The Sounds of Silence: Approaches to Other-Oriented Listening

Steve Volk, February 20, 2017

cage_4-33As long as we’re talking about Frank Zappa…

In 1993, Zappa recorded John Cage’s 4’33” as part of A Chance Operation: The John Cage Tribute [Koch International Classics]. You might remember 4’33” as a recording of silence, or better put, as a composition scored for any instrument or combination of instruments in which the performers don’t play for the prescribed amount of time. It’s not, in fact, a composition intended to produce silence since, in performance, listeners hear the environmental noise that they normally ignore at a concert (except, of course, for the continual hacking and rustling that goes on). “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, recalling the première of the work. “You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” Kyle Gann [No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s ‘4′ 33″’  (Yale, 2011)] described Cage’s composition as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention in order to open the mind to the fact that all sounds are music.” In other words, 4’33” explores how the absence of the expected, in this case “music,” can act to heighten our awareness of things that otherwise might have eluded our attention.

I have been thinking about the role of silence in the classroom, somewhat peculiarly in the part it can play in supporting discussions, dialogues, or any other non-monologic teaching. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about whether silence can help students hear. As with Cage’s composition, the relationship between talking and silence in the classroom is not a binary, both are part of a singular process.  Silence can be employed to encourage hearing as well as talking. (I’m reminded of an anecdote recalled by Catherine Blyth in The Art of Conversation. When Solon, he of ancient Athens, in a test of wits was asked to remove the best and worst bits of a sacrificed animal, he selected just one item: the tongue.)

Silence in the classroom has been addressed by a number of scholars. Donald L. Finkel, for example, in Teaching with Your Mouth Shut (Heinemann, 2000), suggests ways that instructors can teach by removing themselves as the center of the students’ attention. At this time, however, I’m particularly concerned with whether silence can encourage what I would call “other-oriented” listening, which I used to think of as “real” listening, and therefore add to productive engagement in the classroom.  Because, beyond a doubt, in the world at large there’s way too much talking and not enough listening.

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

One of many such signs scattered around the Bodleian Library, Oxford

In a recent essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, John C. Cavanaugh, the president of the Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, argued that we need to be teaching our students how to listen, or, more precisely, what he termed the skill of “contemplative listening.” Contemplative listening, Cavanaugh writes, “is not the same as ‘listening’ in the colloquial sense. The latter, which tends to be the default way listening is practiced, is rooted in how listeners are consumed with how a conversation affects them.”

That last part really resonated: consumed with how a conversation affects them. Anyone who has led a classroom discussion knows exactly what this looks like. You ask your students a question. Hands go up. As the first to be called on offers a response, the others who had their hands up don’t appear to be listening to the speaker. Their faces tell you that they are thinking of something else, probably how they will answer when eventually called on. They’re thinking of how the conversation will affect them. This is pretty much the same if you “stack” those who want to answer in a queue or if you have the current speaker determine the next speaker. Both techniques can help remove you as the central hub of classroom discussions (allowing you to teach “with your mouth shut”), but they don’t address the challenge of getting students to listen to each other in order to actually develop the discussion. Students often remain focused on what they had planned to say rather than moving with the conversational flow. And, as a result, class discussions don’t develop into truly dialogic spaces capable of generating new understandings or fresh insights. Don’t get me wrong: discussions aren’t a waste of time; but they could be more productive if students actually listened to their peers.

Image taken from "Lilliput Lyrics," R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

Image taken from “Lilliput Lyrics,” R. Brimley Johnson, ed, illustrated by Chas. Robinson, 1899, p. 277 (British Library)

It’s not a great surprise that students aren’t better at other-oriented listening. Truth be told, we’re not particularly good at it either. Perhaps it’s our training to be critics, but we, too, are often busy planning how we’ll respond rather than listening to what a colleague has to say. (Think back to your last faculty, department, or committee meeting. OK, don’t.)

Cavanaugh argues that traditional-aged students often haven’t developed an ability to “separate one’s personal needs and interests from those being expressed by the speaker.” (And once again I’d say, it’s not just late adolescents: Physician, heal thyself!) He cites the neuroscience research pointing to the late development of the integration of emotion and logic which is central to contemplative listening. I’m not familiar with that research, but I do know that there is a growing tendency to remain in our own “echo-chambers.” And in this aspect research has clearly shown that our conversations/reading/viewing – whether virtual or face-to-face – are increasingly with people who share our perspectives. To the extent that we only listen to what we want to hear, we are self-oriented thinkers, unable or unwilling to hear the unexpected, the uncomfortable.

