leaders and the faculty in particular have not been forceful defenders of the transformative purpose of higher education, allowing the image to coalesce of college as a snobbish club where it costs a lot to get in,  students spend all their time talking nonsense and hiding from ideas they don’t like, and, when finished, move back to their parents’ basement without a job or any “real” skills. We shouldn’t be surprised by the growing anger directed at the higher education sector. Like a carrot dangled in front of a donkey but always out of reach, a college degree is both a necessary means to a more secure future, and increasingly out of reach for a growing percentage of the population. One consequence is that the total outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. is $1.2 trillion, the second-highest level of consumer debt behind only mortgages.

The problems of the the public higher education sector (representing over 76% of all students), we should be very clear, are rooted in many factors including the growing income inequality produced by stagnating wages, the decline of unions, the growth of an insatiable gazillionaire class, and the increasing unwillingness of state legislatures (i.e., “the public”) to fund post-secondary education. State funding of higher education is down by almost 50% from 1975 to 2011. There are many ideological reasons for a retreat from the very notion of education as a public good, but new research suggests that, “As the population has grown more diverse, support for grand efforts like the GI Bill to open doors to higher education has dwindled. Coincidence?” Anthony Carnevale, a well-regarded educational researcher at Georgetown, found that,

Since the 1990s, the number of black and Latino high school graduates who enroll in college has more than doubled. But three-quarters of that increase has been at open-access colleges. Meanwhile, white college enrollment has increased only at the nation’s top 500 universities. [There are about 4,600 institutions of higher education.] Thus, American higher education has evolved into a two-tiered separate and unequal system that fuels the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.

Put simply, as both the public K-12 system and the public higher education system become progressively non-white, they are increasingly starved of funding. If we support diversity in higher education, as we must, we also are called upon to support funding for that diversity, whether in state funding of higher education or federal funding of Pell and other grants. Whether at public or private institutions, we must fight for the right for higher education for all; fight to sustain the understanding that education is more than skills; fight to make K-12 and higher education a public good; fight to make higher education something that lessens, not increased, inequality in this society.

anti-intellectualism(6) Be humble. With the rise of the Tea Party and the advent of the Trump campaign and his victory, many commentators have returned to Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1963 study, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. One of the more insightful recent reviews was written by the previously cited Nicholas Lemann in the Columbia Journalism Review. Lemann highlights two quotes from Hofstadter we should consider.

Anti-intellectualism — Hofstadter wrote — is founded in the democratic institutions and the egalitarian sentiments of this country. The intellectual class, whether or not it enjoys many of the privileges of an elite, is of necessity an elite in its manner of thinking and functioning . . . . Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: They have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.

At a moment when the in-coming President staffs his cabinet with the very same billionaires and Goldman-Sachians he savaged during the campaign, we should not be surprised (as my wife continues to remind me!) that his supporters don’t (yet) see them as the “elites” against which they turn their anger. That anger is still directed at us, the pointy-headed intellectuals. Never mind that power doesn’t reside in Oberlin, Berkeley, or Cambridge. We can tear out our hair over the ludicrousness of this… or we can take to heart another Hofstadter quote:

Intellectuals dwell in the realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life.

Our task is not to make ourselves likable to those who have turned their anger against us. Our task, as critics, is to lay bare the reality of what is happening and at the same time make what we do as educators both relevant and accessible, financially and intellectually, and doing it with humility and a sense of our own limitations.

(7) Insure that our campuses are welcoming, diverse, and supportive. The post-truth environment poses many problems for all of us, but it presents particular threats for the most vulnerable among us, those, as Parker Palmer recently put it, who are at “risk of being bullied, harassed, publicly maligned, physically threatened, denied opportunity, or deported.”

Our campuses must remain not just welcoming for, but fundamentally protective of, these communities. Whether becoming sanctuary campuses or underlining our opposition to racial or religious bigotry, particularly if such attitudes receive a covert or overt support from the highest offices in the land, our job as educators is to defend the inclusiveness of our project and to call out any attempts to challenge or undercut it.


Courtney E. Martin, a prolific author and recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, recently wrote a column titled “Where I’m Turning to Be Comforted and Challenged.”  It’s a stunning piece of writing in which she concludes that she needs art to “cut through the noise” to be the “fact-check from hell.”

I need it — she continues — to disrobe the emperor in a way that all the pundits in the universe cannot. I need it to knee me in the back. I need it to humble and embolden me simultaneously. I need it to paint new worlds that help me understand this one. I need it to yank me out of the haze of the Internet and plop me smack dab in front of another human being staring into my eyes and making me uncomfortable. I need it to reacquaint me with truth. I need it to put marrow back in my bones. I need it to be fearless and maybe even earnest and I need it to come from…a place beyond strategy and semantics, a place of calm indignation, a place of spiritual redemption. I need art to remind me of the immediate danger and convince me of the safety available in collective rebellion.

While it is art that Martin looks toward to find her voice and her community, it is to the liberal arts and to teaching that I look to “put the marrow back in my bones.” We don’t need to stop what we’re doing to confront the challenges of a post-fact world, we need to do what we’re doing better. We need to defend the task of liberal education as a means of creating an “intellectual engagement that fulfills our nature as thinking beings,” as Ramesh Ponnuru recently argued. But we also need to insure that the opportunities to do this are available and accessible to all. At the end of the day, the best way to confront a “post-truth” environment is to continue to do what we do, but to do it better, to do it with humility and conviction, and to do it with the knowledge that failure is unthinkable.

Emphasizing and Evaluating Student Speaking

Cortney Smith, Visiting Assistant Professor and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Rhetoric and Composition, Oberlin College, December 5, 2016

All images from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicagp: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

All images from: Albert M. Bacon, A Manual of Gesture, embracing a complete system of notation, together with the principles of interpretation and selections for practice (Chicago: J. C. Buckbee, 1875). Public Domain

An Oberlin education should provide students with the ability to communicate articulately, persuasively, dispassionately, and, when required, passionately, in written as well as oral modes, by listening as well as talking, with both specialized and lay audiences. – Oberlin Student Learning Goals

As indicated by the learning goals of Oberlin College, we wish for our students to be capable speakers who can voice their ideas, opinions, and thoughts in productive manners, and instill in them the importance of being able to convey these thoughts to different audiences. In this week’s article, I will focus on three particular elements as they relate to communication and public speaking in the classroom. First, how to effectively incorporate presentations and student speaking into the classroom. Second, the cultivation of a language that is the underpinning of the rhetorical tradition. And lastly, an approach to assessing student speaking.


Incorporating Speaking Opportunities

Many of us already incorporate some form of public speaking into our classrooms. Whether through everyday classroom discussion or graded presentations, speaking opportunities exist at every turn of the higher education experience. The question arises as to how much value we place on classroom speaking and communicating. We all have very limited time to teach our subject matter during the semester and taking time to discuss speaking may not be a high priority. However, setting aside even a few minutes to convey to students the rewards of being an effective communicator will have a positive impact.

The following is a list of possible ways to incorporate speaking opportunities into the classroom in addition to daily classroom discussions and end of semester presentations:

  • Papers as Presentations. In addition to assigning papers to students, have them give short presentations on their papers. This not only allows students to become more comfortable with speaking, it also allows for their peers to hear one another’s interesting insights about the topic at hand. Think about spreading these speaking opportunities throughout the semester by having a few students present each class period.
  • Impromptu Speeches. Have students present short speeches on a topic you give them without expecting vast amounts of preparation time. As with the papers as presentations, you could have a few students speak each class period.
  • Small Group Workshops. Place students in small groups and have them orally synthesize their own work or someone else’s to the group.
  • Provide Speaking Examples. If you know of a particularly important scholar in your discipline who is known for being a lively speaker, show the students a video, maybe a TED-talk, of the speaker in action and discuss her strengths.
  • Encourage students to attend lectures on campus. Throughout the semester, there are brilliant speakers who come to Oberlin. Encourage your students to attend these lectures and instead of having them write a report on the speaker have your students present on the lecture, paying particular attention to the qualities of the oral presentation.


Between Speaker and Audience

In our efforts to emphasize the importance of effective communication, it is helpful to have an accessible language that can be taught to students. In the Rhetoric and Composition Department, there are six key terms we use throughout our courses and curriculum that speak to the relationship between the “rhetor” (i.e., speaker or writer) and her audience.

Each speaking engagement provides a rhetorical situation composed of three elements: audience, purpose, and occasion.  In preparing your students to engage in productive communication, you will need to impress upon them the importance of these three elements.

  • Audience. Speakers communicate differently to different audiences. Questions related to audience include: Who are you asking your students to speak to? Is it an audience of peers who know the subject matter? Is it for a lay audience? Experts? What commonalities do members of the audience share?
  • Purpose. Speakers hope to accomplish general and specific goals when communicating. Questions related to purpose include: Why are your students speaking to this specific audience? Why should that audience care about this topic? Why should this audience care about the student’s perspective on the topic? Is the purpose of the speaking event to inform? To persuade?
  • Occasion: The context of the situation is the external environment that dictates the presentation or speech, the occasion for which the audience has gathered. Each occasion has different modes of speaking (i.e. there is a different approach to speaking at a wedding versus presenting a lecture), and can be impacted by various issues related to specific occasion, such as the layout of the space, the time restraints, and the formality of the setting.

In addition to the rhetorical situation, rhetorical theorists focus on the three modes of persuasion as defined by Aristotle. Known as Aristotle’s proofs, these three elements, ethos, pathos, and logos, create what we call the rhetorical triangle.

  • Ethos: The personal character or creditability of the speaker. A speaker conveys ethos by demonstrating her knowledge of the subject matter and appearing confident. By demonstrating ethos, a speaker gains the attention and trust of the audience.
  • Pathos: The emotional investment of the audience. Speakers garner pathos by using meaningful language, an emotional tone, and examples. The term also applies to the engagement between the speaker and the audience and the appropriateness of the message being conveyed.
  • Logos: The appeal towards logical reason. The speaker wants to present an argument that appears to be sound to the audience. To insure logos, speakers cite facts/data, describe historical analogies, and construct a logical argument with clearly laid out evidence that is developed and well supported by her own ideas.

