Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism

Steven Volk, May 9, 2016

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Writing in the New York Times in late 1951, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed what he called a “new Decalogue” for teachers – intended to supplement, not replace the “old one” – as his response to the gathering fanaticism he perceived. As we have most certainly entered our own age of zealotry, it seems fitting to reproduce his words here:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition…endeavor to overcome it by argument any not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for it you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness. [New York Times, December 16, 1951]

While some bright spots remain in the global political landscape – the election of Sadiq Khan as London’s mayor, the first Muslim mayor in a western capital, stands out – the primary campaign season in the United States has seen intolerance and fanaticism take center stage. The campaign has produced a wholesale slide from (at least) modest regard for the truth to “spin,” “untruths,” and, finally, outright fabrications. According to one study, about three-quarters of Donald Trump’s assertions are either “mostly false,” false, or “Pants-on-Fire” false. His statement that he “watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed was only one of a string of invented “facts” and illusory assertions. It hasn’t helped that Trump pushed the boundaries of what one can say so far that almost any statement could be made, and believed, by trusting followers. Certainly the calumnies leveled against President Obama paved the way.

When asked to define the difference between politics and business, Carly Fiorina, a one time presidential candidate and Ted Cruz’s running-mate-for-a-week, replied, “Politics is a fact-free zone. People just say things.” And she should know; about half of her statements were classified as “mostly untrue” or worse.

truthinessStephen Colbert coined the expression “truthiness” in 2005 to refer to people who will claim something is true because they just know it since it feels right in their gut. Presidential candidates are not alone as they trek through abundant fact-free deserts. And it is not a stretch to argue that the candidates are only following the evidence that many of their supporters have grown accustomed to hearing only what they want to hear, and believing only what they want to believe.

According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement that “most scientists think global warming is happening,” majorities in 97% of U.S. counties disagreed. We’re not even talking about whether global warming is happening, just what scientists believe. In fact, 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. Jenny McCarthy, a model and television host, was invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s wildly popular program where she (McCarthy) once again affirmed that vaccines and mercury cause autism. When asked where her information came from, she replied, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from.” (I’ll leave to others a discussion of the rise of the internet as the single most important factor in the democratization of information…as well as its almost inevitable replacement of rational argument with emotional name calling and narcissism.)

Teaching and Facts

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

While the tumble into truthiness and the rise of the internet expert should be of concern to all citizens, it is a particularly consequential development for those of us whose work it is to train students to value evidence, question sources, and approach broad claims with a degree of skepticism. We would do well to ponder precisely the value of our work as  teachers in higher education in light of the fact that the absence of a college degree is probably the single most important characteristic of a Trump voter.

And yet to maintain the democratizing work of higher education and not see colleges and universities return to their characteristic state as a sanctuary of privileged access is becoming more and more difficult. If the cost of attending private colleges and universities has been spiraling up, the real surge in tuition costs in the 21st century has been in the public sector. Sticker-price tuitions at private colleges and universities have increased by 45% between 2000-2001 and 2015-16 (17% in terms of net tuition increases); they have almost doubled at public institutions, and the reason isn’t hard to find. Legislators have removed their support of higher education as a public good.

ChartAfter all, why pay for expertise when Google can tell you what you need to know for nothing? Why should the public pay for anthropologists and philosophers and art historians when we need plumbers and welders? Indeed, why should the public pay for plumbers and welders when private enterprise should be giving them the training they need? Or, perhaps even more pertinent for those legislators slashing state education budgets: why use taxes to pay for a skeptical public who will then question their legislative priorities?

But we should not rush to congratulate ourselves for having created an insulated “bubble” where rational discourse and capacious skepticism naturally thrive and guide our interactions. We are hardly immune from the larger trends outside the liberal arts enclave. Social media whips us about every bit as much as it does those beyond our gates, if not more so for being an inward-facing community. Ironically – tragically? – discussions among colleagues who share many perspectives can seem to pose even greater challenges than conversations with strangers.

And yet we are not powerless at this time and in the face of such trials. But the question remains, how do we advance our work, and build our community, so that it is instructed more by Russell’s “decalogue” than by Trump’s demonology? How do we maintain oases of critical thinking in this terrain of truthiness? How do we establish not just the basis on which we can contest and evaluate ideas, but indicate to our students the value of what we are doing?

One way is simply to reaffirm the goals we champion for our students, and to assert them to ourselves as well. What we want for our students is no less than what we hope for ourselves.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

At Oberlin we have recently completed a process of specifying learning outcomes for students in the College of Arts & Sciences, not as a list of bullet points to satisfy some external reviewers, but as a part of a much deeper discussion of what it is we hope our students will take with them when they graduate. There are many ways in which our learning outcomes will resemble those at other liberal arts colleges, as indeed they should. Prominent among these is the importance we see in cultivating in our students the ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence. As an educational and intellectual community, we understand the value of serious investigation and the difficulties that entails, and we maintain the significance of fact-based evidence in any analysis. We will surely disagree on many points and in many contexts, but we are committed to engaging in a process whose procedures are clear and which have lent meaning to intellectual disputes for centuries and in many cultural contexts.

So perhaps, as we come to the end of what has been a challenging school year, we can reflect on those goals we share for our students, the values we hope our graduating seniors will build upon for many years to come. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from Austria, recently observed, that “Without anxiety there is no courage.” We have anxiety in excess. It remains for us to find the courage to recognize a way forward, a process that can begin by reaffirming those aspects of our students’ learning that we most value.

The statement of learning outcomes, which is excerpted and rephrased below for purposes of brevity, was passed by the College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty in December 2015 and can be read in full here. One short of a decalogue, it can still guide our work.

As a faculty, we value:

  1. The ability to become deeply immersed in a single field of study. Concentrating profoundly in a field allows students to understand the logic and epistemology, assumptions and methodologies of a particular approach. Such engagement generates the potential for students to move beyond the skills of analyzing and evaluating information and towards the creation of new knowledge or approaches and the production of original work.
  2. The importance of being open to a wide breadth of knowledge, the scope of which spans scientific, humanistic, aesthetic, and behavioral fields of knowledge and ways of knowing. We want our students to be acquainted with the wide variety of ways that humans have asked and answered questions in the past and the present, within the traditions of western culture as well as within other cultural frameworks and ways of knowing so they can better appreciate that deep understanding draws on a variety of approaches and traditions.
  3. The ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence, and to understand the context in which evidence is produced. To become engaged participants in their own education, students must learn how to learn. The central tools in this process are those of critical analysis: an understanding that assumptions, approaches and conclusions must be tested, and that claims are to be examined in light of evidence. 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 the face of its limits. To become skilled at critical analysis, one must develop a number of different capacities, specifically the ability to conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information.
  4. Our students’ participation in, and appreciation of, the creative process as an important aspect of what it means to be human. We widely recognize creativity as a central component in the arts, and have long valued the expressive talents of our students. Creativity is also a cognitive process that underlies the work of our students across many fields and endeavors. Creativity implies the capacity to generate new ideas, approaches, or hypotheses, the skills involved in planning, and the determination and resources needed to bring an idea to life: in the concert hall and the classroom, on stage, the athletic fields, and in the laboratory, in the community and with the community.
  5. The ability to communicate articulately, persuasively, dispassionately, and, when required, passionately, in written as well as oral modes, by listening as well as talking, with both specialized and lay audiences. As the world is increasingly drawn together, we understand that our students will need to develop the skills and cultural competencies needed to interact effectively in languages other than English and through a variety of means, including visual, quantitative, and digital.
  6. The ability of our students to develop a critical understanding of the historical and cultural factors that underlie difference and inequality in U.S. and global societies. It is our responsibility not only to bring together a diverse community of students, but also to place our students in the epistemological, curricular, and pedagogical frameworks where they can learn to interact across the differences they encounter. Truly engaged learning requires the presence of diverse learning communities and the reduction of barriers to inclusion at every level.
  7. The ability to engage effectively with others as they work to understand and address complex problems from a variety of perspectives. Developing the practice of successful collaboration also entails a high degree of self-awareness and an understanding of the relationship between individual initiative and the potential of working with others.  Collaborative efforts should increase one’s openness to working not just across disciplinary approaches, but also alongside those with whom one may disagree.
  8. The ability of our students to develop an enduring commitment to acting in the world to further social justice, deepen democracy, and build a sustainable future. Oberlin’s long history of challenging some of this country’s gravest inequities underlines the responsibility our graduates feel to acting beyond narrow self-interest, of working together to create local and global communities that are more just, equitable, democratic, peaceful, and sustainable. These are lifelong ethical commitments that can be pursued via a wide range of careers pathways and social commitments.
  9. The ability to cultivate those habits that support healthy and sustainable living, responsible and empathetic interactions with others, and a capacity for self-reflection and contemplation. Our students should carry with them a strong ethical and moral grounding, a capacious curiosity, a broad capacity for empathetic engagement, an awareness of their own physical and mental well-being, and an understanding of the importance of being responsible in the world, along with the humility to recognize their own limitations.

Father Daniel Berrigan died this past week at the age of 94. The Jesuit priest, committed over his long life to peace and social justice, composed his own Decalogue in a 1981 book titled, Ten Commandments for the Long Haul. One seems particular apt for today: “About practically everything in the world, there’s nothing you can do. This is Socratic wisdom. However, about of few things you can do something. Do it, with a good heart.”

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

Student-Faculty Partnerships: Collaborating to Improve Teaching and Learning

Steven Volk, May 2, 2016

"Gloriosa Superba" from "The "The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin" (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

“Gloriosa Superba” from “The “The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin” (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

How do you know what’s happening in your classroom? For one thing, by being there, experiencing it live and in real time. But your ability to observe what is happening is always partial, and always from the perspective of you, the expert. You can video the course and review it later, which is a great way to see what’s happening in slow motion/freeze frame. But that can often be, well, painful (Did I really say that? Do I really sound like that? I never realized I had that nervous tick. Ouch!). Sometimes a verbatim record of the proceedings is not really what you want, and certainly not for every class. We ask the students at the end of the semester, but, again, their feedback at that point is often less than helpful.

Time to think about the Student and Faculty Partnership program.


Begun at Oberlin in the spring 2015 semester, the “Student and Faculty Partnership” (S&FP) program provides an opportunity for faculty to experience their own classes from a (novice) student’s perspective, but also divorced from the power relations that normally accompany and shape instructor-student relations. Oberlin’s S&FP program, currently completing its third semester, is modeled after the student consultant program developed by Alison Cook-Sather at Bryn Mawr College (Students as Learners and Teachers) in 2006, and is one of a small number of such programs currently underway at campuses in the United States and Europe, including the Student Observer Program at Carleton College and the Students Consulting on Teaching Program (SCOT) at Brigham Young University.

The program pairs a student who is not enrolled in the course (or any other course taught by the professor that term) and an instructor. Student consultants (who are paid for their time) attend one of their faculty partners’ classes per week, meet weekly with their partner, and bi-weekly with the program’s directors at CTIE (currently Marcelo Vinces and Steve Volk). The weekly student-faculty discussions are based on the student consultant’s observational notes of the class, and the bi-weekly meetings between student consultants and program directors explore the student-faculty dynamic and provide feedback to the students on how to reflect on and communicate what they see in class to the instructor.

Student consultants are not peer instructors or TA’s. They are not there to help students with questions about course content or offer advice on homework. That’s for the OWLS, the Writing Associates, or other such programs. According to Cynthia Taylor (Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois, Chicago) and Eli Rose ’15, who were paired as consultant and instructor during the pilot semester for the project when Taylor was at Oberlin, the student consultant’s main task was “to observe the atmosphere and dynamics of the class and to record these observations in detailed notes” providing space for the instructor and student to talk out their thoughts about the class based on the observational notes. (The information from Taylor and Rose will be published this summer in the proceedings of the Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education.)

The Pedagogy of Student-Faculty Partnerships

"Amaryllis formosissima" from "The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin" (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

“Amaryllis formosissima” from “The Poetical Works of Erasmus Darwin” (London 1806). British Library HMNTS 11641.dd.11

We expect our student to be “responsible,” and learning to take responsibility is one of the key dispositions we hope students will gain as undergraduates. But what does that mean? As Cook-Sather points out, the students’ responsibilities within educational settings are generally conceptualized as “students doing what adults tell them to do and absorbing what adults have to offer. Student accountability here means compliance and acceptance: adherence to what is prescribed, asked, or offered by the adults in charge” (p. 3). In that sense, students and teachers have quite a different set of responsibilities. Teachers are responsible for teaching and students are responsible for learning.

The student-faculty partnership proposes a rethinking of what responsibility means, suggesting that students can become responsible not only in the sense of being accountable (i.e., answerable for their actions), but able to act on the basis of their own initiative, to become accountable for, to take ownership over, their own learning. Partnerships, then, are based on respect, reciprocity, and shared responsibility between students and faculty.

To quote at length from a recent book by Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill and Peter Felten:

Studying and designing teaching and learning in collaboration with students does not mean that we simply turn the responsibility for conceptualizing curricular and pedagogical approaches over to students, nor does it suggest we should always do everything they recommend to us. Rather, it means that we engage in a more complex set of relationships involving genuine dialogue with students. These more complex relationships may involve negotiation where we listen to students but also articulate our own expertise, perspectives, and commitments. It means making collaborative and transparent decisions about changing our practices in some instances and not in others and developing mutual respect for the individual and shared rationales behind these choices. Indeed, it means changing our practices when appropriate, but also reaffirming, with the benefit of students’ differently informed perspectives, what is already working well. Sometimes it means following where students lead, perhaps to places we may not have imagined or been to before. In all of these cases, reciprocity is an integral element of the learning process: we share our perspectives and commitments and listen to students’ insights, they share theirs and listen to ours, and in the exchange, we all become wiser.

Having seen the program develop over three semesters, I would observe that creating opportunities for “genuine dialogue” between faculty and students is not necessarily easy. Negotiating teaching practices with students bumps up against much of what we have come to think about what we do as teachers. Since we control the content, we are the experts and therefore have little to learn from student input. This understanding is often confirmed by much of the input we get from students. That which we get at the end of the semester is (by definition) too late for that course, and is often delivered in a form that we may find hard to take seriously (Really? Comments on our clothing?) Nor are students trained to deliver important critiques in a way in which we are most disposed to hear – or listen to – them. We may learn some things from Student Evaluations of Teaching, but they are not the best instruments for encouraging instructors to listen to student input.

Yet there is little doubt that the people who are best placed to tell us about our teaching are the students sitting in front of us every day. But, as we know, this doesn’t happen magically. Cook-Sather, Bovill and Felten suggest that there are four key qualities to developing a student-instructor partnership that can open a significant conversation about teaching and learning: (1) trust and respect, (2) shared power, (3) shared risks, and (4) shared learning. As observed above, partnerships, particularly when we talk of shared power, cannot ignore the fact that faculty are the experts in the course, both in terms of content and teaching experience. But the partnership means that “the perspectives and contributions made by partners are appropriately valued and respected.” Bringing this to realization takes effort on the part of both students and faculty, but the results from our first three semesters of the Oberlin program suggest that it is worth it.