Impediments to Other-Oriented Listening in the Classroom

Still, there are structural reasons that make other-oriented listening in the classroom harder for our students. Classroom interactions obviously don’t follow the same rules as one-on-one or small group exchanges, with a relatively “natural” flow of talk among conversational partners. Although, as Blyth worries, it is possible that conversation itself, “especially face-to-face [conversation] – for thousands of years the core of human interaction – is being pushed to the sidelines.”  Even given that, or perhaps because we are becoming less adept at the “art of conversation,” good classroom discussions, unlike other social interactions, require that the participants’ have prepared for them. And we all know what that can mean. But there are circumstances we impose that also lessen the likelihood of effective listening.

  • When students know they are expected to participate in class discussions, particularly if participation makes up a part of their grade, they can become more focused on the act of participating, on intervening in the conversation, than on whether what they have to say helps the discussion advance. Their interventions don’t depend on having listened to previous speakers, and they will largely focus on what they have been planning to say even as the discussion has moved on.
  • Students often recognize that they are being evaluated by the instructor (and their peers) more for what they say than for their ability to foster a discussion. They have received a message, often accurately, that it is more important to impress us than to contribute to generative discussions.

So, what practices can we employ to help our students build their capacity as other-oriented and contemplative listeners? How can we circumvent the barriers that make classroom discussions less about individual speakers and more about collaborative engagement?

Some Quick Fixes:

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

Listening. Photo by launchmemphis: Flickr Creative Commons

There are some quick fixes that we can use to help students become better listeners. In general, these involve explicitly raising for class members the challenge of taking responsibility for the generation of a productive discussion by closely listening to, and then addressing, the arguments and themes raised by the previous speakers. For example, think about:

  • Having each speaker sum up her comments at the end of her intervention and, if possible, raise a new question to be answered.
  • Encouraging the next person in the queue to begin his comments by focusing on the question raised by the previous speaker.
  • Adopting a modified Socratic approach. As you know, the Socratic method involves teacher-student interactions based on a shared dialogue in which both are responsible for pushing the conversation forward through questioning as a means of finding foundational beliefs, values, or principles. Socratic approaches often allow us to find new meanings through  persistent questioning. In a modified approach, students, more than the instructor, would be responsible for advancing the process of continual questioning of assumptions, and they could only do this by paying particular attention to what the previous speaker has said and thinking more deeply about its values and understandings.

But here is where silence can help. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to encourage contemplative listening in the midst of a conversation is to employ silence. Think of John Cage. Use enforced silence to help students focus before answering, not just after you ask a question, but after the first student offers an answer and before you call on others, with the explicit instruction that no one will talk for a minute (it will seem very long) after the previous speaker to allow everyone to think of what was said, to write comments, and to respond explicitly to what was said. I can guarantee you that this won’t be easy, but don’t be faint of heart and give up after what will undoubtedly be your first disastrous attempts at it. Stay with it.

The Longer-Term: Classrooms as Learning Communities

You probably have more ideas than I do about helping students develop more other-oriented listening approaches in a classroom, and I’d be eager to hear them. But to address this issue on a profound level we have to consider some of the structural factors mentioned that inhibit deep listening. These are not just, or even, about the number of students you have and whether only small seminars are capable of generating other-oriented thinking skills. What we need to take on board is whether we are structuring our classes in ways that encourage deep listening. To return to a point I made above, except in large lecture classes, most of us, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, include a “class participation” component as part of the final grade. I did that for years without providing students with helpful – OK, any! – feedback on how their participation would be evaluated. And, when I finally did provide some feedback in the form of a rubric, I mostly stressed quantity (were they active participants?), their ability to stay on topic, and whether their interventions were informed by the readings or other assigned work. I never commented on whether they helped the class generate a productive discussion or if they raised further questions for their peers to address. In my approach, I probably convinced students either that quantity was more important than quality, or that the “quality” of their interventions was an individual feature, disconnected from the whole group’s ability to reach new understandings. I find my own practices even more curious since the very quality which I didn’t explicitly raise with students — the ability to advance a discussion — would always be at the top of my list when writing student recommendations.

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

@GwynethJones. Flickr Creative Commons

If we are interested in supporting other-oriented listening, a listening that moves students away from thinking only about how the conversation affects them, a practice of hearing that opens them to other perspectives, we need to structure classrooms as learning communities where all participants are held responsible for producing knowledge, deepening understandings, and solving problems. As I wrote in an earlier post, “When we invite students into our community (both in our classes and on the campus as a whole), we are affirming that everyone has the responsibility (and the privilege) of being both learners and teachers and that we reject the binary that insists that only we, who stand in the front of the class, are responsible for teaching while they, who have come here as students, can so easily excuse themselves from that responsibility.”