It is important to remember that all of these terms are applicable to both written and oral communication.


Assessing Student Speaking

Assessing student speaking can be a daunting task, especially if you are not familiar with it; however, if you put in place mechanisms to guide assessment (and allow for students to reflect as well on their experience) you will be better equipped to meet the challenge. To begin, when assessing student speaking, you need to make your expectations clear. The best way to do this is by creating a rubric and sharing it with your students. Here’s one example:


Let’s look at some examples: Will students be allowed read directly from their notes? If  they are, encourage them to use note cards with keywords instead of writing out their complete talk. Do you expect your students to use visuals with their presentations? If so, explain how you want the students to interact with the visuals? Are you going to assess how the student engages the audience (i.e. eye contact, hand gestures, effective volume)? These points need to be addressed with your students before the presentation that will be assessed.

jestures-5In addition to transparency as it relates to assessment and the sharing of rubrics with students, self-reflection and peer feedback are important parts of the development of speaking skills. In a self-refection assignment, students would record their presentations, watch the videos, and provide observations by answering a series of prompts. By watching the video, students can assess their own performance via prompts that ask students to reflect on their growth and progress as speakers. When assigning peer evaluations, I expect constructive feedback that comments on the following: 1) the speaker’s effectiveness to convey main ideas, 2) areas of strength, and 3) suggestions for improvement.

In a 2013 interview with Levo League, a career website for young women, Warren Buffett stated: “You’ve got to be able to communicate in life. It’s enormously important. If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.” As educators, we need to impress upon our students the importance of being able to express their ideas and views in the most productive manners. And one way to do this is by emphasizing and evaluating student speaking in the classroom.

Public Speaking Sources:

Oberlin’s Speaking Center (Mudd 052. Open Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday 7-10pm)

University of North Carolina-Greensboro Speaking Center

American Rhetoric

University of Mary Washington Speaking Center

Stanford University Hume Center for Writing and Speaking

Jackson Chung, “The Ultimate Cheat Sheet to Becoming a Great Public Speaker”

Set for SETS? Student Evaluations of Teaching

Steve Volk, November 28, 2016

Among the relatively few rules that govern what we do in the classroom and how we do it  is the requirement that all teaching faculty hand out evaluation forms “near the end of each semester” (College) or “before the end of each semester” (Conservatory).  In the unstructured, devil-may-care past, each department (and each individual in the department) was pretty much free to design its own evaluation form, at least in the College, and I’ll just stick to Arts & Science here since the Conservatory has its own rules. That somewhat chaotic system, which made cross-departmental comparisons difficult since different attributes were measured and recorded on different scales ranging 3-point to a six-point scale, was put to rest some years ago. The current forms are designed around a standard one-to-five scale in six broad areas which the research has shown to produce (the most) valid and reliable results: 1) course organization and clarity, 2) instructor enthusiasm, 3) teacher-student interaction, rapport, and approachability, 4) workload and course difficulty, 5) assessments: exams, papers, grading fairness, and feedback, and 6) self-rated learning. We have standard rules about how they are to be distributed, collected, and returned to the faculty.

That said, there remains a lot of controversy about the value of such an exercise, not just among those who would argue that students shouldn’t be evaluating faculty at all (by my guess, a relatively small number) to those who think that the forms don’t actually tell us much about our teaching, to those who think that they don’t tell us anything about student learning – which is something we actually should be measuring – to those who argue that the research clearly demonstrates that SETs are significantly biased against many different subcategories of faculty:  women (female faculty in physics in particular), faculty of color, Asian faculty, international faculty who speak “accented” English, faculty who teach quantitative methods courses, and  “less physically attractive” faculty.

Carol Highsmith, "Randy's Donuts" (2005). Library of Congress. No known restrictions.

Carol Highsmith, “Randy’s Donuts” (2005). Library of Congress. No known restrictions.

There is even research that suggests that the impression that your students form of you in the first week of class will essentially turn up on the SETs 14 weeks later. And let’s not forget the less rigorous studies that indicate that handing out student evaluation forms along with donuts will improve the results. A word to the wise: stay away from the glazed: what a mess!

More seriously, important arguments are emerging that suggest that student evaluations of teaching are a blow to academic freedom and the it is a “folly” to use “Student Evaluations of College Teaching for Faculty Evaluation, Pay and Retention Decisions.”

Knowing all this, it is not a stretch to suggest that we need to engage a new, research-driven conversation on student evaluations. At the very least, we should think seriously about what the bulk of the research on evaluations of teaching has disclosed: that student evaluations of teaching should be only one leg of the teaching evaluation process, a process which should include regular peer evaluation of teaching by faculty trained in such methods and following a standard, cross-college protocol, and a “forensic” examination of course syllabi by outside experts in one’s own field undertaken for reappointment, tenure, and promotion. The latter can suggest whether an instructor is keeping up with the field, incorporating new materials, retaining important “classics,” adequately reflecting where the field is going. Since few of us know the literature in our colleagues’ areas, this is best done by faculty from other colleges and universities who teach in the same field.

But these are for future discussions. Here I will focus on how to use our current SET forms in a way that modestly preserves your sanity while helping you think about your teaching in a more productive fashion.

Do SETs evaluate teaching?

The simple answer is “not really,” or at least not fully.  SETs are designed to measure student satisfaction with teaching, not whether students are learning. To be sure, there is an important relationship between student satisfaction and student learning (and, hence, faculty teaching), but it’s not a direct one. If a student finds a faculty member’s approach to be disorganized, his exams to be unfairly graded, or the readings to be insubstantial, then student learning will likely be less than it could have been. But satisfaction does not stand in for “learning,” and SETs are certainly not a measure of student learning. If you want to measure student learning in your classroom – a measurement that is not duplicated on the grade sheet, which will tell you how well students did in your class, not whether they “learned” – you need to be doing other things. But that, too, is a topic for another post.

 Richard I. McKinney and George E. Simpson (2nd from left) with Simpson's sociology and anthropology class, "Racial and Cultural Minorities," fall 1947. (Oberlin College Archives)

Richard I. McKinney and George E. Simpson (2nd from left) with Simpson’s sociology and anthropology class, “Racial and Cultural Minorities,” fall 1947. (Oberlin College Archives)

Since SETs are about student satisfaction, they will necessarily be subjective. Unless you’re some kind of teaching god, and none of us is, in the pile of evaluations you received will be some which classified you as the best teacher they ever had…and some which indicated that the student wouldn’t be disappointed if the earth open up and swallow you. You will have read evaluations from students who thought you were the model of clarity and others who found the course to be an perplexing labyrinth. Turning papers back in two weeks will rank you as a “5” in some students’ opinion, and a “2” for others who expected their papers to be returned within five minutes of handing them in.

Because SETs are about satisfaction, they only “work” (i.e. produce reliable data about your teaching) on the “average,” not by focusing on single responses. If considerably more students think that your exam was fair than consider it to be manifestly inequitable, you can conclude that the exams you give are considered by your students to be fair. Nevertheless, I must quickly add here that I’m using “average” as a layperson, not a statistician. mathIf you ask a statistician, let’s say Phillip Stark, a Professor of Statistics at Berkeley, about using “averages” to rate or rank teaching,, here’s what you’ll get: “Averaging student evaluation scores makes little sense, as a matter of statistics.  It presumes that the difference between 3 and 4 means the same thing as the difference between 6 and 7.  It presumes that the difference between 3 and 4 means the same thing to different students. It presumes that 5 means the same things to different students in different courses. It presumes that a 4 “balances” a 6 to make two 5s. For teaching evaluations, there’s no reason any of those things should be true.”

Stay with me for another moment, and you can readily see where the deeper problems with SETs are located: by focusing on norms – what is fair, for example – SETs (and those who read them) must assume what the norm is, and many researchers have noted the problems in this. Standardized testing, for example, has been shown to discriminate against black students. Even in low-stakes testing, “fairness” is often in the eye of the beholder, i.e., the person who prepared and distributed the exam. For more on this, see last week’s “Article of the Week,” on implicit bias.

All this said, nonetheless, on a broad level, SETs can help to identify outliers – a class which seems to have been overwhelmingly successful or particularly troubled.

Handing Them Out, Getting Them Back

College rules generally state that SETs are to be handed out in class near the end of the semester. There are new rules governing on-line student evaluations, and OCTET and the Dean’s office can give you some advice in that regard. Since most departments and programs leave it up to the faculty member to decide exactly when to hand them out in the last two weeks, you’re free to pick a time that works for you. So here’s a simple question: do you really want to hand out student evaluations right after you return a graded paper or an exam? Right after a class that went off the tracks? It probably won’t change the results, but think about distributing them at a moment that feels right for you, and usually not the very last class of the semester.

Let students know what SETs are used for: they are to take them seriously, they measure student feedback on six areas that the research has shown to produce valid and reliable results, and they are used in college personnel decisions regarding salaries and promotions. And then you leave the room, having designated a student who will collect them, put them into the big envelop you have been provided with, and deposit them with the departmental administrative assistant.

Then put them out of your mind.

Because of college rules, which are likely similar everywhere, you will receive your teaching evaluations back only after your grades are filed. So, at some point in January or June, after our hard-working AA’s have tabulated and organized the data, we find out that our SETs are ready to be picked up! And this is where you can make some decisions.

Image taken from “When Life is Young: a collection of verse for boys and girls,” by Mary Elizabeth Dodge. British Library cc.

First decision: do you rush in to get them, play it cool, like a cat walking around a particularly lovely kibble before pouncing, or pretend that they aren’t there until, sure enough, you have actually forgotten all about them? I usually take the middle route on this, but, in any case, I certainly won’t pick them up on a day when the most prestigious journal in my field has just rejected the article I had been working on for an eternity, nor will I get them right after an unnamed President-elect has just nominated Attila the Hun for a cabinet position. Another hit that day, I just don’t need.

