The Past as Way Forward: Finding a “Useful History”

Steve Volk, March 13, 2017

Reparation-and-ReconciliationA group of faculty, staff, and students sat down together the past two Mondays to discuss Christi Smith’s Reparation & Reconciliation: The Rise and Fall of Integrated Higher Education (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). Smith is a visiting assistant professor in sociology at Oberlin, and, of course, she took part in the conversation. Her book examines three colleges (Oberlin, Berea, and Howard) that early on placed interracial coeducation at the center of their institutional missions. The book examines what impelled the colleges to make this choice and why, by the end of the 19th century, all three eased away from that goal. By the turn of the 20th century, Howard dedicated itself to the task of educating the black elite, Berea focused on Appalachian whites, and Oberlin, finding itself, as with the others, in a competition for donors and students, sought advantage by marketing itself more as an elite Eastern institution, and less as an avatar of interracial progress.

There is much to relate about the book and the discussions it generated, but I will limit myself to three topics. While these issues are of particular importance for Oberlin, I have no doubt that they will be relevant for many other institutions which, prodded by student protests and national conversations, are seriously considering the role that race and racism played in their institutions’ history and how these factors continue to shape their present.

Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson, first black woman to be granted a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. (Oberlin College, 1862). Courtesy of Oberlin College Archives.

“Reparations” is the first topic and I enclose it in quotes as it had a different meaning when used by those who worked to integrate the three colleges at the center of Smith’s study. The second topic is the way that our institutions’ histories – and here I’m most interested in Oberlin’s history – inform our identities:  i.e., how the stories we tell ourselves about our past either advance or hinder the work of justice we consider crucial on our campuses today. And, finally, I’m interested in how cross-campus discussions can provide a generative space in which the college community can both listen to and hear each other. The three themes, I would suggest, are linked through the concept of responsibility. Understanding that not everyone reads history the same way, I am nonetheless interested in how we can be responsible to, and take responsibility for, our past in the way that we carry out our work in the present, whether that work is learning, teaching, raising money, admitting students, connecting with alumni, or all the other things we do on our campuses.


Reparation & Reconciliation explores the role of the American Missionary Association and its connection to the drive for what they called “coeducation” in higher education, by which they meant racial integration. The AMA was founded in 1846, 13 years after Oberlin took root in the swamp lands of the western frontier. The organization was led by Protestants who preached the ending slavery and fought for the education of African Americans. Among the 11 colleges the AMA founded (or co-founded) were Berea, which had close ties to Oberlin, and Howard. The institutions that it founded, many of which became part of what would later be called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), dedicated themselves to “breaking down the barrier of caste [race].” And they saw the “obliteration” of the sense of racial superiority and entitlement of the “people who believe they are white,” to use Ta-Nehisi Coates’ terminology, as central to that task.

College and universities would play a central role in breaking down “caste” barriers in the nation as a whole. The AMA saw this as a moral obligation and, for that reason, argued for it to be taken up by individuals and not relegated to the government. They sought a profound transformation which could only arise, so they reasoned, through interpersonal transformation. And what better place for this to occur than then in the hinterlands, far from corrupting influences. It was in these remote spaces (Oberlin and Berea in particular) where, students who “pray[ed] together and stud[ied] together” would learn to live respectfully with one another. These interactions, rather than laws, policies, or rules from above, would fuel the transformation required not just to end slavery, but, radically, to undermine racism.

Carter Godwin Goodson, Berea class of 1903

Carter Godwin Woodson, Berea class of 1903

As we noted in our discussions of Smith’s book, such an approach was wildly optimistic about the role that education (in general) and a few colleges (in particular) could play not just in bringing slavery to a halt, but in “dismantling” the “American caste system.” There is something deeply attractive (and highly problematic) about seeing oneself as the central player in such an struggle. But, of course, to do so is not just to give schools an impossible task, but to misrepresent the very nature of the problem. Writing in 1959 in an otherwise troubling essay, Hannah Arendt wondered why we “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve.” As Cory Robin (who referenced the Arendt essay) recently observed in Salon, “race or race privilege is indeed constructed…not merely by words and symbols, but by laws, taxes, wealth and institutions.” Neither K-12 nor higher education can “solve” the legacy of slavery and racism outside a deeper systemic and institutional  reformulation on a massive scale. But that doesn’t mean that educators have no part to play in this struggle for justice, and that brings us to the first theme, “reparations.”


The concept of “reparations” has been in the news in the last few years, specifically in the context of higher education. On March 3, 2017, more than 500 people gathered at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study to explore academia’s ties to slavery and in what ways, financial as well as intellectual, this history should be addressed. The speakers included Craig Steven Wilder, author of the agenda-setting study, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of American Universities (Bloomsbury, 2014), Adam Rothman, a historian at Georgetown University, a school which recently offered preference in admissions to the descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold in 1838 to keep the university afloat, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who authored an influential article in 2014 in The Atlantic on “The Case for Reparations.” Mr. Coates was unequivocal on the need for economic reparations. “I don’t know how you conduct research showing your very existence is rooted in a great crime,” he remarked, “and then you just say, ‘Well, sorry’ and walk away.”

