The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation?

Steven Volk, November 22, 2015

Where would we be without Wikipedia? The online, crowd-sourced encyclopedia which faculty have found to be at the root of many an honor code violation, can also inform us about the origins of the honor code. So here it is, duly cited, even though it is actually incorrect. (Memo to students: Just because the internet says it doesn’t mean it’s true!)

John Davis, University of Virginia

John Davis, University of Virginia

John Davis, the dean of the faculty and a law professor at the University of Virginia, was shot on campus on November 12, 1840, the culmination of some “contentious relations” between students and faculty. He would succumb to his wounds two days later, but before he shuffled off this mortal coil, authorities asked him to name his (presumably undergraduate) assailant. He refused, arguing that if the man in question were honorable, he would step forward of his own accord. (Cribbing from the student sitting next to you at an exam seems small beer in comparison! Davis’ murderer, in case you’re wondering, was later identified as eighteen-year-old Joseph Semmes, a member of a wealthy Georgia family. Semmes posted a huge bail, skipped town, and never stood trial.)

Henry St. George Tucker, Sr., Davis’ replacement, recommended the institutionalization of a code of “honorable” behavior in 1842, arguing that, in the future, students be required to sign the following statement on their exams: “I, [name], do hereby certify on my honour that I have derived no assistance during the time of this examination from any source whatsoever.” The students, for their part, seemed to like the idea. But the linking of Davis’ murder and the creation of the UVA honor code seems to have been a nice, if imaginative, 20th century addition. As Coy Barefoot, the author of “The Evolution of Honor” wrote in 2008, “It can be argued that the beginning of the Honor System at the University dates rather to March 1825, when the first student had his name entered in the matriculation book. By entering his name, the student pledged to support the University’s principles, ideals and regulations—rules that forbade lying to professors and cheating on tests.”

In any case, the Honor Code became a part of UVA’s undergraduate life, and was soon expanded to cover a myriad of issues both there and at different institutions: rules about smoking, cheating at card games, honor within relationships, etc.

historyofoberlin01flet_0009A quick look through Robert Samuel Fletcher’s A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation through the Civil War has not disclosed any evidence of an Oberlin honor code that predates UVA’s, so I’ll assume that Oberlin’s adoption of such a code came later. (Help me out, colleagues: any information on when it originated?) What we do know is that, according to the Honor Code Charter, “The student body of Oberlin College, with the approval of the General Faculty, originated and adopted the Honor System, which places full responsibility for academic integrity on students.”

In a discussion of the Honor Code at a 1997 faculty meeting, one student proudly noted that “The Oberlin honor code is a really special and rare thing. Only a few small liberal arts colleges have something like this.” Which is nice, even if it isn’t accurate. Quite a few liberal arts colleges have honor codes, and at some, like Haverford or Bryn Mawr, the honor system is an more integral part of campus identity. Haverford, for example, highlights its Honor Code, created in 1896, as “one of [its] oldest and greatest traditions.” Students at Haverford, gathered in a “Plenary” meeting, debate, revise, and vote on their honor code every year. Haverford credits it Honor Code with helping students “enjoy a bond of trust and mutual respect that shapes all aspects of their academic and community lives.”

Furthermore, the Haverford Honor Code

“encompasses both the academic and social spheres of life, influencing everything from the spirit of intellectual inquiry to personal interactions. The Honor Code is not a set of rules, but rather an articulation of ideals and expectations emphasizing genuine connection and engagement with one another, and the creation of an atmosphere of trust, concern, and respect. The Honor Code is also completely student-run — one of the clearest demonstrations of this trust.”

The Honor Code at Oberlin

Oberlin’s Honor Code, while an important part of our academic and student life culture, nevertheless does not reach such Haverfordian heights. The charter, last revised in 2008, calls for the creation of a Student Honor Committee (SHC) which, in turn, “allows for the student body to be accountable to each other based on the principles of academic integrity. The SHC ensures that trust and academic freedom are maintained for the scholarly pursuits of the Oberlin College community.” The purposes of the system, as stated in the Charter, are “to maintain a high standard of academic integrity in all curricular work, to respect students’ ability to adhere to this standard, and to encourage further development of this ability through the efforts of faculty, administration, and students.” Finally, the Honor Code

provides the foundation for the intellectual freedom that is encouraged and shared by all members of the academic community and embodies the belief that true academic freedom and discourse can only exist within a framework of honesty, integrity, and responsibility. With the privilege of pursuing an Oberlin education comes the responsibility of supporting both the expectations and the spirit of the Honor Code. This requires each individual to respect all fellow members of the Oberlin community and to vigorously support the protected nature of intellectual property.”

In sum, the Honor Code operates with the three following expectations, responsibilities and requirements:

  1. Students signal their adherence to this set of principles by signing “honor code” pledges on all their work: “I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.” Furthermore, students also
  2. Take responsibility for the “maintenance of academic freedom in the community” by pledging to “report possible infractions potentially harming the community.” Thus the responsibilities of the Honor Code, while shared by faculty and students, are by design mostly the responsibility of students, since
  3. Faculty, based on these presumptions, “do not proctor exams, but trust that students adhere to the Honor Code.”

Questions, anyone?

Final exams at Hamilton College, 1950

A few weeks ago, a number of faculty members, including many newer members of our community, met in a Brown Bag Pedagogy session to discuss the Honor Code, its operations, potential short comings, and steps that might be taken to strengthen it. What became clear is that, unlike their counterparts at Haverford, for example, new faculty are rarely socialized into the workings of the Honor Code at Oberlin, either in terms of how it operates or what its underlying assumptions are. Thus, to cite just one example, newer faculty might find out about the “no-proctoring” rule when they give their first exam and are told, in no uncertain terms, to leave the room. Not a good way to find out about it.

Still, in the course of the Brown Bag session, it became clear that there are a number of aspects of the Honor Code that need to be discussed among the faculty (and perhaps among students as well), if not updated.

Underlying assumptions. The primary reason that the Honor Code exists is to place students in the position of responsibility for upholding the integrity needed for an academic institution to thrive… and to recognize that, since this will not always happen, rules and regulations are necessary. (I often ask students in my colonial Latin American history class why they think laws were written in 17th century Lima that dealt with children of nuns.) As the Honor Code charter states, students are a part of the College’s “community of scholars” and, as such, they need to be “accountable to each other based on the principles of academic integrity.”

I have no doubt that the vast majority of our students adhere to this, that the responsibility we give them by leaving the room during exams is well placed. But, of course, rules are most often written for a tiny minority of individuals who do not adhere to our aspirational goals. Of the 10 pages of the Honor Code Charter, a little more than 9 pages are devoted what happens in the relatively few reported Honor Code violations that arise every year.

Four questions have come up in this regard: (1) Is it fair or reasonable to expect students to “police,” monitor or otherwise be responsible for each others’ behavior. Isn’t it enough for them just to take their own exams without looking around to see who is consulting his smart phone? (2) Are the actual procedures of the Honor Code working? What are faculty to make of the fact that many Honor Code violations are not resolved before they have to give assignment or final grades? (3) As pedagogy shifts increasingly toward student collaboration, peer study groups, peer work-shopping of papers, and other elements of constructivist pedagogy that encourage student-to-student learning, are the rules of what is allowable within the terms of the Honor Code clear? And, (4) as more international students join our community, can we expect that everyone has the same preparation and understanding of what integrity in academic work means?

Exams at Hamline University, 1930s. Wikimedia

Let’s take these one at a time. My purpose here is not to answer the questions that have arisen, but to suggest that if the basic rules of the Honor Code are unclear to faculty (and perhaps students), the time is ripe for a broader discussion. [Added Nov. 23: Faculty should also be aware that further information on many of these points is available here. Of particular interest are clarifications on grading of student work when an Honor Code violation is under review.]

  1. Student responsibility under the Honor Code. The basic principle of the Honor Code couldn’t be clearer: students have asked to be the most responsible agents of their own academic integrity. This is not a burden that the faculty have placed on the students, and my guess would be that if the students wanted to be relieved of this responsibility, we would accept it as a faculty. Therefore, if we think that there are problems with how the system is run, it is incumbent on us to raise these.

At the same time, to quote a former U.S. president (oh, how it pains me to say it!): as faculty, we both trust and verify. When papers come in that have all the hallmarks of plagiarism, we will follow up to the extent of our time and abilities. It is harder to do this on in-class exams, and even harder if a student has been given an accommodation to take an exam in another room.

Technology has changed some of our assumptions here. We can state clearly what the rules of a closed-book exam are, but short of frisking students to remove their smart phones, we will have to rely on, well, their honor. The new question is whether technology, specifically the ubiquitous presence of smart phones, requires us to reexamine any assumptions here, particular in terms of in-class exams and accommodations for students to take an exam in a room unmonitored by either students or faculty. Perhaps, at the end of the day, we will agree that technology has not changed anything and that we expect all our students to hold themselves to required standards of integrity; but we do need to have the conversation.

  1. Procedures. Faculty have complained that, as currently run, the Student Honor Code Committee is slow, does not report back on suspected infractions of the Honor Code that have been filed, and most often comes to a conclusion long after faculty have had to give a student a final grade in a course. Certainly steps should be taken to expedite and improve communications in the system.

But other issues have been raised with the operations of the Honor Code that suggest some limitations as it is currently written. Section F.1. of the Code states that “All members of the Oberlin College community are required to report potential violations of the Honor Code when they suspect one has occurred.” Perhaps I am putting myself in violation of the Honor Code by suggesting that this is a rule that is more honored in the breach. (Always the hamletpedant, I note that the phrase “honour’d in the breach,” which comes from Hamlet, meant just the opposite of what we now mean by it.) In point of fact and based on my own behavior, I suspect many faculty (and probably many students) have observed “potential” violations of the Code and did not report them. Faculty often use those opportunities to talk personally to students who we think either don’t understand that what they have done is a violation of the Honor Code or who we think would get more out of a one-to-one discussion with us than being entered into a formal proceeding. In either case, to have a requirement that is more often than not ignored does not make for a good legislation.

I’m not unaware of the other side of the argument, which is that if no report is filed, students who are repeat offenders cannot be identified. Still, and in particular reference to many international students who are still learning about the principles of academic integrity in a U.S. setting, the requirement that all members of the community report all potential violations seems in need of further clarification.

  1. Pedagogical shifts towards collaborative learning. Most of the aspects of the Honor Code are quite clear: plagiarism, falsification of sources, copying from your neighbor’s exam paper, using outside sources in a closed-book examination, etc. While some (plagiarism) might require further explanation, particularly for international students, most are fairly obvious. Still, others seem to be open to interpretation or, at the very least, could serve as the basis of an interesting discussion. I refer in particular to the following “example of cheating”: “Collaborating on a project that was to be completed individually.” Obviously this doesn’t apply to projects that are expected to be completed with other students. But, at the same time, many of us routinely encourage students to speak to each other about their projects, to share drafts of a paper, to work with writing tutors or get help from the OWLs. Where does “cheating” start?