At one level,  this involves moving from what Paulo Freire called the “banking,” or information-transformation model of teaching to a more learning-centered, inquiry-centered model where, as Jeffrey Wilhem writes, teachers and students “work together to co-construct knowledge according to disciplinary standards as they learn and use disciplinary concepts and procedures.” To the extent that students become co-responsible for classroom learning, and to the extent that the different experiences and knowledges that they bring with them are valued, we can create a space where listening becomes an essential foundation for talking.

John Cage used silence in his compositions to help us hear what we weren’t listening to. Other-oriented listening in a collaborative classroom can also be based on the promotion of silence, both the absence of talking that allows students to think about what others are saying before speaking themselves, as well as the silence that involves stilling one’s inner voice to a sufficient degree so that they (and we!) can actually listen to what others are saying. If the work of the classroom is the work of the all its participants, then let’s cultivate a silence that helps students tune out “how a conversation affects them” and focus instead on how they can further a discussion that will support everyone’s learning.

Community-Based Learning at Oberlin: Democratic Engagement Plus Significant Learning

Tania Boster, Director of Bonner Center Curricular Initiatives, February 13, 2017

Michel Fanoli - Politics in an Oyster House Dedicated To HB Latrobe Esq, 1856. Public domain.

Michel Fanoli – Politics in an Oyster House Dedicated To HB Latrobe Esq, 1856. Public domain.

Does higher education have a role in creating civically engaged students? Do colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare all our students in the theory and practice of democratic, civic and political engagement? Do colleges have a responsibility to the be a part of the localities, whether big cities or small towns, in which they reside? What is “education for political engagement” and can it work as a pedagogy to enhance student learning?

These questions have a long history in higher education (as well as the K-12 world), particularly in the United States. So it is not surprising that they would be raised at moments of significant democratic distemper, political turmoil, and division; nor should we be surprised that they would generate both positive and negative responses. On the negative side, two different discursive threads predominate.  The first, a view long-championed by Stanley Fish, a Milton scholar who turned to legal studies and is now a  visiting professor of law at Yeshiva’s Cardozo Law School, argues for a strict separation between academic and political goals: “Promoting virtuous citizenship is no doubt a worthy goal, but it is not an academic goal, because…it is a political goal.” Higher education, Fish has long insisted, has no business fostering political goals or “shaping” any form of citizenship.

The second, championed by an organization of conservative academics and intellectuals, the National Association of Scholars, largely supports the intent of civic engagement, but argues that the wrong kind of civic engagement is being fostered, and that community-based work is nothing more than a leftist plot designed for the ulterior purpose of “radically transforming” the United States. In its recently released 525-page report, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics, the NAS argues that “The New Civics [i.e., community-based learning and research] hopes to accomplish this [transformation] by teaching students that a good citizen is a radical activist, and it puts political activism at the center of everything that students do in college, including academic study, extra-curricular pursuits, and off-campus ventures.”

Oberlin, along with many other liberal arts colleges and universities, has long answered in the affirmative. Oberlin’s recently articulated learning goals are quite clear about the value we give to John Dewey’s concept that education is “the midwife of democracy,” and that educators have a broadly affirmative role to play in the advancement of community goals, the furtherance of social justice and the deepening of democracy. In other words, those things a college or university can do to promote such end objectives are to be supported.

What is more, the promotion of a democratic citizenry, and democratic engagement, is more than a goal to be attained; it is a means — a set of pedagogical approaches — that can broadly support student learning. In other words, besides impacting the students’ understanding of democratic engagement, research has underscored that “Community-Based Learning,” also referred to as Service Learning, is a valuable pedagogical approach because of the positive and measurable impact it can have on student learning outcomes. Researchers at the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), consider this approach to be a “High-Impact Practice” with the ability to yield significant learning outcomes. The literature on student learning outcomes related to CBL is extensive (see, for instance,  Moely, Barbara; Ilustre, Vincent, “The Impact of Service-learning Course Characteristics on University Students’ Learning Outcomes” Michigan Journal of Service Learning 2014; Harper, S. R., “Race-conscious student engagement practices and the equitable distribution of enriching educational experiences” Liberal Education 2009; “Civic Engagement and Student Success: A Resonant Relationship” Diversity & Democracy 2012).

Ninde Scholars Program, part of the Bonner Center's programs.

Ninde Scholars Program, part of the Bonner Center’s programs.

What is the value of Community-Based Learning?