In her study, Smith suggests that the concept of “reparations” for the American Missionary Association derived from a different understanding, one that sprang from the word’s origins, reparare to “repair” or “make ready again.” It was in this spirit, Smith argues, that “members of the AMA argued forcefully that white Americans owed former slaves for past wrongs, and that their work would help repay an incommensurable debt. If slavery created a logic of race as a marker of status inequality,” she continues, “the AMA viewed its reparative work as correcting that imbalance; they viewed education as essential to secure mutual respect” (p. 13), offering a “vast debt yet unpaid to…ex-slaves…” Speaking at the 1872 Berea College commencement, William Brown, himself a former owner of enslaved people and a Kentucky State Legislator, told the audience that “to slave labor he owned his education, his wealth…and that there was a solemn obligation resting upon him to repay, as far as possible, the debt he owed the race” (p. 14).

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

The notion of “reparations” as “repair” is central to the way many Jews understand tikkun olam, to “heal, repair, and transform the world,” as the journal of the same name puts it. I was reminded of this as I heard the truly transformational discussion at Oberlin last week between the Reverend Traci Blackmon, the Senior Pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, and Rabbi Susan Talve, of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. Their conversation about Ferguson, titled “Solidarities in Difference and Faith,” was not formally about “repair,” and yet it was all about repairing as an act of healing needed if one is to come into justice in the world.

The discussion of reparations as Ta-Nehisi Coates raised for the Unites States, or even at the level of colleges and universities, as in the case of Georgetown, i.e., payments for wrongs done, is an important one to engage. But, Blackmon and Talve seemed to suggest, just as we had raised in our own discussions, that the responsibilities of reparation as repairing is not necessarily (or only) to be found in its transactional aspect. Rather, repair (“reparations”) also demands that we “wrestle with ourselves in difficult circumstances,” as Rev. Traci put it, and that we struggle together when we find ourselves in places of disagreement.

So what can that mean concretely? One part of coming together, to extrapolate from Blackmon and Talve, is to engage in work that begins at what they called the “soul level,” and what I would see as coming to know ourselves through our history, and not necessarily the stories that we always tell ourselves about who we are as an institution. Oberlin’s history is a different one from that of Georgetown, Yale or Brown, and in many ways we can be rightly proud of it. Yet, as a reading of Smith’s book discloses, Oberlin is not a case apart: it, too, inhabits a complicated and compromised past, one that contains troubling aspects as well as bright moments. Perhaps, then, reparation in the sense of “repairing” the institution requires that we come to terms with that actual history in the hopes of moving from a “mythical” narrative to a more “usable” history, as Renee Romano, chair of the History Department, put it.

Toward a Usable History

The early history of Oberlin is well known. It was founded on the western frontier in 1833 as a “peculiar” commune devoted to a rather strict interpretation of Protestantism (no dancing, drinking, tobacco, etc.). Oberlin’s place in history would change a year later when a group of “rebels” from Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary, students and faculty who supported abolition and racially integrated education, traveled north to join the new commune. Though nearly half of Oberlin’s students objected, the trustees – then as now willing to buck student demands! – resolved “that students shall be received into this institution irrespective of color.”

Arthur (r) and Lewis (l) Tappan, abolitionists, financial backers of Oberlin, founders of the American Missionary Association

Arthur (r) and Lewis (l) Tappan, abolitionists, financial backers of Oberlin, founders of the American Missionary Association

While the action cost Oberlin some enrolled students and the vitriol of conservative pro-slavery forces, it also brought much needed financial support from New York’s Tappan brothers, Arthur and Lewis, wealthy abolitionists in England, and those who shared the cause of abolition elsewhere. Even in its initial state as an imagined utopian community, Oberlin was nevertheless dependent on the wealth of supporters who believed in its mission. For the first part of Oberlin’s history, then, the moral concern for interracial coeducation aligned with the interests of its financial supporters.

Oberlin College Women's Graduates, class of 1855. Courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Oberlin College Women’s Graduates, class of 1855. Courtesy Oberlin College Archives

Yet even in its first decades, through mid-century and beyond, black enrollment at Oberlin remained in the 5-10% range and efforts to seek a more fully integrated campus were more limited than at Berea, for example. Nevertheless, black and white students shared classrooms, chapel activities, and work duties, and Oberlin produced a significant number of the nation’s black women college graduates. In 1865, the Chicago Tribune proclaimed that Oberlin had “solved the social problem of the nation.” One could only wish!