The Honor Code has taken this into account:

“The default assumption covering all academic exercises is that students are required to do their own work only utilizing the help and resources considered appropriate for each academic exercise, including sources of assistance routinely offered by the college to students, such as reference librarians and writing tutors. Notwithstanding, in all cases, the professor in a specific course may further restrict or expand what resources are approved or not approved for use in a particular course or assignment.”

But confusions abound and one way to deal with this is to be explicit in your own instructions about what is allowed and what isn’t. For example: “I expect you to take your draft to the Writing Center, but you are not allowed to send it to your mother or elsewhere off campus.”

Will we know if said mother had a hand in the final draft? Probably not, but at least we can be clear in our expectations. On the other hand, many of us have gotten papers with WTMI (way too much information), footnoting every conversation with a classmate or pearl of wisdom that we have dropped in an off-handed manner in class.

What I would suggest is that these can all be teachable moments. Our ideas are always grounded in other ideas. As faculty, we have learned to collaborate widely; we wouldn’t think of sending an article to a journal or a manuscript to a press without having friends and colleagues read it first and give us their feedback (and which, if all goes well, we will acknowledge in the article or book). To talk about the value of collaboration in scholarly work is to engage our students in the heart of how knowledge is created and can move any discussion of the Honor Code away from its disciplinary moorings and towards a more engaging conversation about epistemology, creativity, and the values of collaboration.

  1. International students and the Honor Code. In “Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges,” an “Article of the Week” from a few weeks ago, I raised some particular concerns about how the Honor Code works for our growing number of international students: “International students may come from academic cultures that have different standards for citation of sources, different expectations for when collaboration is permitted, and a different sense of the limits of what kind of collaboration is permissible.” I suggested, and will repeat here, that thinking about how we approach the Honor Code with international students can only help us to think about how we apply the Honor Code in general. “The more we can be clear and explicit about citation practices,” I argued, “how certain kinds of paraphrasing can be the equivalent of copying, what materials should carry citations, etc., the more we will help not only our international students, but all our students.”

Release_flier_for_THE_CODE_OF_HONOR,_1911But I also raised the issue of the very term we use to talk about expected academic conduct, “honor,” and how we need to be aware of different meanings the word holds in different cultures. If our intent is to build a culturally responsive environment at Oberlin, we need to think about these issues. Since the Honor Code is essentially about both “integrity” and “accountability,” perhaps we could devise a new name for it that is not as freighted as our current one.

In all, even if we see no reason to update our Honor Code system, with many new faculty coming on board every year (not to mention a quarter of our students), this would be a good time to engage a discussion of its meaning, principles, and functioning.


The Lessons of Mizzou

Steven Volk, November 15, 2015

From the University of Missouri to Yale to Ithaca College and campuses beyond, this has been a momentous week of protest. While many of us are still processing these events, it’s not too early to ask: What have we learned from them? What are the lessons of Mizzou?

For this week’s “Article of the Week,” I’ve curated a number of articles and other resources to provide context and framing for a few of the issues that surfaced in the past few days and weeks. While far from exhaustive – and I encourage you to add others via the “comment” function below – hopefully these can inform and encourage a broader conversation.

The lessons to be learned from Missouri and elsewhere are broadly applicable on all our campuses. Resources aren’t actions, but they can frame and inform actions.

Separate-Unequal-CoverDiversity: Racial Disparities in Higher Education

Race and racism were at the center of the uprising at the University of Missouri-Columbia and other campuses. Protests by students, faculty, and staff of color highlighted not only the fact that stark disparities persist at white-majority colleges and universities decades after the formal end of Jim Crow, but that, as Faulkner reminded in Requiem for a Nun, “The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.” Will black students feel truly a part of Yale when they walk by Calhoun College every day? To suggest that no college would imagine hosting a “Himmler Hall,” as one writer cited below has argued, is a fair analogy and underscores the nature of the protests.

Each fall, the Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a special report on “Diversity in Academe.” The latest, which includes a searchable data base on “Race, Ethnicity, and Gender of Full-Time Faculty at More Than 4,000 Institutions” can be found here. For data on students, see: “Student Diversity at 4,725 Institutions,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 27, 2014).

Beckie Supiano highlighted some important parts of that larger data set which help illuminate campus protests in “Racial Disparities in Higher Education: An Overview,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 10, 2015). The article points out, among other things, that African Americans make up just 7 percent of students who enter a college or university ranked in the top three tiers of selectivity. On the other hand, more than half of football players at colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision are African-American and 90 percent of their head coaches are white, as are nearly 90 percent of recently hired college and university presidents.

Separate-Unequal-Admissions_9For a fuller background on racial disparities in higher education, see Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl’s highly useful report, Separate and Unequal: How Higher Education Reinforces Intergenerational Reproduction of White Racial Privilege, published by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce in 2013.

Finally, for the latest data weighing in on the debate over how testing shapes admissions, see Saul Geiser’s work at Berkeley: “The Growing Correlation between Race and SAT Scores: New Findings from California,” Center for the Studies of Higher Education, University of California, Berkeley (Oct. 2015).

The Impact of Black Lives Matter

There is little doubt that the Black Lives Matter movement had a tremendous impact on shaping the protests at the University of Missouri, so close were they to the events at Ferguson.

Professor Frank Leon Roberts is offering a course on Black Lives Matter at NYU’s Gallatin School. The syllabus is online (and most of the links are hot) and can provide essential background: Black Lives Matter Syllabus (Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest), Fall 2015. Frank Leon Roberts is a professor, sociopolitical commentator, and veteran community organizer based in New York.

An earlier “Article of the Week” (“Black Lives Matter and the Start of Classes”) called attention to a Penn State website, “The Fire This Time: Understanding Ferguson. Learning from Faculty, Students, and Community Members, from Penn State and Beyond as they Engage the Events in Ferguson, MO,” and, on Twitter, the #FergusonSyllabus and the follow-up #CharlestonSyllabus that was put together by Chad Williams at Brandeis. See, as well, the #Charlestonyyllabus produced by the African American Intellectual History Society.

The University of Missouri

The events which led up to the resignations on November 9 of Timothy Wolfe, the system president of the University of Missouri, and R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of its flagship campus in Columbia, have been widely reported, even though most reports tend to focus on the impact of the football players’ decision to boycott all football related activities until Wolfe left his position and the hunger strike begun by graduate student Jonathan Butler on November 2. Both are important (see below), but the history that informs the Missouri protests stretches further back and includes the fact that Wolfe, as one article put it, “should never have been president of the University of Missouri.” As with an increasing number of presidential hires (e.g., Iowa), Wolfe was a corporate executive with no advanced degrees or experience with students or academic governance. One of his first decisions on coming to Missouri was to close the University of Missouri Press, the press responsible, among other notable publications, for the definitive edition of Langston Hughes’ collected works (a move that, he stressed, would save the university an estimated $400,000). At the start of this academic year, he announced a plan to end subsidies to the health insurance plans of graduate students, also a cost-saving move. And yet, at the same time, he championed a $200 million plan to bolster Missouri’s athletics facilities.

Here are two accounts that provide a background on race and racism at Missouri.

Marcia Chatelain, “What Mizzou Taught Me,” The Chronicle Review (November 12, 2015). Chatelain begins her article, “As the chair of the women’s- and gender-studies department introduced me to the audience gathered at the University of Missouri’s Ellis Auditorium, I tried to hold back tears. Eighteen years earlier, I had enrolled at Mizzou as a bookish teenager. On this spring day, I was now a tenured professor and a published author returning to my alma mater to talk about my new book. The sight of an audience full of old classmates, former mentors, and the current students I had met through social media was so overwhelming I had to take a deep breath and steady myself as I approached the podium…”

Eyder Peralta, “READ: Two Personal Statements That Help Explain The Situation At Mizzou,NPR: The Two-Way (Nov. 8, 2015). Peralta includes accounts by Alexis G. Ditaway, a Missouri student majoring in journalism, and Dr. Cynthia M. Frisby, who teaches strategic communication at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Sports and the Role of the Missouri Football Team:

Pinkel-Tweet-FootballOne of the most widely publicized aspects of the Missouri protest was the decision by football players and coaches to boycott activities until Wolfe was no longer president of the university system. It was a stunning turn, but not the first time that sports teams have put forward political demands and, according to many sports writers, probably not the last. As mentioned above, nearly 60% of football players at colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision are African-American. Of $83.6 million in median total revenues at the highest-resource schools in the five highest resources athletic conferences, 89 percent was generated by the athletic department. In other words, high revenue-generating teams can command a lot of attention. Sports writers and others are looking at Missouri to predict whether their success (both in maintaining unity and in achieving their goals) will make players, particularly in the biggest conferences, more likely to use strikes as a bargaining tool, much as it is used by labor unions.

Thabiti Lewis, “Enter the Real Power of College Sports,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 11, 2015). Lewis is an associate professor of English at Washington State University and the author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press, 2010).

Bill Littlefield, “Only the Beginning? College Athletes Unite Against Racism,” Only a Game (NPR), Nov. 14, 2015). NPR’s weekly sports broadcast.

Dave Zirin, “The Missouri Tigers and the Hidden History of Black College Football Activists,” The Nation (Nov. 12, 2015). The strike against racism by Mizzou football players was brave, historic, and profoundly significant—but it wasn’t unprecedented. Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation.

Dave Zirin, “Why They Refused to Play: Read the Grievance Letter of the Grambling State Tigers Football Team,” The Nation (Oct. 21, 2013). The grievance letter sent out by the Grambling State Tigers football team reveals the conditions they faced two years ago.

Louis Moore, “Players Strike Back: Howard’s 11 Goes on Strike,” The Professor and the Pugilist Blog (Louis Moore), Sept. 22, 2013. Louis Moore is a professor of history at Grand Valley State University.

Media and the Free Speech Question

no-mediaWhen Tim Tai, a student photographer at Missouri, was blocked by protesters from taking pictures of a protest encampment on the campus quad, the issue of a reporter’s First Amendment right to report on events entered the discussion. Because many saw this as another example of protesters’ “totalitarian” tendencies to shut down free speech and to control what can and can’t be said on campuses, the photographer’s story became part of that larger, on-going debate. Here are a few articles that offer additional perspective on the question. One can also find a helpful framing on this question in Jennifer S. Simpson, Longing for Justice: Higher Education and Democracy’s Agenda (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014. Simpson points out how liberal theory and critical race theory will approach this question in very different ways.

Jelani Cobb, “Race and the Free-Speech Diversion,” The New Yorker (Nov. 10, 2015). Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and since 2013, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.

Catherine R. Squires, “Young Black People See the News Media’s Double Standard,” New York Times – Room for Debate, Nov. 12, 2015. Catherine R. Squires is a professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is also the director of the Race, Indigeneity, Gender and Sexuality Studies Initiative.