In fall 2016, the Bonner Center launched a multi-year initiative to expand Community-Based Learning (CBL) at Oberlin College & Conservatory, with a particular focus on faculty engagement. Recognizing that several Oberlin faculty have incorporated CBL into their course design over the years, we have refocused our aim as a center to go beyond simply bringing more faculty on board with this pedagogy, though we do see value in an institution-wide scholarly commitment to our community partners in Oberlin and elsewhere. Rather, we are striving to build infrastructure for a more interconnected approach to CBL, one that supports a community of publicly engaged scholars at Oberlin and establishes ties with a broader network of CBL practitioners, positioning Oberlin faculty in the national and international conversation on CBL (through professional organizations such as International Association for Research on Service Learning & Community Engagement IARSLCE and Imagining America).

America Reads, a program supported by the Bonner Center

America Reads, a program supported by the Bonner Center

It is our understanding that when the work of Community-Based Learning is done well – when the community partner and the faculty member work collaboratively to design the community-based component of a course – the value extends beyond the classroom. As both a pedagogy and a method of doing research, there have been significant advances in research aimed at identifying some of the most effective, culturally relevant practices in CBL across disciplines. Chief among these is a decisive shift away from course design in which mandatory service hours are neither explicitly linked to course goals nor responding to community-expressed needs (what is referred to in the field as a “transactional”model of service). Students’ and instructors’ engagement with the underlying issues informing community-based course projects, identifying connections between readings and lectures and the experiential course component, becomes a significant learning opportunity, Mandell, Wagner, and Pérez-Manrique describe this as:

…critical service-learning, where students work to understand and change fundamental structural inequalities. Students also come to see how privilege is often shaped by the complex interplay of race, class, gender, and other factors. Instead of a ‘feel good’ activity in which students simply help the poor, critical service-learning for social change becomes an uncomfortable activity as students and communities ask deeper questions about power, knowledge and unequal distribution of resources,” (Joyce Mandell, Mark Wagner, and Ana Pérez-Manrique, “Service-Learning as Social Change: Does Higher Education Have a Larger Purpose?” Currents in Teaching and Learning Vol. 7 No. 1 Fall 2014).

This suggests, importantly, that what is best for the community partner, defined on their terms, holds at least equal value for student learning outcomes and even advancing social justice. In other words, paying close attention to the value and capacity-building outcomes a CBL project contributes to a community partner contributes significantly to student learning.

The George Jones Farm in Oberlin, one of the organizations affiliated with the Community Service-Work Study Program at Bonner, Oberlin

What distinguishes CBL from other pedagogies and methods?

Many academic disciplines have developed their own sub-disciplinary fields of publicly-engaged scholarship and, indeed, nearly every field within a liberal arts curriculum can potentially adopt such approaches as one means of developing students’ capacity for self-knowledge, positively engaging them with larger processes of social change, or even contributing to important paradigm shifts in their fields of inquiry. The American Historical Association, for instance, has in recent years issued a set of guidelines for Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian. The recommendations address publicly engaged historical research that extends the scope of the sub-field of public history to include other forms of knowledge production with public benefits: “Community engagement infuses the work of public historians, but most historians now are doing community-engaged work at some level, bringing their ‘disciplined learned practice’ to interactions with various communities.” According to the Carnegie Foundation, the distinction between academic scholarship that occurs in a public setting and community-engaged or public scholarship is that “Community Engagement [including Community Based Learning/Teaching and Research] describes [a] collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.” In other words,the concept of “community engagement” is being expanded to encompass a range of practices that bridge multiple disciplines within the notion of Civic Professionalism, “mark[ing] the intersection of formal knowledge, vocational exploration/development, and a commitment to the common good.”

Is Community-Based Learning too ambitious?

BooksCBL is more widely available and accessible than you may think, but it also isn’t imperative or appropriate in many classroom contexts. Successful CBL projects are developed in close conversation with community partners with whom trust and relationships have been well established to ensure that the partner’s time and expertise is respected and that student projects are actually meeting their needs and not just those of the class. A well thought out project, with at least the CBL component co-designed with the community partner/s you intend to work with (again, building trusting working relationships and collaborating as co-educators) is of more value to everyone involved than assigning students to execute service projects without offering them the proper skills and preparation, intellectual and ethical frameworks, and insight into navigating and attaining cultural competencies.

At the same time, you should be aware that CBL isn’t an “all or nothing” pedagogy. There are a range of possibilities for engaged learning available to faculty who may not have time or capacity to develop collaborative relationships with community partners. The Bonner Center staff can help you think through course design and develop models that align with your teaching and research interests, connect with community partners around particular issue areas, and map out how a particular community-articulated project, site visit, or guest speaker can be extended into the classroom in a way that is ethical, impactful, and that mentors your students to approach communities that aren’t their own with a respectful orientation to learning and growing.