When I finally make the move, I’ll take the forms to my office, put them on my desk, pretend that they aren’t there while I read through my Facebook posts for the last 6 months. Enough, already. I open the folders and read, rapidly, the overall numbers: not what I hoped for, better than it could have been, whatever… Then I put them away for at least a day or two. I don’t think I’m ready to take them on-board just yet, whether the numbers are good, bad, or indifferent. I go back to my email, the article, the gym, until I feel mentally prepared to explore the terrain a bit more carefully.

When I do return to my evaluations, I give myself the time to read them carefully – and usually privately. I don’t pay much attention to the individual numbers – those have been summarized for me, but I read the comments with care… and a mixture of interest, confusion, skepticism, and wonder. How is it that the student who wrote “he is probably the most disorganized professor I’ve ever encountered” attended the same class as the one who commented, “This was a marvel of organization and precision”? What is one to make of such clearly cancelling comments?

Here are a few tricks for trying to give student teaching evaluations the kind of close reading that they merit, neither overestimating their importance nor discounting what they may have to tell us:

Gargoyle - Salisbury Cathedral, UK. Photo by Brian Robert Marshall , Flickr cc

Gargoyle – Salisbury Cathedral, UK. Photo by Brian Robert Marshall (Flickr cc)

  • Don’t dwell on the angry outliers. That’s advice more easily given than taken. I have read enough teaching evaluations, my own as well as those of others, to know that there are some students who just didn’t like our classes and have not figured out any helpful or gracious way to say that. The fact that these are (hopefully) a tiny minority and are directly contradicted by the great majority of other comments doesn’t seem to decrease their impact, or the fact that we continue to obsess about them. (I can still quote, verbatim, comments that were written in 1987!) These bitter communiques probably serve some purpose for the student, but they really don’t help us think usefully about our teaching. Be like the Vikings: send them out to sea in a burning boat.
  • Evaluate the “cancellers,” when half the students thought the class was paced too fast and the other half too slow. These are harder to deal with and can add to the cynicism of those who think that the whole SET adventure is a waste of time. For the “cancellers,” I try to figure out a bit more about them to see if they represent some legitimate (i.e., widespread) concern about the class or not. Is one side of the debate generally supported by the numbers? Do I score lower in the discussion-oriented questions than in other areas, lower than in previous iterations of the course, or lower than I would have really wanted? Does the demographic information provided by the student add context that is useful and that I should take on board? I am more likely to trust comments from seniors than from first-years, for example. I pay attention to comments that suggest a striking gender or racial difference in terms of how students respond to specific questions.  These data are extremely important information and are why we (generally) ask for demographic information on SET forms. A careful reading of this information can help us understand what is going on in our classes on a more precise level. And, if none of the above helps me think about why something I have done works for some  and not others, I make a note to myself to ask students explicitly about it the next time I offer the class.
  • Focus on those areas that seem to be generating the greatest student concern. Are they having a hard time trying to figure out how the assignments relate to the reading? Do a considerable number worry that they aren’t getting timely or useful feedback? Is there a widespread upset that every class runs too long and students don’t have enough time to get to their next class? For each of the areas where I find a concern that has reached a “critical mass” level and is not just an angry-outlier grievance, I consider what I think about their criticism and whether, given my own goals in the course, I find it legitimate. For example, getting work back on time depends on the size of the class and what I have promised: in a 50-person class if I say I’ll return work within two weeks, and then do so, I won’t worry about students who complain that I only returned their work two weeks after they turned it in.
  • Other issues force me to think more about how I teach and what impact that has on student learning. What of students who protest that “there’s too much work for a 100-level class”? I have gotten a lot of those comments, and it makes me wonder why students think a 100-level class should involve less work than a 300-level class? Do we, the faculty, think that a 100-level class should assign less work than a senior seminar? Certainly, upper-level classes will be more “difficult” than 100-level classes: they demand that the students have acquired significant prior knowledge and skills needed to engage at a higher level. But should there be any less work involved in the entry-level class? Since I don’t think so, I wouldn’t change that aspect of the course even if the students complained.

But, ultimately, when student comments suggest what appears to be real areas of concern, when they point to something I am doing in the class that negatively impacts student learning, then I need to regard that issue with the seriousness it deserves. I will think about how I might correct the problem, and, often, the best way to do that is to talk to my colleagues and find someone in my department or outside who can read my SETs with me. That has served me well every time, and it does point to the ultimate utility of SETs for the individual faculty member on a formative level: they can help us to design our teaching to more effectively promote student learning.

What’s Not on the SET?

SETs in the College are geared around six different response areas, and those need to be addressed. But you needn’t be limited by those if you want to add other questions or address other concerns. There are two areas not covered in the SETs that  I’ll briefly introduce. The first has to do with diversity and inclusion. There is nothing to stop you from adding a question or set of questions in this area:

Are there parts of the course that you felt could have been more inclusive? If so, please be explicit about the ways that you felt I could have included more diversity in the course? Has any aspect of the course or my teaching disclosed a bias that has impacted your learning, or the learning of others in the course that you have witnessed? Do you have any concrete suggestions for ways that I can improve the classroom environment to encourage more inclusion?

robin-studyingThe second area has to do with questions that might better get at student learning (as opposed to student satisfaction). Linda Shadiow and Maryellen Weimer, writing in Faculty Focus last year (Nov. 23, 2015) suggest a series of questions that can help foreground student learning issues. They offer a series of fairly simple sentence stems for students to complete. For example,

  • It most helped my learning of the content when…because…
  • It would have helped my learning of the content if…because…
  • The assignment that contributed most to my learning was…because…
  • The reading that contributed the most to my learning was…because…
  • The kinds of homework problems that contributed most to my learning were…because…
  • The approach I took to my own learning that contributed the most for me was…because…
  • The biggest obstacle for me in my learning the material was…because…
  • A resource I know about that you might consider using is…because…
  • I was most willing to take risks with learning new material when…because…
  • During the first day, I remember thinking…because…
  • What I think I will remember five years from now is…because…

These questions can be added to the current SETs that you will be handing out. Include an additional sheet with these questions which, still anonymously, can be returned directly to you rather than being tabulated by the department AA’s or becoming a part of your official file. Take a look at these responses before preparing classes for next semester.

SETs are highly problematic, but they are here at least for the present, so it’s wise to think about how to use them to best effect.

From “Between the World and Me” to “Whistling Vivaldi”: How implicit bias trips up our brains…and what we can do about it

Marcelo Vinces, CLEAR and CTIE, November 21, 2016

Last year a group of faculty, led by Pam Brooks of the Africana Studies Department, planned and implemented a series of discussion groups to read and explore Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a book that Toni Morrison rightfully called “revelatory” and “required reading.” Written in the form of a letter to his black teenage son, the book was published at a time when the country was gripped with stories of violence set upon unarmed black bodies by police, in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, and elsewhere around the United States.

Paolo B, "Tra me el il mondo," Flickr CC

Paolo B, “Tra me el il mondo,” Flickr CC

In one striking passage, Coates relates to his son the particular burden of black Americans that is nearly invisible to all others, a ubiquitous manifestation of the fear and force which puts a distance between them and the world and represents an ever-present draining of human vitality and potential:

This need to be always on guard was an unmeasured expenditure of energy, the slow siphoning of the essence. It contributed to the fast breakdown of our bodies. So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you to contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason… This is how we lose our softness. This is how they steal our right to smile… It struck me that perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was the inescapable robbery of time, because moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to accept half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments (pp. 90-1).

This past September CTIE hosted a workshop on implicit bias led by Cindy Frantz and Nancy Darling of the Psychology Department. Workshop participants received copies of Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do. The above passage from Coates’s masterful epistolary work is resonant with much of Steele’s account of the research on stereotypes and the harm they inflict on the human psyche. Steele, who is a social psychologist, pioneered this field of research. In the chapter, “The Mind on Stereotype Threat: Racing and Overloaded,” for example, Steele summarizes how researchers came to understand that the fear of negative stereotypes tied to identity, whether someone is aware of it or not, is sufficient to cause physiological stress reactions that can interfere in performance and cognition. That “robbery of time,” of softness, of the right to smile that Coates writes about has been documented in countless studies that show the harmful effects negative stereotypes have on the mind and body.

Mahzarin Banaji, Experimental Psychologist. From an Independent Lens-PBS production (Feb. 24, 2015): "American Denial" - Click on photo for short video

Mahzarin Banaji, Experimental Psychologist. From an Independent Lens-PBS production (Feb. 24, 2015): “American Denial” – Click on image for a short video from “American Denial”

It is troubling that, just as our brains function less optimally when threatened by fear of stereotype (by disrupting working memory and executive function), so too are our brains wired in a way to make them prone to perpetuate biases at an unconscious, implicit, level. Scientists believe such wiring is an evolutionary adaptation of our ancestors surviving in the wild. Associating certain places or sounds with danger came in handy for survival, and the less (conscious) cognitive action it required to make such connections, the better. But when such associations are made between categories of people and negative traits, even without us being aware that connections are being made, they are maladaptive and linger despite our knowing this. As we go about our business, such implicit biases, left unchecked, can affect our judgement, even when we think we’re being fair. Acting on unconscious decisions based on lingering biased associations can make the difference which in other contexts, such as police work, can result in either peaceful outcomes, or a bullet fired at an unarmed individual. Our work in the classroom thankfully does not carry such high costs, but implicit bias can nonetheless insert itself:  in the way we grade, the opportunities we afford students, or in the subtle ways we regard individuals based on an identity they hold. They can, to return to Coates, rob some students of precious time, of the right to smile.