Anzel Herst, “A Few Thoughts About Those Missouri Protesters Blocking that Student Photographer,” The Stranger (Nov. 10, 2015). Anzel Herst is a staff writer at The Stranger, Seattle’s independent newspaper.

Terrell Jermaine Starr, “There’s a Good Reason Protesters at the University of Missouri Didn’t Want the Media Around,” The Washington Post (Nov. 11, 2015). Terrell Jermain Starr is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes about U.S. and Russian politics.

Lydia Polgreen, “What’s bugging me about the media chest-thumping.”  Twitter feed from Lydia Polgreen, the Johannesburg bureau chief for the New York Times, covering southern Africa.

Karen Grisby Bates, “Hands Up Don’t Shoot: Thoughts From The Mizzou Photog Blocked During Protest,” NPR Code Switch (Nov. 13, 2015). Karen Grisby Bates is the Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News. She contributed commentaries to All Things Considered for about 10 years before she joined NPR in 2002.

Yale University

Arnold Gold/AP

Arnold Gold/AP

Events at Yale University were touched off by an email sent by the university’s Intercultural Affairs Council suggesting students avoid culturally insensitive costumes for Halloween and the response by a professor, who is the wife of the “master” (yes, that’s what they are called) of Silliman College, who observed that culturally insensitive costumes should be allowed because they spark healthy, intellectual dialogue. What the articles below point out is that the costumes controversy — catnip for most of the media that portrays undergraduates at selective colleges as largely infantile and coddled — may have been the latest incident on that campus, but it was hardly the first or, for that matter, the most important.

Bruce Shapiro, “Don’t Tell the Students at Yale to ‘Grow Up’,” The Nation (Nov. 13, 2015). Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation, is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, ”Injustices at Universities Run Deeper Than Names,” The Atlantic (Oct. 26, 2015). Tressie McMillan Cottom is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Rachel Wilkinson, “Trying Times,” Yale Daily News, November 9, 2015. Rachel Wilkinson is a senior at Silliman College, Yale.

Aaron Lewis, “What You Don’t Know About the Protests at Yale,” Huffington Post, Nov. 9, 2015. Aaron Lewis is a senior at Yale studying cognitive science and design.

William Jennings, “To Be a Christian Intellectual,” Yale University: Notes from the Quad, Yale Divinity School (Oct. 30, 2015).

Courtney McKinney, “I’m a Black Yale Grad, and Its Racial Firestorm Doesn’t Surprise Me. Now It’s Time for the Administration to Act,” Salon (Nov. 11, 2015). Courtney McKinney is a Yale graduate working at a public policy center focusing on legal and social justice in the United States.

Gillian B. White, “The Vilification of Student Activists at Yale,” The Atlantic (Nov. 10, 2015). Gillian B. White is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

Hunger Strikes

Hunger strikes as a political weapon are hardly new, although Jonathan Butler’s decision to adopt the tactic until Missouri’s president step down was unusual. Here’s one article about a hunger strike and education in Chicago from this past summer.

Eve L. Ewing, “We Shall Not Be Moved”: A Hunger Strike, Education, and Housing in Chicago,” New Yorker (Sept. 21, 2015). Eve L. Ewing is a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and a doctoral candidate at Harvard University.



Grading: Fairer? Better? Utopia?

Steven Volk, November 8, 2015

Seth Anderson, "Violate This Parking Dibb," CC

Seth Anderson, “Violate This Parking Dibb,” CC

Clark Kerr, the former Chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley, in one of his many flashes of wit and wisdom, once observed, “I have sometimes thought of the modern university as a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking.” The same could probably be said about grading. If there is one thing that we agree upon as faculty, it is an aversion to grading. I am no longer surprised when colleagues tell me that not having to grade papers is what finally convinced them to hang up their spurs and retire.

And it’s not just faculty who complain: grading is an equal opportunity grievance. Grading is not particularly high up on the students’ ten-best list of what they like about a college education. They certainly press us to explain what, precisely, it would take to turn a B+ into an A-. The “why-can’t-they-be-like-we-were” lobby outside of the academy see grade inflation as an indication of how faculty have caved to student demands. The media portray us as spineless, liberal wimps for not dolling out a hefty portion of C’s and D’s. And deans? Well, perhaps the day has passed when they attempted, subtly or not, to make a point by sending around a memo illustrating how the grades we gave compared with others in our department, division, and college.

Besides the fact that grading, if taken seriously, takes a huge amount of time, we struggle with it because (outside of multiple choice exams), grading is almost always more subjective than we’re comfortable with, and certainly more subjective than students expect it to be. What, precisely, would a student have to do to turn a B+ into an A-?. That’s a fair question to be asking, but, even if we grade with a rubric, we are still making fine shades of distinction that the starkness of the B+ simply can’t capture.

Image credit: John Tenniel‘s illustration for Lewis Carroll‘s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (Wikipedia, Public Domain)

Image credit: John Tenniel‘s illustration for Lewis Carroll‘s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter” (Wikipedia, Public Domain)

Nor does this take into account the fact that we’re humans, not machines. Are you a bit more generous with the first paper you read in the morning because you’re fresh and nicely caffeinated? Or are you a bit less charitable…because you’re fresh and nicely caffeinated? Our eyes cross by the 15th paper, and sometimes that will mean the student gets the A- (dear lord, anything to get me finished with this mountainous stack), and sometimes the B+ (don’t you have anything original to say? I’ve read the same idea 14 times already). It may all even out in the end, but try explaining that to the concerned student sitting across the desk from you.

Is There a Fairer Way?

We, of course, are a college that gives final grades, and even if we resist that by giving out Hampshire-College-style narratives rather than grades throughout the semester, we’re going to face the grading dilemma at the end of the semester. Is there any way to make that process fairer if not better?

David Gooblar, in his always-interesting “Pedagogy Unbound” column, recently looked at one aspect of fairness in grading: removing the “halo effect,” a specific kind of confirmation bias where favorable impressions in one area carry over to others. Those who worry about fairness in grading might wonder if, without their conscious knowledge, they are grading students higher if they did well on earlier work. B+ or A-? She got an “A” on her first two papers, so A- it is. Some would argue that we should be grading students’ work “blind,” with randomly assigned numbers replacing the names – much like an orchestra audition where the candidate performs from behind a screen. That way we won’t know what grades “33” or “7” got on their prior work.

There is some literature on “blind” grading and its impact on the halo effect as well as whether knowing the gender or race of the student influences grading, but it is hardly definitive. In a 2013 article in the Teaching of Psychology, John M. Malouff, Ashley J. Emmerton and Nicola S. Schutte, reported on a study of 126 instructors who were randomly assigned to grade a student giving a poor oral presentation or the same student giving a good oral presentation. All graders then assessed an unrelated piece of written work by the student. As hypothesized, the graders assigned significantly higher scores to written work following the better oral presentation.

On the other hand, studies looking for correlations between gender and grading have not been able to find much evidence to bolster their case (see here and here). Similar studies conducted in medical school also suggested that there was no widespread gender or racial bias in the grading of freshman medical students, although one can fairly question whether the same results would have obtained if the context were not medical school but rather a sophomore writing class or an 8th grade geometry setting. (And, to be clear, race has been shown to be a significant factor in the outcomes of standardized testing as bias is often built directly into the test.)

As Gooblar also points out, there also is much to be lost when we don’t know whose paper we are reading. Not only does it make it harder for students to come talk to you as they are working on their papers, but you have no way of knowing whether a particular student has made progress in a specific area you identified in some earlier work. And while much of our feedback is paper- specific, much is also person-specific, geared to issues that you have been discussing with the student.

"Skilled and unskilled laborers taking the TVA examination at the highschool building, Clinton, Tennessee." - NARA - 532813. Wikimedia public domain

“Skilled and unskilled laborers taking the TVA examination at the highschool building, Clinton, Tennessee.” – NARA – 532813. Wikimedia public domain

Is There a Better Way?

Certainly. I would recommend bringing a good 18-year old single malt scotch with you when you sit down to grade. Well, maybe not for those first papers in the morning. But, seriously, there are some things to keep in mind. What are we looking for in any grading system? The following 15 criteria are taken from Linda B. Nilson, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (Stylus Publishing, 2015). Nilson directs the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University. Grading systems, for Nilson, should embody the following criteria, although she will argue that they rarely do.

  1. Uphold high academic standards.
  2. Reflect student learning outcomes.
  3. Motivate students to learn.
  4. Motivate students to excel.
  5. Discourage cheating.
  6. Reduce student stress.
  7. Make students feel responsible for their grades.
  8. Minimize conflict between faculty and students.
  9. Save faculty time.
  10. Give students feedback they will use.
  11. Make expectations clear.
  12. Foster higher-order cognitive development and creativity.
  13. Assess authentically.
  14. Have high interrater agreement
  15. Be simple.

When reading the list the first time, I thought: Right, and why not add “bring peace to the Middle East” to the list? They all seem impossible tasks. But Nilson’s book sets out an argument for an alternative which, even if I’m not fully convinced at the end of the day, is worth a look. Nilson argues in favor of what she calls “specifications grading,” a type of grading that is similar to “contract grading” already implemented at Oberlin by a number of faculty. The basic idea is that in the class syllabus the instructor discusses precisely what students must do to get a particular grade, and that they can decide on this basis what specific grade, from an A to a D, they will be attempting to earn. Nilson discussed three central aspects of this grading system in an interview with Robert Talbert of the “Casting Out Nines” blog a year ago.

First, you grade all assignments and tests satisfactory/unsatisfactory, pass/fail, where you set “pass” at B or better work. Students earn full credit or no credit depending on whether their work meets the specs that you laid out for it. No partial credit. Think of the specs as a one-level, one-dimensional rubric, as simple as “completeness” – for instance, all the questions are answered or all the problems attempted in good faith, or the work satisfies the assignments (follows the directions) and meets a required length. Or the specs may be more complex – a description of, for example, the characteristics of a good literature review or the contents of each section of a proposal. You must write the specs very carefully and clearly. They must describe exactly what features in the work you are going to look for. You might include that the work be submitted on time. For the students, it’s all or nothing. No sliding by. No blowing off the directions. No betting on partial credit for sloppy, last-minute work.

Second, specs grading adds “second chances” and flexibility with a token system. Students start the course with 1, 2, or 3 virtual tokens that they can exchange to revise an unsatisfactory assignment or test or get a 24-hour extension on an assignment. […]

Third, specs grading trades in the point system for “bundles” of assignments and tests associated with final course grades. Students choose the grade they want to earn. To get above an F, they must complete all the assignments and tests in a given bundle at a satisfactory level. For higher grades, they complete bundles of more work, more challenging work, or both. In addition, each bundle marks the achievement of certain learning outcomes. The book contains many variations on bundles from real courses.

pencilSpecs grading, according to Nilson, assumes that there is no reason why students shouldn’t be able to achieve the outcome(s) the specs describe. Specifications are basically directions on how to produce a B-level-or-better work or the parameters within which students create a product. If students don’t understand them, they have to ask questions.