I’ll close with some keen insights from one of the current leaders in the field of Community-Based Learning that encompass some of the most pressing and promising next steps for scholar-practitioners. In her keynote address at the 2015 International Association for Research on Service Learning and Community Engagement (IARSLCE) conference, Dr. Tania Mitchell identified the following among areas in which the field will benefit from fresh attention:

The initial critical community engagement literature created space to ask hard questions—different questions—about service-learning pedagogy and practice. It gave us permission to challenge colleagues and students about the haphazard deployment of students into communities. It ignited a different kind of community-engaged practice, one that does not assume that service is good simply because it is service (Davis, 2006) but requires us to align our intentions and actions to ensure that our community engagement work is justice-oriented. As excited as I feel about this more critical service learning practice (Mitchell, 2008), I know that it is still a marginalized approach. Most service-learning practice continues to prioritize the needs of the institution and its stakeholders (i.e., students, faculty, and staff) above those of the community. In considering who participates in community engagement experiences, our research still normalizes—in fact, emphasizes—Whiteness by frequently ignoring the experiences of students of color, even as engagement research has shown that service-learning is the one high- impact practice in higher education in which students of color participate at higher rates than White students (Harper, 2009). Much of our research focuses on student learning and development, with scant attention devoted to the impacts and implications of our work on the community (Butin, 2010; Cruz & Giles, 2000). I am challenged by that discrepancy in our work. I am challenged by that discrepancy in my own work,” (Mitchell, “Moments to Inspire Movement: Three Seminal Moments in Community Engagement,” The International Journal of Research on Service Learning and Civic Engagement (2016).

In my estimation, we at Oberlin College & Conservatory are well positioned to take up Dr. Mitchell’s challenge.

Those who are interested in the variety of ways that community engaged projects can be pursued can consult the following courses (and we’ll add others to the list):

Carol Lasser (History): “Digitizing American Feminisms”

Gina Perez (CAST): “Latina/o/x Oral Histories of Northeast Ohio”

Listening to Smart People

Steve Volk, February 6, 2017

When the inarticulate blathering radiating out of Washington becomes too much to bear, I think about turning to really smart people as a kind of lime-scale remover for the brain, dental floss for the mind, if you will. Smart people help me reconnect my moorings with reality and build my confidence that we actually can rise to higher levels, think clear thoughts, and do the work of education.

With that in mind, I recently returned to the composer John Luther Adams. I have been mesmerized by his work for some time, and wrote about him in this space a few years ago. To refresh your memories, let’s not confuse John Luther Adam’s with John Coolidge Adams, the composer of the opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” among other master works, and certainly not with John Quincy Adams, whose greatest hit was the Monroe Doctrine, the prelude to a long suite on U.S. expansionism. The music of John Luther Adams is deeply bound to the natural world; some have called it “sonic geography.” So, stick with me for a few minutes and I’ll soon get to some lessons that this smart person offers to teachers.

As a kid, Adams played drums in a number of rock bands, one of which, Pocket Fuzz, opened for the Beach Boys at a local New Jersey gig. Like many of us of a certain age, he was drawn to Frank Zappa, and it was through Zappa’s music – or, actually, because of a quote (“The present-day composers refuse to die”) in the liner notes of one of Zappa’s LP’s, that Adams stumbled upon Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, a 20th century French avant garde composer. As I wrote in an earlier post, the music of Varèse was not easy going; Adams couldn’t figure out how to make sense of what the composer was doing. “It all sounds…just like a bunch of noise to me,” he lamented. Which wasn’t too far from the mark since Varèse once observed that music was, in essence, “organized noise.”

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa

In any case, Adam’s response, as he told Nina Serota, the host of WQXR’s “Q2” Meet the Composer program, was to immerse himself in Varèse’s “noise.” This approach was his typical response to any new and challenging material: “Gimme more.” After throwing himself into Varèse’s work, he began to hear what he hadn’t earlier: “Oh, there’s that repeated note on the oboe; OK that’s a landmark, I can grab on to that. And here’s this place where there’s sort of this tattoo figure with the snare drums…” And gradually, he said, he began to hear the forbidden deserts of Edgar Varèse. And here’s Adam’s first lesson for teachers. We occasionally encounter students who, when faced with seemingly impenetrable problems, will throw themselves at them, banging away without our assistance until they see what they previously couldn’t. But many more students will need our help to find their way in, to find something that they can grab on to. Teaching is about appreciating the difference between these kinds of students: standing back and letting the John Luther Adams among them find their own solutions while helping the others discover their particular ways in.