I think when most faculty hear of a program in which students are involved as commentators and collaborators, they assume that the program is giving the students unfettered authority or equality in the teaching process. But I realize now that taking student contributions seriously DOES NOT mean blindly or directly following their opinions and suggestions, but rather taking them seriously, carefully reflecting on and analyzing them, and then addressing the core concerns behind them in a way that is consistent with my overall goals and values.  (Faculty partner quoted in Cook-Sather, Bovill, Fenten)


Henry Erroll, "A Woman's Favour" (London, 1890), British Library HMNTS 012639.l.3

Henry Erroll, “A Woman’s Favour” (London, 1890), British Library HMNTS 012639.l.3

Selecting Student Consultants

Student who have been in the program have demonstrated a strong interest in the dynamics of teaching and learning. They often have criticisms of some of the teaching they have experienced, but also have moved to a position in which they want to take responsibility for improving classroom dynamics. Finally, many are interested in what they can learn by establishing a significant dialogue with a faculty member. Student consultants are often recommended by a faculty member to the program directors or simply respond to a call for participation in the program. They are chosen by the directors of the program based on the number of partnerships we are able to sponsor, their expressed interest in the program, and a compatibility with faculty in terms of available times and, occasionally, course content.

Many institutions that have implemented student-faculty partnerships, including Oberlin, have made a specific point of inviting under-represented students into the partnership, both to gain access to their important insights and to begin to counter the sense of exclusion that many of these students feel.

As noted above, students are paid for their time in the partnership in recognition that this is a significant commitment and that since the students are not enrolled in the course, they need to be compensated, at least to the extent of our budgetary ability. Their pay is consistent with the pay of other student workers on campus.

Ideally, student consultants are paired with the faculty without regard to the students’ background in the class being taught by the faculty member. This is particularly relevant for intro level courses where the novice status of the student consultant would put him or her at the same level as those students enrolled in the course and therefore better able to note what seems confusing or problematic in the delivery of course material. On the other hand, there are occasions when the partnership will work better by pairing a student who has specific academic preparation (e.g., in the sciences or music) with a teacher offering an intermediate or upper-level course.

Finally, student consultants cannot be enrolled in the course for which they will serve as a partner, nor should they be enrolled that semester in any other courses offered by the faculty member. The reasons for this are obvious enough: the student-faculty partnership requires a relationship that is as open and honest as possible, and this can be compromised if the faculty member is giving the student consultant a grade in some other course.

Selecting Faculty Partners

Franz Keller-Leuzinger, "Vom Amazonas und Madeira" (Stuttgart, 1874), British Library HMNTS 10480.h.1

Franz Keller-Leuzinger, “Vom Amazonas und Madeira” (Stuttgart, 1874), British Library HMNTS 10480.h.1

The program is open to any faculty member, although usually faculty won’t apply for a student consultant until their second year or later. It requires that faculty have a specific goal in mind as regards their teaching in a specific course rather than just wanting to participate in the program. For example, Cynthia Taylor described her own interest as follows:

The instructor [Taylor] had previously taught this course twice before. She was particularly interested in trying to improve student engagement with the material, as feedback on the course previously had indicated some students found the material dry or uninteresting. She also wanted to know what material was particularly confusing to the students, and how to make material more comprehensible in general.

Faculty who have applied to the program have been interested in getting feedback on a specific pedagogic approaches (e.g., discussion-focused instruction) or technology (e.g., clickers) that they will be implementing for the first time.

While more tenured than junior faculty have applied for the program, not only can such a partnership provide newer faculty with important and thoughtful feedback early in their careers, at a time when they can implement changes as needed, but participation in the program is a very concrete way of demonstrating a desire to continue to improve one’s teaching.

Calls for faculty participation in the program most often come out at the end of each semester, with the number of partnerships dependent on budgetary issues. For the Fall 2016 semester, we will be able to sponsor four partnerships, two in the College and two in the Conservatory.

The Partnerships in Action

At the heart of the S&FP program is the weekly meeting between the instructor and the student consultant. These meetings are based on the notes that the student consultants take during the one (sometimes two) classes that they attend each week. Students involved in the program are trained in observational note taking, specifically in differentiating what they observe from any interpretation of why it is happening. They are also trained in how to reflect on what they have observed and how to discuss issues from the class with their faculty partners in ways that can be best heard by the instructors. Most often, the faculty partners will tell the student consultants what they should pay particular attention to in each class.

For example, the instructor might have told her student consultant to pay attention to moments of disruption in the class when she was lecturing. The consultant’s observational log might note that, in a class that began at 10:00 AM, one student left the room at 10:15; another at 10:18; a third at 10:20 (each returning to the room approximately 5 minutes later). While the student consultant can’t know why they left the room (bathroom? boredom? thirsty?), she could observe that this had an unsettling impact on the room (students became distracted, watched them walk to the door, stopped taking notes, etc.). On this basis, the student consultant could suggest a topic for discussion with the faculty partner: the impact of having students shuffling in and out on the classroom environment. Should the instructor develop “bathroom” rules? Should she allow the class as a whole to decide rules for non-emergency leaving during the class since they are the ones who are being disrupted?

Student observation notes from Cynthia Taylor and Eli Rose, "Using a Student Consultant in a Computer Science Course: An Experience Report"

Student observation notes from Cynthia Taylor and Eli Rose, “Using a Student Consultant in a Computer Science
Course: An Experience Report”

Student consultants usually send their faculty partners a copy of their notes in advance of their weekly meetings so they have the same information for their conversation. Here’s how Taylor and Rose describe their weekly meetings:

These meetings generally lasted about an hour, and the topics discussed varied widely in specificity, from comments like, “I noticed that some of the students seemed confused at this point”… to in depth discussion of what distractor answers would best illustrate common student misconceptions in a peer instruction question. The student consultant would also frequently ask the instructor what her perception of something that had occurred in class was, or the instructor would ask the student consultant what his personal experience learning specific material had been. Discussions tended to be grounded in specific lecture slides or course materials, but also touched on student reactions to the course as a whole, and occasionally touched on what could be added to materials like labs or problem sets in order to aid student understanding of specific points.

Sophina Gordon, "Flowers, Earth's silent voices" (Philadelphia, 1865), British Library HMNTS 11651.g.22

Sophina Gordon, “Flowers, Earth’s silent voices” (Philadelphia, 1865), British Library HMNTS 11651.g.22

All student consultants (up to four per semester) would meet bi-weekly with the program directors. At these meetings students would compare notes from their various classes, discuss the strengths their faculty partners brought to the classroom, reflect on the conversations they had with their faculty partners and how these  discussions developed: awkward moments, what they brought to those discussions, any problems that came up in terms of their own interactions: what could they have done better. Finally, we would examine their assumptions about the feedback they gave to their faculty partners. One theme that often appeared in these discussions was the student consultants’ feeling that it was their responsibility to offer solutions for issues that they either observed or that were raised by the faculty. They were reminded that they are not in the partnership to provide the instructors with “solutions” to teaching problems. The primary role that student consultants play is as observers who can, with a novice’s eye, help faculty see better what is happening in their classes. Faculty partners certainly can, and do, ask student consultants for their advice, but decisions remain with the faculty member.

Benefits and Difficulties

The Taylor-Rose paper lists what they observed as both benefits of the program as well as difficulties that developed over the course of the semester. On the positive side as far as the faculty partner is concerned, are:

  • The opportunity for a weekly, in-depth discussion of the class with someone who observed it but is neither a formal faculty evaluator or a student in the course.
  • The opportunity to continually reflect on and revise approaches taken in the course. While many faculty reflect on their courses in an on-going way, having a weekly conversation about the course makes this much more likely.
  • The ability to gain insight from a “novice perspective.” Most of the advice we get about teaching comes from other experts, and yet we teach novices. It was critical to receive feedback from a student, a novice in the field.
  • Input from different parts of the classroom: the student consultant would often sit in on different student discussion groups in a large class setting, providing the faculty partner with input she couldn’t get herself.
  • A written record of most of the class discussions: “It was surprisingly helpful for the instructor to have a written record of all class discussion from a class period. Being able to review student comments and questions while reviewing and revising the lecture allowed for reflection on discussion details that the instructor otherwise would likely not have remembered.”

The student consultant reported that the program allowed him to reflect more deeply on his own learning process (“Discussing students’ reactions to concepts with the instructor, he discovered new approaches and understood subtleties that he missed the first time around [i.e., when he was a student in the course].”). He also noted that he learned that his own approach to learning was different from other students, that “the student consultant note-taking process (sitting in the lecture hall, being as attentive as possible to the atmosphere of the room, recording it in detail, trying to think from the perspective of 37 other people) quickly expanded his ideas about students’ experiences of computer science classes.

Needless to say, having another set of eyes on your classroom will not always produce agreeable results. As Taylor wrote, “It is not pleasant to be reminded that the back row of your class was reading their phones instead of paying attention. There were times when a lesson didn’t work and there was no clear reason why or how to fix it.” Faculty may worry that student consultants are questioning their competence in the classroom, an issue that the program directors often address in their meetings with students consultants, making sure that the students remember that their role is to observe and to provide their partners with valuable insights, but they are not there as “consultants” in a traditional sense, experts who are hired to “fix” problems. Students consultants, for their part, are not accustomed to being in this role and may find it difficult to raise certain subjects in their meetings with their partners. (Many also regret not having the same kind of interactions with faculty in other courses they take.)

Ultimately, and perhaps the most important lesson I have learned while directing this program, is that there is not always a “fix” for every problem that arises in the classroom. For the instructors involved in the program, it is valuable to know that the are not the only ones to face such problems; student consultants, for their part, come to appreciate to a much greater extent both the complexity of teaching and the care and attention that faculty put into their courses in order to achieve an optimum learning outcome.


Open communication is not particularly easy; not between faculty and faculty, students and students and, to be sure, faculty and students. For one thing, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the size of an audience and the likelihood of good exchange: the larger the audience, the harder to have a meaningful exchange of ideas. For another, a basic level of trust is often needed before meaningful conversation can happen, and that is often only built up over time. The Student-Faculty Partnership program allows these exchanges to develop organically. As they continue, one can hope that these conversations can be expanded to broader and broader levels.

NOTE: The go-to book on this subject, exploring the theory behind the program as well as detailed accounts on its strengths and difficulties, is Alison Cook-Sather, Catherine Bovill, and Peter Felten, Engaging Students as Partners in Learning and Teaching (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014).

Richard Jefferies, "The Dewey Morn" (London, 1884), British Library HMNTS 12636.w.6

Richard Jefferies, “The Dewey Morn” (London, 1884), British Library HMNTS 12636.w.6


Learning from the Semester: 2.0

Steven Volk (April 25, 2016)

[The following is an edited and updated version of a post from 2013.]

From Guy Newell Boothby, "Doctor Nikola" (London: Ward, Lock, & Co,  1986), p. 335. British Library.

From Guy Newell Boothby, “Doctor Nikola” (London: Ward, Lock, & Co, 1986), p. 335. British Library.

As the semester moves to it close (insert fist pump), it’s a good time to reflect on what you learned from the semester as well as considering what you think your students are taking away from your classes. To begin, here are three ways to track your teaching, from the quick and simple to the more time consuming.

End of Semester Snapshop

While you can, and probably should, reflect on your teaching at many points during the semester (see nos. 2 and 3 below), two moments can be particularly productive: Some 2-3 weeks before the semester ends (when you already have a very good sense about how the semester has gone), and about 2-3 weeks after the semester ends (or once you have had a chance to read student evaluations). You are all unbelievably busy right now, but try to set aside 30 minutes to begin to answer these questions – and then return to them when you can. It is useful to engage in this process before you read the students’ evaluations, as you want to be able to consider from your own perspective why the semester turned out as it did.

(1) What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?

What did you accomplish? Try to answer this question concretely. Was it the assignment you designed to help you evaluate whether students were reading the text closely and which worked exactly as planned? The discussions, which were a lot livelier than other times you taught the class? The students’ ability to recall basic materials, as demonstrated by better exam results than in previous years? The fact that you were able to establish a dynamic in class that allowed students to talk about extremely difficult topics? In short: What worked well in the class?

(2) Why do you think that happened? Can you link these outcomes to your teaching methods.

What did you do differently? Was it a matter of the composition of the class or of your methods? If outcomes were different than in previous years, reflect on why that was the case.

"Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 253. British Library

(3) Did you achieve your learning goals for the course?

This, of course, should lead you back a consideration of your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.

Did you use assessment methods – papers, tests, projects, etc. – that can help you answer this question reasonably? If you find that you have learning goals that aren’t being assessed, you should make a note to change that next semester.

(4) What were you dissatisfied with in terms of how the course is turning out?

What didn’t work as you would have liked it in your classes? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking, “Next time, I probably shouldn’t do that”?

You can think about this in a variety of ways. For example:

(a) The pedagogy you employed. The mix of discussion and lecture, more active learning techniques, preparation for discussions, group work, student presentations, etc.

(b) Structural factors: Maybe you have found that teaching after lunch is not the best time; that the classroom you were assigned did not help your teaching and should be changed, that the class size did not lend itself to the particular pedagogy you employed.

(c) Classroom management issues. Did you allow one student to assert too much sway over the other students? Did you not step in where you should have? Did you not address management issues early enough? Should laptops be banned in your class as students are not using them appropriately? Should you have a “bathroom” policy to prevent a continual in-and-out of students from the class? How have you responded to challenges to your authority? How have you dealt with tensions that have come up in the class?

(d) Course Materials: Were students doing the readings? If not, why? Was the reading too basic? Too theoretical? Did mechanical issues (not being able to upload files, etc.) get in the way of their being able to complete assigned readings? Were the readings improperly paced (too much right during midterms) or unengaging (even for you!).

(e) Assignments: Too many? Too few to give students proper feedback? Should you be assigning multiple drafts of papers? Would smaller quizzes work better than one or two high-stakes exams? Did you assign collaborative work without preparing for it?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 328. British Library.

(5) As with your successes, think about why things didn’t work and what you can do the next time to change those aspects that you can change.

If time doesn’t permit you to plan out a concrete strategy for doing things differently next semester, jot down a note to remind you about the things that you should consider addressing.

(6) Who can help?

If you are not sure what to do to change those aspects of your course that you agree should be changed, jot down the name of the person/people you can talk to or the resource you can use.  Who are the colleagues and mentors, on campus or elsewhere, who you should be emailing to set up a coffee date? Where can you find materials that address the topics of your concern?

After the SETs Come In

Try to go through the same exercise after you have read and digested the student evaluations of teaching (SETs) for your courses. (For advice on how and when to read your students’ evaluations, see the “Article of the Week” from Feb. 7, 2010: Reading Student Evaluation of Teaching).  Get a sense of whether your self-evaluation finds any resonance in the students’ comments, or whether you come to different conclusions – and you need to think about why that’s the case. Reflect on – or talk to a colleague about – any disparities. Just because the students liked your class (i.e., gave you favorable ratings), it doesn’t mean that you met your learning objectives. Just because some students didn’t like certain aspects of the course, it doesn’t mean that those aspects should be jettisoned.

Longer-term Reflection: Annotated Syllabus

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 241. British Library.