In a workshop for the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh, Nilson explained that the key to specifications grading is shifting the burden from grading to developing clear explanations for desired outcomes. Under specifications grading, students will (hopefully) fully understand faculty expectations, and the research confirms that when students know what faculty are looking for, they are more likely to do better.

Further, specification grading can also shift the way that faculty think about their students. Students taking a course in a non-major field “might decide they have better things to do this semester [than spend most of their time with that course]. What grade they wind up with says nothing about their capabilities, to me. It might say something about their time schedule,” Nilson added.

I’m not fully convinced that specifications grading is for me (and the faculty at the Pittsburgh workshop raised just the sort of questions I would have). But the points Nilson raises – the value of explaining clearly what students should be doing in an assignment, the determination of high standards, the placing of more responsibility in students’ hands – all of these points encourage me to study her approach further.

And those of you who use some form of “contract” or alternative grading? What has been your experience?

Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges

Steven Volk, November 1, 2015

The number of international students* at U.S. institutions of higher education continues to multiply. According to UNESCO, at least 4 million students went abroad to study in 2012, up from 2 million in 2000. If these students were a country, they would be the 125th largest in the world (out of 257). Students are on the move, and many are headed to one of five destination countries: the United States (hosting 18% of the total), United Kingdom (11%), France (7%), Australia (6%), and Germany (5%).

According to a report published earlier this year by the Department of Homeland Security, 1.13 million international students, using an F (academic) or M (vocational) visa, were enrolled at nearly 8,979 U.S. schools in 2015, the vast majority in college-degree programs. That represents a 14% increase over 2014, nearly 50% more than in 2010 and 85% more than in 2005.

Credit: Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2015

Credit: Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2015

These students are coming from all parts of the world, but a few countries dominate the charts. In 2012, China sent about 712,000 students abroad to study. India, the Republic of Korea, Germany, and Saudi Arabia also send significant numbers of students to study abroad.

Indeed, international students are reshaping student demographics on many campuses. Fully one-third of the students at Florida International University are classified as international. The University of Southern California enrolled over 12,000 foreign students this year, and Columbia, New York University, Purdue, and the University of Illinois are hosting more than 10,000 each.

Nor are large research universities the only ones receiving significant numbers of internationally mobile students; liberal arts colleges are becoming a frequent destination as well. In the last few years international students made up about a quarter of the student population at two women’s colleges: Mount Holyoke (673) and Bryn Mawr (346).

Our numbers are smaller at Oberlin, but we have also seen the international student population rise as you well might have noticed in your classes or when walking around campus. In fact Oberlin’s international student population has surged by nearly 40% since 2011. We currently enroll 265 international students; 53% (141) hail from China. What you might not know is that the majority of those students (90 plus two double degrees) are studying in the College of Arts & Sciences, not in the Conservatory. In all, it is our great privilege to host students from 42 nations, with about three-quarters coming from Asia (including South Asia).

International Student Meeting, Oberlin College. Photo: William Rieter

International Student Meeting, Oberlin College. Photo: William Rieter

Opportunities and Challenges

It’s hard to fully describe all the benefits of an international presence on campus. To have students from Malaysia, China, Tunisia, Chile or Iraq, among other countries, in our classes gives faculty an extraordinary opportunity to expand classroom conversations and tap into a pool of knowledge gained through a wide range of lived experiences and cultural traditions. Students, for their part, have a chance to study and live with peers from all over the world and to locate their own interests and concerns within a much broader context.

But the rapidly growing number of international students can present faculty with some challenges, and this was the subject of an informative workshop last Thursday sponsored by the Office of International Student Services and the Department of Rhetoric and Composition. As Ann Deppman, Associate Dean and Director of International Student Services, explained, “while most international students settle in quickly and thrive at Oberlin, some may need time to adjust to Oberlin’s academic culture.” Deppman and Amy Moniot, ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) Coordinator and Instructor, suggested that a number of cultural differences may impact academics and advising.

In terms of the former, faculty might experience some difficulties of cultural adaptation experienced by international students as manifested in writing assignments, critical thinking expectations, classroom participation, and the way in which we recommend external sources of support. International students may come from a culture in which writing assignments were primarily used as a means to report or describe rather than to develop and analyze information. Besides providing our own feedback on their papers and being aware of these differences in prior writing experiences, we can support these students by connecting students with the Writing Associates program or Student Academic Services (more on this below). When it seems appropriate we might recommend that they enroll in 100-level courses in Rhetoric and Composition, which are particularly attentive to the skills and prior preparation of international students.

Editing a Paper. Photo Nic McPhee, Flickr CC.

Editing a Paper. Photo Nic McPhee, Flickr CC.

International students might not be accustomed to receiving any feedback on assignments other than a grade, and so can be unsure what is expected of them when they receive a paper filled with comments or red-penciled with (usually grammatical) corrections. Particularly on early papers, it’s a good idea to speak with these students individually, explaining the purpose of your comments and what they are expected to learn from them. (You might even think about going easy on the red pencil while these students become more acclimatized to the expectations of writing assignments at Oberlin: help them understand the larger framework of writing papers before pointing out every grammatical infelicity.) And, when possible, scaffold their writing skills by assigning multiple drafts. When we understand that, for many students from other cultural traditions, a good paper is not supposed to be perfectly straightforward and logical, but rather the reader is expected to uncover the meaning in a more circular and twisting route, we can work more effectively with them to produce the kind of writing that we expect.

International students may also come out of educational backgrounds that put considerable emphasis on memorization; indeed, you might have noticed their remarkable strengths in that regard. But it also may mean that they will struggle with open-ended assignments (“write on any topic of interest that we have covered in the first part of the semester”) or loosely defined topics. If you prefer to have students select their own topics, work individually with international students to help them define a topic, particularly in their first or second year of college. Similarly, if they come from an academic background in which students were expected to produce a single “correct” answer or interpretation, these students can encounter difficulties developing a thesis or addressing topics that accommodate multiple readings.

Infinity and Me - Kate Hosford

Infinity and Me – Kate Hosford

Class participation can also pose challenges for international students educated in settings where active responses were discouraged. Some come from cultures where silence is a comfortable and even expected response and is seen as a sign of respect. They may be surprised to find that participation is often highly encouraged in our classrooms and that many courses grade class participation. Often, these students find that they don’t understand the criteria by which their interventions in the class will be graded.

Finally, and relating back to a recommendation that I gave above, many international students may think that they will be judged negatively if they seek out the support services and resources available to them on campus. They may be reluctant to go to peer instruction or tutoring sessions (the Writing Associates or the OWLs program in the sciences and math, for example), to form study groups with other students, or to seek the support of Student Academic Services. Our understanding and encouragement can be vital in that regard.

The Lessons of Universal Design

As I heard the workshop facilitators explain many of these points, what became clear to me (as it was to the presenters) is that by helping our international students in many of these areas, we will be helping all of our students. This, after all, is the basic principle of “universal design,” which calls on us to design instruction (e.g., delivery methods, physical spaces, information resources, technology, personal interactions, assessments) to maximize the learning of all students. The support we provide for any specific student population, international students in this example, can help many of our (domestic) students who might have been reluctant to ask for help. This is a topic the “Article of the Week” has taken up before, most recently in “Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design.” Our students are smart and creative, but not all are familiar with many of the unwritten rules that determine what goes on in the classroom. International students, in particular, have excelled in their home countries by mastering a completely different set of “handshakes,” but, as one put it recently in an article in the Oberlin Review, many “feel like outcasts in a new culture.” When faculty make expectations clear, guidelines obvious, sources of support not just available but bolstered by the observation that it is quite often the very best students who take advantage of them…then we are helping not just international students, but all our students.

Three examples can illustrate this point further:

(1) Participation. We often note in our syllabi that class participation will be graded but, quite often, provide no further indication as to the criteria that will determine the grade. Is it quantity? If so, how much participation is required? Is it quality? What determines good interventions? Are we putting “slower” responders (often those students who think before answering!) at a disadvantage by only calling on the first hands that shoot up? And, if we grade participation, do we give students some indication as to how they are doing in that regard as the course progresses? Clearer expectations would help everyone in the class, and certainly international students. As many international students will take longer to process language as well as content, when we ask questions it is important to give students time to answer rather than calling on the students who are quick out of the gate: suggest that they write their answers, break students into groups so that all students – including international students – can rehearse their ideas, and their voices, in a small group setting.

Alumno Participando by Ivonne M.O.; Flickr CC

Alumno Participando by Ivonne M.O.; Flickr CC

(2) Getting help, revising, editing. International students in particular can be wary of using many of the resources that are available to them, including peer instructors, student support services, or counseling. (As a group of international students reported to the Board of Trustees’ forum in early October, often when they do go to those services, they find them less than helpful or culturally sensitive, a different and troubling issue). International students may assume that the best students don’t need help and that it is a form of weakness (or a signal that you are not smart) if you ask for help. They might assume that the best students write brilliant papers on their first try, so it is a sign of incompetence if you have to write many drafts. The opposite, of course, is true, and I often tell my students how many drafts I churn out before I’m ready to submit an article to a journal, or how I have come to rely on colleagues for advice, editing, or ideas when I’m stuck. Again, this is advice that international students will find useful – but so will all our students. We are role models. By making clear just how often we seek, and get, help, we’re sending an important message. By encouraging students (international and domestic) to find their own sources of support — friends,  instructors, peers, advisors — we help them connect with those who will help them do their best.

(3). Reading assignments. How much is too much? One of the most frequently heard concerns from international students is how hard it is to keep up with lengthy reading assignments. College junior Hengxuan Wu recently told the Review, “I feel like people just expect me to be really good at writing and reading when I take a lot of Politics classes, and they just assume that I can totally do 80 pages of reading in English in one night.” We are always pondering the quantity of reading that feels appropriate to assign to our students (see, for example, “Size Matters: How Much Reading to Assign (and other imponderables” and “Active Reading Documents: Scaffolding Students’ Reading Skills”). There is certainly no one answer as to how much reading we can reasonably assign (not to mention how we still that hectoring voice in the back of our heads that reminds us, “When I was an undergraduate, I read 400 pages a night and never complained!” Yeah, right.). But thinking about how all our students can get the most out of our classes can help us address this question and come up with answers that are appropriate. Quite likely, it’s not just the international students who aren’t getting all they can out of 80 pages of Marx or Derrida.

Particular concerns:

There are, of course, issues that impact international students differently than domestic students, and we should be aware of them whether or not they impact student performance in our classes.

(1) The Major: While many of our students will fret over the choice of a major, often seeing it as an essential definition of their identity more than a collection of courses, international students need to pay particular attention to the selection of a major because, if they want to stay in the United States after they complete their degree, visa regulations will determine that their employment be directly linked to their major. I94-F1-VisaSimilarly, off-campus employment (only available after they have completed two full academic semesters) must be directly connected to their declared major. As advisors, it is important to be aware of these requirements, although international students will be well briefed on this by the Office of International Student Services.