Taking action to counter implicit bias

So how do we counteract our brains’ tendency to make unconscious associations that perpetuate biased perspectives? As one way to answer this, let’s turn to a very different context, the court system, where the influence of implicit bias can have profound consequences on people’s lives. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) published a report in 2012 detailing “seven general approaches to address implicit bias in the courts based on scientific research.” These strategies are:

  1. Raise awareness of implicit bias.

Attending workshops such as the one we sponsored last September, reading this article or other materials on the topic (some of which are cited here), or discussing these issues with colleagues informally or at a department meeting are examples of first steps in raising awareness. We can only work to correct for sources of bias when we are aware they exist and learning about the potentially harmful effects on judgment and behavior can motivate us to pursue corrective action.

  1. Seek to identify and consciously acknowledge real group and individual differences.
DbDuo Photography

DbDuo Photography

A “color blind” approach, though on the surface sounding idealistic and well-meaning, in fact, does not work to eliminate unconscious biases. In fact, “color blindness” actually produces greater implicit bias than strategies that acknowledge race (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). The NSCS report lists some practical approaches that an individual or an organization can take that are far more effective than a well-meaning “neutral” approach, including seeking out and electing to participate in diversity training seminars, seeking out the company of other professionals who demonstrate egalitarian goals, and investing extra effort in identifying the unique attributes of stigmatized group members.

  1. Routinely check thought processes and decisions for possible bias.

One of my former colleagues, discussing a co-worker we both felt animosity towards, said to me “I have thought about whether or not I dislike this person because she was a woman. Would I have a problem with this person if they were male? When the answer was yes, without hesitation, I knew it was not a gender bias at work.” I found two things remarkable about this conversation: the first was my colleague’s self-awareness and honesty about her judgment possibly being biased by a stereotype she may have harbored. The second was that despite her being female, she still felt the need to check whether her judgment was being influenced by negative gender stereotypes. Indeed, the research has confirmed that being a member of a stereotyped group does not immunize us from stereotyping or being biased against members of our own group (see Moss-Racusin, Dovidio, Brescoll, Graham & Handelsman, 2012, for an excellent example involving academics). That conversation has stayed with me for years, and to this day I quietly ask myself what hidden biases might be creeping in when arriving at judgements about someone or in influencing my treatment of an individual.

  1. Identify distractions and sources of stress in the decision-making environment and remove or reduce them.
Michael Teuber, "Rush," Flicker CC

Michael Teuber, “Rush,” Flicker CC

“Decision makers who are rushed, stressed, distracted, or pressured,” the NSCS report observes, “are more likely to apply stereotypes – recalling facts in ways biased by stereotypes and making more stereotypic judgments – than decision makers whose cognitive abilities are not similarly constrained.” To cite just one, very common, example: when we are in a total crunch and yet must write any number of letters of reference, we may be more prone to insert biased language thereby, and probably unintentionally, weakening a student’s chances of entering a graduate program, getting a fellowship, or a job. “She was one of the best women in this advanced math course,” we might write. Ouch! Studies have shown that regardless of the gender of the writer, the language used to describe male candidates is different than that used for female candidates (see for example, Schmader, Whitehead, & Wysocki, 2007). Particularly since having a stress-free environment while writing letters is not often possible, it is all the more important to be aware of the possible effects of stress on biases in order to write more fair and effective letters for our students. Nick Petzak, director of Fellowships and Awards at Oberlin, has prepared a document containing guidelines and recommendations for writing effective letters of recommendation in a way that minimizes gender bias in the language we use.

  1. Identify sources of ambiguity in the decision-making context and establish more concrete standards before engaging in the decision-making process.

Moments where selections take place are prone to introduction of hidden biases, especially when criteria are not well defined to begin with.  But they also are vulnerable to the bias inherent in what researchers of consumer behavior called the “evoked set”. An example of an evoked set is nicely illustrated in a 2003 article in the New York Times, “The Lessons of the Grocery Shelf Also Have Something to Say About Affirmative Action”:

Last summer [we] ran an article on Hollywood’s search for young action heroes. Old standbys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Harrison Ford were getting a bit long in the tooth, leading studios to turn to newcomers like Matt Damon and Vin Diesel. The piece left the impression of a vast generation gap, with no heroes from the latter half of the baby boom. But one huge action star was inconspicuously absent: Wesley Snipes, born in 1962. Another, Will Smith, born in 1968, was mentioned only in passing. The evoked set of ‘action stars’ didn’t overlap with the evoked set of ‘black movie stars.’ There was no racial hostility at work, just the limits of human minds and the categories they create.

The writer continues that, during hiring searches, or when deciding who to invite as a guest speaker, “if you are looking for the best possible conference lineup, just listing the speakers who immediately come to mind may inadvertently exclude good candidates. You should also search through the other categories your mind uses to classify people.”

  1. Institute feedback mechanisms.

The NCSC report suggests that “transparent feedback from regular or intermittent peer reviews that raise personal awareness of biases could prompt those with egalitarian motives to do more to prevent implicit bias in future decisions and actions (e.g., Son Hing, Li, & Zanna, 2002). This feedback should include concrete suggestions on how to improve performance (cf. Mendoza, Gollwitzer, & Amodio, 2010; Kim, 2003) and could also involve recognition of those individuals who display exceptional fairness as positive reinforcement.” CTIE can help provide such peer feedback by arranging for a classroom observation of one or more of your classes. These involve a pre-observation interview, the observation itself, and a post-observation discussion and write up. Classroom observations are confidential and not reported to departments or the dean’s office. Videotaping of a classroom session can also be arranged. We can also arrange for other faculty to sit in on your classes or for you to observe others. These observations can be arranged to address particular areas of concern to you.

  1. Increase exposure to stigmatized group members and counter-stereotypes and reduce exposure to stereotypes.

Here I will allow myself to get personal and vulnerable, as we all must when confronting implicit bias in the work we do. I grew up a scrawny introvert, a bookworm who could barely achieve one chin-up in the high school gym, much to the chagrin of the physical education teachers and the scorn of my more athletic peers. I thus grew to hate athletics in general, and have since held a mild distrust of athletes, in particular. I was not quite aware of this latter bias in regards to students at Oberlin, and did not feel it was relevant in the work I do here. However my bias was revealed in two ways. One, upon invitation by some of the student athletes I work with in CLEAR (Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences), I began attending their games and found myself astounded at spotting some team members I had never imagined to be student athletes simply because to me they “did not seem the type.” Here was an overt stereotype being remolded. And second, subsequent and more frequent attendance at these games has allowed me to make greater connections with student athletes, and to get to know them better and in doing so finding aspects about them that further exploded my stereotypes about athletes and athletics. I have in my short time at Oberlin come a long way from a disengagement from athletics, to becoming a huge fan and advocate of our student athletes and their matches (ask anyone in the women’s volleyball team, for example). Only greater exposure, and having more conversations with student athletes and their coaches, have led to this dramatic conversion, and I hope have helped mitigate lingering implicit biases I may harbor in how I regard and treat our student athletes.



There are numerous practices which faculty at Oberlin and elsewhere already follow that reduce the influence hidden biases can have on our thinking and judgement. Some examples:

  • Try blind grading when possible. Because biased associations occur rapidly at an unconscious level, even seeing a name may activate stereotyped associations about ability and diminish objectivity when grading.
  • Use constructive feedback both to communicate high standards for performance but also to provide assurances that the student is capable of meeting those high standards (Cohen, Steele, & Ross, 1999).
  • Help individuals think of themselves in ways that reduce the salience of a threatened identity.Women encouraged to think of themselves in terms of their valued and unique characteristics were less likely to experience stereotype threat in mathematics (Ambady, Paik, Steele, Owen-Smith, and Mitchell, 2004).
  • Addressing the fairness of the test, even if you retain its diagnostic nature, can alleviate stereotype threat in a testing situation. For example, testing procedures could include a brief statement that the test, although diagnostic of underlying mathematics ability, is gender-fair or race-fair.

I hope the above approaches, taken from a report issued for a very different context, are comforting to you and that you are convinced, that just because our brains are wired in a way that makes implicit bias a fact of life does not make us slaves to these hidden influences, and that there are effective approaches to addressing them.


Apfelbaum, E., Sommers, S., & Norton, M. (2008). Seeing race and seeming racist? Evaluating strategic colorblindness in social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 918-932.

Ambady, N., Paik, S.K., Steele, J., Owen-Smith, A., and Mitchell, P. (2004). Deflecting negative self-relevant stereotype activation: The effects of individuation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 401–408.

Cohen, G., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1302-1318.

Frantz, C., Cuddy, A.J.C., Burnett, M., Ray, H., Hart, A. (2004). A threat in the computer: The Race Implicit Association Test as a stereotype threat experience. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 1611- 30; 1611-1624.

Kim, D. (2003) Voluntary controllability of the implicit association test (IAT). Social Psychology Quarterly, 66, 83-96.

Mendoza, S., Gollwitzer, P., & Amodio, D. (2010). Reducing the expression of implicit stereotypes: Reflexive control through implementation intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 512-523.

Moss-Racusin, C. A., Dovidio, J. F., Brescoll, V. L., Graham, M. J., & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(41), 16474-16479.

National Center State Courts (2012), Strategies to Reduce the Influence of Implicit Bias.

Postrel, V. (2003). The Lessons of the Grocery Shelf Also Have Something to Say About Affirmative Action, New York Times, January 30, p. C2.

Schmader, T., Whitehead, J., & Wysocki, V. H. (2007). A linguistic comparison of letters of recommendation for male and female chemistry and biochemistry job applicants. Sex Roles, 57(7-8), 509-514.

Son Hing, L., Li, W., & Zanna, M. (2002). Inducing hypocrisy to reduce prejudicial response among aversive racists. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 71-77.

“You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back.”

Steve Volk, November 14, 2016

Frank Tuitt, professor at the University of Denver and organizer for the Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education event. Photo: Andre Perry

Frank Tuitt, professor at the University of Denver and organizer for the Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education event. Photo: Andre Perry

More than 250 black faculty members, administrators, graduate students and allies gathered in Columbus a day after Election Day to offer their perspectives in a long-planned session titled “Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education in Challenging Times: A Conversation for, by, and about Black Faculty, Graduate Students, and Staff-Administrators.” In response to the question, “What has it been like to be a black faculty or staff member on a predominately white campus in the era of Black Lives Matter?” one professor responded, “You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back.”