While it is useful to reflect back on your class at the end of the semester, you can gain more insight by reflecting on your classes in real time. This is particularly useful for people like me whose memory, to quote Billy Collins, has “decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain, to a little fishing village where there are no phones.” Create a “dummy” syllabus for your class. If your regular syllabus doesn’t include information on what you are planning to do on a class-by-class basis, make sure that this dummy syllabus does. So, for example:

Wednesday, November 27: Make goal of class: Help students classify polysaccharides based on function in plants and animals and describe how monomers join to form them.

Each day, after that class has finished, enter some notes on the syllabus as to how the class went, paying particular attention to whether you think that the class helped the students reach the objectives you have set out (in this case classifying polysaccharides). Also think about what evidence you have to answer this question (do you ask for “muddy points” responses at the end of class? Do you use clickers or other audience response systems that let you know whether the students are “getting” it?).

Jot down notes of in your opinion worked and what didn’t: was it the way you broke them up into discussion groups? The amount or nature of the reading assigned? The presence or absence of contextualizing material? The day you chose to examine the topic (The day before Thanksgiving? What was I thinking!).

Finally, enter some notes as to what you would do differently the next time around: Less/more reading; start with a quiz to see where they are at; have them work in groups; make the goals of the class more transparent; work to create an atmosphere where students can talk more easily about controversial issues; etc.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss annotating classes now and again. The last thing you need is to be hard on yourself. Maybe your best bet is to try to open a syllabus template that you can get to whenever you can. If you set impossible goals, you won’t accomplish them, and the purpose is not to find another reason to feel guilty (and we all have many of those) but to begin a practice that can be empowering.

In For a Penny, In for a Pound: The Teaching Portfolio

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 226. British Library.

‘Lilliput Lyrics … Edited by R. Brimley Johnson. Illustrated by Chas. Robinson’ 226

To contemplate creating a teaching portfolio is to accept that you’re willing to spend some quality time reflecting on your teaching. At some level, the teaching portfolio is an ongoing conversation between #2 (the daily syllabus annotations) and #1 (the end of semester reflections). The syllabus annotation is at the heart of a teaching portfolio, but the portfolio allows you greater space for reflection on your teaching philosophy, pedagogical approaches, readings on – and thoughts about – learning theory, longer blog posts (either public or private), articles that have influenced your thinking, etc.

You can set up a portfolio quite easily using Google sites or any one of a number of (free) commercial products (WordPress, IMCreator, etc.). The main issue is not to get hung up on the technology. Perhaps all you want is a set of folders (either on your computer or actual folders) into which you can place these materials: standard syllabus, annotated syllabus, reflections on particular classes or on the course in general, emerging “philosophy” of teaching, notes on pedagogy, classroom management style, essays on finding your own teaching style, articles that have proven particularly important in your teaching, comments from people who have observed your teaching, student reflections, student work in response to particular prompts, comments from mentors and colleagues, etc., etc.

The main goal of the teaching portfolio, as far as I’m concerned, is to complete the feedback loop that ties together action, reflection, and reformulation. For example: Tried a very directed set of primary source readings in philosophy class to get students to understand John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberalism and the individual. Don’t think it worked given that their answers to a short reflection piece at the end of the class; papers on topic turned in two weeks later were imprecise and often factually incorrect. Thought about goals for that class, talked about it with a colleague in the department, and read more about what other philosophy teachers do when teaching Mill. Here’s a plan for the next time…

For more on teaching portfolios, consult the excellent handbook written by Hannelore B Rodriguez-Farrar (The Teaching Portfolio: A Handbook for Faculty, Teaching Assistants, and Teaching Fellows) at Brown University, the materials prepared by the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, or the paper (“The Teaching Portfolio”) by Matthew Kaplan at the University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Teaching and Learning.

Final Reflections: What Have Your Students Carried Away?

    "Lilliput Lyrics," Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

“Lilliput Lyrics,” Edited by R. Brimley Johnson; Illustrated by Chas. Robinson (London: J. Lane, 1899), p. 227. British Library.

The end of the semester is a time, all too often, of exhaustion and, at some level and speaking for myself, disappointment. In light of this, reflecting on what we think our students have actually absorbed from our classes is a useful exercise.

One of the most complicated issues we face in teaching is understanding in a comprehensive fashion what our students have taken away from the course. I think of this as somewhat different from what they have “learned.” We can get a good sense of that through our students’ written work or quizzes and examinations. What I’m talking about is more speculative: what do we think they will carry with them into the future, what will shape the way they think about the subject of our classes or more broadly? What will they remember 10 or 20 years in the future?

This is, of course, one of the devilishly hard questions of assessment. In the humanities, in particular, we know that more often than not, many students will “get it” only after the course is over. Synapses will be closed that remained wide-open during the class; light bulbs will finally turn on. And, more often than not, when this happens, it won’t be tied back to a particular class or even a particular course.

Of course, there is no way to know what the group of students just completing your class will take away from it. But thinking into the future is actually the starting point of “backward planning” and, as such, the first step for planning your next course syllabus. So, what do we think they will put in their backpacks and carry away with them?

I’ll use my own teaching this semester as an example. One of my classes is on museum studies (“Museum Narratives”). I am quite sure that only a few – OK, no one – will remember anything about exhibition morphology, how depth, ring factor, and entropy work in exhibition design. But I think that most, when they walk into a museum in the future, will think about how exhibition layout relates to content and audience, will search for the museum’s narrative rather than only focusing on its artifacts, and will continue to consider what Stephen Greenblatt meant when he divided museum exhibitions between those that worked through resonance versus those that work by wonderment.

And maybe that’s good enough.

Crisis and Pedagogy

Steven Volk, April 18, 2016

ChurchTo be in London is, in many ways, to be in the world. It is to participate in a rich (in all senses of the word), cosmopolitan culture. You can delight in remarkable theater, gleefully observe David Cameron dance around hard questions in Parliament, soar to a different dimension at a St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Evensong service, or simply observe all that the British empire, willingly or not, has brought to England’s shores. And you’re not in Kansas – or Oberlin! – anymore.

OK, so the internet, Skype, and Whatsapp means that it takes a real effort of will to leave “home” behind, but at least the London visitor remains less shaped by its gravitational pull. So it is that when I read about the controversies and crises dividing colleagues (and students) on our campus, I am fully aware of being separated from events by the wide Atlantic, and then some. Prudence and experience would caution against addressing the debates so much on the minds of friends and colleagues. There’s much that I don’t know, haven’t heard, haven’t felt myself, en carne propia. Silence makes sense; but can distance lend perspective? Can one “bear witness” without, indeed, having borne witness? If “witnessing” is essential before an empathetic environment can be constructed, and if there are lessons to be learned that can be learned from a remove, than perhaps one should at least try.

Crisis and Pedagogy

One question we face, it seems to me, is whether crisis can produce more than anguish and bitterness, whether it can produce learning. Writing in a remarkable collection of essays [1], Shoshana Felman raises the provocative question of whether there is “a relation between crisis and the very enterprise of education?” Or, “to put the question even more audaciously and sharply: Is there a relation between trauma and pedagogy?… Can trauma instruct pedagogy, and can pedagogy shed light on the mystery of trauma” (p. 13)? For Felman, the Woodruff Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Emory University, the question was forced on her as she reflected on a course she taught at Yale in 1984, a course she later described as an “uncanny pedagogical experience.” The experience spurred her to further research on the topic, resulting in much work on testimony and witnessing.

Felman’s course explored literature, psychoanalysis, and history to investigate the genre of “testimony.” She recounts how, after deep and engaged discussions on Kafka, Camus and Dostoevsky, Freud, and the poets Mallarmé and Paul Celan, the students watched two videos from the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimony at Yale, after which point, she writes, the class “broke out into a crisis.” The material was so difficult, so deeply emotional and disturbing, so traumatizing, that the students’ collective response was to become silent in class and to talk about it compulsively outside of class. The students, she wrote, “apparently could talk of nothing else no matter where they were…They were set apart and set themselves apart from others who had not gone through the same [classroom] experience. They were obsessed. They felt apart, and yet not quite together. They sought out each other and yet felt they could not reach each other…They felt alone, suddenly deprived of their bonding to the world and to one another. As I listened to their outpour [of private phone calls, visits, and emails],” she continued, “I realized the class was entirely at a loss, disoriented and uprooted.”

I can’t imagine what I would have done in such a situation, but with considerable thought and discussion with colleagues, Felman reeled the course back in from the brink, through conversation, reflection, writing and testimony, turning what could have been an emotional and intellectual train wreck into an immensely valuable lesson for students and teacher alike. As she put it, one “possible response to the answerlessness through which the class is passing now, can be given in the context of our thought about the significance of testimony… The narrator [in the first videotape, a woman who was improbably reunited with her husband after the war] herself does not know any longer who she was, except through her testimony. This knowledge or self-knowledge is neither a given before the testimony nor a residual substantial knowledge consequential to it. In itself, this knowledge does not exist, it can only happen through the testimony: it cannot be separated from it. It can only unfold itself in the process of testifying, but it can never become a substance that can be possessed by either speaker or listener, outside of this dialogic process. In its performative aspect, the testimony, in this way, can be thought of as a sort of signature.”

It is Felman’s conclusion that I want to engage today, perhaps as a way of thinking about where we are and the crisis that appears to be defining our community.


An article in Inside Higher Education on April 12 discloses, in its lead paragraph, that:

“The majority of the faculty of Oberlin College have signed a statement condemning anti-Semitic statements made by a colleague on social media, though a vocal minority have refused to lend their names.” The statement reads, in part, ““Bigotry has no place on the Oberlin campus (or anywhere).”

The petition arose out of a perceived lack of (public) action from administrative or faculty bodies regarding what IHE terms “a series of anti-Semitic and, in some cases, factually inaccurate anti-Israel posts” that a faculty colleague, Joy Karega, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, had posed on her Facebook page in 2014-15.

For those not following events on our Ohio campus – and even for some who have been following the issues – eyebrows must have been raised. How can you put out a statement that is so obvious in its construction and not get everybody to sign? Who supports bigotry, for goodness sake? Debates on the issue are usually generated in terms of what constitutes bigotry, not whether people think it is a good thing.

And yet the article makes clear that a “vocal minority” refused to sign, and as it indicates (and as I know from viewing the petition and those who signed it), Oberlin’s Black faculty and well as many other faculty of color, constitute a substantial percentage of the non-signers. From this alone, we know that the issue is not only complex, but that it is “answerless,” to use Felman’s term, without both history and testimony, unless we try to hear the stories of those who chose not to sign, unless, indeed, all stories can be heard. (Full disclosure: I also declined to sign the petition, although I like to think that I unequivocally support the statement that bigotry is abhorrent to everything we do.)

I will not abuse the privilege I have of writing to the Oberlin faculty in the “Article of the Week” by commenting on Prof. Karega’s statements or what should be done in terms of her status other than to insist that, like any faculty member, she has rights that must be both observed and respected. Nor will I comment on the petition other than to note that its circulation, while seemingly intended to break a silence and allow the faculty to state their opposition to what they see as an act of bigotry, has made even more visible a ruinous division. In that light, I want to pick up what Johnny Coleman, professor of Art and Africana Studies, concludes in the IHE article: “Moving forward, we need to engage a more nuanced and constructive process.” The question for me, as it always is, is whether what we practice in our teaching can help us address what I see as a crisis in our community.

dividerCrisis and Learning

A number of psychologists have argued that children grow and develop on the basis of overcoming specific crises that they encounter. Erik Erickson, for example, argues that the child develops as she successfully resolves social crises involving such issues as establishing a sense of trust in others and developing a sense of identity in society. For Shoshana Felman, as well, contemplating the meltdown of her 1984 class at Yale, crisis offered a way to look at learning far beyond the clichéd notion of “danger and opportunity.”

I would venture to propose — she wrote — that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis: if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught: it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents, with which the students or the audience – the recipients – can for instance do what people during the occurrence of the Holocaust [or, we might add, the past and present history of racism] precisely did with the information that kept coming forth but that no one could recognize, and that no one could therefore truly learn, read or put to use (p. 52).

The work that crisis does, then, is to make something visible that previously might have been seen but was not recognized.

This is not a comforting lesson about teaching. Who the hell wants teaching to be an act of perpetual crisis? To be sure, there are other paths to learning besides crisis, and we know that much of what we do in the classroom involves the more mundane aspects of “passing on information.” Still, as Alice Pitt, the current Academic Vice Provost at York University (Canada), argues, learning is not so much an “accumulation of knowledge but a means for the learner to alter himself or herself…as tensions emerge.” [2]

When crises surface, they can generate significant breakthroughs not just in how we view each other, but in our ability to understand what we didn’t recognize before, if we understand our responsibility to hear one another.

I have found the same issues discussed within museum pedagogy, particularly when dealing with emotions that can arise when visiting “difficult” (sometimes called “conflict”) museums, museums such as the Villa Grimaldi torture center in Chile, Robben Island in South Africa, the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, or the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The challenge for curators at those museums becomes how to help visitors cope with any traumatic crisis that their visit may occasion by helping the learner to develop deeper relationships to the “historical Others,” those who suffered and resisted at those sites and whose ghostly presence in those spaces can turn museum exhibits into traumatic triggers. And coping, Deborah Britzman argues, can only happen by acknowledging the incommensurability of their pain. [3] What educational outreach staff at such museums must recognize is that, as hard as it is, allowing a retreat into emotional disengagement relieves us from our responsibility to recognize human suffering, thereby encouraging a kind of “passive empathy” that allows us to separate ourselves from the situation and from others.

Learners “need to be faced with the tensions of empathic unsettlement” if they are to learn in difficult situations. [4] Therefore, what we ask of our students, what curators ask of their visitors at “difficult” museums, is to receive the lessons offered, the history provided, with critical awareness, personal responsibility, and a respect towards those who have suffered and resisted.


We should expect no less of ourselves if we are to learn in a moment of crisis. If we are to take up Coleman’s call to move forward in a “more nuanced and constructive process,” than I would suggest that the beginning of that journey is to leaven the process of intellectual inquiry (clarity, exactness, rigor of argument, familiarity with the current state of scholarship, etc.) with a sense of personal responsibility, a willingness to truly hear the stories of those who have lacked, those who still lack, privilege and power, and an understanding that actions, even well-intentioned, can produce unintended consequences.

I will leave for others a discussion of how intellectual inquiry can precede and suggest that when I speak of responsibility, it is in the sense that philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas spoke of it: “Responsibility is what is incumbent on me exclusively, and what, humanly, I cannot refuse. This charge is a supreme dignity of the unique. I am I in the sole measure that I am responsible…” [5] Claudia Eppert and Roger Simon explain that the learner who is positioned to receive testimony about an oppressive history, is “under the obligation of response to an embodied singular experience not recognizable as one’s own.” [6]

When I speak of hearing the stories of others, it is in the dialogic sense offered by Felman, a hearing that can transform information that no one could recognize into something that we can “truly learn, read, [and] put to use.” It is a recognition that, when faced with the tensions of “empathic unsettlement,” our only way forward is to hear and understand the incommensurability of each others’ histories and to recognize each others’ pain.