Edmonia Lewis (Albumen print, c.1870), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain

Edmonia Lewis (Albumen print, c.1870), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain

This is a significant history. We would do well not to forget that the same year Oberlin was founded Georgia passed a law forbidding any person from teaching a slave or a free black to read or write. Still, the history of Oberlin’s first century, while one we can affirm, is also uneven and certainly complex. The historical narrative, while read fully, underscores the fact that Oberlin’s founders acted from conviction, but also out of necessity; that Oberlin’s commitment to interracial (and gender integrated) education was sincere, but also not as fully immersive in practice as what was carried out elsewhere; and that many student welcomed their black classmates, but others didn’t, as the case of Edmonia Lewis among others can attest to. In the end, Oberlin (then as now) became a lightning rod for those who hated the principles that defined the institution, but the college in reality was a small, complicated institution that enrolled a relatively few black students while struggling to find its way in a world where ideals didn’t pay the bills.

This becomes even more evident by the end of the nineteenth century, as Smith’s history recounts. While Oberlin, Berea and Howard all placed interracial coeducation at the center of their institutional missions, by 1900 all three had largely shifted to different concerns. Howard increasingly focused on shaping a black elite, Berea turned to the education of Appalachian youth, and “Oberlin modeled itself on elite universities… [drawing] upon its moral heritage to cast [itself] as ideal preparation for leaders in the burgeoning U.S. colonial empire” (p. 6). There were many factors that led these institutions in different directions and away from what had been central concerns. Smith points in particular to the rise of competition among the growing number of institutions of higher education and the need for individual colleges to stand out in this challenging environment. For Oberlin, the result was that, while never backing away from its commitment to educate African Americans – no small promise, let us remember, at a time when the Klan’s largest local chapter, some 50,000 strong, prowled about in nearby Summit County – it shifted its focus to other priorities and away from its earlier pledge to provide a community where daily experiences would help build the foundation for a “multi-racial social and political union.”

 Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C. , 1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. Public Domain

Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C. , 1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division. Public Domain

In the end, what occasioned this transition was in large part the same imperative that solidified Oberlin’s commitments at an earlier moment of choice in 1834: funding. Then as now, Oberlin needed to pay its bills and, given that such a large number of its alumni were teachers and preachers, not exactly well remunerated fields, the search for donors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was considerable. And, as opposed to the earlier years of its history, these people were less driven by social beliefs about race, and more interested in what would attract students to the cornfields of Ohio. As well, it should not be surprising that, as Smith writes, “one consequence of its increasingly national applicant pool was that students no longer necessarily shared Oberlin’s beliefs about race and social equality…On campus, a small group of white Oberlin students even protested sharing dining tables and dormitories with black students” (p. 179).

So what does this history mean to us? How do we digest it in a manner that in useful in the present?

A recent article by Paul A. Kramer, a historian at Vanderbilt, in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review asks what history can teach us in a “time of crisis.” He quickly dispatches the troubling and troublesome idea that historians, all knowing as we are, should be murmuring “the lessons of history” into the receptive ears of policymakers (as a recent argument put forward by Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson in favor of the creation of a “Council of Historical Advisers” suggested). The anodyne notion that those who “cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” (George Santayana) met a similar and well-deserved dismissal. If only it were so easy!

So what is history good for? “Historians seeking a democratic and egalitarian society,” he writes, “have crucial roles to play…they must make the case for history itself – for the ways current distributions of power, privilege, and resources emerge from and are inseparable from the past.” Fundamental to this argument is his contention that even as historians are disrupting legitimating myths, they can “set themselves to the imaginative work of historical re-creation.”

What I think many of us engaged in the discussion of Smith’s book found useful was precisely this process of digging through the narratives of Oberlin’s more “mythical” past in order to find a complex but useful history that can be leveraged to bring the whole community into conversation as we construct a “useful” history. That conversation, about what, in actuality, we were, needs to inform the dialogue about what we want to be going forward as a community founded on the principle of interracial coeducation.

Writing more recently of the upsurge of student activism confronting issues of racism on college campuses, including Oberlin, Harvard Law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin observed that the critique of campus life put forward by the current generation of students “poses a profound challenge to those who have never seriously contemplated how inclusion might or should change institutional practices inside the classroom and outside of it.”

By taking up these new challenges in light of our “useful” past we can find one way to do the work of “reparations,” of repairing what is broken.

So, how do we engage in the reparative conversations about a shared history that can move us forward as a community?