I wasn’t at that conference but I was thinking about the strong backs we will need as I drove down to Louisville, KY, on Wednesday for the annual meeting of the POD Network, a group of some 1,000 “faculty developers.” I’ve never much liked the concept of “faculty development,” mirroring my objections about “developed” and “undeveloped” countries, as if some countries — or some faculty — just needed to be “developed.” But that’s what our job is called, those of us who run teaching and learning centers, work in instructional design, and generally collaborate with faculty, graduate students, students and staff around issues of pedagogy and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Truth be told, I hadn’t wanted to go. I just wanted to sit in a dark corner of my house. But I figured I could get something out of it, and, now back at home, I realize that I did. It was healing to be in a room of hundreds and hundreds of people who care about the values of diversity, inclusion, social justice, and, frankly, education.  It was healthy to be at a conference where the president of the POD Network used every opportunity to remind us of the values of the organization:

  1. Collegiality
  2. Inclusion
  3. Diverse perspectives
  4. Advocacy and Social justice
  5. Distributed Leadership
  6. Innovation
  7. Evidence-Based Practices
  8. Respect/Ethical Practices

It was good to sit  with so many others who care about their students and their colleagues and their country and to ask: what do we do now, where do we go from here? For thousands and thousands across the United States, the answer has already come in the streets. Some of my answers emerged in Louisville.

This posting is coming long after you have taught your first “morning after” class, long after you’ve figured out what you need to do to reassure many of our students that we are there to honor, uphold and protect the values that serve as the foundation of higher education: diversity and inclusion, social justice, respect, evidence, truth and fact. So all I can do now is tell some stories of the last few days, and suggest ways to uphold our values in our classrooms and on our campuses. In storytelling, many have said, is the process of healing.

DividerI served as a poll observer on election day at the Mt Zion Mission Baptist Church in Lorain, OH. About 75% of the voters who came in were Spanish-speaking, largely of Puerto Rican and Mexican ancestry; a large number were black. A few were illiterate, a chilling observation for the United States in the 21st century. More than anything, I was taken by the seriousness with which they approached the responsibility of voting. One image in particular will long stay with me. An older African American woman came to vote with her husband. She walked slowly and with considerable pain, it was clear, and we helped her over to the voting station. She remained for about an hour standing at the voting booth; her husband had long since taken a seat to wait for her. She read every word of every issue (I could see her mouthing the words) before she checked a box, and then used the “back” button to read them again before finally casting her ballot. I, of course, have no idea who or what she voted for, but voting was her right and damn if she wouldn’t take it seriously.

DividerAt the POD conference, I sat in on a number of sessions on diversity and inclusion in higher education. Most in attendance were still processing what had just come down and the implications for those of us in education, both higher education and K-12. Underlying all the conversations were deep concerns for students of color, immigrants, foreigners, and undocumented who were scared and already witness to a racist “whitelash.” One black faculty member from Northeastern remarked that faculty of color are even more frightened by the educated, white faculty who make them feel unwelcome on their own campuses. And an African American faculty developer from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville talked about the fact that all day on Wednesday white faculty were in her office crying and she’s thinking, “I can’t be positive for both you and me. What about the faculty of color who by virtue of the fact that they are pushed into this position of being there to support not just faculty and students of color but everyone?” (On this, you might want to take a look at Christine Malsbary’s “The Passionate Ethnographer” blog, “Dear White People: Things you can do instead of cry or try to hug us. Sincerely, People of Color.”)

“How do we welcome the future?”

Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni

We at the conference were fortunate to be graced with a fierce and funny keynote by the poet Nikki Giovanni who began by wryly observing that “One of the advantages of being black is that so much shit has happened to us that this is just one more. We just make up a song and go on.” And she reminded us of what it is we teachers do by reading some stanzas from her poem, “Always There Are the Children,”


and always there are the children

there will be children in the heat of day
there will be children in the cold of winter

children like a quilted blanket
are welcomed in our old age

children like a block of ice to a desert sheik
are signs of status in our youth

we feed the children with our culture
that they might understand our travail

we nourish the children on our gods
that they may understand respect

we urge the children on the tracks
that our race will not fall short

but our children are not ours
nor we theirs they are future we are past

how do we welcome the future
not with the colonialism of the past
for that is our problem
not with the racism of the past
for that is their problem
not with the fears of our own status
for history is lived not dictated

we welcome the young of all groups
as our own with the solid nourishment
of food and warmth

we prepare the way with the solid
nourishment of self-actualization

we implore all the young to prepare for the young
because always there will be children.

It was Giovanni who talked most about storytelling and healing: we sit together, we listen to each other, we have to talk to each other, share with each other. “There are stories,” she told us. “Don’t be afraid to tell them.” And she concluded in her inimitable fashion: “Either learn something or shut the fuck up. We’re going to be alright.” I figured that I never need to listen to another conference keynote: I had already heard the best.

As a break from the conference – and who doesn’t need a break from a conference? – I walked the few blocks to the Muhammad Ali Center. It seemed the right thing to do and I wasn’t disappointed. The center is organized around Ali’s six core principles:

  • Confidence: Belief in oneself, one’s ability, and one’s future
  • Conviction: A firm belief that gives one the courage to stand behind that belief, despite pressure to do otherwise
  • Dedication: The act of devoting all of one’s energy, effort, and abilities to a certain task.
  • Giving: To present voluntarily without expecting something in return.
  • Respect: Esteem for, or a sense of the worth or excellence of, oneself and others.
  • Spirituality: A sense of awe, reverence, and inner peace inspired by a connection to all of creation and/or that which is greater than oneself.
Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville, KY. Steve Volk photo

Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville, KY. Steve Volk photo

As I was making my way through the museum, I latched onto a group of some 15 students and their teacher; all were black. The kids were about 8-12 years old. The teacher was an inspiration, a magician, a ball of fire, telling her students that they had to believe in themselves and “never, never let anyone tell you that you can’t be great.” She read them the wall text at the start of the exhibition: “Know who you are and believe. Trust yourself: let yourself take the steps that get you where you want to go. Sometimes this requires a leap of faith…The self-confidence that Muhammad Ali showed the world irritated some people. But it inspired – and empowered – many, many others.”  “OK,” she said, “I want you to take a picture of that. Did you take a picture of that? I want you to look at it and not forget it.” These are the teachers who will heal the world.

DividerBack to the conference where POD’s president, Kevin Barry, was remembering the words of Christian Moevs, a professor of Romance Languages and Literature at Notre Dame, on receiving the “Sheedy Award” in 2006, an honor given to an outstanding faculty member. “In a human being,” Moevs began, “generosity and love are one with consciousness, with awareness. I began to learn how much students will give, how much they will give of themselves, how they will respond, come towards you, if you step towards them. Any success of any teacher,” he continued, “depends on that light, love, generosity in our students. I learned then that the key to all teaching is: You must love your students with a deep, self-giving love. There is a famous phrase in Dante, about how no one loved can escape from loving in return. That is not actually true with sensual love. It is true with selfless, self-giving love. That love is the bond, the link of communication, through which real teaching and learning happen.”

His words recalled to me what bell hooks said in Teaching to Transgress: “To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence. There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes.”

And how do we do that? We begin with ourselves. James Baldwin argued in 1948 in “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’” that a “rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”  We carry out our work in our classrooms, and it is in those spaces above all that we pledge to look into ourselves to ask if we doing all we can to insure that all of our students can thrive and are supported. It is in our classrooms that we can make the greatest difference, where we must insist that everyone’s presence is valued and that all our students can achieve their goals. It is in our classrooms that we “prepare the way with the solid nourishment of self-actualization.”


Guillaume Laurent, “Leonard Cohen, Nice Jazz Festival 2008,” Flicker CC

The great Leonard Cohen, who passed this last week, has been quoted much in the last few days, particularly his observation that “there is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” I can do no better than close with his song, “Democracy.” Written in 1992, it seems to have uncannily predicted this moment:


It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
Oh mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the Squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the women and the men
Oh baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
As time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA
To the USA

[Democracy lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC]

The “Us” in Teaching

Steve Volk, October 31, 2016

"The Night School" (1873). The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1873

“The Night School” (1873). The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1873

The move to “disrupt” education usually focuses on replacing or at least supplementing face-to-face teaching with a remote instructor. Online teaching offers the promise (not the certainty) of a brilliant instructor orchestrating a well-crafted course that can reach thousands of students around the world. It is distance education, and if the reach of distance education has expanded impressively, the idea itself is hardly new. When I was growing up, I “attended” a distance education course via a television program called “Sunrise Semester.” My teacher, standing in a sparsely outfitted classroom studio in New York (I was in L.A.) endeavored to teach me algebra at 6:30 AM. The fact that I became a historian rather than a scientist provides some indication of how that turned out.

There’s a lot that can be said about the potential of distance learning, but much is sacrificed as well. By removing the teacher, what online learning disrupts is the personal interaction that has been at the heart of teaching and learning since, well, the beginning. Socrates and Plato, the Buddha and Trapusa.  Removing the physical presence of the teacher removes a vitality that is often at the core of what we are able to accomplish in the classroom.

The virtual teacher is deprived, for example, of the ability to look at the students and see when they get it and when they’re lost, when they’re engaged, and when bored.  But as important, our actual presence in the class allows students to look at us.  And look they will. Jane Tompkins, writing in her memoir, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned (Addison Wesley, 1996) observed that:

Practically everything about you is open to inspection and speculation when you talk in class, since, in speaking, your accent, your vocabulary, the intonations of your voice, your display of feeling or lack of it, the knowledge you can call on, or not, all contain clues about who you are – your social class, ethnic background, sense of yourself as a gendered being, degree of self-knowledge, the way you relate to other people” [210].

Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States "Brooklyn - 112 Schermerhorn Street" The New York Public Library. History, Local History and Genealogy, Digital Collections.

Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States “Brooklyn – 112 Schermerhorn Street” The New York Public Library. History, Local History and Genealogy, Digital Collections.

What this means is that we, our whole persons, are always present in our teaching, as obvious as this may sound. “We teach who we are,” Parker Palmer once remarked. The best advice that I received when learning about teaching, and the advice that I give when reassuring beginning faculty, is that as teachers we have to be comfortable in our teaching skins; we have to be who we are – authentic, if you will – when we teach. So learning how to teach is often a process of learning who we are. Tompkins agrees. “People who take the classroom seriously,” she writes, “have invested themselves in perfecting a certain kind of performance…Slowly, with practice, the classroom self becomes the only self [210].”

When we teach, it follows, we teach “at the crossroads of the personal and the public,” Palmer cautioned, “and if I want to teach well, I must learn to stand where these opposites intersect” [66]. Which, of course, is easier said than done. There are myriad ways in which the personal and the professional flow into each other these days, no more so than when we disclose our likes and dislikes on social media platforms. But the question here is: if we teach “who we are,” and if everything we do in the classroom is observed (and often critiqued) by our students, to what extent do we allow ourselves to bring the personal into this public setting. In short: to what extent do we allow ourselves to talk about ourselves in class? And, if we do, is there not a danger that all we’re doing is teaching about…ourselves?

On its face, it seems ridiculous to pose these as questions since (as Tompkins noted above) our students are always aware of the embodied us who stand at the front of the class or sit next to them at the seminar table. For students, there is very little separation between what we teach and who we are as teachers. And since that’s the case, it’s also true that who we are includes the particularly grumpy us whose article was just rejected by a leading journal, the us who is rushing to pick up our daughter from day care, and the us who is rendered incoherent by the latest killing or political outrage. It includes the us who is black or white or brown, male or female or transgender, the us who dressed smartly that day and the us who threw on a T-shirt and jeans at the last minute.

Cornel West

Cornel West

(I remember a comment from a student’s end-of-semester evaluation shared by a colleague: The student observed, whether critically or not it’s hard to say, that the instructor never wore a belt with his jeans. Oy vey.  By the way and while we’re on the topic of fashion, Jay Parini, in The Art of Teaching (Oxford 2005) has a lovely chapter titled “By Their Clothes Ye Shall Know Them: On Academic Dress.” Also, you might want to check out the videos on “Cornel West on Clothing + Style” that appeared in the threadbared blog.)

So we must admit that there’s no way to leave “us” out of our teaching, nor should we. And yet, much like high schoolers who are nagged never to let the first person pronoun parachute into their essays, teachers are warned (note passive voice: by whom, we ask?) not to bring personal anecdotes or life experiences into the classroom. We are here to teach art history or Russian, the voice in our heads chides, not to talk about our summer vacations, the protests we led as undergraduates, or the fact that our cherished pet just died. But is that good advice?

“Fearing an unseemly eruption of ego or a descent into antediluvian anecdotes,” writes Ted Gup, a journalism professor at Emerson College, “I have tried to avoid indulging in show-and-tell, preferring to focus on the writings and techniques of others. But,” he now adds, “you can go too far in concealing your own chops, obscuring that the principles you teach were absorbed in part through your own endeavors. In that sense, you might be shortchanging the very students you seek to shield from too much First Person Pronoun.”

Certainly, there are faculty who are comfortable with sharing the personal with students, and others who aren’t. What is more, the decision to talk about oneself can be particularly disconcerting for faculty of color and women who may be (or feel) disrespected and have no desire and no intention to bring their personal lives into the classroom. “Dealing with students who don’t respect you is maddening,”  David Gooblar observed in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “and opening yourself up to that prospect by deviating from the role of the impersonal instructor can feel like a risk.”

Keeping that important caveat in mind, I have no question that to the extent that we bring ourselves into our classrooms as the actual people we are, our teaching (by which I mean our students’ learning), will improve. And sure enough, the research seems to back this up.

"Classroom discussion” (1971), The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Manuscripts and Archives Division

“Classroom discussion” (1971), The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Manuscripts and Archives Division

To cite one study of the many that exist, in 2014, a team at West Virginia University led by Alan K. Goodboy examined whether instructors’ self-disclosures in the classroom would influence or impact student learning or motivation. While the results of the study are nuanced, they are not unexpected.  Self-disclosure (i.e. bringing your personal life and experiences into the classroom) can have a positive impact on students’ (self-reported) learning. The impact is the strongest when the personal information that is revealed is more directly connected to the subject matter rather than tangential (so avoid the “let me tell you about the fabulous English muffin I had for breakfast!” disclosures). This kind of communication, according to the authors, can “create a more comfortable learning environment for students …help[ing] them feel at ease while receiving course information and…feel comfortable with the course content.”

The opposite, of course, can also be true.  What students deem to be “inappropriate” disclosures may not only divert from important content, but stray into “TMI” (too much information) terrain where students could find themselves privy to not just unwanted but frankly uncomfortable revelations. Students are not our confessors or our best friends and we all should know what doesn’t belong.

The question always seems to be: how do we observe the line between too much, or too little, “me” in our teaching? As Gup put it, “It’s all about balance.”

What We Teach and Who We Are

In the first place, relevance is a key issue in terms of what can, or should, be brought in, as the research suggests. If your personal experience helps students understand what they are studying, get a better grasp on broader issues of learning, or allows them perspective on challenges they are facing, it makes good sense to bring such experiences into the class. “I only talk about things that matter to me,” Parini suggests, “but I try to explain why these things matter in a way that students can feel what I feel about these things.” And he continues, “If all they want are the facts, they can look elsewhere, perhaps in a textbook. But not at me.” And Parker Palmer argues that “a strong sense of personal identity infuses” the work of good teachers who are able to “join self and subject and students in the fabric of life.” And, one can add, in the fabric of their work.

"Odysseus and the Sirens," Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, 2nd century CE

“Odysseus and the Sirens,” Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia, 2nd century CE

The bridge linking personal and professional is a connection with deep roots in feminism and an acknowledgement that as we are the ones creating meaning, this meaning requires a reflection on one’s own identity. I recently had the opportunity to read an essay by Tom Van Nortwick, a colleague who recently retired from the Classics Department (“Who do I think I am?,” in Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship, Routledge 1996). In it, he discussed a series of autobiographical responses to works of classical literature that he had written over the previous years.

These essays — he begins — all take as their starting point a work of Greek or Latin literature that I have seen as representing in some way a problem or issue central to my own life: my response to Odysseus has changed markedly over the last twenty years. What does that tell me about my own journey from post-adolescence to middle age? The relationship between grief and self-knowledge in the Illiad mirror for me my own struggle to integrate my mother’s death into my ‘mid-life crisis’”[16].


But even if our creative work and scholarship do not align with a quest for answers to personal questions, our students will search for and find some answers to their questions in us, and not just in what we teach. Our students want to know how we got to where we are and what keeps us committed to our research or creative work. We may teach them physics and music theory, but what (I would hope) they are learning from us is how to have a conversation, how to investigate a complex problem, how to disagree with their peers and with us, how to live an ethical life, how to remain true to lofty values…and to do all this and still make a living. At the end of the day, this should remind us that we are, above all, role models for our students, which is yet another reason why it is so desperately important to have a diverse faculty.

Almost all advice about what belongs in the classroom and what should remain outside locates “politics” in the latter category. Gooblar is a case in point, arguing “I probably don’t need to tell you that personal stories about your sexual history, political beliefs, personal finances, and religious beliefs are probably not” good candidates for classroom discussion. Certainly, we’re not in the classroom to proselytize for a religion or sign up our students for a political party. That said, this year’s election (may it be over soon!) has raised the question for many faculty as to whether it is our responsibility, either in our role as intellectuals or in our capacity as role models, to challenge the candidacy of Donald Trump. Kathleen Iannello, who teaches political science at Gettysburg College, argues the case. “Everything we stand for at Gettysburg and other liberal arts colleges,” she wrote in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “is at risk in the face of a Trump presidency… It is a disservice to students to attempt to provide balance when I know that balance is an offense to the truth.”

In 1967, Noam Chomsky, speaking more broadly about intellectuals (and not just classroom teachers), raised a similar challenge in a seminal article in the New York Review of Books (“The Role of Intellectuals”) that held intellectuals to a higher standard of responsibility:

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.

How we interpret Chomsky’s call to action, and the degree to which we bring our lives and experiences into the classroom, are personal, as well as professional, choices. But the point remains, and the research strongly confirms, that instructor self-disclosure, the degree to which we talk about ourselves in appropriate ways, helps students understand course content better, increases their affective learning, creates a welcoming classroom environment, boosts student motivation, and even can positively impact cognition (see Mazer et al, “I’ll See You On ‘Facebook’”). We should make the most of the opportunity we have to be ourselves in our classrooms…before we are all replaced by robots!

More than Cleaning: Custodians and Student Success

Steve Volk, October 24, 2016

When you think of successful university careers, you might think of presidents, provosts, and deans; when you think of the wisdom to be found on campus, you’re likely to think of professors sharing the fruits of their decades of research on chemistry, classics, or quantum mechanics. You almost certainly won’t think of the folks cleaning the bathrooms, washing the floors, and changing the trash bags.

                                      — Serena Golden, review of The Philosopher Kings, a 2009 film about eight custodians  who worked at top-drawer universities.*

And yet I have been thinking about the people who clean our offices and the students’ dorm rooms, mow the lawns and rake the leaves, prepare and serve the students’ food, patch the roofs when there’s a leak, deliver food to our workshops, and – bottom line – make our surroundings not only habitable, but pleasant. They are, as Peter Magoda, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University, observes, with a nod to Ralph Ellison, “an invisible campus culture.” [“Teaching, Learning, and Campus Custodians: Untidying Conceptualizations of Wisdom in the Academy,” About Campus (July-August 2014), available via Ohio Link]


Window at Calhoun College (Yale) broken by Corey Menafee

I’ve been thinking about service workers on campus since I read of the Yale dishwasher, Corey Menafee,  who broke a windowpane in Calhoun College – yes, that Calhoun College, the residential hall at Yale named after the South Carolina politician, Secretary of War and Vice President who staunchly defended slavery – that depicted enslaved people picking cotton. Menafee felt pressured to resign from his job after being arrested by campus police on felony charges before ultimately being taken back by his Yale employers after a five-week, unpaid, suspension.