And when I speak of the importance of consequences, it is in the sense of the Spanish term, consequente: being consequential with one’s actions, being able to see how one’s actions (or inactions, for that matter) will impact others, being aware of the way that actions can only be read through history and histories, and we must take that on board.

To close, I return again to Felman’s class and what she learned from it. To live in the era of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, of slavery’s shadow and redlining, of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, is to live in what Felman calls the “age of testimony.” And in such an age, teaching (and learning) must go beyond just transmitting information “that is preconceived, substantified, believed to be known in advance…” We must be willing to testify, to “make something happen.” We are called on to be performative and not just cognitive, to feel as well as think, to listen, not just talk, and to be heard.

“It is the teacher’s task to recontextualize the crisis,” Felman concludes, “and to put it back into perspective, to relate the present to the past and to the future and to thus reintegrate the crisis in a transformed frame of meaning.” As we think about the present moment in our community, we are called upon to be both teachers and learners in this process.

[1] Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge, 1992).

[2] Alice Pitt, “Reading Resistance Analytically: On Making the Self in Women’s Studies,” in L.G Roman and L. Eyre, eds., Dangerous Territories: Struggles for Difference and Equality in Education (New York: Routledge, 1997)

[3] Deborah P. Britzman, “If the Story Cannot End: Deferred Action, Ambivalence, and Difficult Knowledge,” in Roger I. Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert, eds., Between Hope and Despair: Pedagogy and the Remembrance of Historical Trauma (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000): 27-58.

[4] Julia Rose, “Commemorative Museum Pedagogy,” in Brenda Trofanenko and Avner Segall, eds., Beyond Pedagogy: Reconsidering the Public Purpose of Museums (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2014):115-133.

[5] Emmanuel Lévinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985).

[6] Roger I. Simon and Claudia Eppert, “Remembering Obligation: Pedagogy and the Witnessing of Testimony of Historical Trauma,” Canadian Journal of Education 22 (1997): 175-191.

Inksheds and Eggshells

Steven Volk, April 11, 2016

Bored-in-the-Classroom-Vintage-How-To-Learn-Danish-When-Youve-Got-Other-Shit-To-Do-Scandinavia-StandardAs the semester drags itself into the last month of classes, it sometimes feels that we are walking against the tide in a heavy surf. Each step seems painfully slow, the distance gained so small. Classroom patterns are now deeply embedded and it’s hard to change or challenge them. This is particularly obvious in discussions where, by now, everyone in class expects the same hands to be raised when we ask for comments or toss out a question. To be sure, we are grateful that, at least, we can count on those students to say something, otherwise we’d all drown in sea of silence.

At this point, most of us will just wait out the semester, promising ourselves that next semester will be better – that we’ll get them all talking, and they will always be on point, and will be eager to dig into the most serious topics, and….

But maybe it isn’t too late to try something new, even at the tail-end of the semester. Enter “inkshedding.” Inkshedding is a writing-discussion practice begun in the early 1980s that Russ Hunt and Jim Reither of St. Thomas University (Fredericton, New Brunswick) designed to link classroom writing and discussion. While “inkshedding” sounds like a contemporary neologism, it actually dates to the 17th century when some writer substituted “ink” for “blood.” It meant the consumption or waste of ink in writing, according to the OED. Thomas Carlyle’s employment of the term in mid-19th century is eerily apposite of the current political moment:

Who shall be Premier, and take in hand the “rudder of government,” otherwise called the “spigot of taxation;” shall it be the Honorable Felix Parvulus, or the Right Honorable Felicissimus Zero? By our electioneerings and Hansard Debatings, and ever-enduring tempest of jargon that goes on everywhere, we manage to settle that; to have it declared, with no bloodshed except insignificant blood from the nose in hustings-time, but with immense beershed and inkshed and explosion of nonsense, which darkens all the air, that the Right Honorable Zero is to be the man. (Latter Day Pamphlets, III)



Inkshedding, as described by Hunt, grew out of freewriting exercises developed by Peter Elbow, exercises in which students are asked to write in response to a reading, a comment, or some shared experience. Hunt and Reither were concerned that writing should be more social and that freewriting which doesn’t go to somebody is lacking. Even Elbow later admitted that the stakes might be too “low” in freewriting.

So Hunt and Reither would have the students pass their freewriting texts around the class, and they would then mark with a vertical line the passages in the texts they were given that they found most “striking.” From this beginning, the exercise developed in a number of ways. Dan Cleary, who taught English at Lorain County Community College, came up with one of the most common, a practice which James Lang summarized in On Course (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Students begin by freewriting for 5 minutes on a topic of shared experience (a reading, event, comment in class, etc.). Then they pass their notebooks to another student who reads what has been written, and then spends 5 minutes freewriting in response to the first writer. This continues for 20-25 minutes, with students in written dialogue with each other. Only at that point does the discussion become an actual, out-loud discussion. Encouragingly, as Dan Cleary remarked, “I’ve never had a dead-end discussion after an exercise like this…”

Some Theory behind Inkshedding

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK:

Pine Branches, Inkshed Press, Cumbria, UK:

There are some immediately obvious advantages to the Inkshedding practice. As many who have used it explain, the practice draws everybody into the process, even the non-talkers, since everyone has to write, read, and write again. And it’s not hard to imagine that, once the discussion moves from the written/silent phase to the oral/open phase, not only will it be more informed, but the teacher will have a greater opportunity to intervene to call on those whose voices are often not heard in class. (Note: we often see these as “shy” students, but I’m less willing to employ that term – more on this another week.)

Inkshedding is also informed by learning theory. Here’s a summary of some of Hunt’s main points:

  • When discussion takes place in a written form, it “broadens the bandwidth,” allowing everyone in the room to “talk” at once. Even in the best of discussions in a relatively small (12-15 student) classroom, students can be frustrated because the point they had wanted to address already left the dock five minutes earlier, and to return the discussion to that place would be counterproductive. Writing allows everyone to comment. But, as Hunt observes, what is even more important is that every idea or response has a chance not only to be formed in the first place, but also to be “heard” (i.e. read by a number of other people).
  • Hunt notes that we often overlook the importance of reading to the writing process. Inkshedding differs from (simple) freewriting because the text is read both in a social and a dialogic way. It is read for what it says, not to evaluate it or give the writer advice for how it could be “improved.”
  • The “transactional” nature of this reading process, particularly in the sense defined by John Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley (Knowing and the Known), is critical in that it “reminds us that no component of the process can be understood or characterized outside the process.” The reader is influenced by the writer, the writer by the reader, and the whole event is tied to preceding and subsequent events. As Anthony Paré, the head of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia-Vancouver, observed, “Texts are located in an intertextual web. This is something students don’t (can’t) get, since their texts are not linked to other texts. Students eavesdrop on the disciplinary conversation and report what they’ve heard; they don’t join the conversation. They are intellectual voyeurs. Inkshedding gets them into the action.”

From Writing/Reading to Class Discussion

There are a number of ways that the written discussion can move from its initial phase into a full-blown, out-loud class discussion. In the early phase of Inkshedding, Hunt and Reither would form a small group of volunteer editors who would collect the notebooks, read them all, and mark the passages they found to be most “striking.” Those with the most marks would be transcribed, copied and distributed for a subsequent meeting of class, to start off an oral discussion. That practice drew a fair amount of criticism as it meant that not everyone’s comments would be read. In response, students suggested posting all the comments on the class walls so that students could circulate and read them. But this could prove unwieldy, not just because it wouldn’t work in a large class, but because students probably would only read those comments employing the best handwriting.

1962 "Hi-o-Hi" (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

1962 “Hi-o-Hi” (Oberlin College Year Book; Oberlin College Archives)

Another response was to continue the discussion at a silent level, a period when anyone could read any other comment and note what she felt to be the most “striking” passages for transcription. As Hunt noted, “These ‘reading times’ often bec[a]me one of the most powerful moments in my own teaching and conference participation, as people silently exchange[d] sheets of paper and a “discussion” occur[ed] in almost complete silence, punctuated by sotto voce expressions of agreement or outrage, or laughter. There is something particularly powerful about the fact that the reading and selection is being done immediately, or as one anonymous commentator on an early version of this text put it, ‘in real time.’”

A further possibility, particularly if the intent is to move to oral discussion quickly, is to ask students to find one passage from someone else’s inkshed to read aloud. As Hunt observed,

One of the most important educational aspects of inkshedding, for me, is the way it foregrounds and dramatizes the transactional nature of text. For almost all students (and this is especially important for those who have difficulties, or limited experience, with writing and reading), text has never been the basis of an authentic social transaction — beyond, perhaps, a thank you note to a distant grandmother or, more recently, e-mail exchanges with friends. The process of creating an identity and a role in a group through written text, as they do every day through oral utterance, is one in which they have only rarely engaged. And it is my belief that this process is the defining mark of the fully literate person.

Enter the Eggshells

The Political Egg Dance

The Political Egg Dance

Discussions can stall, or never properly start, for a myriad of reasons: students haven’t done the reading, a few voices (almost always the same ones) set the tone and (consciously or inadvertently) dissuade others from joining in, the “quiet” students feel overly cautious about entering the discussion, students are tired or have other things on their minds. But there are other reasons as well, and we are all quite aware of them. Sadly, I can’t tell you the number of times when students, in private discussions, have said that they didn’t take part in a discussion because they were worried about how other students would react to their comments. They were concerned that what they said might be “taken the wrong way,” “misunderstood,” or that, lacking specific theoretical or linguistic chops, they feared tripping some word-choice detonator. They felt that they were constantly walking on eggshells worried that, as they put it, what they said would “be held against them” outside of class.

This is a massive area of concern that requires many posts and much more discussion, but it is one area where inkshedding can be helpful. We can think about this from two different directions. The first relates to the nature of the classroom discussion as it usually occurs. As we know (and as I noted above), when you raise an issue for discussion in class only one person at a time can respond. So you ask the question, wait a few seconds, and call on the first student whose hand is raised. If your classes are anything like mine, the first ones to raise their hands will likely be the same ones every time. Fine – at least this can begin a discussion and others will join in, which is what often happens.

But what we are probably not as aware of is that the first comments tend, in Hunt’s words, “to determine and focus the range of discussion, and effectively determine the kinds of questions or issues which will be raised.” If the discussion has already been framed in a certain direction, students with other perspectives, particularly if they worry that they may be challenging existing orthodoxies (what ever the particular classroom orthodoxy may be) or that they may not be able to state their view in a carefully articulated fashion, are much less likely to engage in the discussion, and therefore the discussion is less likely to open new, suggestive, or controversial, areas. Inkshedding, with its write/read/write/read/discuss structure can allow more “initial” voices into the discussion before it heads down a particular track.

The second point can, itself, be controversial: When employing inkshedding methods, some faculty don’t require that students put their names on their inkshed writing, allowing them to remain anonymous (at least to the extent that students aren’t familiar with each other’s handwriting and only if the paper on which they write is passed a number of times before it halts and is read and commented upon). There is, of course, no anonymity when the discussion is oral, and there is much to the argument that students (as well as faculty) should take responsibility for what they/we say or write, particularly when technology and social media allows individuals an anonymous cover to say the most vile things without any sense of responsibility or any thought to the consequences of such utterances.

And yet, precisely because I worry that the pressures of conformity are preventing students from testing out emerging ideas or putting forward thoughts that could be considered controversial in the classroom, I now assign work that is anonymous to all but me – and have done so with highly positive effects. Certainly, if inkspilling became a surrogate classroom YikYak, the practice of unsigned writing should be halted (and discussed!). But because that seems unlikely and because anonymity might actually promote more cautious voices to emerge, inkshedding should be considered as an approach to more robust classroom discussions that includes a wider diversity of voices and positions.

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Corónica y Buen Gobierno


A number of faculty who have written about their inkshedding experiences have found it too cumbersome to be effective as designed. They support its theoretical basis – the importance of social, dialogic and transactional writing – but they have concerns about the actual implementation of the exercise. Doug Brent of the University of Calgary discussed the most obvious limitation, handwriting. “Handwriting, especially handwriting that is clear enough for other people to be able to read it, is slow. Equally slow is the practice of passing the inksheds around and marking particularly interesting passages. And, since the point of inkshedding is that it should be seen by more than two or three people, somebody needs to collect them, transcribe the marked-up passages, and circulate them later.”

Technology to the rescue. Brent moved the exercise to an in-class Google Doc (he was teaching in a classroom where all the students had computers – the same can be arranged if students are asked to bring in their laptops or are provided with laptops), creating an empty shared document and asking students to read each other’s inksheds and copy interesting passages into the Google Doc. As he noted, “A collaboratively constructed document beg[an] to unfold in real time.”

When Brent questioned his students (via Survey Monkey) about their experiences with inkshedding, 14 of 20 responded, mostly positive:

  • Inkshedding ‘forces’ us to provide our thoughts and ideas, in a way that pretty much 100% engages us.
  • I think it is more beneficial, because I personally do not like speaking aloud.
  • This gives me and other students like me a chance to get their point across without feeling pressured.

The students were particularly positive about the experience in its digital format:

  • I like Google Drive because of how instant everything is. Collaborating and commenting are the most useful parts, I think. Instead of having to send a file or give a physical copy of a paper to a classmate or professor for review, you can just share it on Drive and see the comments as they are being created.
  • Google Drive made it easier to communicate and more efficient. If everyone wrote on a piece of paper and passed it around chances are only one or two people would see it, but with Drive it is available for everyone to view, which is amazing!

To Use or Not to Use

So what are the pros and cons of inkshedding? Brent asked colleagues who are active in the “inkshed community” for their opinions. (Yes, there is a community with its own blog, and associations – the Canadian Association for the Study of Language and Learning.) Here is the list he generated:


  • as a writing-to-learn tool;
  • as an exploration tool;
  • as a way to understand text(s), assignment(s), difficult concept(s), etc.;
  • as a safe place where students can ask questions and express confusion;
  • as a place of sharing experience and knowledge;
  • as a tool that triggers further thinking about topics, texts, assignments;
  • as a reflection tool (after an assignment or a task has been completed);
  • as a crossroad (making connections between what is in class and what is outside of class or how knowledge gained in class can be applied elsewhere);
  • as a meditation tool (on a difficult day, to get students to centre themselves);
  • To build relationships: I tell my students that I will have a conversation in the margins with them over the semester.  This also happens between the students themselves, but as an instructor what I love best about inksheds is the way it allows me to reach students;
  • To provide a method of writing that everyone can succeed with; inkshedding is diplomatic and the fact that it isn’t about punctuation, grammar and structure means that it opens up spaces of possibility for students who have been previously silenced by anxieties about those things;
  • To bring the voices of quiet students onto the floor; e.g., I pull an insightful quote from a quiet student’s inkshed and just before class, ask them if I can call on them to share their excellent point with the class;
  • To get students can take risks (e.g., test something a little edgier, or feel safe about saying that they dislike or disagree with someone/something);
  • To help students find paper topics;
  • It allows students to read each other’s writing, which not only exposes them to different interpretations and understandings of the readings, but also allows them to see the range of student writing out there. They get to see “real” student writing. This has a variety of benefits, addressed below;
  • Writing for a real audience allows them to develop a sense of audience–they replicate the strategies they find worked for their readers and want to achieve greater clarity for their readers. Their peer readers are often more important than their instructor reader;
  • They get stylistic and organizational ideas from each other. Frequently a student will report that she liked the way so-and-so did this or wrote in a particular way, and they experiment with it the next time around;
  • Reading each other’s writing, especially this informal writing, is immensely reassuring in letting them know they are not the only one who thinks a certain way or struggles with an issue (writing or a difficult article);
  • Conversely, reading each other’s writing exposes them to a variety of experiences and ideas that may be different from their own. Seeing their peers twice a week and having to comment on their writing brings about a certain cultural sensitivity that may not develop otherwise;
  • The pointing and the inkshed reporting, which calls attention to positive aspects of inksheds builds students’ confidence because they are not used to having readers point out what they like or say that their words are eloquent, humorous, powerful, etc. That little smile on a student’s face when someone calls attention to something they wrote is great to see;
  • Often their understanding of a concept is enhanced or increased by reading someone else’s summary or interpretation of it.