(2) Rules and behaviors. International students may come from a culture where the expectation is that rules are less important than relationships; that who you know is more important than following established regulations which are always be applied inequitably. It’s important, particularly for advisors of international students, to help them understand that the rules we have are actually there for a purpose: that they can’t turn in final assignments without an incomplete after the final due date, that major requirements are major requirements, that class attendance rules actually mean you are expected to be in class and not just do well on the exams.

(3) The honor code. International students may come from academic cultures that have different standards for citation of sources, different expectations for when collaboration is permitted, and a different sense of the limits of what kind of collaboration is permissible. The very term we use to talk about expected academic conduct (“honor”) can cause confusion and distress among some international students. A student who uses the same standards to write a paper at Oberlin as she did in China, for example, can be horrified to find her behavior termed “dishonorable” when material wasn’t cited appropriately. The more we can be clear and explicit about citation practices, how certain kinds of paraphrasing can be the equivalent of copying, what materials should carry citations, etc., the more we will help not only our international students, but all our students. (The next CTIE Brown Bag discussion, November 13 at 12:15 in Mudd 052, will be on the honor code.)


We are fortunate to live in an increasingly globalized community. This has impacted the curriculum we offer, the opportunities we give our students to study abroad, and, increasingly, the demographics of our own campus. The increasing number of international students who apply to, and matriculate at, Oberlin and other liberal arts colleges are an indication of the value of the kind of education we provide. We have much to learn from them, and by being attentive to their particular concerns, we can help them, and all of our students, do that much better.

*Note: numbers of international students tends to vary depending on definitions. For most institutions, including Oberlin, an international student is considered to be one who has crossed a border to enter a host country, and, in the case of the United States, carries an F1 visa; they are often called “internationally mobile students.” “Foreign” students is a slightly broader category which also includes those who have permanent residency in the host country.  The category of international students doesn’t include U.S. citizens who may have lived abroad their entire lives or those who hold dual citizenship.

Broadening Participation and Success in Higher Education through Active Learning Techniques

Marcelo Vinces, October 25, 2015

Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL), founded in 1989, is a leading advocate for transforming undergraduate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) teaching and learning in the United States. A project of the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), PKAL is dedicated to empowering STEM faculty, including those from underrepresented groups, to graduate more students in STEM fields who are well trained and liberally educated.

I had the opportunity to attend PKAL’s Ohio conference last May. Scott Freeman, a biologist at the University of Washington, opened his keynote by projecting an image by Laurentius de Voltolina taken from a 14th century manuscript, Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia.

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

Laurentius de Voltolina; Liber ethicorum des Henricus de Alemannia; Kupferstichkabinett SMPK,Berlin/Staatliche Museen Preussiischer Kulturbesitz, Min. 123

That’s Henry of Germany delivering a lecture to university students in Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, founded in 1088. Besides the obvious differences in garb, student demographics, and technology, the scene is a familiar one to all of us. The lecturer stands at front, and his pupils are seated in rows facing him. Some scribble notes, some listen intently. In the back, two students have checked out altogether and are speaking to each other. And look: there are the students we’re all familiar with: one bent over in ecstasy or agony, but more likely just asleep, as is the one who sleeps through the lecture as well as the chatter of the two students behind her. Maybe it was a late night with some fine Italian wine. More likely, the result of a boring lecture. With that, Freeman asked the audience: How is it that we are still teaching science at universities much the same way it was done in the 1300s?

Two recent opinion pieces have expanded upon this very question, touching on the growing body of published research indicating not only that the venerable tradition of the lecture may be less effective for learning than “active learning” techniques, but that they may produce particularly negative results in the sciences for underrepresented groups: minorities, women, low-income and first-generation students.

In “How Black Students Tend to Learn Science,” Terrance F. Ross, writing in the Atlantic, focused on research carried out at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Washington. The studies concluded that learning techniques that permitted students to become active participants in constructing their own learning rather remaining passive recipients as in traditional lecture courses, consistently resulted in better performance by students. The research, “Getting Under the Hood: How and for Whom Does Increasing Course Structure Work,” was conducted by Kelly Hogan, a professor of biology, at the University of North Carolina, and Sarah L. Eddy, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington. In particular, the studies examined how differences in race, culture, and a family’s higher-education background can affect the methodologies by which students learn. Ultimately, it questioned whether college courses—specifically STEM-related ones—that use older teaching approaches are the best fit for colleges today, considering the increasingly diverse student populations we are educating.

Hogan and Eddy compared a traditional lecture approach and grading based solely on exams with a model that let the students mold how they learned and were assessed. These approaches included preparatory and review assignments, guided reading questions, and extensive student in-class engagement. As we can see in the graph below, while the new model was effective across the board, it worked particularly well for minorities. The gap between black students and their white and Asian counterparts (the two highest performing demographics in the class) shrunk from 5.5 percent under traditional lecture structure, to an average of 2.6 percent in the new setting.

Average Grades by Race

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times (“Are College Lectures Unfair”) Annie Murphy Paul reviewed several studies, including those mentioned in the Atlantic, all of which suggested that the traditional lecture format is “not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.” Paul suggests that there are several possible reasons to explain the difference. One, she notes, is that “poor and minority students are disproportionately likely to have attended low-performing schools and to have missed out on the rich academic and extracurricular offerings familiar to their wealthier white classmates.” This is not just a problem in the way we might easily imagine but more so since research “has demonstrated that we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess. The same lecture, given by the same professor in the same lecture hall, is actually not the same for each student listening; students with more background knowledge will be better able to absorb and retain what they hear.”

Active learning approaches are able to overcome these deficits, according to the research, disproportionately improving the performance of historically underrepresented students in STEM areas. Why? The research suggests that active learning helps limit students’ sense of isolation while fostering communal feeling among classmates. Other research has shown the detrimental effect on learning of being a “solo” in a class context and points out that active learning can be especially effective at reducing the achievement gap of women, low-income, and first-generation students by creating more collaborative, lower-pressure environments that increase a sense of belonging for everyone.

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

Predicted course grades for students with an average SAT math and verbal score of 1257 (The Atlantic)

So why, given the growing body of data and the demographic trends in the United States, aren’t these approaches embraced more widely? Scott Freeman, the PKAL keynote speaker, went even further, asking us to consider whether not using active learning techniques in STEM courses could even be considered unethical. In his talk, he presented results of a meta-analysis of 642 papers examining the effects of active learning. These broadly demonstrated benefits across disciplines, class size, course level and major or non-major courses. His own studies in an introductory biology course showed enhanced performance in active learning versions of the course, with benefits particularly pronounced among underprepared students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.

So, what are your thoughts on active learning? Why do we tend to stick to the traditional lecture format? What are the real barriers that keep us from using innovative pedagogies and how can we lower them? What have your experiences been with active learning approaches in the classroom?


Between Triggers and Bullets

Steven Volk, October 12, 2015

In college and hidingThe waters of higher education have been troubled this first month of the fall semester. Both mainstream and the educational media have focused on the controversies that continue to churn around the use of “trigger warnings,” prior advisories of potentially traumatizing material. The Faculty Senate at American University, with the support of the provost, passed a resolution allowing faculty members to continue to issue “trigger warnings” but only to prepare students to process material, not to excuse them from exposure to it. Students who fear personal reactions to the instructional content will be directed to student support services.

At the same time, the toll of real bullets, fired by applying pressure to real triggers, continues to climb on college and university campuses. In the last two weeks alone, we have mourned the losses from a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon and shootings at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and Texas Southern University in Houston. Last year, students were killed at Seattle Pacific University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. There were a reported 27 shootings on or near campuses in 2013. I attended a workshop earlier this year led by faculty from Virginia Tech who are still coping with the aftermath of the 32 people who were fatally shot on that campus in 2007.

This is not a post about gun control, although heaven knows I fervently support it. That’s not the purpose of the “Article of the Week” blog. I make no attempt to suggest what should be done about the violence other than a issue a heartfelt call for politicians to avoid making statements that, on their face, are patently absurd. (Yes, Mr. Carson, guns actually do kill people.)

Rather I ask a simple question with some importance for those of us who teach and work in higher education: What is the relation between triggers and bullets? Does the fact that we live in a time of increasing mayhem and violence, that this violence often occurs on college campuses, and that students are continually stumbling onto news of violence when they open their smart phones – does any of this help us at least understand a desire expressed by some students to be in a “safe” space? And does this help us determine how best to teach our students in our courses?


Parental AdvisoryFor those of you who have been living off the grid for the past few years, trigger warnings are prior advisories placed on curricular content, reading assignments, or parts of discussion, warning that some students might find the material disturbing, inappropriate, or possibly traumatizing. These warnings have been at the sharp end of an important debate about speech issues on campuses, although critics often tend to conflate or confuse a variety of separate concerns in this regard. Trigger warnings, a particular speech-issue related to questions of potential reaction to traumatic material, come out of a larger cultural milieu that saw the placement of advisories on films, music, video games, and other media content warning parents and others of explicit or other potentially difficult subject matter, so that they could tune away if so wanted.

“Trigger warnings” as a specific type of advisory more concerned with the potentially traumatizing impact of their content on those who had experienced sexual violence, appeared first in self-help and feminist online forums and were intended to alert readers for whom such material could cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. From there, as is all too common in internet culture, the warnings multiplied to a point where bloggers were warning their readers to turn away if they were “triggered” by alcohol, or insects, or, well you get the point.

Insect triggersIt is not surprising that the culture of online trigger warnings migrated into the university. Some students began asking for prior warning of materials they deemed to be “triggering.” (Oberlin’s own role in this issue has been widely reported, and often misreported. The college continues to be the poster child for trigger warnings, leading one, particularly offended commentator at the American Conservative to grumble, “Honestly, I wish [Vladimir] Putin would invade and occupy Oberlin.” Seriously?)

The call by a tiny number of students, mostly coming from selective liberal arts colleges and a few flagship universities, has nevertheless become a standard part of the fascination, dismay, or contempt of the media with what is happening on our nation’s campuses. If Alan Bloom famously talked of the “closing of the American mind,” the Atlantic now tells us of the “coddling” of the American mind.

The debate over trigger warnings has stirred considerable angst on some campuses, as the faculty senate’s action at American University indicates. The American Association of University Professors, in a statement last year, resolved that “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.”

I would agree. But Mason Stokes, an associate professor of English at Skidmore, put a much finer, and appropriate, edge on it in his aptly titled article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Don’t Tell Me What’s Best for My Students.”

What seems crucial to assert is this: I know my students and their needs better than any faculty senate. I know my material — its power and its effects — better than any representative body. Any resolution that claims to know what’s best for my students is substituting ideological generalities for the granular specificity of the classroom, for the particularities of disciplinary knowledge.

I would resist a resolution condemning trigger warnings as vigorously as I would a resolution requiring them. The only way to cut through the straw-man caricatures that dominate this debate is to rely on the expertise and sensibilities of individual faculty members, as they develop an improvisatory relationship to knowledge, to difficulty, and to their students.