I have been thinking about service workers because the dining workers at Harvard are on strike for pay that will allow them to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. [UPDATE: Harvard reached a “tentative agreement” with striking workers on Oct. 25, 2016.]

But it’s not wages and working conditions that I want to write about today – although there’s plenty to be said on that account. Rather, it’s the role that service workers – particularly custodians, food servers, and those who interact with students on a daily basis – play in the education of our students, not to mention our staff and faculty. (I have learned more about Guyana from the gentleman who delivers beverages to CTIE’s Brown Bag Pedagogy sessions than from many of the books I have read on that subject.) Many of the service workers on campus, certainly those in the dorms and dining halls, will likely engage more frequently with the students than many faculty. So, as Magoda, author of the recently published The Lives of Campus Custodians: Insights into Corporatization and Civic Disengagement in the Academy (Stylus, 2016) cautions, “failing to recognize and benefit from their wisdom represents squandered learning opportunities to the detriment of the entire campus community” [3].


“Janitor,” photo by Erik Gustafson, Flickr CC

In a 2015 dissertation written at the University of Iowa (“Mutually Beneficial Interactions: Campus Custodian-College Student Relationships”), Jeremy John Reed points out that “a corpus of student affairs literature supports the notion that custodial employees’ assumed duties directly enrich the student success mission of universities…” [15]. Reed’s ethnographic research was based on case studies of four campus custodians’ interactions with students at “Prairie University,” the pseudonym for a large Midwestern public flagship university. In focusing on campus service workers, Reed privileges the voices of historically marginalized members of campus communities who, he observes, “may contribute more broadly to students’ educational processes than previously understood.” His conclusions echo the findings of Kuh, Schuh, Whitt and Associates who called attention to the contributions of non-faculty workers such as custodial staff and secretaries, individuals who create “an environment conducive to student learning and personal development” [Involving Colleges: Encouraging Student Learning and Personal Development Through Out-of-Class Experiences (Jossey-Bass, 1991)].

Custodians and Student Well-Being

“With the doors to both bathrooms propped open, Lucas begins cleaning in the men’s bathroom.” “Lucas” (not his real name) was one of the custodians Reed featured in his study. An unmarried man who had been working at “Prairie” for almost 10 years, Lucas had earned a BA and held a variety of management and human resources positions before becoming a custodian.

Heeding the supervisor’s earlier warning, [Lucas] situates a pair of large goggles over his eyes and pulls on a pair of heavy rubber gloves. As he cleans the sinks, he describes the chemical’s harsh nature. ‘It kills everything. Once it’s added to water it won’t burn your skin. But you don’t want it in your eyes…’ … Lucas says that the chemical’s strength is necessary to kill dangerous pathogens. ‘Keeping things clean you keep the students healthy and yourself healthy. It’s like one big family,’ he says. Finished cleaning, Lucas rearranges the cart parked outside the bathrooms. He notices a student sitting in a nearby chair in the lounge. ‘Are you texting your grandma?’ he asks with a smile. The student looks up from her phone and replies, ‘Nope. I did that yesterday.’ Lucas responds, ‘Oh, good! I’m sure she likes hearing from you.’

In providing students a clean and safe residence hall environment, custodians help enhance the physical well-being of students. It is one way, probably the best known, that they support the institution’s mission to see that every student succeeds.

Sarah Yakunovich and Wanda Horning, Oberlin College "Source"

Sarah Yakunovich and Wanda Horning, Oberlin College “Source”

But their work in support of students quite often goes beyond their job description, as Lucas’ comment to the student in the lounge suggests. Custodians provide an important set of caring eyes looking out for students’ well-being. “Bea” had worked at “Prairie” for 7 years, having completed two years of community college course work herself. She drove in to work from a small town about 20 miles away.

“This morning I walked in here at 8:00 and saw a student sleeping on that couch with her books on the floor. I went by again at 10 a.m. and thought, ‘Should I check on her? Is she okay?’ I watched to see if she’s breathing. It seemed like a long time to be there. You just never know [92].”

Custodians look after students in a variety of ways. They protect students from intruders (making sure protective doors are closed, identifying people in residential halls who might not belong) and promote student health (both in their work of cleaning, sweeping, mopping), and by looking after student welfare in a larger sense. “Scarlet,” a high school graduate, started at “Prairie” two years before Reed spoke with her. She recounted that “Last year there was throw-up in this one bathroom almost daily. So I let the RA know. Because if it’s a daily thing it could be that someone is very sick. Or it could be a sign of anorexia, or some other eating disorder. So I told the RA, Brenda” [95].

Reed’s work illustrates how custodians promote student educational success in a variety of ways both directly, by engaging with and remembering individual students and details about their interests, interactions with other students and with their families; by comforting them when they are ill; by spending their own personal time with students; and by supporting them in emergency situations, including the most challenging incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. It is not uncommon for custodians to be the first to hear from a student who has just been raped if the victim is too frightened or ashamed to speak with anyone else.

Custodians look out for the students’ well-being. “Emma,” with a high-school diploma and three grown children, had been at “Prairie” for nearly 5 years. As she discussed members of the swim team who lived on a floor she regularly cleaned, she recalled, “One year, something was going on with them. A trip or something. And I made them all snacks for it. They were all on diets so I put carrots and broccoli in baggies for them” [105-6].

Custodians frequently provide advice for students that others can’t or won’t. “Well, they might think it’s a difficult thing they’re dealing with but I don’t,” Lucas relates. “No, they’ve mostly come to me with small things. I just give them my thoughts. Tell them what I might do. I think Emma might have students telling her more big things. I think they see her as more of a mom since she has kids. Maybe me as more of a brother since I don’t have my own kids” [102].

The mentoring and listening role that custodians play is perhaps better known in the K-12 setting. Larry Everett, who began as a custodian at the Webster Elementary School in Sumter County, Florida, told a reporter eariler this year that he is often summoned on his walkie-talkie to rush over to a classroom because a student is shouting, throwing things, and demanding to talk with “Mister Larry.“ “Sometimes,” he says, “a teacher or guidance counselor will call me on my radio and ask if I don’t mind hurrying to room such and such. It’s usually because there is a student with a problem who says he will only talk to me.”

Courtesy SEIU

Courtesy SEIU

Reed’s study is one of a number that calls attention to the “potential unique contributions of campus custodians to college student success.” It is not just the narrow roles of cleaning and maintenance; rather, as the above cases indicate, Reed stresses the mentoring, advising, supportive roles that custodians play and warns that “administrators who do not leverage custodial staff proximity to, and enthusiasm for, interacting with college students, may miss an opportunity to enhance college student success” [114].

As the research affirms, custodians can play this enhanced role not only because they are in unique proximity to students, but because they often come from different backgrounds, than the students, and, at a school like Oberlin or other selective residential colleges, they actually live in or near the town and thus represent a reality that can be very distant from the students’ own experience – and very useful in the students’ broader education. Stephen Sweet (College and Society: An Introduction to the Sociological Imagination, Allyn and Bacon, 2001) called attention to the problematic nature of insular and invisible campus subcultures:

… as a consequence of limited experience, privileged students at Ivy League [and other selective residential] colleges will likely have little insight into what life is like for the rural poor, and the rural poor have little idea of what life is like at an Ivy League college. Lacking this information, both groups will tend to rely on stereotypes, unrefined and often uninformed depictions of groups different from their own” (cited in Magoda, 6).

When Students Need to Be Schooled

Magoda and many others have pointed out that one does not need to be credentialed as a teacher in order to be an educator. The story of “Vida,” a housekeeper at “Compton University” (a pseudonym), is a case in point. Vida grew up in Croatia. She had been living in the United States for 15 years and working at “Compton” for 14 when Magoda interviewed her. He cited a letter she wrote welcoming students to the residential hall where worked:

Welcome Students! My name is Vida. I’m originally from Croatia (part of former Yugoslavia). I have been living in the United States for 15 years now. I’m married and have two children, a 23-year-old daughter and a 17-year-old son. My daughter just graduated from Compton in May 2012. She majored in Romance Languages and Literature. This will be my 14th year working here. I put a lot of effort in making this place a comfortable home for learning and living. I know this is your first year at Compton—everything is new and difficult. I am here to help you feel more at home, so don’t hesitate to come up and talk to me. I’ll do my best to help. I wish you a successful and clean year! Your housekeeper—Vida

At one point during that year, a “Compton” student (not necessarily from Vida’s dorm) wrote a letter to the editor of the university paper asking whether “it bother[ed] anyone else that our stuff is being stolen from our rooms?” The student went on to argue that there were only “two culprits for the thefts on campus: students and housekeepers.” Since the writer couldn’t imagine that the former could be responsible, he suggested that those reading his letter should “Try to put yourself in housekeepers’ shoes. You [housekeepers] work hard for not much money. You clean toilets for teenagers who all seem rich, look the other way when they see you, and have more expensive stuff in their small rooms than any entire family you know.”

Vida felt a responsibility to respond, and her reply, worth reprinting in full, schools the student, perfectly illustrating the educational role that custodians can play in the lives of students:

I can’t remember the last time I read something so embarrassing regarding a group of people, in this case, housekeepers – Vida began. You are probably bright enough to realize you can’t judge a group of people like that. Before doing something like this, you should think hard about how many people you will hurt. Many times there will be an individual that will give the group a bad name.