Cross Campus Conversation

Surely the basis, and the resources, for such a discussion exist. And who should be included in that conversation? Everyone. Faculty and students engage in educational conversations all the time, or at least I hope we do! More rare is it to have conversations that bridge all offices on campus. You can imagine how interesting it was for those of us discussing Smith’s book to talk about Oberlin’s need to find donors who would support it mission over time with colleagues from the Development office, to talk about what brought students to Oberlin in past centuries with folks from Admissions, and to discuss with students how Oberlin’s founders believed that this kind of education was capable of transforming a nation – even if they were mistaken.

Lewis Sheridan Leary, an Oberlin harness maker, accompanied John Brown on the raid of the Harpers Ferry arsenal Oct 1859 and participated in Oberlin Wellington rescue Sept. 1858

Lewis Sheridan Leary, an Oberlin harness maker, accompanied John Brown on the raid of the Harpers Ferry arsenal Oct 1859 and participated in Oberlin Wellington rescue Sept. 1858. Courtesy Oberlin College Archives.

The work of creating a usable narrative about the actual history of interracial coeducation at Oberlin, one that can help shape our community in a moment of challenge, is of much importance. The conversations that we need to have are only possible, in a sense, because of what Oberlin’s founders set in motion. But the terms of that conversation have to be on the basis of what Brown-Nagin (among others) have suggested, and must look at history, as Jelani Cobb wrote in a recent New Yorker article, “for what it is.” Speaking broadly, he argued that “Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.”

Perhaps the national challenge of this current moment, a challenge that is hardly new to African Americans in particular, as Cobb and others have pointed out many times, is precisely what is needed to propel us into conversations about our past and the responsibilities we have to repair what has gone asunder. These are not easy conversations, but they are essential. And, as Reverend Traci and Rabbi Susan advised, “When you run into difficult places and you disagree about things, it’s better that we struggle together.”

Stand and Deliver

Steve Volk, March 6, 2017

Anonymous, 'Le voeu du faisan,' Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain

Anonymous, ‘Le voeu du faisan,’ Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Public Domain

We went to hear Tafelmusik in concert at Finney on Tuesday night. We arrived early, but ran into so many friends that we didn’t get a chance to glance at the program before the musicians took to the stage, all 17 or so of them. Which partly explains how surprised I was when the ensemble (except for the cellists, double bass player, and harpsichordist) started to play while still very much upright. They moved around the stage, forming into and retreating from small clusters, bending in to the counterpoint, musically conversing with each other by their body language. At one point, a violinist bowed her way from the entrance doors of Finney to the stage. And boy, did they deliver! The music, which highlighted J.S. Bach’s time in Leipzig, was marvelous, even more so as it was complemented by an intriguing slide show projected behind them and a well-voiced narrator who put Bach’s music into context. The narration not only illuminated Leipzig as a central crossroads of early 18th century Europe, but explored everything that went into a Bach composition: how the paper he wrote on, the ink he wrote with, the instruments his players used were crafted into existence; what clothing he and his fellow Leipzigers (is that the term?) were permitted to wear, sumptuary laws being what they were; where his musicians performed, and on and on. It was wonderful. And having the ensemble on their feet and in motion seemed to elevate their music making to an even higher level.

And so I wondered: To what extent did the kinetic performance enhance its overall musical quality? (I should add that there was one violinist who remained seated. My guess is that she was stationary because of a mobility issue and that Tafelmusik had nonetheless been able to make her a full participant in the concert, neither excluding her nor drawing attention her way.) The concert made me think about movement and learning and the fact that, unlike these Tafelmusicians, in most of our classrooms, students enter, find a chair, and remain seated for 50 or 75 minutes at a stretch.

Mind and Body

Unidentified dancer in rehearsal for the stage production of "Cats," Billy Rose Theatre Division,New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Unidentified dancer in rehearsal for the stage production of “Cats,” Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library Digital Collections.

There is a large body of literature on the relationship between mind and body, cognition and movement, generally finding that people of all ages learn better when they have been or are active. The research is quite clear that activity is essential in early childhood education, which is why it’s appalling that teachers, under legislative burdens to make their 5- and 6-year olds “college and career ready,” are taking away recess time in favor of paper-and-pencil tasks at a desk. And what’s the punishment meted out to fidgety kids: no recess for you!

I reported earlier on an elementary school in Owensboro, KY, where the kindergarten teacher won a grant to purchase “pedal-desks.” Because motion increases learning and there’s no time for recess, why not have students pedal at their desks while they are learning math! I’m waiting until they figure a way to connect the desks to the school’s power grid and use kid-power to reduce their utility bills. Think of the possibilities!