And the Cons:

  •  International students sometimes don’t see inksheds as helping them improve their Standard Written English;
  • Students need a certain level of language proficiency before they can inkshed in English;
  • Students can get the false impression that grammar doesn’t matter in their writing–or some lesser order errors can get fossilized– if this is the only or main genre of writing in a class. This can be ameliorated in various ways; i.e. dialogue, ‘soft’ expectations for gradual improvement, etc.
  • If not carefully coached on how to give worthwhile content feedback, students can get lazy in doing so OR actually hurt each other. Feedback needs to be monitored–at least early on.
  • Inkshedding can be stressful, especially the first one or two. Instructors can reduce stress on the first few inksheds by making them about easy topics rather than about a particular reading.
  • Students can reject or de-value inkshedding (especially early on) if they don’t understand why we are asking them to it. Instructors can spend time on rationale (and engage their ideas too) to help with this. Also, writing along with students models its value for all–and also messy writing!

Inkshedding may not be for everyone, but maybe it will offer just the way into a broader class discussion that you were looking for, some way to shake up the class in the latter part of the semester.

(And, by the way, many use inkshedding at conferences as well, as a way to open up a discussion after a presentation.)

Share Your Fears

Steve Volk, April 3, 2016

NoFear“No Fear” is a U.S. clothing brand designed for “active living”: extreme sports, mixed martial arts, surfing, energy drinks (energy drinks?). Anyway, you know the stuff and the message: go anywhere, do anything, live on the edge. (The company, by the way, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 – maybe the “fearless” life doesn’t always pay dividends.)

While the attempt to brand Oberlin “fearless” back in 2005 stopped short of bankruptcy, neither was it a hit. Oberlin College, after all, wasn’t marketing a lifestyle or an energy drink. But, even more than that, the slogan was peculiarly inept because it suggested that we, whose essence is to introduce our students to the “examined life,” either have no fears or that we can (and should) brush them off like crumbs from our pants.

I was reminded of this episode when reading a blog post from Cathy Davidson. I’ve been following her work for some years now. Davidson, a cultural historian, is the director of the “Futures Initiative” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Trained in English, linguistics and literary theory, her current work, in her own words, “focuses on trust, data, new collaborative methods of living and learning, and the ways we can change higher education for a better future.”

I’m also an attentive follower of the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) project she co-founded in 2002 with David Theo Goldberg. In 2004, Davidson and Goldberg published “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” in which they argued that emerging global forms of communication and digital learning are so complex and potentially so revolutionary that they require a new alliance of humanists, artists, social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers, working collaboratively and thinking and acting collectively, to envision new ways of learning that can serve the needs of a global society.

Diego Rivera, "Open Air School," lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Diego Rivera, “Open Air School,” lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Last August the HASTAC community of scholars sponsored an on-line conversation entitled “Towards a Pedagogy of Equality.” The conversation was led by Danica Savonick, a HASTAC (pronounced “hay stack”) Scholar and doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center; it was sponsored by The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center. The program’s planners designed this “conversation” to be the first of eight discussions which would serve as a foundation for a larger project intended to tie student-centered, engaged practices in our classrooms to larger issues of institutional change, equality, race, gender, and all forms of social justice. Quite nicely, I thought, they call the project: The University Worth Fighting For.

The Pedagogy of Equality

As part of the “Pedagogy of Equality” conversation, the organizers launched a Google Doc on which they asked all those participating in the online discussion to describe their favorite strategies, practices, activities, techniques, or assignments that were designed to promote or model equality in the classroom. In the document, contributors gave the activity a name and provided a short explanation of how it works.

The Google Doc of that conversation is still available, and if you check it out, you’ll find a wealth of concrete ideas for increasing participation in the classroom, making assignments more interesting, and bolstering opportunities for student learning. Among others, these include some relatively well-known activities such as “Think-Pair-Share”: the instructor poses a question, students are asked to think about and then write their responses, pair with another student to discuss the question and their answers, and then share their conclusions with the whole class. (You can find a more detailed description of the activity here). But I also found activities and approaches I hadn’t previously encountered, such as pairing learning with music (after we have a particularly heady or difficult text pair it with a song that is a mnemonic device or another way into the work”).

One exercise, in particular, caught my eye. It was from Cathy Davidson and she called it, “Share your fear.” Here’s what she wrote:

Have people write down, on post it notes, three things that they fear will keep them from mastering the material in the course and then, on post it notes, three skills/experiences/areas of expertise where they excel and that they know they can offer to others. Have them put the “fears/inadequacy” post-its onto giant post-its arrayed around the room.  Then, in a single file, have everyone go and silently (no talking or joking) circle the room and read all the things classmates are afraid they won’t/can’t/lack the ability to fully master. Take that in. It’s humbling to see all the areas where people feel inadequate.  Then, have everyone go around and put the “skills” post its, with their names, over all the “fears.”  These are partners for the course, resources, collaborators.

Davidson suggested that such an activity can help students:

  • take advantage of other people’s expertise beyond the teacher’s as a way of understanding that the instructor is not the only expert in the course;
  • demonstrate their own expertise; and
  • embrace their own expertise.

And Students Are the Only Ones with Fears?

From "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End," by Atul Gawande

From “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” by Atul Gawande

It is very late in the semester for such an exercise, and so I offer it as a morsel for you to tuck away and perhaps pull out at the start of the next semester.

But Davidson’s exercise also got me thinking about teaching and learning in general and the fact that students are not the only ones who have worries and fears when they enter the classroom. It is no less certain that, as teachers, we carry our own bundles of anxieties into the room. To be sure, most are different than student fears although some (perhaps a nagging sense of inadequacy) probably are shared. But no fear? No way!

Our apprehensions often march about most demonstratively during the night hours towards the start of each new school year. I don’t have to tell you about the dreams and nightmares which trouble our mid-August sleep, the ones in which we are taking math tests we didn’t prepare for, German exams in courses we never bothered to attend. They are the dreams where we are required to read aloud in a language we have long ago forgotten, and, anyway, the letters seem to be swimming about on the page. The dreams where we show up to lecture in our bathrobes. These pre-semester doubts are part of what I think of as our common culture of teaching.

But anxiety is not the same as fear; fear is a step further, something that often develops after the mid-point of the semester when we no longer find we have time to correct a problem, when we feel that we have lost control of a class, can’t find a way into a conversation that is essential for student learning, worry that we no longer share an epistemology that will allow us either to resolve disputes or even discuss differences. And fear is when we feel that we are about to trip over the barely visible wires that someone (students? colleagues? ourselves?) has set out for us, when we can no longer imagine getting done what has to get done, when there simply is no time for friends, partners, children.

No, students aren’t the only ones with fears. So is there an exercise or assignment we can design that can help us “share our fear”? Perhaps.

If I could gather all of you into a big room, here’s the exercise I’d prepare for you. I would ask you to write down, on post-it notes:

  • Three fears you have about your pedagogical practice, what you are trying to do in the classroom. These can be things that you worry will keep you from doing what you need to do to allow you to reach your goals as a teacher, help the students learn, or permit you to create an environment in which everyone will get the most out of the few weeks we share with our students.
  • Three fears you have about the impact your professional life has on your personal life.
  • Three fears you have about the institutions in which you carry out the work of teaching and learning.

Then I would have you write on separate post-it notes three things you can rely on to help you address your fears: the skills, experiences, or expertise you rely on when you’re feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, the histories of past practices you can remind yourselves of when you wake in the night worried about a class that you feel is crashing and burning, the strengths and resiliency you have built up that have carried you to where you are today.

Finally, I would ask you to write the names of three people you can talk to when these fears gnaw at your stomach and trouble your sleep. You know who they are – the question is whether you will talk to them.

The “Share Your Fear” Virtual Exercise

We’re not sitting together in a big room, but the internet exists for just such moments! While you can’t put post-its on a wall, I’ve put up a Google Doc which you can populate with your fears and the skills you have to help address them, your anxieties and your support networks. While you’re at it, write down the people to whom you can turn to share your fears (although you’ll want to leave that off this doc) You also can add additional information about yourself that you think is relevant in terms of providing context to your concerns (e.g. gender, race, length of time you have been teaching, etc.).

The “Share the Fear” document will be our wall of post-it notes; it will be available for anyone with the link to read and add to (so keep that in mind when posting). After some time, I’ll try to summarize what has been written, where our concerns overlap and where they diverge, and what we can learn by sharing our fears. If this exercise, when used with students, helps them understand their own strengths and how to take advantage of other people’s expertise, this can help us understand that we are not alone in our fears, and that we have resources built up over years and networks of support that can help.

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading

Steve Volk, March 27, 2016

Benin Plaque, c. 16- 17th century, brass “lost-wax” technique, British Museum Af1898,0115.38

Benin Plaque, c. 16- 17th century, brass “lost-wax” technique, British Museum Af1898,0115.38

Students in museums studies, more so than casual visitors, are frequently confronted with the question of how specific artifacts made their way from their point of origin into the museum where they are displayed for our enjoyment and edification. For some objects, the answer is relatively straightforward: the painting originally in, say, the French royal collection, was purchased by a dealer who sold it to a collector who donated it to the museum. For other artifacts, particularly if the museum in question is the British Museum (the end point of a vast collection of imperial booty), the origins of the artifact is more troubled. The catalog entry for this “Benin Plaque” (left), dating from the 16th-17th centuries, calmly notes that “following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were seized by British force from the royal quarters and various storerooms.”

But as this information doesn’t appear on the object’s label in the gallery, the viewer has little sense of the violent history — the imperial relations — that underwrote the trajectory of the plaque from Benin City to its current abode on Great Russell Street in London. Museologically and culturally speaking, that’s a problem. If museums are to represent (and not simply appropriate) objects from their colonial empires, the history of that displacement must be kept in sight.

This may seem an unusual way to begin an essay on grading, but I thought of the Benin Plaques and their absent labels as I prepared another set of grades for my students. Grading (as I’ve written many times before here and hardly need to remind you) is about as eagerly anticipated by teachers as a colonoscopy (and at least those are served up with propofol.) There are any number of reasons why this is the case, and at least some of the problems of grading do come with relatively straight-forward solutions. If you can’t bear reading the 27th paper on the role of the cottage in Frankenstein, then open your assignments to allow for a greater variety of responses. If the assignment essentially requires that students feed back to you what you’ve given to them, don’t expect to have an enjoyable experience reading them. Try completing your own assignments and if you find them boring or not conducive of learning, change them so that students can use the assignment to demonstrate both mastery and application.

Full Disclosure

Other issues involved in grading are more difficult to resolve, which brings us back to the Benin Plaques. What everyone knows, yet no label discloses, is that grades represent the ultimate power that faculty hold over our students. As much as our professional code of conduct requires – demands – that we grade fairly, objectively, and without regard to extraneous factors, there is no denying that we are humans and that, when it comes to grading, we are both shaped by, and must contend with, a variety of factors that make that difficult, if not impossible. These range from simple tiredness to complex issues of prejudice including racism and sexism. [See, for example, here (the impact of the teacher’s emotional state) and here (the impact of the stereotype threat) as examples.). Perhaps, just as the Benin Plaques should include on their label an indication of the nature of the power that brought them to the British Museum, so too should we include a label on all of our tests and assignments:

Warning: As much as I will try to grade your assignments objectively, fairly, and without prejudice, and as much as I will attempt to forget how annoyed I was with you when you [fill in appropriately]: didn’t do the reading/watched a Beyoncé video on your laptop instead of listening to what I was saying/left the class three times to go to the bathroom, I am only human, so caveat emptor!

When Life Is Young, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

When Life Is Young, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

Grading has a way of reversing the intent of teaching, not only closing off a formative process of dialog and reflection, but often contradicting what we have been insisting all semester: “It’s not about the grade.” Well, what if it is? And how do we tell students with a straight face not to worry so much about their grades when they know (as do we) that when all is said and done, the grade we give them can/will influence whether they get the fellowship they need to pursue their studies. I would venture that, for most of us, the problem is not that we feel pressured to give “C” work an “A” (although grade inflation, particularly at elite institutions, might suggest otherwise), but rather how we maintain a straight face when we suggest there is a clear and obvious difference between a “B” and a “B+,” between a “B+ and an “A-.” Particularly in the humanities and social studies, but likely in the sciences as well, we know full well that extraneous considerations (those extra trips to the bathroom!) can influence our decisions. There’s no way around the fact that a serious evaluation of our students’ work is so much more complex than can be expressed in that single letter, and giving a student a “B+/A-” really doesn’t resolve the problem.

What else is wrong with grades? Let me count the ways! As  Steven Mintz, Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, pointed out,

  • A single, over-all grade conflates elements that need to be disentangled.
  • They tend to overly reward lower-order thinking skills (such as memorization and recall) rather than higher order skills (involving analysis, application, and synthesis).
  • Grades too often fail to accurately reflect student learning or mastery.
  • They are frequently de-motivating and discouraging.

Nor is this a recent finding: studies as early as 1912 questioned the utility (and validity) of grades, and research has fairly consistently underlined some of the main problems in grading practices.

Typical-student, British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

“Typical figure, showing tendency of student life,” British Library HMNTS 10413.dd.1

Does that mean that we should stop giving grades? Very few colleges or universities have abandoned the grading system altogether. Hampshire College, where faculty write narratives of their students’ learning rather than assigning grades, remains the exception. But even there, complex narratives probably won’t work in a class of 80 students, nor is Pass/Fail an option without draw-backs in a world in which grades are the norm. A “Pass” in Organic Chemistry might not help a student when she applies to med school.

Valen E. Johnson, professor and head of the department of statistics at Texas A&M University at College Station argues further that if we didn’t grade, “students probably wouldn’t work as much and wouldn’t do homework and wouldn’t study for exams”? While this is not universally the case, we can (and probably should) admit that we share at least some of the blame for not making learning more intrinsically motivating. But such an observation can only get us so far. Ultimately, we need to think about new ways of grading that can address some of the shortcomings of the current system. That’s where contract grading comes in.