Making All the Wrong Choices

James Tenney

James Tenney

As Adams’ interest in composition developed, he was invited to study music at Columbia. Which he never did. Before committing to the school, a friend grabbed him “by the scruff of the neck” and told him, “You’re not going to Columbia, you’re going to this new place in California.” So, one fine day, Adams finds himself in the office of James Tenney at the California Institute of the Arts. Tenney, another giant of contemporary music, had studied with Varèse among other composers, but this was his first year on the job at Cal Arts. As Adams tells it, here was this young kid — himself — “knowing nothing, thinking [he] knew everything, walking into” James Tenney’s studio at Cal Arts and immediately launching “into some tirade.” Adams continues:

Jim sat very patiently and listened to this mouthy kid. And then I took a breath, and he looked at me and asked in a wonderfully innocent way, ‘Why are you here?’ And so it began. Jim Tenney had my number from the get go. He realized that nobody was going to teach me anything. That I had to feel that yes, I was reinventing the wheel, rediscovering fire like primitive man, but he had this uncanny knack for asking just the right gently pointed question at just the right moment. I cannot imagine what would have become of me if I had not had that supreme good fortune.

This the second lesson Adams offers to those of us to teach and advise our students. A lot comes down to asking just the right question at the right moment. It’s not a skill easily learned. Tenney seems to have had it from the get-go. Many of us never can develop that deep instinct. But if there’s a key to it, it is in listening carefully, patiently, and without prejudice to the young people who come into our offices, ready to tell us how little we have to offer, serving up something that can sting, or simply feeling lost and perhaps alone…and then responding with just the right question.

Adams talks about how he “made all the wrong career decisions” in his life. He didn’t go to Columbia, didn’t study with the right people, didn’t enter the proper competitions, dropped out of graduate school and everywhere else as well. He ended up in a remote corner of Alaska. “I’m not sure that really I knew what I was doing but, in retrospect, I find that every time I came to a crossroads and had a choice to make, I made the wrong choice…which turned out, of course, to be the right choice.” He was neither courageous nor insightful, he notes. Rather he was running away: from his family, from competitive careerism, from academia, “from all the right things.” But, as he puts it, he was “actually running to something, I just didn’t know what it was until many years later.” Lesson three: Students often feel they need to know with certainty what they will be doing years after they graduate, what they will be when they “grow up.” Certainly, as the pressure builds to turn higher education into nothing more than job-preparation (“college and career ready” has become a constant theme literally from kindergarten on), students (and their parents and state legislators) feel panicked if they can’t answer that question. Without ignoring skills preparation, however, it is up to us to do more than prepare students for a career that they can’t yet imagine. We can provide them with the dispositions, resilience, and reflective insight they will need to run towards a goal that they may not recognize for many years.

Weaving into Dense Fabrics

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker:

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker:

Adams moved to Alaska in 1975, interested in hearing new things still employing acoustic sound. “I lived alone in a cabin down in the black spruce forest,” he later wrote in the New Yorker. There I would roll out of bed in the morning, crawl down the ladder from the sleeping loft, and find myself standing in the middle of my work. I loved it. And I couldn’t imagine living any other way.” He listened, in particular, to the birds, trying simply “to take dictation” from them. “The birds became my teacher, after James Tenney.” The result was songbirdsongs which he composed between 1974-79. (He later wrote of an oriole nest that the writer Barry Lopez gave him and which he placed on a windowsill in his Alaskan cabin: “Woven into the dense fabric of moss and twigs are long strands of cassette tape. In the note that accompanied it, [Lopez] wrote, ‘songbirdsongs, no doubt. But where do they buy the tapes?’”)

Adams sees composition as a process of “sculpting away the whole field of sound” in order to work with “one big shape, or image or color or atmosphere that I had in mind that I can’t quite hear that I want to hear.” I often think of teaching (lesson four) as a process of building up, of gradual accretion through multiple iterations. But perhaps, at its heart, it is also a process of “sculpting away” until we reach the central principles, the key lessons.