More seriously, the problem here is not that it’s silly to consider the impact of motion on learning, but that what needs to be studied is the way that motion itself can be a part of pedagogy rather than a mindless, hamster-on-a-treadmill activity. Of course, the dancers and theater people among us have argued this point forever, but do we listen? Rarely. My guess (raise your hand if I’m wrong) is that the vast majority of instructors operate in traditional classrooms where students come in, sit down and remain seated for the whole period, excepting their move to a new seat when discussion groups are formed. Science labs would be different, as would studio art, and, certainly, theater and dance classes and all athletics. But most of us engage in teaching and learning with our students firmly planted on their bums. And yet, as Sian Beilock, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, argued in How the Body Knows Its Mind (Atria Books, 2015): “Moving the body can alter the mind by unconsciously putting ideas in our head before we are able to consciously contemplate them on our own. People use their body all the time when problem solving, without even knowing it” (p. 69). These movements literally can be as slight as moving our eyes or as large as moving our limbs. Perhaps that is why, I would guess, that most of us are up and about when we teach, either standing at a lectern or, more likely, wandering. (Beilock jokes that one of the best things about becoming a faculty member is that faculty don’t have to remain in their seats during class.)

The Neuroscience of it All

Here’s a bit of the neuroscience behind this (although, caveat emptor, this is not my field so colleagues who actually know what they’re talking about should correct anything that is flat-out wrong or misleading). So, the brain passes information from one part to another, while eliminating unnecessary data and storing valuable data, via neurons (See, for example, Colcombe et al., 2006). Say you’re reading a book: your brain’s frontal lobe is figuring out if the material is new or old, something it can dispose of or information that needs to be stored. If new, the brain encodes the data for storage which will then allow it to be retrieved when necessary (Medina, 2008). How much is absorbed and stored depends on a lot of factors including whether there is a proper balance of neurochemicals and growth factors to bind the neurons together long enough for them to communicate.

Something called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps neurons “converse” with one another while building and maintaining cell circuitry, i.e. the kind of system of interconnections that allows the brain to function. So, and hopefully I haven’t made too much of a hash of it, the more BDNF, the greater the amount brains exchange and retain information. And this gets to the crux of the matter: BDNF is elevated with neural activity which then enhances signal capabilities with synaptic transmissions; this causes an increase in protein synthesis promoting structural integrity, all of which is essential for the long-term storage of information. And what elevates neural activity and, hence, BDNF? Would you guess, movement? Probably, if you’re a dancer or a tennis coach.

Study from Motion #27.

Study from Motion #27.

As I noted before, researchers have carried out substantial research on the relationship between exercise and cognition. To cite just two examples, a small-scale 2007 study by German researchers found that “people learn[ed] vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise” [J.J. Ratey, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008), p. 45]. And, at the other end, a comprehensive review by Tomporowski, Davis, Miller and Naglieri published in 2008 reported that “gains in children’s mental functioning due to exercise training are seen most clearly on tasks that involve executive functions. Executive functions are involved in performing goal-directed actions in complex stimulus environments, especially novel ones, in which elements are constantly changing. Behaviors such as these have long been seen as important for children’s adaptive functioning.”

Of course, this is hardly new: Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. The question is not necessarily whether a regular exercise regimen is good for the mind as well as the heart, but whether movement undertaken as part of the act of learning is valuable. Or, to turn it inside out: are students losing something by remaining seated during most of their class time? As John Medina, a development molecular biologist affiliated with the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, cautioned, “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.”

Well, what if someone actually studied whether intentional physical activity carried out during a college lecture class could increase a student’s achievement level? We’re in luck, because Michala Paige Patterson did just that for her dissertation at the University of Missouri’s School of Education (“Movement and Learning in Lecture Classrooms,” 2011). I’ll only briefly describe this study since I’m not competent to judge the reliability of its design. And even though her conclusions were modest, the research is important to consider when we think about how to scaffold student learning and when we take into consideration the remarkable fact that students have bodies as well as minds.

Patterson worked with four faculty members who offered standard lecture classes. During class, the “treatment” group of students would activate their circulatory systems by performing a “low-impact and/or low intensity movement activity.” Patterson reported mixed findings among the 4 professors whose classes she used in her study. Two showed a statistically significant gain in student achievement when exercises were interspersed in a lecture class; two showed no difference. I was most interested in her conclusions: “By combining the data and different attributes of the professors, there appears to be a manner of incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome. Therefore, this researcher encourages and recommends further development and use of the techniques used in this project.” While she thought that something in the research protocol itself was limiting the impact of the activity, I would argue that the key is in “incorporating the movement activities technique most effectively to achieve the greatest outcome.”

We already know that students have a limited attention span (some say as low as 7 minutes, others as high as 20 minutes), but they’re not going to make it through a 50-minute lecture without losing attention. So scheduling some movement with a break in the delivery is not a bad way to go. Is it time for the pedal-desks? Noooooooo!

Movement in Service of Learning

SpringerParker, "After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997

SpringerParker, “After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997:

Let’s go back to the Tafelmusik concert: what if we were to use movement to further content learning or pedagogic approaches the way that movement improved the musicians understanding (and performance) of Bach? Leaving all this neurosciency stuff behind, I’m pretty sure that the players on stage understood Bach’s use of counterpoint and harmony more deeply by physically moving as they interacted with the other musicians. So how can we use movement in class to further specific learning goals? Here are two examples.