Contract grading, which actually was first used some decades ago, more recently has been gaining traction in higher ed. Briefly, contract grading attempts to reduce the subjectivity of the grading process for faculty and the induced passivity of students within the evaluation system in an attempt to arrive at a more integrative and meaningful process of assessment.

There are a variety of approaches to contract grading, each designed to meet an instructor’s intended outcomes, but all share the fundamental goal of clarifying the grading process for students so that they can make more informed decisions about their actions. While there are a number of different types of contract grading options, I’ve  summarized three different contract-grading approaches here. At the same time, I’d encourage you to talk to your colleagues about how they grade; raise the issue at department meetings: you’d be surprised how many have adopted this method of grading.

Contract grading as a means of negotiating authority

Songs of a Savoyard, British Library HMNTS 11651.k.42

Songs of a Savoyard, British Library HMNTS 11651.k.42

The essential factor in determining a grading approach, at least as I see it, is deciding what you hope the process of grading can achieve in the broadest terms. For some, revealing and addressing the nature of power relations within a classroom environment is the central element that a grading system can address. Ira Shore, for example, has written much about the importance of creating a democratic classroom in which power is both fully disclosed and openly negotiated with students. Similarly, Isabel Moreno Lopez argues that teachers should create a critical classroom in which “authority and responsibilities are shared between teacher and students, empowering all course members to become active, responsible participants of the learning process, not merely passive consumers.” For both, grading is a means by which power can be shared through a collectively negotiated contract co-constructed at the beginning of the semester.

Here, in a condensed version, is how Moreno Lopez describes her contract grading system:

The negotiation process starts at the beginning of the semester when the teacher presents the elements of a contract grading system to the students. In general terms, the grading system is based on the quality and quantity of work students are willing and capable of doing. That is, if a student signs a contract for an “A,” s/he will do more work in the course than the student who contracts for a “C.” The quality of work will also reflect the contracted grade. Students are permitted to rewrite the written assignments as many times as necessary to attain the contracted grade.

At the start of the semester, then, the teacher opens up class-time to discuss both the syllabus and the grading system. Then, s/he asks for questions, amendments, and comments on the original proposal. A debate follows, after which the students sign the contract, as amended by themselves, and keep a copy for their records. During the semester, the negotiation process continues, both in class discussions and in comments in the students’ journals. At the end of the semester, based on the contracts and their performance, students discuss with the teacher their final grades. This grade might be the same they contracted or might have varied depending on their performance and progress.

Moreno Lopez suggests that this negotiated grading system is valuable in two ways: it helps students see learning as a process and not an end, and it “encourages students to be active participants in their own learning process by allowing them to cooperate in what is usually considered the ultimate prerogative of the teacher: the assessment process.”

Shor, Moreno Lopez and others who engage in this form of critical pedagogy identify the classroom as a political arena where differences of power are necessarily, and properly, brought into the center of teaching where they are negotiated. In such a context, struggle and conflict is both inevitable and appropriate insofar as it is a reflection of the larger society, not a “bubble” separate from it.

Non-negotiated contract grading to improve learning

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS

The grading contracts used by Jane Danielewicz and Peter Elbow in their composition courses are similar in some respects, but they are less concerned about using the classroom to negotiate authority than Shor or Moreno Lopez. Instead, they see their goal as creating “a classroom where both teachers and students get to give as much time and attention as possible to writing—not politics and culture. Of course political and cultural issues turn up in student writing, but our tendency is to discuss the effectiveness of the writing more than political and cultural issues themselves (not that one can ever completely separate the two).”

Danielewicz and Elbow present the grading contracts to students at the beginning of the semester rather than co-constructing them with student input. By using contracts, they seek “not only to help students learn more and function better as learners; we also want a grading system that encourages them to be the kind of persons our world needs; furthermore, we want to make our own teaching easier and more satisfying.” And they add, “That’s all.” Indeed, that would be plenty.

Here is a summary of the main elements of the Danielewicz-Elbow grading contract:

  1. Attend class regularly—not missing more than a week’s worth of classes.
  2. Meet due dates and writing criteria for all major assignments.
  3. Participate in all in-class exercises and activities.
  4. Complete all informal, low stakes writing assignments (e.g. journal writing or discussion-board writing).
  5. Give thoughtful peer feedback during class workshops and work faithfully with their group on other collaborative tasks (e.g., sharing papers, commenting on drafts, peer editing, on-line discussion boards, answering peer questions).
  6. Sustain effort and investment on each draft of all papers.
  7. Make substantive revisions when the assignment is to revise—extending or changing the thinking or organization—not just editing or touching up.
  8. Copy-edit all final revisions of main assignments until they conform to the conventions of edited, revised English.
  9. Attend conferences with the teacher to discuss drafts.
  10. Submit their mid term and final portfolio.

In other words, students get a “B” based solely on what they do, not on any evaluation of their work by the professor. Grades higher than a “B,” however, depend on the teacher’s evaluation of the quality of their writing. They will discuss in class what “exceptionally high quality” writing means, making the criteria as public and concrete as possible, but they don’t give students power over “high-grade” decisions.

Although they don’t evaluate the quality of their students’ writing up to a “B” grade, they also don’t withhold evaluation as they continue to provide students with feedback on the strengths and weaknesses in their work, both drafts and final version. But the evaluation (up to a “B”) is decoupled from grades. “As a result,” they write, “students don’t have to heed any of our judgments or advice when they revise their papers (though they must revise).” They want their students to feel that the evaluations they conduct are “from individual persons: yes, experts about writing, but individuals, nevertheless, who cannot pretend to be wholly impersonal or fair.”

Their article (“A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching”) offers a fascinating discussion of how they came to the various elements of the contract, why, for example, they picked a “B” grade as the base-line mark for their contract (“Our original reasoning was merely timid—crassly negative and pragmatic: we were scared to ‘go all the way.’”), or whether their contract is actually less “fuzzy” than a standard grading system. “How can we defend ambiguous and arguable criteria like ‘conscientious effort,’ ‘thoughtful feedback,’ and ‘conscientious participation?’” they ask. “First, we don’t accuse someone of failing to meet one of these fuzzy criteria (‘no-effort,’ for example), unless the violation is grossly flagrant (e.g. drafts far short of the required length). Secondly, we’ll always take the students word for it.” In terms of a final, summative, grade they are persuaded that their decisions were relatively easy to make. Students who didn’t fulfill the contract (including some who were excellent writers), were disqualified. They then focused more closely on the remaining final portfolios that they found to be particularly strong.

Contract grading to encouraging active learning and community building

"The Life of George Barnwell; or, the London apprentice of the last century," British Library HMNTS 12621.dd.5.

“The Life of George Barnwell; or, the London apprentice of the last century,” British Library HMNTS 12621.dd.5.

The final example of contract-style grading is Asao B. Inoue’s community-based assessment approach. Similar to all contract models, Inoue, a writing instructor at Washington State University, moves away from teacher-centered assessment and evaluation while encouraging students to take more initiative. But, more than in the previous models, Inoue seeks to create a classroom in which “students take control of all writing assignments, their instructions, assessment criteria, and the practices and reflective activities that go along with their writing.” Such an approach, he maintains, “encourages a community of writers that are implicated in each others’ writing and assessment practices, and gets them to critically engage with these practices.”

Inoue’s model underscores the fact that assessment is a vital component in the act of writing. He spends considerable time discussing with students what they want out of their papers and how they should be read and assessed. It is a complex and recursive process that begins when the class collectively creates its first assessment rubric, a set of guidelines that everyone agrees to, and that they will use both as writers and assessors. This first rubric will be revised continually as the class moves from the early stages of writing (paragraph writing) to position papers and final essays.

Any student can suggest a rubric revision or raise a question about the rubric at any time. To test and revise the iterated rubric, class members write two separate paragraphs, each receiving three peer assessments that use the in-process rubric. The class — instructor and students alike — uses what it has learned from the paragraph assessments to revise the rubric, which becomes the new starting point for on-going assignments, and so on. Over a month, each student writes a position paper, receives responses and assessments from the entire class (both on paper and through class discussions), posts a revision of the position paper based on those discussions and input, gets a more formal peer-assessment of the revision by a few colleagues, writes an essay (often based on the position paper), and finally receives a formal peer-evaluation of the essay. The same process is repeated for a second paper. (The process is schematized in the illustration below.)

ChartWhen the students assess each others’ writing, they are not looking to identify an “A” paragraph or an “exemplary,” or “outstanding” one. Rather they use the rubrics to help them identify proficient paragraphs, ones that reach the proficiency markers they set out at the start of the process. If a paragraph hits these markers, then it has done its job.

Here, for example, is what the class came up as a “proficient” paragraph with after their discussions: A proficient and adequate paragraph will . . .

  • Contain a consistent claim
  • Support claim with appropriate evidence (when needed)
  • Elicit thought on the part of the audience
  • Adapt to or consider its audience
  • Use clear and concise language
  • Use appropriate language and grammar
  • Contain three or more sentences

They continue to refine this set of criteria over the course of the semester.

As Inoue explains,

I try simply to provide the structures for my students to create a rubric, re-think it, write from it, use it to assess each other, and, of course, reflect continually upon all these practices. I distribute guidelines, provide due dates, post weekly reflection prompts, and pose additional questions in class that facilitate assessment discussions on student writing. In short, I try to coach them toward sound assessment practices and active learning stances by making them do the hard work of assessment. I encourage them to voice disagreement, show agreement, and elaborate and qualify ideas. I act as a facilitator, questioner, and listener when we talk about each other’s writing. I try to keep us focused on our rubric in our assessment discussions, yet not be a guard to ivory towers… Our class writing isn’t about what I want — it’s about what the class can agree on they want and can justify in some way so that agreements can be made… My students must debate and decide on all the important decisions regarding their writing in the course from start to finish. The class is about them learning not me teaching.

The key to making assessment work pedagogically, according to Inoue, is periodic reflection on the assessment activities. He does it once a week based on open-ended prompts to point the students to the areas he wants them to reflect on. Community-based assessment pedagogy also offers ways to build a pragmatic sense of community that is active and purposeful.

If our purpose, as teachers, in assessing and evaluating student writing is to help students learn — if assessment is inherently a learning practice (which I think it is) — then the teacher shouldn’t control all of the process. And Inoue concludes:

Community-based assessment pedagogy, as described here, boils down to three classroom imperatives: (1) encourage active learning stances by allowing students to assess and evaluate their own and their colleagues’ writing practices, and make these assessments meaningful and purposeful, (2) situate assessment practices within a community of knowledge makers who construct assessment rubrics and define and justify assessment practices, i.e., encourage the class to work for one another as mutual agents working with and for each other’s benefit, writing for each other, and negotiating hard agreements together, and (3) give lots of opportunities to reflect on assessment that speaks to the larger class community, in order to theorize about writing, rhetorical conventions, assessment, and the judging of writing from specific criteria, i.e., what we say about what we are doing (or did) can help us do it better in the future. In my versions of this pedagogy, these imperatives rest on a framework of recursive, repeated writing and assessment activities.


As you will have noticed, none of these models makes grading “easy.” Contract grading is not the contemporary equivalent of throwing the papers down the steps and handing out marks depending on where they land. But, by bringing students into the assessment process, contract grading can help make assessment criteria clearer, remove some subjective aspects of grading, bolster student learning, and build community. And, by foregrounding the grading process as reflective of the inherent power of faculty (i.e., we may be their friends, but ultimately we will give them grades), contract grading provides a needed “label” for students and an invitation to faculty to re-imagine classroom practices.

Some additional bibliography:

Elbow, Peter and Jane Danielwicz. “A Unilateral Grading Contract to Improve Learning and Teaching.” English Department Faculty Publication Series. Paper 3.

Huot, B. “Toward a new discourse of assessment for the college writing classroom.” College English 65 (2002): 163–180.

Inoue, Asao B. “Community-based Assessment Pedagogy.” Assessing Writing 9 (2005) 208–238.

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.

Moreno-Lopez, Isabel. “Sharing Power with Students: The Critical Language Classroom.” Radical Pedagogy 7:2 (2005).

Radican, Lynda S. “Contract Grades: An Agreement between Students and Their Teachers.” In Stephen Tchudi, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997, 285-290.

Shor, Ira. When Students Have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Tchudi, Stephen, ed. Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1997.

The Zappa Doctrine: Risks and Rewards in the Classroom

Sebastiaan Faber, March 14, 2016


Frank Zappa, Tellez, Flickr CC

“My theory is this,” Frank Zappa said in 1984 when he was asked whether he thought of himself as a great guitarist. “I have a basic mechanical knowledge of the operation of the instrument and I have an imagination. And when the time comes up in a song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m going to play or what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it. … And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine. … The real fun of playing the guitar is doing it live.” “So every night then is spontaneous for you?” the interviewer asks. “Absolutely,” Zappa replies. “… Think of it the other way. What if you had to play exactly the same notes every night? Isn’t that like punching a clock? Well—who needs that crap?”

As a teacher I try to live by the Zappa doctrine. I like to think of teaching like playing a live jam session, in which the students are not the audience but your fellow musicians. In principle you know the songs and have the chord progressions down. You even get to make a set list. But you never quite know what kind of night the other players are going to have—and the drummer might decide to change things up at any time.

To put this differently, the key is for the people gathered in a classroom to be willing to take risks. Safety is not an essential part of that equation. Trust, however, is. Every semester, I see it as my job to help my students create an atmosphere in which everyone, including myself, trusts each other enough on a personal level to leave their comfort zone on an intellectual level. The goal of the class is to generate understanding, meaning, sense. Not necessarily to formulate answers, but certainly the sharpest possible questions about issues that matter. This process is creative and collective. Ideas are to share—and to challenge. All positions are tentative. Mistakes are allowed. In fact, they are inevitable and necessary. It’s helpful to assume good faith and be generous with granting the benefit of the doubt.

Building Trust

Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, Dezember 1971, Musikhalle Hamburg. Photo: Heinrich Klaffs, Flickr CC

Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, Dezember 1971, Musikhalle Hamburg. Photo: Heinrich Klaffs, Flickr CC

For this to work, it’s important to talk about roles and expectations. It is also important to acknowledge that not everyone takes a class with the same goal in mind. On the first day I will often ask students to explain to each other how they see this class fitting into their overall trajectory at Oberlin and their lives more generally. Sometimes we spend part of our first day coming up with tropes for the way we want to think about the thirteen weeks ahead. What are we embarking on? A live gig, an adventure, a train ride, a reality soap? Given where everyone is and where they are heading, is this class a cornerstone or a frill? A trial balloon or a step toward a lifelong aspiration? What investment are people willing to make, and why? What can they expect from each other and from me? Having people define their own roles and expectations gives them ownership—but it also holds them accountable.

What makes this kind of collaborative, risk-based teaching both easier and harder in my case is the fact that I don’t often teach in English. For my classes to go well, it is essential that students feel they have the room to express themselves in a language that for many is not the one they grew up speaking—and a language that, in the United States, is not the one associated with intellectual or political power. I didn’t realize what a difference this made until I taught my first class in English, in my fourth year at Oberlin. The class dynamic was entirely different. Much to my surprise, rather than leveling the playing field, using English made it more uneven. Discussions became more gendered; some students began using bigger words than necessary. I suddenly realized that students’ willingness to participate, and how they did it, depended at least as much on their classmates as on me. When we have class in Spanish, there seems to be less room for speaking-to-impress or staying-silent-for-fear-of-embarrassment. Also, everyone thinks more before they speak. Because students have to make do with a smaller rhetorical toolkit, they tend to be more to the point. Discussions are often more productive.