Exactly. But those of us who teach in higher ed, whether at selective liberal arts colleges or large public commuter campuses, don’t have the luxury of looking at campus culture as some rare bird nesting in a far-off tree and observed through binoculars. As Mason Stokes reminds us, these are our students and we have to try to understand what is motivating even a relatively few of them to crave safety.


Noonan-Life isnt perfectPeggy Noonan, the conservative author and the one-time speech writer for President Reagan, has decided the whole current generation of students has got it wrong. Writing in the Wall Street Journal this past May she referred to current students as a “trigger-happy generation,” remarking: “if reading great literature traumatizes you, wait until you get a taste of adult life.” She suggested further that this “significant and growing form of idiocy… deserves greater response.” (How a whole generation got tarred with Noonan’s brush is something of a mystery. There were about 21 million students in the tertiary sector when last counted in 2012. How many have been even tangentially involved in the trigger-warning debate?)

I would agree with Noonan that learning often takes place in those spaces where students are made uncomfortable. Indeed, sometimes it is only when we are put in intellectually untenable places, when we are confronted with contrary evidence, that we begin to revise our understandings. Comfort can quickly become complacency, which is never particularly healthy for any educational enterprise.

But if Noonan wants “trigger-happy,” I’ll give you trigger-happy:

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 467,321 persons were victims of a crime committed with a firearm in 2011. In the same year, data collected by the FBI show that firearms were used in 68% of murders, 41% of robbery offenses and 21% of aggravated assaults nationwide. Most homicides in the United States are committed with firearms, especially handguns.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported that firearms (excluding BB and pellet guns) were used in 84,258 nonfatal injuries, 11,208 homicides, and 21,175 suicides. When all deaths by firearm are included, there were a total of 33,169 deaths related to firearms in 2013, and these exclude firearm deaths due to “legal intervention.” (For those who want to get past a phrase that often can only be understood as a euphemism for homicide, I refer you to #BlackLivesMatter and the article I posted earlier this year.)

CNN recently reported that from 2001 to 2013, 406,496 people died by firearms on U.S. soil. (Federal legislation passed in the 1990s has prevented the CDC from engaging in any research that could be seen as advocacy for gun control. That provision has commonly stopped any gun studies because researchers don’t want to risk losing federal money.)

Mass Shootings - Economist[Source: The Economist]

Is it reasonable to ask if our students are feeling unsafe?

As I reported in an earlier “Article of the Week,” Sam Sinyangwe of the Mapping Police Violence project reported that 179 African Americans have been killed by the police so far this year. Sinyangwe writes, “In the aftermath of Ferguson…there was this big question ‘Is this a pattern, is this an isolated incident?’ What [my data] shows is that Ferguson is everywhere. All over the country you’re seeing black people being killed by police.” He notes that “Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police in the United States than white people. More unarmed black people were killed by police than unarmed white people last year. And that’s taking into account the fact that black people are only 14% of the population here.”

Is it reasonable to ask if our students are feeling unsafe?

A report released on September 21, 2015, by the Association of American Universities confirmed early reports, finding that nearly one in four female undergraduates (23.1%) responding to their survey said that they had been the victim of sexual assault or misconduct, and that fewer than a third of the respondents reported the incidents, even when they involved rape, to campus or local authorities. The report found that:

  • One-third of female college seniors reported that they had been the victims of non-consensual sexual contact at least once since enrolling in college.
  • For transgender, queer, and other gender-nonconforming seniors, the number was an even higher, 39.1 percent.
  • Just 38.9 percent of students thought reporting sexual misconduct would result in campus officials taking action.

Is it reasonable to ask if our students are feeling unsafe?

According to the annual report produced by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA (“American Freshman: National Norms”),  in 2014 students’ self-rated emotional health dropped to 50.7%, its lowest level ever and 2.3 percentage points lower than the entering cohort of 2013. Additionally, the proportion of students who “frequently” felt depressed rose to 9.5%, 3.4 percentage points higher than in 2009 when feeling “frequently” depressed reached its lowest point.

Is it reasonable to ask if our students are feeling unsafe?

I am neither a psychologist nor a sociologist and do not present these data in any attempt to suggest a causal link between feeling unsafe on campus and the call for “safety” in the form of trigger warnings, or a desire to banish uncomfortable or unpopular viewpoints from classrooms or contrary speakers from campus. I am quite sure that other issues are also involved and I remain opposed to the censuring of legitimate academic discourse.

But it does strike me that the rise of what I have begun to call a “culture of safety,” a culture that increasingly is bumping up against the culture of academic freedom, likely has at least some tendrils, if not full stems, in the fact that our students are products of a society that is not just violent in its own terms but, through a 24/7 media and social media environment, transports the violence of the world onto their devices dozens of times a day (if not an hour). We all are witness to frequent scenes of terrorist violence, gun-mayhem, and photographic images that are truly disturbing, from beheadings and bombings to drowned babies on the beach. And while the frequency with which these images circulate may prove numbing for some, for others they aren’t. Our students are part of a larger culture of instability and loss, and they will be impacted by it.

To ignore the possibility that our students are feeling particularly vulnerable because, when pressing the trigger issue, they don’t always get it right; to see calls for “safe space” as demands which are only made by hypersensitive students who should “just get over it,” doesn’t help us think about our jobs in the classroom and on the campus.

We are faculty, not therapists, and often are both at a loss to know what an appropriate response should be and quite clear that we cannot act as our students’ psychologists. Yet, at the same time, I would argue that it is responsible pedagogy to show our students both courtesy and respect by preparing them for those discussions that we know will be difficult, troubling, or that carry an emotional wallop.  We do this not because we believe we can issue a magical warning that will protect susceptible students from harm, but because we are preparing our classroom to be a space where all can learn.

By preparing for the learning that must take place in our classrooms and on our campuses, by creating an environment in which all can learn while being aware of the particular moment our students (and we, ourselves) are living, we can better defend the important principles of academic freedom and create those uncomfortable spaces so necessary for an education.

Paragraphs Take Time; Conversations Take Time

Steven Volk, October 4, 2015

As instructors bring their classes to the glorious Allen Memorial Art Museum, they begin to consider the potential not just for teaching with art, but of teaching through art. Liliana Milkova, the academic curator at the museum, and I have written about the process (“transfer”) whereby the learning that occurs in one domain can be shifted to another. In extended interviews with Oberlin faculty who have brought their students to the museum, we have found that a number of specific skills foregrounded in visits to the Allen are transferring back into the classrooms in a variety of disciplines.

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson '33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

Denise Birkhofer, Ellen Johnson ’33 Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, in Ellen Johnson gallery of Allen Memorial Art Museum

For example, faculty members have observed that the work their students do in the museum often helps them think about the link between evidence and argument in new ways. Some of these realizations originate from the curators’ use of VTS (Visual Thinking Strategy) approaches in the museum. VTS fashions a viewer’s engagement with art through three basic prompts: (1) What is going on in this picture; (2) What do you see that makes you say that; and (3) What more can you say about the object? Having the “primary source” (the painting or sculpture) directly at hand strongly grounds the student’s ability to use evidence to support an interpretation: Where in the painting do you find evidence suggesting that the man is angry? Such lessons from the museum can transfer easily to classroom discussions and written work.

Close Readings

Of the many potential elements for transfer from museum to classroom, perhaps the most frequently reported by the faculty are the impact of close observation in the museum on close reading in the classroom. Both processes are supported by holding students figuratively or literally in front of the object (or text) they are studying, giving them the time they need to observe closely. By doing this, we are teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention, in the words of Harvard art historian Jennifer Roberts. In a widely circulated article on “The Power of Patience,” Roberts wrote, “in the process of designing a syllabus I need not only to select readings, choose topics, and organize the sequence of material, but also to engineer, in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.”

I thought of the importance of “slowing down” as I read Sherry Turkel’s commentary, “How to Teach in an Age of Distraction”, which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Review. (A shorter op-ed, “Stop Googling; Let’s Talk,” appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 26; her book on the topic, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, is just out from Penguin.) In her Chronicle article, Turkel, a professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, recounted what happened in one of her recent seminars, one that was heavily dependent on personal narrative. Midway through the semester, she reported, some students came to talk to her.

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

Alex Pang, Flickr CC

“They admitted to texting during class, but they felt bad about it because of the personal material being discussed. They said they text in all their classes, but here it seemed wrong. We decided the class should talk about this as a group. In that discussion, more students admitted that they, too, texted in class. They portrayed constant connection as a necessity. For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. They wanted to see who was in touch with them, a comfort in itself.”

Let me repeat that: For some, three minutes was too long to go without checking their phones. Turkel suggested they try a “device-free class,” and observed how the students seemed more “relaxed and cohesive” in those discussions, how they “finished their thoughts, unrushed” and seemed “more present and able to be in an uninterrupted conversation.” While I was pleasantly surprised that her students could move from a state of technological high anxiety to unpluged relaxation so quickly, I saw Turkel’s comments as coming from the same place as Robert’s. Indeed, if I was surprised, it was only because I don’t know many instructors who actually allow texting in class. From the comments I hear, it would seem that more and more of my colleagues are going further, either discouraging or prohibiting the use of laptops or other digital devices in class. Maybe that’s just me, or just here. One large survey found that 80% of college students admit to texting during class; 15% say they send 11 or more texts in a single class period.”

There is substantial research, some of which has been reported here, recommending the benefits to learning and memory that come when students take notes by hand rather than on a laptop. Even more, as Carol Steiker, a professor at Harvard Law observed, students who are in court-stenographer mode “sometimes seemed annoyed if you called on them because it broke up their transcriptions. If your notes are meant to capture the themes of the class, you remember your participation and you make it part of the story. If you are trying to write a transcript of class, class participation takes you away from your job.”

"The Phone People," Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

“The Phone People,” Guilaume Regnaux, Flickr CC

Nor are devices a problem only in class. I am probably not alone in noticing that as soon as class ends, the phones emerge and large numbers of students are quickly absorbed in what seems to be a dangerous practice of texting-while-descending-the-stairs. Indeed, we seem caught between furiously peddling bicyclists and texting pedestrians oblivious to their surroundings as we tread our increasingly perilous path across campus.


The debate over the value (or dangers) of multi-tasking has gone on for some time. In a 2007 article, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes” (Profession, 187–199), Katherine Hayles argued that we are at a moment of “generational divide” between an older cohort that equated learning with the “deep attention” characterized by long focus times and what I would call a “vertical” engagement with a topic, and a younger generation more prone to rapid switching among different tasks, shorter attention times, a low tolerance for “boredom” (i.e., unoccupied time) and a more “horizontal” mode of exploration characteristic of the digital hyperlinks. Hayles’ argument is that whether or not we (i.e., the “older” generation) want this, “The trend toward hyper attention will almost certainly accelerate.”

“As students move deeper into the mode of hyper attention,” she writes, “educators face a choice: change the students to fit the educational environment or change that environment to fit the students. At the extreme end of the spectrum represented by ADHD, it may be appropriate to change the young people, but surely the environment needs to change as well” (195).