The first comes from Naomi Roswell, a junior environmental studies major who is currently participating in the Student-Faculty Partnership program and brought up this example during a recent meeting.

Movement, stasis, independence, dependence

Everyone stands in a circle. Ask each person to select two others (without telling them) to use as reference points. Each person’s task is to remain equidistant from the two others (i.e., in an equilateral triangle) as everyone moves around the room without anyone knowing who has chosen them as reference points. What happens if you move quickly? Slowly? As some point, and this often happens quickly, the room reaches stasis. Then the facilitator, who is observing rather than moving, can ask one person to take three steps, and watch as everyone else adjusts to maintain an equidistant posture.

Can you tell if someone is dependent on you? Much of the time, people are so focused on their own reference points that they don’t realize they are are a reference point for someone else. The lessons derived from this movement exercise can increase understanding about how one’s actions impact others without our even being aware of it. This is a theme that can easily fit into many social science and humanities courses, from sociology to environmental science.

Run it a second time: now each person picks two reference points, but one of them must have two specific qualities (e.g. be wearing glasses and have a striped shirt). Does the room come to stasis more quickly, or more slowly? The facilitator can again ask one person to move and see what changes that action brings about. This time the underlying lesson is that there are two independent systems at play. The exercise can be about an ecosystem with the glasses/stripes individual as a “keystone species” a species on which other species in an ecosystem largely depend, such that if it were removed the ecosystem would change drastically; or the facilitator (generally no one picks them as a reference point) is an insect that occupies such a small niche that if it moves, it hardly impacts the habitat.

Or the lesson can be about relationships and dependency. What does it feel like to always be responding to the movements (requirements/demands) of others and have no autonomy yourself? So, for example: Your child can’t enroll in school without proof of vaccination, but you will lose your job if you take time out to bring her to a clinic which is a 2-hour trip because you have no car? And what if you are able to take the time out to go to the clinic only to find that it’s closed on Tuesdays, the day you arrived, because its funding was reduced and you don’t have a phone to confirm the opening hours? All these “movements” impact you, but you have little ability to respond effectively. What would “stasis” look like in this context? Comprehensive care?

Choreographer Gillian Lynne directing dancers for the stage production "Cats," Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

Choreographer Gillian Lynne directing dancers for the stage production “Cats,” Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.

Slowing it Down

I’ve written before about “slow pedagogy,” the importance of helping students develop an ability to engage in tasks that require “deep attention” by slowing down the pace. This is increasingly important as students (and we, ourselves) are constantly involved in activity that requires very short, little attention bursts: hyper-attention. Checking texts, answering the phone, listening to a snatch of music. In contrast, close readings of texts, deliberate time spent observing art in the museum, extended research projects are all ways to build capacity for deeper levels of attention that are an essential part of learning.

With this in mind, are there ways to help a class “slow down” in order to better engage?  I’ve thought of using a meditation (clear-your-mind) approach, but since it rarely works for me during my yoga practice (when I’m either thinking about what I’ll have for lunch, some article I’m working on, or whether I’ll go to Drug Mart right after class or later in the week), I don’t imagine that it will work on 30 students sitting at their desks and thinking many other thoughts. But physical activity can serve this purpose, and here’s one exercise developed by a colleague at Oberlin. How this is carried out depends on the configuration of the classroom, where desks and chairs are located. Have students line up at the beginning of class in order to walk as slowly as possible from one end of the room to the other. While there can be a bit of silliness involved the first time the exercise is carried out,  the physical act of moving slowly can make a difference in how students approach the class. The exercise can work as a kind of border crossing movement: we are leaving the outside world behind and entering a new space of engagement and learning; as a tempo regulator: we are going to slow down and focus; or as an opportunity to break up a class in which students have been sitting for a long time and just need a change of pace to clear their heads.

In these exercises or others that you develop, you’ll want to think about how they will impact students with mobility issues, visual limitations, or other conditions that might impair their ability to participate, and plan accordingly. But whether or not you have differently abled students in your class, you can increase everyone’s learning by asking your students how they would redesign the exercise with such students in mind.

Movement increases our brain’s ability to “learn”; intentional movement can help students learn what it is we are teaching. Do you have physical exercises, movements that you use in class? Care to share them?