… I was once in a situation like yours. I talked like you. I thought things like ‘l will never clean somebody else’s home.’ Then something happened and I lost all of my material belongings. I was still happy, though, because my family was alive and safe. I got a chance to work and support my family as a housekeeper, and I don’t feel ashamed. I make an honest living and can provide a good life for my family. I can never imagine an instance where I would steal anything. While I have not lived in a student’s shoes, please don’t try to put yourself in a housekeeper’s shoes. It is not an easy job. In conclusion, please don’t blame a group of people for an individual’s shortcoming. I wish you happiness and good luck in all your endeavors. —Vida

“Custodian,” photo by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

“Custodian,” photo by Paul Sableman, Flickr CC

The Educational Community

Those of us who teach and work in small residential colleges represent an increasingly rare kind of community. With less than 2% of higher education students, we turn out considerably more than our share of educational, scientific, cultural, artistic, and intellectual leaders. While there are many reasons for this, a central one is that we provide an entire community that is there to support our students’ success. As those who have researched the role of service workers on campus make abundantly clear, we need to think about all the members of our community who make this possible.

As I was writing this, I thought, more than once, about the words of a colleague in physics, Stephen FitzGerald, who had the sorrowful task of preparing a “Memorial Minute” for a young assistant professor of chemistry, Jesse Rowsell (1977-2015), who died in a tragic hiking accident. FitzGerald closed his remarks by citing a note that was left on Rowsell’s door: “It was always a great pleasure chatting with you @ 3 a.m. as you were leaving. You will be missed!” It was signed: “Night Custodians.”

*The eight janitors in highlighted in The Philosopher Kings are Melinda Augustus of the University of Florida, Corby Baker of Cornish College of the Arts, Luís Cárdenas of the California Institute of Technology, Oscar Dantzler of Duke University, Jim Evener and Gary Napieracz of Cornell University, Josue Laujenesse of Princeton University, and Michael Seals of the University of California at Berkeley.

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Universal Design and the Architecture of Teaching

Elizabeth Hamilton, October 10, 2016

Elizabeth Hamilton is Associate Professor of German Language and Literatures at Oberlin College. She specializes in Twentieth-century West German literature and film, East German cinema, Postwar narratives of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung,” and Disability Studies. She is the Section 504/ADA Coordinator at Oberlin. (Section 504 is a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that prohibits discrimination based upon disability.)

Universal Design for Learning is not yet well known, yet a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that some educators are already casting doubt on its merit. Its very name suggests something too good to be true, as though “universal design” really meant “one size fits all.” Knowing that one size will never fit all, I grasp the need for caution. Still I favor this approach that asks me to know my students better.

Let me first underscore that universal design is not a teaching method. It is an approach to planning and to creating methods and materials by which teachers consider the widest possible range of learners from the outset.

Borrowing from architecture, universal design is a set of principles that enables us to plan for the greatest possible inclusion from the start of a project, as opposed to costly retrofitting to meet an overlooked need. Have you ever seen an unsightly ramp outside of a beautiful building? Or a sign directing wheelchair users to the back entrance?

finney-cropI mean not to disparage those measures, as access is better than no access, even as an afterthought. But it’s the process of design that interests me here. Why didn’t the architects think that a wheelchair user might use the front door every day, as a regular customer of this business or student in this campus facility—or as its director, or office-holder, or president? The ramp and the elevator are moreover just the most visible accommodations. Many adaptive or assistive devices are retrofitted onto communication services, programs, and policies. Again, this is honorable, but I think it is time to take the next step. Retrofitting is costly and the narrow thinking that preceded it is clear: the atypical user was not really on our minds when we built this institution.

We now know more than ever about systemic barriers and stereotype threat. We are beginning to grasp the real benefits of diversity and the costs of exclusion.

Universal design asks us, the architects of our curriculum, to respect diversity as an asset. In my view, this is the set of principles that will best allow us to translate our aspirations for diversity into an actual framework of accessibility. Because while universal design is often evoked in conversations about disability, its great gift is in the welcome it affords to all students who, for any reason (or in defiance of reason) are not in the center of the room or the center of our attention when we plan. I’m thinking here of first-generation students, international students, students of color, and students whose first language or gender identity or class or heritage give them frames of reference that can make access to our curriculum an uphill climb. Their perceived differences are too often cast as deficits and our responses cast as “providing for special needs.”


Frans de Potter, Geschiedenis van de Gemeenten der Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen, 1864

Universal design offers a way out of the normal vs. needy framework.

Universal design doesn’t wait for documentation of a disability before taking action, just as no curb cut requires a wheelchair user—or pedestrian carrying a heavy load, or parent pushing a stroller, or musician wheeling a double bass—to present a license before entering the sidewalk. Like the philosophy behind the curb cut, universal design presumes a range of users, and—this is important—it presumes competence on the part of all students, no matter their learning style.

curbcutBuilding Pedagogical Curb Cuts details practical accessibility innovations that teachers can incorporate in a range of disciplines. I contributed a short essay for this book when it was published in 2005. I share it now as a springboard for conversation even as I see how much has changed in the intervening decade.

Today’s classrooms already incorporate an array of universally designed features. This is as much a response to the changing demographics of our student body as it is a response to the shifts in critical inquiry that scholars are making in every field of study. These trends are merging, and well they should. We as teachers no longer restrict ourselves to formal lectures and traditional seminar papers any more than we as scholars rely solely on the monograph or conference paper to share our research. In addition to those still-valuable practices, we also use a variety of media; we engage more senses in class; we teach and test in a range of formats and settings; we use rubrics to evaluate student learning; we encourage collaboration; and we promote community-based learning. Whether we name them as such or not, universal design principles underpin the efforts we make to create multifaceted courses. We help our students engage with material when we open up new vantage points.

I have found that engaging my students in the process of enhancing access is the most instructive of all—both for students and for me. Here are just two examples of projects that you might consider and improve upon.

music-and-disabilityMy First Year Seminar students created Disability-Awareness-Month displays in each of our campus’s four libraries. Their task included thinking about how to make the displays accessible to a range of library patrons, including those who might have low vision. The students working in the Conservatory library included QR codes in their display to access apps with narration and musical selections. You can see it here and visit in person through the month of October. [Note: A fuller description of this project is included at the end of the post.]

Another class last spring studied works exhibited in the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Ripon Gallery. This lovely second-floor space is unfortunately not accessible if a person cannot use stairs. My students each selected an artwork to describe in detail for someone who cannot see it, no matter whether the barrier results from limited vision or lack of an elevator or any other reason. They drew upon visual description guidelines in Art Beyond Sight to prepare for this project. Here is Anna Rose Greenberg’s vivid description of “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement” by Charles-Émile Jacque:

Charles-Émile Jacque, "Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement," Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Charles-Émile Jacque, “Les Hydropathes, Troisieme Traitement,” Lithograph (19th century). Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

What is “universally designed” in these activities? There are multiple entry points into the activities themselves and they function in tandem with other activities to form the whole of a universally-designed course.

  • They engage a variety of senses.
  • They draw attention to the medium in which knowledge is contained, and ask students to examine that very frame.
  • They constitute a portion of the students’ overall grades, valuing the learning acquired in means other than timed tests or traditional essays.
  • Timed tests and traditional essays accompany these activities because those practices have value, too.

As a teacher, my role is to explain the value and purpose of the activities I require, provide accommodations where necessary, and say clearly what I want students to get out of a given task. Universally-designed options become moments for metacognitive awareness. The tone of my courses changes significantly and for the better when I emphasize the purposes behind the assignments, the time limits, due dates, and participation requirements. The structures of my course then take on intrinsic meaning and don’t appear to students as arbitrary or exclusionary gates.

I close with a video of Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone, as he sings “Auf dem Flusse” from Schubert’s Winterreise. Mr. Quasthoff has performed around the world, including with the Cleveland Orchestra and in master classes at Oberlin’s Conservatory of Music. As a so-called “child of Thalidomide,” Mr. Quasthoff’s physical growth was impeded, leaving his arms too short to reach piano keys. Nonetheless, he was required to play the piano in order to pass an entrance exam for the Hannover Konservatorium. The test would not be waived and no alternative method was offered for him to demonstrate his musical skills and knowledge. Denied admission, he turned to private study with Sebastian Peschko and is now recognized as one of the great interpreters of the Lied. How glad I am that his teacher was willing to think in alternatives.

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff's rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)

Thomas Quasthoff. Photo by (Flickr cc): Unpublished backstageshot from Thomas Quasthoff’s rehearsal with Daniel Barenboim (June 28, 2006)

Assignment from Elizabeth Hamilton’s First Year Seminar Program 093: Disability (Fall 2016):

3. Library Display Assignment (10%): This assignment introduces you to Oberlin’s
campus libraries. You will gain an overview of research materials and the steps you need
to take to gain access to them. You will explore the range of published scholarship on
disability. You will meet our professional library staff members and develop good
research and communication skills. You will collaborate with your classmates on
designing four library displays for October’s Disability Awareness month. You will also
gain research skills for pursuing your individual projects, due at the end of the semester.
First meeting: full class on Monday, September 19th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd Library’s
main-floor classroom.
Second meeting: small groups on Monday, September 26th from 2:30-3:20 in Mudd
library, the Conservatory library, the Science library, or the Art library.

1. Decide how many works to display.
2. Decide which kind(s) of works to display: are you choosing works in which
disability is regarded as a problem to be solved, a perspective from which a
person experiences life, the product of created (and potentially removable)
barriers, or a little bit of all of these?
3. Decide which works to display: works could be by creative authors, natural or
social scientists, composers, or performers with disabilities, or works could be
ones in which disability is a major theme, artistic device, or perspective of a
significant character.
4. Choose a visual style for the display. Select, as appropriate, illustrations, props,
colors or borders.
5. Choose a way to alert viewers to the displays in other libraries.

After the displays are created, each student is required to fill out a self-evaluation rubric
on one’s own participation in the group project AND submit a one-page (250-300 word)
personal reflection essay on the process of creating the display. What did you contribute?
What did you learn?

Self-evaluation rubrics (found at the end of this syllabus) and personal reflection essays
are due on Monday, October 3rd.