Hayles defined hyper attention as the capacity to negotiate “rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention” (188). She contrasted this with “multitasking” which significant research has shown to place a substantial burden on learning. A study by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills, had students mark down once a minute what they were doing as they studied. A checklist on the form included: reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer, using email, looking at Facebook, instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, and surfing the Web. He noted that their “on-task” behavior began to decline at the two-minute mark. By the end of the 15-minute study, he found that they had spent only 65% of their time on task.

Indeed, evidence of the detrimental impact of multitasking continues to grow. To cite just one example, the majority of a cross-disciplinary survey of 774 students was shown to be engaging in classroom multitasking. Further, this was significantly related to lower GPA and to an increase in risk behaviors including use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. As Maryellen Weimer suggested when pondering how to bring such behaviors under control, “I wonder if it isn’t smarter to confront students with the facts. Not admonitions, but concrete evidence that multitasking compromises their efforts to learn.”

A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study, “Generation M : Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” found that almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using other media. As Victoria Rideout, the lead author put it:

“This is a concern we should have distinct from worrying about how much kids are online or how much kids are media multitasking overall. It’s multitasking while learning that has the biggest potential downside. I don’t care if a kid wants to tweet while she’s watching American Idol, or have music on while he plays a video game. But when students are doing serious work with their minds, they have to have focus.”

r8r, "Studying for Finals," Flickr CC

r8r, “Studying for Finals,” Flickr CC

Engaging Our Distracted Students: The Role of Conversation

So, to return to Turkel’s question: how do we teach in an age of (many) distractions? For many teaching in large universities with class sizes in the hundreds, one key was devising a way to return students to conversation, something which Daphne Koller, the co-founder of Coursera (the provider of online courses or MOOCs) thought could be better done online than in class. (This has not necessarily proven to be the case.) But for those of us fortunate enough to teach in a school where 40-50 person classes are considered large, we know that “the most powerful learning takes place in [a context of] relationship,” at times between students and teachers, at times among peers. Turkel’s students tell her that “they want company. They are afraid that they already spend too much time alone and online.”

Turkel defends the lecture as the place where this “company” is to be found on college campuses. “For all its flaws,” she writes, “the lecture has a lot going for it. It is a place where students come together, on good days and bad, and form a small community. As in any live performance, anything can happen. An audience is present; the room is engaged.” But even as she praises the lecture – indeed, I am far more cautious of its pedagogical limitations – she, too, pivots to the importance of the conversations that can develop in a lecture, not the content that is delivered. She quotes Lee Edelman, a literary theorist at Tufts, who observed that his biggest challenge as a professor was “not teaching his students to think intelligently, but getting them to actually respond to each other thoughtfully in the classroom.” He found that his students were struggling with the give and take of face-to-face conversation.

*k59, "Conversación," Flickr CC

*k59, “Conversación,” Flickr CC

But how can conversations provide students with a steady focus and the ability to steer their way through multitasking temptations in an age of increasing distraction? Only, I would argue, to the extent that we actually think about how we “engineer,” as Roberts put it, “the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.” Conversations must necessarily have “empty” spaces built into them, time for thinking before responding, time for boredom. And this is a generation that is boredom-adverse. “If boredom happens in a classroom,” Turkel writes, “rather than competing for student attention with ever-more extravagant technological fireworks, we should encourage students to stay with their moment of silence or distraction.” She cites a chemistry professor who said that he wants students in his class to daydream. “They can go back to the text if they missed a key fact. But if they went off in thought … they might be making the private connection that pulls the course together for them.” Boredom (in its creative sense), daydreaming (and not about lunch), doodling (while thinking) all require that we allow and encourage the space that is not completely filled; that we slow things down.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Nicholson Baker, the writer, talked about how he would read aloud to slow himself down, because when he reads aloud to himself:

“it becomes the only thing there is. I think that a necessary precondition for the appreciation of art is the feeling that the thing that you’re looking at, or reading, or listening to, is all that there is for that moment, and you really have to give yourself to it. So, if you’re in a life where everything is sort of jumping for you and you’re only spending two minutes with anything, you’re not probably going to be able to take anything at the proper speed. So, I think reading things aloud to myself has helped me slow down. I guess, remember, remember the sound of words, the sequence of words…all I have to do, actually, is put on, say, a Debussy piece, or something, and it slows me down. I think that things that take time are useful; paragraphs take time, piano preludes take time.”

Conversations take time. If we are to help our students develop their capacities for deep engagement and build their capacity to cope with the increasing distractions of a hyper-connected environment, we have to consider the pace and tempo of learning as a subject we need to address regardless of our disciplines. It is its own discipline.

Revealing the Secret Handshakes: The Rules of Clear Assignment Design

Steven Volk, September 27, 2015

I’ve often thought that the more we can reveal to our students about why we design our classes as we do, or the more we can suggest the principles that underpin our assignments,  the more they would learn and the better they would do. I probably started thinking this way as a simple reaction against the “You need to do it this way because that’s what I’m asking for” approach, the teacher’s equivalent of the parental “Because!” response to a child’s “Why do I have to?” question. I continue to disclose the architecture of my course design because it offers an opportunity to discuss the way I apply learning theory to instructional design, bringing students in as collaborators in the complex process of teaching and learning. At the start of the semester, I’ll spend some time talking about constructivist theories of learning to explain why I rely more on discussion than lecture. I’m not always sure they fully understand what I’m talking about, and that is somewhat beside the point anyway since I don’t teach learning theory even though it informs my teaching (and my students’ learning). But clarifying the architecture that supports my course design is one way I have of inviting students into the club, as it were. By showing them academia’s “secret handshakes,” I felt I could make them feel both more in control of their learning and somewhat more self-confident about what they could achieve in my class.

Secret HandshakesNow I’ve discovered that there is some strong research to support my assumptions. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran an article about the work of Mary-Ann Winkelmes and her “Transparency Project.” Winkelmes, who trained as an art historian specializing in Renaissance art and architecture, served as the associate director of Harvard’s superb Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning. She moved on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she organized the Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, an assessment project involving 25,000 students at 27 institutions in seven countries. The project aimed at disclosing more precisely what instructors could do to improve student learning.

Winkelmes’ results confirm what many of us have been doing for some time. If we make the process of teaching and learning explicit to students — especially those who don’t know what to expect from their college experience — we can have a significant impact on their learning. By the relatively simple act of letting students in on what Winkelmes calls “the secret, unwritten rules of how to succeed in college” (which are, essentially, my “secret handshakes”), we can actually impact their learning positively.

The Illinois project has two main goals: to promote students’ conscious understanding of how they learn, and to enable faculty to benefit from data about students’ learning by coordinating efforts across disciplines, institutions, and countries. The Transparency Initiative asks students about their perceptions of the current and future learning benefits they are gaining, complementing existing assessments of content mastery and teaching performance. It was designed to determine whether the information that many of us reported anecdotally – that students did better when they understood how and why instructors had structured their learning experiences in particular ways – would stand up in a rigorous research study.

Psychology Today_3 types of handshakes

We already know a fair amount about the impact of putting students more in control of their own learning. Metacognition research has demonstrated fairly consistently that students learn more and retain more of what they have learned when they have some control over how they are learning and are aware of the learning process itself. Further, we know that training students to understand how to take control over their learning will increase their academic success. (For those who want to pursue this further, you’ll find a short bibliography at the end of the article.) I should note that the surveys developed by Winkelmes avoided the typical limitations of student self-reports of learning (students tend to self-report greater mastery than actual performance reveals) by focusing on students’ reports of how much, or if, their learning experience affected their mastery of content and critical thinking skills. (Full details on the assessment study are here. Demographically, the responses to the survey closely matched the overall undergraduate population in the United States.)

Making the Unwritten Rules Visible in Assignment Design

Winkelmes is currently at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is the principal investigator of the project Transparency in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. There, she is trying to fit the findings of her Illinois Transparency Project into a simple protocol for assignment design that instructors can easily implement. Professors who have signed on to the project (click here if you want to join) are asked to take three questions on board when creating assignments. For me, they offer an useful way of thinking about how to design assignments whether or not you are a formal part of the Transparency Project, and two of the questions are valid for any classroom activity, graded or non-graded:

  1. The Task: What are you asking your students to do?
  2. The Purpose: Why do they have to do it?
  3. The Criteria: How will their work be evaluated?


Maybe it’s just me, but I’m continually amazed that after some 30+ years in teaching I still write assignments that, when prompted by student comments, I find to be relatively unclear and poorly written. It’s not surprising that the students don’t always know what I am asking of them, i.e., the task.  (In fact, after reading Winkelmes’ articles, I rushed to rewrite the first assignment for one of my current classes.) And perhaps that’s the problem: the longer we’re in this business, the more we operate with certain “unwritten rules” in mind, expecting that students will know exactly what we’re thinking about – even though we haven’t told them. Quite often, the only parts of the assignment that we are explicit about are the purely technical ones (12 point type, double spaced, no more than 5 pages, etc.). So, what is it we’re asking the students to do in the assignment?


Here I’m better, but it took some years of wandering before I got there. Do we make the purpose of the assignment explicit, or do we expect the students will some intuit it? Is an assignment fundamentally about testing recall of factual information? Using that information in the context of an argument? Using evidence to argue a position? Being able to see multiple sides of an argument or carrying out a certain task? Furthermore, is the information we provide students about the purpose of the paper explicit, or written in our insiders shorthand?  Do we think that we’re giving something away by disclosing this, and that they should figure it out by themselves? The research Winkelmes has gathered is fairly convincing that the clearer we are in addressing the purpose of the assignment, the better our students will do.

Criteria for Assessment

Many faculty provide students with grading rubrics as a way of making their assessment criteria perfectly clear. Others include these details within the body of the assignment. However one does it, informing students as to how they will be graded will help them approach the assignment with greater clarity, increase their sense of control, and add to their self-confidence. If performance criteria aren’t specified, it can increase student anxiety besides leading students to focus their work on aspects of the assignment that aren’t what we intended. Again, we often assume that students know what we are asking for without our having to say it. Quite often, they don’t.

Don’t they get it anyway?

But what if they do? Many of our students seem to do perfectly well without these particular prompts. Is it that they are just smarter (and deserve a better grade) or are better able to read our minds and figure out what we’re asking for? Well, they’re not any smarter, but they might be able to read our minds better because they have a greater grasp of these “unwritten rules” of higher education. What they have, according to Tara J. Yosso, a professor of educational studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is “navigational capital”; they understanding the rules of the game. Students who have had strong preparation through high school, who have taken a boatload of AP or IB courses, attended college courses while in high school, or whose parents are college teachers (which is often the case at Oberlin) know how to read a syllabus, how to locate the unwritten assumptions of an assignment, or – most importantly – have the confidence to ask the professor for guidance if the assignment isn’t clear to them. First-generation students, low-income, or historically underrepresented students, on the other hand, have come to college with all the “smarts” needed to do well in their classes, but they may lack the “navigational capital,” not to mention the self-confidence, to succeed.