This is probably a good point to pause and note that Adams was appointed Associate Professor of Composition at Oberlin’s Conservatory in 1998, where he taught for four years. He was drawn to Oberlin by the “lushness and diversity” of the eastern hardwood forest, the songbirds and, to be sure, the artistic and intellectual community at the College and Conservatory. He was excited to be able to connect his work with the contemporary visual arts displayed in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and taught a course on “Music, Language, and the Sounding Image.” Adams describes himself as having a chronic case of “painter envy”: “I’ve always envied the hands-on relationship that painters and sculptors have with the materials of their art, the way they can get paint and clay on their clothes and under their fingernails.” He often elaborates on the impact of artists, including Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jasper Johns, on his own work, Stella in particular. Living in Alaska, Adams frequently travels by way of the SeaTac airport at Seattle where he has spent countless hours contemplating Frank Stella’s “York Factory A” which hangs in Concourse A. The work is one of Stella’s “Protractor Series,” loosely based on Persian designs, with “sweeping arcs of brilliant colors weaving in and out of each other” in an impossible fashion. Adams argues that it “doesn’t add up visually,” but that he was eager to do “something similar” on the piano. The result was Among Red Mountains. “If those ensemble and orchestral pieces are multi-dimensional sculptures,” he writes, “then Among Red Mountains is more like a drawing.”

Frank Stella, "York Factory A," SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Frank Stella, “York Factory A,” SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Adam’s music explores the boundaries between nature and culture. “I think of sounds of musical forms as forces, as natural elements in some way. It may sound ridiculously grandiose or laughably naïve,” he continued,

but I’ve always imagined that I might be able to work in a space that’s just outside of culture. Of course, it’s patently absurd. There’s no way that we work outside of culture, and these days so many cultures. And yet, as my friend Barry Lopez, the writer, says landscape is the culture that contains all human cultures. And I believe that everything we do, everything we think, everything we think we create, everything we are derives from the world we inhabit: our language, our music, our minds, everything is shaped by this incredibly complex and wondrous world that we inhabit. So, ultimately this nature/culture dichotomy in a way doesn’t exist. But it’s been a useful conceit for me to feel that I’m after something that is not part of a musical tradition; it’s not specifically cultural, it’s somehow more elemental.

Adam’s music represents a desire to connect with the world that “we still inhabit,” but that we’ve forgotten. His attempt to connect the earth and its sounds directly to his music led him to Jim Altieri, an Oberlin double degree student who graduated in 2000 with majors in geology and TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts). Adams called Altieri out of the blue one day and, as Altieri recalls, says, “So, hey, I’m beginning to write a grant for this piece; not sure yet what it is but I want to take all these geophysical data streams and it’s going to make sound and light with them.” Altieri didn’t hesitate: “I said, great, I’m your man.” The idea was to translate raw geophysical data into music. Currently installed in the Museum of the North, in Fairbanks, the Place Where You Go To Listen takes data from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations across Alaska and feeds them into a computer where they are transformed into a “vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.” (Adam’s book, The Place Where You Go To Listen, is available from Wesleyan University Press.)

The Lessons of John Luther Adams

As I noted earlier, higher education faces a continual challenge to respond to those who argue that education is only, and narrowly, about “preparing students to be maximally productive, economically speaking.” At a moment in which selective liberal arts colleges have been shown to actually widen social inequality by imposing a tremendous debt burden on those less able to pay, the aims of higher education do, indeed, raise serious “problems of morality and justice,” as the subtitle of a recent book (The Aims of Higher Education, Univ. of Chicago, 2015) by Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson put it. But, as well, John Luther Adams’ work provides a compelling argument for the expansive and inclusive role of higher education can play when we take advantage of all that it offers. Adams’ life and work tells us of the critical and timely importance of the advice that we give students, the imperative to be attentive to the different paths to success that they will follow, how to best nurture, encourage, challenge and defend students as they prepare for a bewildering world. From his work at Oberlin, we learn the critical importance of taking advantage of the opportunities for connection that exist in these small but powerful communities, how geology can enrich composition, how art informs biology. From his music, we learn about the beauty of our surroundings, and how we are shaped by the world that enfolds us.

Adams left Alaska a few years ago. What had been the source of much of his creativity began to diminish. The impact of climate change was profound, he began to have problems with his eyes, which made the long Alaskan winters very difficult, good friends had died or moved away, and “the vision we’d shared of an ecological utopia…had faded…Even as so-called reality TV perpetuated the myth of the last frontier, it had become painfully evident that Alaska was a colony of Big Oil.” He and his wife moved to the Sonoran desert in Mexico where “any lingering fears I had about losing my inspiration soon disappeared.” It was there that he composed “Canticles of the Holy Wind,” “Become River” for chamber orchestra, and “Become Ocean” which won the 2014 Pulitzer for music.

John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams

Adams tries to “resist composing” for as long as he can. He told Nina Serota in the Q2 interview that “I really want to get at something essential before I start manipulating the notes, pushing things around. I try to hold things in my mind’s ear as long as I can … I find that if I try to hear something that I can’t quite name it focuses my attention in a certain way…” Good advice for us all as we are barraged by the cosmic radiation of tweets, social media, and news feeds. It’s time to focus our attention…in very certain ways.