Backward Design: From Course to Class

Steve Volk, February 27, 2017

Backward Design“We think the best way to protest this guy [a political operative who had been invited speak on campus] is by refusing to let him speak. Once he sits down, we’ll engage the audience in a discussion of our ideas.” That was the message of a group of students who had come to my office some years ago seeking my input on their plan. OK, so they were eliciting my support, not my input.  “Hmmm. Interesting,” I replied, then asked what they hoped to accomplish by this protest, and what they thought actually would happen in Finney (our largest gathering place) when they put their plan into motion. After a fair amount of discussion, they realized that their desired outcome – a discussion of the speaker’s ideas – would not come about by essentially shouting him down. In the end, they planned an alternative assembly in a nearby space and encouraged those entering Finney to attend that meeting instead. What the students and I took part in was a lesson in “backward design.”

In the simplest form, “backward design” asks that the planning process begin at the end by identifying the outcomes one seeks, figuring out how one will know if the goals have been achieved, and then planning the activities most likely to achieve the desired ends. It has been an important strategy in instructional design since an influential article by Robert Barr and John Tagg appeared in Change in 1995. Barr and Tagg challenged the way that most faculty thought about their main purpose within the university. The old paradigm, that “a college is an institution that exists to provide instruction,” they wrote, has shifted to a new one: “a college is an institution that exists to produce learning.” Colleges, they suggested, had been caught in a “means/ends” confusion. To say that the purpose of college was to provide instruction was the equivalent of insisting that the purpose of an auto company was to provide an assembly line. What had gone wrong in higher education was that the means (instruction) had become the ends, whereas its real end point was learning.

"Cacasenno Riding a Horse Backwards," The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1701 - 1800. Public Domain.

“Cacasenno Riding a Horse Backwards,” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1701 – 1800. Public Domain.

The Barr-Tagg article added to a growing body of evidence that instruction, most traditionally provided as a set of 50-minute lectures delivered to a largely passive, if not Ferris Bueller-level comatose, audience “is contrary to almost every principle of optimal settings for student learning.” [Needless to say, there are arguments in favor of lecturing, such as Mary Burgin’s “In Defense of Lecturing,” that appeared in Change in 2006, but since my point here is how to think about planning for an active learning class (and unless lecturing is literally a 50-minute presentation without pause, questions, or discussion, it can also fit in this category), I’ll leave that discussion for later.]

Begin at the End

Backward planning begins, as the name implies, at the end, by asking that we define the broadest learning goals we have for students in that particular class. What do we want them to have achieved when the semester ends? What knowledge, skills, and dispositions do we want them to have learned, practiced, or considered? Obviously, these will vary by discipline, course level, student preparation and other factors, but these questions provide a basic framework for backward planning.

When I finally adopted a backward design model, many, many years after beginning teaching, I began crafting my syllabi by asking myself: “If I bump into a student ten years from now, what do I hope they will have gained from the course that will still be with them?” I know it’s a bit presumptuous to assume that they will even remember me, let alone what happened in class, but our work is in part based on our hopes that, indeed, some of what we provide will stay with our students.

My field is history, and I understood that it was highly unlikely they would retain many of the names, dates, or places that are often featured on quizzes and exams. And anyway, they could look up a lot of that on their smart phones. Instead, as I thought about it, what I really was interested in was that they retain the larger concepts, approaches and principles (how memory and history interact, the ways in which resistance and assimilation often flow together, how images impact our understanding), skills (evaluating primary sources, thinking historically), and dispositions (an empathetic appreciation of other times and culturally relevant approaches). Backward design, then, asks that you begin with want you want your students to come away with: when the class session is over, when the course is over, after the student has graduated.

Determine the Evidence Needed to Demonstrate the Achievement of Outcomes

Having specified the desired outcomes, you need a way to determine whether students have achieved those outcomes, and at what level: you need assessment tools that give you the evidence needed to allow you (and your students) to demonstrate competence or mastery in the outcome areas you find most important. Staying with history for the moment: having determined that the evaluation of primary sources was an important learning outcome, if I didn’t design an assignment that required students to read and evaluate primary sources, I wouldn’t be able to know if they had met one of my key learning outcomes. Figuring out whether students have achieved a level of competence in terms of subject matter knowledge, by the way, is rarely an issue, for the most standard assessments are exams based on content. But assessing important skills or dispositions often falls through the cracks.

Scaffolding Student Success

"Backward," Music Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public Domain

“Backward,” Music Division, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public Domain

The next step in backward curricular planning is designing the activities that will help students succeed at these key learning outcomes. To stay with the example of reading and assessing primary sources for the moment: students will have a better chance at developing competence in assessing primary sources if they have a number of opportunities to read and comment on them, and if they receive clear and frequent feedback from the instructor. Further, they won’t succeed if they don’t have the knowledge needed to make sense of the documents, to place them in context, to evaluate them historically. So we have to offer a variety of opportunities in class (and out) for them to gain competence at the desired skill along with the requisite knowledge.

Finally, we have to think about what pedagogical approaches, what teaching methods, what kind of sequencing, and what sorts of resources will help us achieve the desired outcomes.