Pablo Picasso, "Composition" (1949); lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Pablo Picasso, “Composition” (1949); lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Another way to think about this is that speaking in a language that’s not your own already involves a significant amount of risk-taking. I sometimes think that everyone’s need to cross this initial threshold helps set the stage for an environment of trust from the outset. Switching languages can help to diminish or sometimes even invert relations of privilege or positions of power in a classroom. From a pedagogical standpoint, too, the move into another language models what the purpose of a class actually is: to break out of your own self, your background, what you see as your identity, and to open yourself to perspectives that will force you to reconsider what you thought of as truth, normality, nature, or necessity. Switching languages, finally, can help separate ideas from the people that express them. Making things too personal is rarely helpful in the process of a discussion—and some ideas need expressing even if no one feels comfortable associating themselves with them. (Ideas are hardly ever one individual’s creation anyway.)

In a sense, of course, every subject or discipline speaks its own language, and the process of developing fluency in that language is part of the students’ learning process. Actually conducting the class in a language other than English brings that point home more explicitly, to the benefit of the class dynamic. It would be interesting to think of ways to bring that same benefit to other parts of the campus. This is actually one of the ideas behind the notion of “languages across the curriculum,” which allows students take courses in history, cinema studies, politics, and other subjects in classes conducted in French, Spanish, or other languages.

José Bedia, "Con Licencia" (1991), Ink on amate paper, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

José Bedia, “Con Licencia” (1991), Ink on amate paper, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Language and “Cultural Appropriation”

I, for one, can’t imagine ever teaching all my classes in English. Still, even at selective liberal arts colleges we constantly have to defend the legitimacy of teaching and writing in other languages. Some colleagues in other fields, for example, have the strange idea that teaching in Spanish is the same as teaching Spanish, when in fact language-instruction classes take up only about half of our courses. In a country like the United States, in particular, it is also easy to forget that not everything worth knowing or reading is available in English—even when it comes to U.S. history and culture. But there are new challenges, too. In the past couple of years I have heard some students wonder out loud whether someone has the right to use, learn, or teach a language they did not grow up speaking. Thinking from the paradigm of postcolonial studies, they feel that languages are a form of cultural identity that, like other aspects of cultural heritage, is vulnerable to forms of appropriation. Cultural imperialism is real—but to apply that notion directly to language learning is tricky. Unless we want to give up on communication altogether, after all, we cannot do without language. Given that situation, declaring languages other than English off-limits to non-native speakers of those languages only re-affirms monolingualism—a sad form of cultural myopia that, as a symptom, is very much of this time and very much of the United States. It also consecrates English—an imperial language if there ever was one—as a supposedly neutral lingua franca. Finally, it puts the burden on non-native-speakers of English to move out of their language in order to participate in the public sphere.

Rather than questioning the desire to teach and learn languages, my own position has long been the opposite. To me, the struggle against cultural imperialism in the United States begins with breaking down the hegemony of English. This means pushing for a multilingual public sphere—and a truly multilingual campus with a multilingual staff, leadership, and classrooms. Imagine how unseating English from its hegemonic status just a little bit would change an institution like ours, even on the level of power relations.

Suspending Authority

Jarne.Beyls, "Risk Taking," Flickr CC

Jarne.Beyls, “Risk Taking,” Flickr CC

For a risk-based pedagogy to work, the playing field should not just be level among the students. A pedagogical approach in which everyone makes themselves vulnerable also requires something like a suspension of authority on the teacher’s part. The class won’t work if everyone believes that the person leading the class will always know more than the rest. We have to assume that expertise and experience are always relative, always up for questioning. The fact that everyone is conditioned by their particular position in the world is a given. The double attempt to come to terms with that limitation and escape it, is the thrilling, grueling, and risk-riddled process we call learning. Which, in the end, is a form—maybe the only form—of changing the world.

Suspending authority can be tricky for a teacher, in part because it means resisting the urge to intervene in a discussion, or to directly monopolize it. I often think the best role for me to assume is that of the model student: I listen, respond, ask follow-up questions, defer to others. (In my field, it helps that most of us began our teaching career in communicative language classes in which even grammar explanations were taboo. Our entire goal was for our students to speak and for us to shut up. Extended teacher-centered monologues—what in other fields is considered lecturing—were never an option.) And if it’s difficult for a teacher to suspend authority, it can also be difficult for students to assume it. Often it’s easier to defer to the person in charge for answers or explanations. It is also important to realize that the teacher, from her role as institutionally assumed authority—she is, after all, the one taking roll and assigning grades—has to actively give that authority up for students to be able to share in it. She also has to know when to take charge again to keep things on the rails.

It helps that, in the humanities, expertise and authority are relative almost by definition. A poem, novel, film, or painting always allows for more than one interpretation. Students often discover valuable things that I never thought of. “I’m fascinated with the bass clarinet,” a student once said in a discussion about Julio Medem’s wonderfully crazy film Vacas, which deals with violence in the Basque country. “What bass clarinet?” I asked. “The one in the soundtrack,” the student replied—“It always announces something eery.” I’d seen the film a dozen times but had never bothered to notice the clarinet. (The student, predictably, was a double-degree double bassist.) What an experience like this underscores is that, when it comes to generating knowledge or insight about art or literature, the difference between the expert and novice can be amazingly—and refreshingly—small. (If anything, what distinguishes the two is the expert’s ability to judge how new or original that knowledge or insight actually is.)

Still, suspending authority is a constant struggle. And I’ve noticed it doesn’t get easier with age. The gap between my students and me widens every year, not just in terms of frames of reference—an increasing chunk of my historical memory is no longer theirs—but also in terms of sheer factual knowledge. It’s easy to forget that I have had almost thirty years more time to learn stuff. For this reason, I often wonder whether experience actually makes for better teachers. Haven’t we veterans lost the energy and creativity of our younger colleagues? Have we forgotten what it felt like to learn as a novice? To be risk-takers in our own learning?

Gigging with Zappa

Fortunately, there are ways to counteract the mental stiffness that can come with age, and to thoroughly undermine one’s authority as the single expert in the room. One simple solution is sharing the stage: opening your classroom and syllabus up to colleagues. Some of my best classes at Oberlin have been team-taught.

Zappa-37, blazeriffic dog, Flickr CC

Zappa-37, blazeriffic dog, Flickr CC

Team-teaching, when done well, is not less work, to the contrary. It’s also twice as scary—it’s one thing to screw up before your students, and quite another to embarrass yourself in front of a colleague. But what compensates for all of that is the added depth to the classroom dynamic. As team teachers you can reinforce each other, nuance each other’s positions, or flat out disagree. Especially if the team is interdisciplinary, you get to perform your particular scholarly perspective much more clearly than if you’re the only one teaching. At the same time, you are little more than a novice on your fellow teacher’s turf, learning along with the students. And of course team teaching is also one of the few chances that we teachers get to see our awesome, risk-taking colleagues in action. And that can feel like sharing a solo with Zappa.

Sharing Syllabi: What’s Gained, What Challenges Remain

Steven Volk, March 7, 2016


Open Syllabus Project: Graphic of top 10,000 texts by frequency of use by faculty: Political Science

What has been the most frequently assigned text at Princeton in the last 15 years? What about Harvard? Yale? For Princeton (along with Columbia), Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations was the chart-topper. At Harvard, pivoting in the opposite (ideological) direction, the most frequently assigned text was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Yale, for its part, returned to the classics with Plato’s Republic. Much to think about there!

More? OK, any guesses on Oberlin’s most assigned text? Would you be surprised if I reported that it was the “Communist Manifesto” by Marx (a text which ranks 5th at Brown and 3rd at Wesleyan, behind…wait for it… Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and Hobbes’ Leviathan). Clash of the Titans!

Marx-image Huntington-image







Frankenstein was the text most frequently assigned by English faculty at U.S. (and some international) colleges and universities over the past 15 years (followed by Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost and Hamlet). Horace Miner’s wonderful spoof study (“Body Ritual among the Nacirema” which appeared in the American Anthropologist about a billion years ago and whose secret is given away in the title) was the third most frequently assigned text among Anthropology faculty, while Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” ranked at the top the Women’s Studies’ lists.

Big data analytics has met the college syllabus in the “Open Syllabus Project” (OSP) a joint project of scholars at Columbia and Stanford which went public with a beta version this past January. The project, housed at The American Assembly at Columbia, is supported by a grant from the Sloan Foundation with assistance from Columbia University’s Library and Department of English. It brought together several research groups interested in exploring what one can learn about undergraduate education by aggregating the data gleaned from hundreds of thousands of course syllabi. This effort, which brought in researchers from Harvard, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Swarthmore College, built off the 2002-2009 “Million Syllabi” database created by Dan Cohen, the Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America.

Economics texts

Open Syllabus Project: Economics

The OSP hoovers up faculty syllabi by one of three methods: searching publicly accessible university websites, gaining access to syllabus archives through agreements with individual universities, and collecting syllabi sent in from individual faculty members. It aggregates the data from these syllabi in order to find out what articles or books are most widely assigned within specific disciplines or departments, at individual colleges and universities, or in specific states. It also includes more spotty data from universities in the English-speaking world, largely from the UK.

Once the syllabi are collected, project personnel apply meta tags to the data, noting subject, texts used, school and date. The OSP currently holds the metadata on more than 1 million college and university syllabi, mostly from the United States. Using this data, it can disclose rankings by frequency (a teaching ranking) that can tell you which are the texts that are most often used in different areas. It can also provide some interesting data on what texts are most likely to be taught together. All of this is done without disclosing any of the underlying data which could reveal individual class syllabi, thereby protecting privacy and copyright.

Writing in The New York Times, Joe Karaganis and David McClure, two directors at the Open Syllabus Project, described the Syllabus Explorer as “mostly a tool for counting how often texts [have been] assigned over the past decade.” Using frequency as a proxy for influence, the Project assigns an overall ‘Teaching Score’ to each text, providing another metric for gauging the impact of certain books.

Open Syllabus Project: Physics

Open Syllabus Project: Physics

It’s not my purpose here, nor do I have the statistical chops, to suggest how accurate these rankings are. But others have noted that the rankings are statistically slanted toward the humanities as science and engineering classes tend to assign fewer titles.

The project designers themselves admit to some wariness as to the value of such metrics, noting that “Many academics are uncomfortable with this sort of numerical reduction of intellectual work.” But they suggest that current metrics (citation indexes, or the “journal impact factor,” which scores journal articles based on journal rankings that are determined by the journals’ own frequency of citation in other journals, often take a long time to appear and are limited in what they can tell us. Ultimately, they argue that “the academy is better off when it has multiple methods for valuing the wide range of work academics do.”

As Joseph Esposito of “The Scholarly Kitchen” blog notes, “When a scholar cites another, that tells us something; but it also says something about a work when it becomes adopted in course after course around the country; and it says more and different things when it is used in classrooms in different courses and even different fields.” He concludes, “It’s probably fair to say that the data is highly suggestive but not definitive. Metrics mavens will want more.”

Alice Goffman (

Alice Goffman (

But even in its current beta version, I have found the OSP to be both useful (and a lot of fun). The fun part is to see what reading trends are at different universities and in different disciplines. The utility comes in many guises. Let’s say that you are planning to teach a course in urban sociology and wanted to see whether colleagues in Sociology were assigning Alice Goffman’s hugely discussed study, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City (Chicago, 2014). Head over to the “Open Syllabus Explorer,” limit your search to “Sociology,” enter the title and click. You would soon discover that Goffman’s article “On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto,” the book’s precursor which appeared in the American Sociological Review, had the highest ranking of any article and that her book ranked second. It would also give you a ‘Teaching Score’ (TS), which is a numerical indicator of the frequency with which a particular work is taught.  The score, I am told, is derived from the ranking order of the text, not the raw number of citations, so that a book or article that is used in four or five classes gets a score of 1, while The Republic, which is assigned 3,500 times, gets a score of 100. (I must admit that I remain baffled about exactly how “teaching scores” and “assignment counts” are calculated, nor did I get much help from the Project’s FAQs. See above on my lack of statistical chops.)

If you then wanted to see who was using the Goffman at different universities, you can filter for institution where you would discover, among other things, that Alice Goffman is more frequently assigned (at least in its article form) at Oberlin than at New York University. That should make your day!

HumanRightsAs interesting, and perhaps more useful, is OSP’s ability to generate a list of other titles that are frequently taught together with a selected text. In the case of On the Run, just click on the book title and a list is generated which notes that the most title that is most frequently taught along with Goffman is a 1989 article in Human Rights by Jack Katz and Vicki Quade, “The Seductions of Crime” and Jane Jacobs’s 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The texts most likely to be used by faculty who assign Goffman’s article are a 2002 article in the American Sociological Review by Annette Lareau, “Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black Families and White Families,” and Devah Pager’s “The Mark of a Criminal Record” (American Journal of Sociology, 2003).

None of this, obviously, should be used as a way to avoid the hard work of putting together one’s own syllabus – essentially allowing the OSP to crowd-source your work for you. But it can reveal new connections that you have not made before and at least give a sense of where the field has been going.

Should Syllabi Be Shared?

There are understandable reasons why some faculty, particularly pre-tenure faculty, are reluctant to share their syllabi to a local or much broader community. Besides significant questions of ownership of intellectual property, many pre-tenure (and probably tenured, as well) faculty have legitimate academic freedom concerns. It is not too great a stretch to say that faculty worries about a weakening of their ability to teach a subject based on their own expertise and training were ratcheted up when Texas passed a law in 2009 (HB2504, it took effect in the fall 2010 semester) requiring that all syllabi be publicly available on the internet, searchable, accessible without a user name or password and no more than three links away from the school’s home page. It doesn’t take much time before families (or trustees) are forwarding their complaints to the faculty or deans when they find their daughter is reading Fanon or Baldwin. These are some of the reasons are why the Open Syllabus Project only provides metadata in their results, and they are not to be dismissed easily.

On the other hand, at Oberlin, and I’m sure elsewhere, we have talked for some time about making syllabi more broadly available via ObieMaps, OCTET, Blackboard or elsewhere in the context of making our scholarly work, and our teaching, more readily available to a wide community. Sharing syllabi within a single institution can help us see how our courses align with others in diverse disciplines, who else is teaching Foucault or Locke, whether Frankenstein being taught in History courses as well as English; whether faculty are using John Berger or other visual literacy texts in different departments. Developing our internal syllabus database can provide this information. Such a project can also provide some useful information as to what kinds of texts students are reading so that we can better understand what they are likely to have been exposed to and what not.