You can access John Luther Adam’s music on YouTube and a number of other online sites, many of which are linked in the article, besides purchasing it on iTunes, Amazon or elsewhere.

As Classes Resume…

Steve Volk, January 30, 2017

I was fortunate to be able to attend the (just-concluded) national meetings of the American Association of Colleges & Universities. The AAC&U is among the most forceful and persuasive organizations defending high-quality, inclusive liberal education in the United States. AAC&U’s president, Lynne Pasquerella, staff, and many of the speakers at the conference offered a full-throated defense of inclusive higher education, the linking of education and calls for social justice and a path forward in seeking racial healing on our campuses and in the broader community. These positions were all the more important in the face of the mounting attacks on the ideals we hold as educational institutions that unfolded in tandem with the conference.

Illustration from Christina Georgina Rossetti, "Goblin Market," Illustrated by L. Housman, p. 29

Illustration from Christina Georgina Rossetti, “Goblin Market,” Illustrated by L. Housman, p. 29 (British Library, public domain)

As I flew back from San Francisco, I continued to think about issues that were raised, both regarding the development of approaches to teaching that can help us reach all our students, as well as how to think about the distressing political climate we find ourselves in. I haven’t been able to process everything I heard, but here are some points that stayed with me from the meetings, beginning with what we should keep in mind as classes restart for the spring semester.

First and foremost: Think of concrete ways you will defend and support students who are most vulnerable at this time and who have already come under attack, particularly undocumented and Muslim students, as well as students from those communities  which the current administration in Washington has chosen to belittle and threaten. You may not know which of your students are vulnerable, but assume that those at greatest risk are seated among your students and make sure your classroom is a welcoming space for all. Regardless of the subject you teach, our students need to be supported and we are the best ones do to that.

Second: Think of specific ways to support students, staff, and colleagues who are feeling overwhelmed by the sea change in Washington and the policies which have emerged this past week that directly challenge core principles of the academic community, and the central moral and ethical standpoints that we hope would define us as a human community. Among the former is a belief in evidence-based arguments and the value of rational discussion; among the latter is a commitment to defend and protect the weak, and to offer refuge for those most in need.

Third: Think of specific ways to support yourself. We can’t be of help to our students if we are too overwhelmed to think.

"Goblin Market," p. 17. British Library public domain

“Goblin Market,” p. 17. British Library public domain

Beyond these points, here’s a sampling of some issues that were raised, facts that were shared, and quotes that struck me as generative and useful to keep in mind as we head into a new semester.

  • Never forget the power of youth to transform the world.
  • Listen to your students’ stories: narratives have the power to shape who we are and what we believe.
  • Think about what we can do to help our students listen to one another by fostering authentic dialogue.
  • Consider how we can make our classrooms radical spaces of transformation.
  • Make sure you articulate your course learning goals in your syllabus.
  • Faculty must make sure they are not to treating their students the way that surgeons often treat their patients, without regard for their real, lived experiences. (Harry Brighouse)
  • “If we want to teach our students better, shouldn’t we get to know them better?” (K. Patricia Cross).

  • Don’t allow the word “justice” to be morphed into “just us.” (Gail C. Christopher, W. K Kellogg Foundation)
  • Public (K-12) schools today are more segregated in every region of the United States except the West than they were in 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education was decided.
  • We live in a “color silent” society: we observe the consequences of race, but don’t talk about it. (Beverly Tatum)
  • Where are the equity gaps in the education we are providing?
  • Seek to create expansive communities on our campuses, and envision what the community can look like when racial hierarchies are jettisoned.
  • What do we say to all our students about their chances of success? How do we see student success? Are we helping students find agency by crafting narratives about their own success? Are the narratives of success that we employ shaped by our students’ actual lives, or do we only recur to traditional markers when thinking about what achievement means?
  • Do we continue to consider students of color fundamentally from a deficit perspective?

  • That fact that our message about the importance of a liberal education does not seem to be resonating would suggest that we aren’t delivering it very well. How can we sharpen our message and in the process build a political constituency that will support the broad goals of higher education?
  • “It is no accident that all democracies have put a high estimate upon education… Only through education can equality of opportunity be anything more than a phrase. Accidental inequalities of birth, wealth, and learning are always tending to restrict the opportunities of some as compared with those of others. Only free and continued education can counteract those forces which are always at work to restore, in however changed a form, feudal oligarchy. Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” (John Dewey)
  • Choose rationality over fear.
  • What are the habits of mind and spirit that keep one open to the world?
  • We have failed to teach people what democracy is and what it requires of us. (Jelani Cobb)
  • 13% of community college students are homeless.


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.