To sum up backward planning at the course level, figure out:

  • What outcomes you want to achieve;
  • How will you know that students have achieved them;
  • How you will scaffold their success; and
  • What pedagogical approaches work best to arrive at our desired outcomes.

From Class to Course:

Put this all together and you get…a syllabus. But “backward design” can be used to help the planning of a single class or course unit as well, as Heather L. Reynolds and Katherine Dowell Kearns, both of Indiana University, argue in a recent article in College Teaching. In “A Planning Tool for Incorporating Backward Design, Active Learning, and Authentic Assessment in the College Classroom,” the authors, a biologist (Reynolds) and an ecologist and instructional designer at Indiana’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (Kearns), offer a useful lesson-planning guide. For those who are not yet ready to employ backward design to revise an entire course, taking the process for a spin around the block by planning one class or one unit might be just the way to go.

Here’s a copy of their planning guide:

Reprinted from College Teaching 65:1 (January-March 2017), p. 19

Reprinted from College Teaching 65:1 (January-March 2017), p. 19

Begin, at the top left, by identifying the desired results for that class and specifying how the goals for that day’s class will align with the overall goals you have established for the course. The authors examples are taken from Reynold’s course, “The City as Ecosystem,” a non-major biology service-learning course. The course syllabus explains its fundamental focus:

Building sustainable cities requires an awareness of the problems of our existing approaches and an appreciation of the potential for change that is firmly rooted in an understanding of ecosystem ecology. Emphasizing cities as ecosystems, this course applies ecological principles to sustainable use of energy and resources. We consider the appropriate size of the human economy in relation to Earth’s biophysical limits. We address the thesis that to be leaders in sustainability, cities will need to move away from an unbounded, linear (or ‘cradle-to-grave’) model toward a bounded, cyclical model based on natural ecosystem processes, involving lower throughput of renewable energy and ‘cradle-to-cradle’ flow of materials.

The course promotes competency in the following areas:

But let’s get back to the particular class session that they focused on in their article. The specific goal for the class was for students to be able to make comparisons of natural and cultivated ecosystems in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services. This addressed the course learning outcome of helping students develop competencies in biodiversity and ecosystem services.

In the columns to the right on the planning guide, the instructor details the knowledge, skills, and values that she expects students to encounter in that class. In this case, Reynolds noted, by the end of the class period, students should be able to understand and apply the “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment” categories of ecosystem services and make connections between ecosystem services and human well-being. She also attached a “value” to the session: that students gain a greater appreciation of human dependence on ecosystems.

On the row below, the instructor determined what she considered “acceptable evidence” to use in the discussion, in this case the assigned reading, although that didn’t preclude the introduction of other evidence. She further listed the assessment technique by which she could determine whether students actually did the required work. In this case she prepared three questions drawn from the readings.

BackbendThe remainder of the matrix encourages the instructor think about the ways that the students will have prepared for that class session (“first exposure”), and how important content will be introduced (the “hook”).  In the case of Reynolds’ class, she planned to provide samples of tea made from Echinacea purpurea, a prairie species native to the eastern U.S., contextualize it in terms of prairie grassland ecosystems, ask students to brainstorm ecosystem services of prairie grassland, and then share their conclusions by writing on the board. Finally, they would discuss whether the list reflected all the possible values of prairie grasslands.

Other parts of the planner encourage the instructor to consider the “activities” to be employed that can promote deeper learning of the material.  In this case Reynolds planned to spend two minutes discussing the learning goals for that class, followed by a 10-minute lecture. The class would also include an active learning component of 30 minutes during which time students would practice categorizing ecosystem services in terms of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment categories and discussing the readings. These are approaches that encourage students to practice their knowledge, skills, or values embedded in that particular class.

The planning matrix guides the instructor to think about the kinds of work students will be engaged in (“student work”) during that class, including both passive (listening, viewing) and active (presenting, discussing) elements. For further planning purposes, you can also note where the activities will take place (“location”), for example if the class will be divided in groups, if students will be outside the classroom (in the library, the art museum, etc.), and specify any “media and materials” that will be used in that class period.

Finally, the planner encourages the instructor to reflect on the class period by jotting down your immediate impressions of how the class went.

All of this might look not just daunting, but ridiculously difficult. Good god! It often feels like we barely have time to prepare for class as it is, and all these columns and rows only add to the burden and make you feel inadequate. I’d be misleading if I said that it’s all really easy and doesn’t take any time. It does take time and some practice. There’s little doubt that class-by-class backward planning takes more time than thinking only about the content that we intend to deliver over the course of the semester, and then dividing the content up into “x” number of class sessions. But backward planning can advance what Barr and Tagg emphasized many years ago: student learning.

If you have your own planning devices, strategies, or approaches, please send them along.

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.