For all the caveats, there are powerful reasons why the Open Syllabus Project and similar attempts to create an open forum for discussion of what is being taught, also holds great potential at Oberlin and other small liberal arts colleges…as long as intellectual property rights can be protected as well as the teacher’s academic freedom upheld. Let me trace out a few:

  • Faculty at liberal arts colleges have a pressing interest in helping students integrate their learning. Sharing syllabi can allow for increased intra-campus and inter-campus collaborations. Faculty in multiple departments can search the syllabi of related departments and programs to see where similar themes are being explored with the intention of bringing classes together periodically either physically, if they meet at the same times and can arrange it, or opening opportunities for students in different departments and disciplines to collaborate on work, thereby incorporating a number of disciplinary approaches to a problem.
  • Faculty preparing new courses in their field can search syllabi at other institutions to get a sense of what materials tend to be taught together, not to simply copy what is done elsewhere, but perhaps to open new ways of thinking about how to situate a particular text.
  • Faculty who have taught the same course a number of times can get a sense of what texts are becoming more highly regarded in the field. Again, this doesn’t suggest that we should teach a text because it’s being taught elsewhere, but it is always instructive to see how a field that you have taught for a while has been moving in terms of its textual requirements.
  • In terms of student access, while access to current syllabi should never been seen as a guarantee that the course will be taught the same way in the future – past performance is not guarantee of future success! – being able to read past syllabi can give students a better sense of what will be taught than they are likely to get in a short catalog description. Further, to the extent that syllabi can be linked by tags, it can also allow them to link courses in a more intentional fashion.

So take a look at the Open Syllabus Project and see whether you like what it offers. And if it does, then let’s talk about creating our internal syllabus database project.

Open Syllabus Project: Film

Open Syllabus Project: Film



The Stereotype Threat

Steven Volk, February 29, 2016

I was recently reading a blog post by Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher. She wrote about a trip she took in the 1980s down the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe on route to a teaching post. The environs were beautiful and she asked the tour guide if they could stop and walk along the shore. No way, he replied. The banks of the river had been strewn with landmines from the civil war and they still remained. The likelihood was that she would be blown up. Nor was Zimbabwe the only place in the world where talks in the countryside can carry fatal consequences. There are an estimated 110 million landmines in place around the world, and many, if not most, will remain long after hostilities have ceased since it is much more expensive to remove a landmine than to put one in.

The experience led Salzberg to think about her own emotional landmines and the ways that we often think of ourselves as inadequate. And it led me to think about the hidden “landmines” that we, and the larger society, have placed in the path of many of our students. What I want to address here are those specific “landmines” which have been studied as under the concept of “stereotype threats.”

Maya, a first-year student, has enrolled in a calculus course, the first of her college career. She studied hard for the mid-term exam but, reasonably, still feels nervous about how she’ll do on it. As she turns over the exam booklet, she is asked to fill in her name, class year, major (if any), and gender. She takes the exam. What the research shows is that she will do more poorly on the exam than would have been the case if the professor hadn’t asked her to fill in her gender.

What is impacting Maya’s exam performance has been called the “stereotype threat.” The term was coined by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson in a 1995 article in the journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In it, the authors argued that when a person’s identity has a negative stereotype attached to it and he or she engages in activity relevant to that stereotype, there is a likelihood of a negative impact. To clarify further: the stereotype must be salient to the person in question, and the domain or activity that person is engaging in must be important to them for the threat to have a (negative) consequence. In the case of “Maya,” girls and women are presumed to be worse at math than boys and men in western cultures. That’s the stereotype. In this case the student in question is taking an exam which is quite important to her. That’s the relevant activity. To the extent that Maya’s gender is brought in, the research has found that she will not do as well on the exam as she could have were her gender to have been omitted from the exam paper.

Whisteling VivaldiMuch of the information for this article comes from Steele and Aronson’s work, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Norton, 2011), a recent “Teaching in Higher Ed” podcast on “The Potential Impact of Stereotype Threat,” which featured an interview with Robin Paige, a sociologist at Rice University who is  Assistant Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, and the website, run by Catherine Good and Steven Stroessner, two social psychologists (at Baruch and Barnard, respectively). The website, in particular, offers superb resources for faculty, providing succinct summaries of research on stereotype threat, raising unresolved issues and controversies in the research literature, and offering research-based suggestions for reducing the negative consequences of stereotyping, particularly in academic settings.


Steele and Aronson ran a number of experiments in the 1990s which found that Black first-years and sophomores would perform more poorly than White students on standardized tests when their race was emphasized as part of the test. When race was not emphasized, however, Black students performed better, and on a par, with White students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one’s behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. Since that time, over 300 experiments on stereotype threat have been published in peer-reviewed journals (see Nguyen & Ryan 2008 and Walton & Cohen, 2003 for meta-analyses).

Researchers have found that stereotype threats can have a negative impact not only on activities involving assessments of learning (exams, papers, presentations), but they can also impact learning itself. And, to the extent that learning and assessment often merge, there is an obvious double vulnerability.

Beside Steele and Aronson’s original research findings, the website reports on five new directions that research on the stereotype threat have taken. I’ll summarize them briefly here:

  • Research has shown that the consequences of stereotype threat can also lead to “self-handicapping strategies” (for example, students will spend less practice time on a task) or a reduced sense of belonging to the stereotyped domain. To the degree that individuals value the domain in question, stereotype threats can lead students to choose not to pursue a relevant activity (math, science, etc.). Such choices can obviously limit the range of professions such students can hope to follow. In this context, we can see how some  long-term effects of stereotype threat can contribute to greater educational and social inequality. Furthermore, stereotype threat has been shown to affect stereotyped individuals’ performance in a number of domains beyond academics, such as women in negotiations or gay men in providing childcare.
  • We now have a better understanding of who can be vulnerable to stereotype threat: basically anyone. Stereotype threat can harm the academic performance of any individual for whom the situation invokes a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance (e.g. ethnic groups, low-income or first generation students, females in math, etc.).  At the same time, research also demonstrates that within a stereotyped group, some members may be more vulnerable to its negative consequences than others, depending on the strength of one’s group identification or domain identification.
  • We know more about the situations that are most likely to lead to stereotype threat. In general, the conditions that produce stereotype threat are ones in which a highlighted stereotype implicates the self though association with a relevant social category. This is the case in the first example I used, women and math: performance can be undermined because of concerns about the possibility of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group. Thus, situations that increase the salience of the stereotyped group identity can increase vulnerability to stereotype threat.
  • Although the research is not entirely clear on the mechanisms by which negative stereotypes lead to demonstrated outcomes, we are beginning to better understand some factors involved. Recent research has shown that stereotype threat can reduce working memory resources, ultimately undermining one’s ability to successfully complete complex intellectual tasks.
  • Finally, researchers have begun to examine methods of reducing the negative effects of stereotype threats. Methods range from in-depth interventions to teach students about the malleable nature of intelligence to simple changes in classroom practices that can be easily implemented by the instructor, such as ensuring gender-fair testing. Much of this work coincides with the “mindset” research of Carol Dweck discussed here previously. I’ll present more of these recommendations at the end of the article.

“Exam,” Erik Cabezas, Flickr CC

Group Identities

Stereotype threats are most likely to impact group identities. Where one’s stereotyped group status is made relevant or conspicuous by situational features, threat and performance inhibitors are more likely (e.g. Blacks or Hispanics in sciences, women in math, men compared with women on social sensitivity, whites compared with Asian men in mathematics, etc.). Teachers may inadvertently highlight social identities in a variety of ways: asking for gender on a math test or, as Steele and Aronson suggested in their initial research, asking students to identify their ethnicity on test booklets. While it is unlikely that students would be asked to identify their race or ethnicity on regular class exams, most high-stakes testing situations – SATs or GREs, for example – do ask for this information. And, of course, faculty know their students so, unless they have a “blind” system of grading, these factors can always come in.

Marx and Goff (2005) asked Black and White undergraduates to complete a difficult verbal test administered by a Black or White examiner. Black students performed as well as White students when the test administrator was Black but more poorly when he/she was White. There was no difference in the results for White students.

New research has also suggested that stereotypes are quite contextual and contingent: in some areas of Asia, girls are “expected” to do better at math than boys, thus exams which stress gender in those settings can produce a stereotype “boost” for girls. Young Asian-American women taking a math assessment will often do better when primed for race and ethnicity, and worse when primed for gender. Of course, all of this is much more complicated as other stereotypes (such as the “model minority stereotype”) become involved. Research has found that faculty are less likely to give Asian American students help in class, i.e. to approach them to see if they have questions.

Other research has shown that minority status can also add to a worse performance in conditions that already produce a stereotype threat. Negative results have been demonstrated where one individual is (or even expects to be) the single representative of a stereotyped group. Thus, research has found that women’s performance on math exams declined as the number of men in the room taking the test increased.


As with any developing body of research, various issues remain unresolved and criticisms have emerged.

Some critics have challenged the research design and methodology of Steele and Aronson. Most of the early studies were conducted exclusively with college students and researchers charged that this was too narrow a base on which to put forward a broad hypothesis about human behavior. (This critique has been answered by a large number of studies using populations from young children to adults in workplace settings. The research on stereotype threat has proven to be highly consistent across populations and contexts.)

Stereotype threat research has been criticized for it inability to fully account for performance differences. In a 2004 paper, Steele and Aronson acknowledge that persistent racial differences in standardized testing have multiple causes and that stereotype threat is not a “silver-bullet cure for the race gap.” Certainly the issue of pre-existing differences in test scores is an issue to consider, and current research suggests that stereotype threat may be one of many factors that contribute to performance differences on standardized tests.

Some researchers question whether stereotype threat effects occur in “real-world” settings. In other words, are stereotype threat effects more likely to occur in “laboratory” settings than they would in the non-academic world?

One of the most significant critiques (which was addressed by Steele in Whistling Vivaldi) is the notion that negative stereotype impacts can be easily corrected because “it’s all in your head” and we can remove stereotype threat by remove specific domain indicators (gender designation on math tests, for example). Not only does this put the onus of responsibility for discrimination back on to the individual student as opposed to the larger context (higher education and a society that fosters inequality), but it somehow suggests that racism or sexism or class bias aren’t based on material and historical practices. If people move away from a young Black man who walks down a street late at night, if police arrest a Black woman for not signaling a lane change, that indicates the real and pervasive impact of racism which will not be removed by changing how tests are administered; it is a reality that is impervious to any level of success which Blacks have been able to achieve.


Nonetheless, broad research indicates that stereotype threat is real and has a concrete impact on the ability of our students to learn. So it is important that we consider evidence-based recommendations to improve our pedagogical practices in this area. What follows are some recommendations culled from the “reducing stereotype” website, the podcast, and other sources:

  • Reframe the task: use different language to describe the task or test being used. Modifying task descriptions so that such stereotypes are not invoked or are disarmed can begin to eliminate stereotype threat.
  • Move from “proving” to “improving”: use more low-stakes testing that puts an emphasis on improving learning rather than on diagnostic tests that set out to “prove” a student’s “intelligence”.
  • Address test fairness: where one can’t remove the diagnostic (“proving”) nature of a test (e.g. in regular course examinations) or in standardized testing situations, stereotype threats can be reduced by directly addressing the specter of gender-based performance differences within the context of explicitly diagnostic examinations (Good, Aronson & Harder, 2008). Simply addressing the fairness of the test while retaining its diagnostic nature can alleviate stereotype threat in any testing situation. Concretely, testing procedures should include a brief statement that the test, although diagnostic of underlying mathematics ability, is gender-fair (or race-fair).
  • De-emphasize threatened social identities: modify procedures that heighten the salience of stereotyped group memberships. One study (Stricker and Ward (2004) has found that moving standard demographic inquiries about ethnicity and gender to the end of the test resulted in significantly higher performance for women taking the AP calculus test.
  • Encourage individuals to think of themselves in ways that reduce the salience of a threatened identity: women who were encouraged to think of themselves in terms of their valued and unique characteristics were less likely to experience stereotype threat in mathematics. Encouraging individuals to think of characteristics that are shared by in-group and out-group members, particularly characteristics in the threatened domain, appears to preclude the development of stereotype threat in conditions that normally produce it.
  • Encourage self-affirmation: Help students to think about their characteristics, skills, values, or roles that they value or view as important (Schimel, Arndt, Banko, & Cook, 2004). A study led by Oberlin’s Cindy Frantz (Frantz, Cuddy, Burnett, Ray, and Hart, 2004) showed that Whites who were given the opportunity to affirm their commitment to being nonracist were less likely to respond in a stereotypic fashion to an implicit measure of racial associations that had been described as indicative of racial bias. Another study (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, and Master, 2006) described two field studies in which seventh grade students at racially-diverse schools were randomly assigned to self-affirm (indicating values that were important to them and then writing a brief essay indicating why those values were important) or not to self-affirm (indicating their least important values and writing an essay on why those values might be important to others) as a part of a regular classroom exercise. Although the intervention took only 15 minutes, the effects on academic performance during the semester were dramatic. African American students who had been led to self-affirm performed .3 grade points better during the semester than those who had not.
  • Emphasize high standards with assurances about capability for meeting them: The nature of the feedback provided regarding performance has been shown to affect perceived bias, student motivation, and domain identification. Constructive feedback appears most effective when it communicates high standards for performance but also assurances that the student is capable of meeting those high standards.
  • Provide role models: Role models who can demonstrate proficiency in a specific domain can reduce or even eliminate stereotype threat effects. Some research has found that even reading about successful role models can alleviate performance deficits under stereotype threat.
  • Providing external attributions for difficulty: One reason that stereotype threat harms performance is because anxiety and associated thoughts distract threatened individuals from focusing on the task at hand. Several studies have shown that providing individuals with effective strategies for regulating anxiety can disarm stereotype threat.
  • Emphasize an incremental (“growth”) view of intelligence. Carol Dweck’s research has suggested that students who think of intelligence as a quality that can be developed and that changes across contexts or over time (an “incremental theory”), will be better able to overcome obstacles than students with a “fixed” idea of intelligence. African American students who were encouraged to view intelligence as malleable, “like a muscle” that can grow with work and effort, were more likely to indicate greater enjoyment and valuing of education and did better in school. (The opposite is also true: attributing gender differences in mathematics to genetics reduced performance of women on a math test compared with conditions in which differences were explained in terms of experience.) In short, emphasize the importance of effort and motivation in performance and de-emphasize inherent “talent” or “genius.”
  • Finally, the nature of the campus environment and culture can also impact the ability of students to overcome racial stereotype threats. A campus that is afraid to bring up issues of race and racism and which fosters the idea that the campus is a “color-blind” environment can be quite damaging for students of color on campus.  If we don’t find a way to talk about these issues, we are not helping all of our students learn. We have to think about this in our classes: What are our interactions with students like? Who is being represented in our classes and who is left out? Are we making our classes as inclusive as possible? Students of color are often left being the ones talking about these issues whereas race is something that defines us all – being White is also a racial construction. We all have to see ourselves as part of that ongoing conversation. As we know, this is not easy. As Robin Paige asked: How do we create a space of accountability without saying “you’re a bad person for saying that” and I won’t deal with you? How do we create a space for learning that understands both that we have to be accountable for our ideas, and that we (and our ideas) can change, that college is, above all, a place for re-thinking and re-examination. Ultimately, talking about inequality can be “priming” for students, encouraging them to overcome obstacles to their education as they prepare for themselves for a life after college.