So, should we be writing out the unwritten rules for them alone? The answer to that falls squarely within the realm of universal design. The basic principle of universal design is the importance of constructing a curriculum, a class, or an entire education that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn. By constructing assignments that specifically write out the unwritten rules (task, purpose, criteria), we not only are helping those who might not know the rules, but literally everyone in the class. But there’s more: Writing these three simple points into the assignment helps us focus and be explicit in terms of what we are asking students to do, why we are asking the to do this, and how we will grade them. Everyone’s a winner.


Benefits of transparent teaching and learning methods

Beyond these three points of assignment design, Winkelmes’ survey results suggest a few fairly easy but important practices that can improve both current and future learning in different disciplines and for different class sizes. The information below comes from her article published in Liberal Education (Spring 2013, Vol. 99:2), “Transparency in Teaching: Faculty Share Data and Improve Students’ Learning.”

In humanities courses at the introductory undergraduate level, two practices seem to benefit students’ current course learning experiences depending on the size of the class:

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment (in classes ranging in size from thirty-one to sixty-five students).
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class (in classes ranging in size from sixty-six to three hundred students).

In social science courses at the introductory undergraduate level, particularly in mid-sized level classes (31-65 students) several transparent methods have statistically significant benefits for students’ current course learning experiences:

  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals and design rationale before students begin each assignment.
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class.

In larger introductory courses in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), the following transparent methods have statistically significant benefits for students’ current course learning experiences and for their future learning:

  • Explicitly connect “how people learn” data with course activities when students struggle at difficult transition points.
  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Discuss assignments’ learning goals before students begin each assignment.

Students at the intermediate and advanced levels in STEM courses (again, larger classes) indicated that the following methods are helpful to their current and future learning:

  • Gauge students’ understanding during class via peer work on questions that require students to apply concepts you’ve taught.
  • Debrief graded tests and assignments in class.

As with the material on writing assignments, Winkelmes reports that many of these practices are especially beneficial for underrepresented students, for those who can’t read the unwritten rules of the game as easily as students who are more familiar with college settings. Not only do these practices improve their academic self-confidence, but it gives them a greater sense of control over their learning. What’s not to like?


A Bit of Bibliography

Cohen, P. A. 1980. “Effectiveness of Student-Rating Feedback for Improving College Instruction: A Meta-Analysis of Findings.” Research in Higher Education 13 (4): 321–41.

Dunlosky, J., and J. Metcalfe. 2009. Metacognition. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Francis, G. E., J. P. Adams, and E. J. Noonan. 1998. “Do They Stay Fixed?” The Physics Teacher 36 (8): 488–90.

Gynnald, V., A. Holstad, and D. Myrhaug. 2008. “Identifying and Promoting Self-Regulated Learning in Higher Education: Roles and Responsibilities of Student Tutors.” Mentoring & Tutoring 16 (2): 147–61.

Light, R. J. 1990. The Harvard Assessment Seminars: Explorations with Students and Faculty about Teaching, Learning, and Student Life. First Report. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Nelson, T. O., and J. Dunlosky. 1991. “When People’s Judgments of Learning Are Extremely Accurate at Predicting Subsequent Recall: The Delayed JOL Effect.” Psychological Science 2 (4): 267–70.

Perry, R., N. C. Hall, and J. C. Ruthig. 2007. “Perceived (Academic) Control and Scholastic Attainment in Higher Education.” In The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: An Evidence-Based Perspective, edited by R. P. Perry and J. C. Smart, 477–552. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class

Steve Volk, September 21, 2015

Students, if we’re doing our job right, will learn more outside of class than inside. After all, that’s one of the great advantages of being at a residential college where the opportunities to pursue conversations begun in the classroom are abundant. Many of these exchanges will be serendipitous, students sharing ideas during dinner or when laboring away on neighboring treadmills at the gym. (That is what they’re talking about, isn’t it?) As teachers, we are always pleased to hear of extra-mural discussions that we didn’t plan, the study sessions or the students who, finding themselves in the same place in the library, discuss an economics problem they are having trouble with. Not to put too crass a spin on it, but this actually is one of the things that parents and students are paying for when they shell out for a costly residential liberal arts college: the opportunity to be with and learn from talented, creative, bright, and supportive peers.

Miniature of the Apparition of Michael.  Illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, Italy (Florence), c. 1340. British Library.

Miniature of the Apparition of Michael. Illuminated by Pacino di Buonaguida, Italy (Florence), c. 1340. British Library.

With all this said, there is surprisingly little research on the cognitive and social benefits of peer instruction in higher education, but what exists is both good and very supportive of the process. I refer in particular to a 2001 volume edited by David Boud, Ruth Cohen, and Jane Samson, Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning With and From Each Other (Routledge). That book was recently reissued in a Kindle edition (2014), and it’s worth quoting at some length.

“As teachers,” they write, “we often fool ourselves in thinking that what we do is necessarily more important for student learning than other activities in which they engage. Our role is vital. However, if we place ourselves in the position of mediating all that students need to know, we not only create unrealistic expectations but we potentially deskill students by preventing them from developing the vital skills of effectively learning from each other needed in life and work. The skill of obtaining accurate information is not learned by being given accurate information by a teacher but through practice in discerning how to judge the accuracy of the information we receive” (p. 2).

Peer Instruction and Peer Learning

We are fortunate to have a number of superb peer-instruction opportunities at Oberlin, including the Writing Associates, with decades of experience, and the more recently formed OWLS (Oberlin Workshop & Learning Sessions), students who provide peer instruction in most of the sciences and math. These are exceptionally good resources and if your students aren’t aware of their programs, you should fill them in.

Technology can also play a role in bolstering out-of-class peer-learning opportunities, particularly the use of simple on-line applications, such as discussion boards, blogs, or other mechanisms for asynchronous discussions after the class is over. But I’ll save that topic for a later article.

Here I’d like to focus more on the opportunities to support reciprocal peer learning outside of class. (The “Article of the Week” from September 6 focused on encourage peer learning through discussions inside the class.)

Working at DeskThere are a wide range of peer-learning opportunities, particularly at residential colleges, that share similar characteristics: they are mutually beneficial to all students involved, involve the sharing of knowledge, ideas, insights, and experiences among the participants, and underscore the importance of moving beyond tasks and assignments that highlight independent learning (e.g., reading an assigned chapter) and toward interdependent or mutual learning. As opposed to the spontaneous opportunities for reciprocal peer-learning that happen all the time, these are strengthened by planning and proper scaffolding on the part of the instructor.

So, what kinds of skills can be mobilized in peer learning contexts:

  • To begin, the social skills involved in the very act of arranging to meet with others (an act that is easier for some students than others).
  • The skills involved in organizing and planning for the extra-mural session.
  • Collaborative skills: dividing the work among team members and insuring that all are contributing to a collective goal.
  • Communication skills: listening, presenting, challenging, and teaching.
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution skills: dealing with differences of opinion, planning and negotiation.
  • Assessment and reflection skills: giving and receiving feedback, learning to productively and helpfully critique the contributions of others and as well as assessing one’s own input.
  • Skills of critical inquiry: Not that it will happen every time, but often interdependent learning outside of class provides students the time they need to argue and defend their positions, something that may be lacking during the class, and to modify those positions in light of stronger arguments. Discussions outside of class seem more amenable to silences, moment where nothing is said and participants are absorbing what was said and what comes next.
  • And, of course, learning the material. It’s an old saw but nonetheless true: you learn best when you have to teach something, and peer learning is a type of teaching for students.

Working with/through Difference

Reciprocal peer learning can also help students understand the importance of working with (and through) difference. Social context is highly relevant to the learning experience, and students’ learning experiences are significantly influenced by whom they are learning with/from and their own experiences of comfort or safety. Gender, ethnicity, and race, as well as other differences (disability, nationality, sexual orientation, etc.) shape learning contexts and can have an impact on how peers learn from each other. Faculty may choose to address the social context of learning by constructing outside-of-class peer learning activities that emphasize cooperation, collaboration, mutuality, and shared responsibility and where difference is seen as implicit, without directly raising the issue. Or they can draw explicit attention to working with difference from the start, emphasizing the importance of building on difference and recognizing and confronting oppressive behaviors.

‘Columbia teaching John Bull his new lesson’ (Philadelphia, 1813) cartoon by artists Samuel Kennedy and William Charles,Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

‘Columbia teaching John Bull his new lesson’ (Philadelphia, 1813) cartoon by artists Samuel Kennedy and William Charles,Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

What Activities?

While some of the most productive reciprocal peer learning opportunities are unplanned (the student equivalent of faculty parking-lot conversations), others can and should be designed into the course to take greatest advantage of the opportunities. These will work best, as Cohen and Samson argue (“Designing Peer Learning,” chapter 2 in the above mentioned volume), when we understand learning as a social as well as an individual activity, when we foreground the importance of skills such as collaboration and cooperation, and when students come to value the importance of critique, are able to listen (and hear) others, and can develop a capacity to work with their peers’ ideas.

Here are some ideas, taken from the Cohen-Samson chapter and augmented by my own experiences:

  • Preparation for class facilitation: When students are in charge of facilitating classes (usually seminars), they will be required to meet outside of class time (besides meeting with the instructor). These sessions work best when the students have a clear set of expectations for what a successful facilitation will look like.
  • Similarly, small groups can be assigned to present topics in class that require further preparation outside of the class session. These can be aided by allowing some class time for groups to cohere, schedule, and assign tasks for their first meeting.
  • Students involved in research can plan joint meetings with the reference librarians, present each other with work-in-progress reports, feedback and suggestions, or collectively develop questions to bring back to the class.
  • For students involved in community-based projects, time out of class can be used for debriefing sessions (in pairs or small groups).
  • For any writing project, students can bring drafts to workshop with their peers. As assignments near their due date, these sessions can also be used to peer mark the papers, giving the students an opportunity to discuss why they gave the grades they did and the changes they would encourage to strengthen the paper.
  • You can set up out-of-class meetings as “ice-breaking” activities at the start of the semester, a way to help students get to know each other.
  • Faculty can plan out-of-class activities for students in specific classes that explicitly foreground difference around culture-specific or gendered activities, address tensions between the task and the process, or are designed to address group dynamics, and that are formed of groups composed of students who bring different levels of knowledge and experience, the potential for differences in power, or are mixed in terms of race, ethnicity or other differences, if known. The decision to select some strategies might be made with the intention of helping students develop these abilities by working among themselves, whereas others might be made with the understanding that the students will be able to manage these differences effectively so that particular learning outcomes can be achieved without having to address broader issues.
  • Extra-class peer sessions can be used as a substitute for some kinds of tutorials. As mentioned above, peer instructors in writing (Writing Associates) and in the sciences and math (OWLS) are most often available for these purposes, but pairing students of different strengths for extra-mural work can also be a useful approach.
  • Outside-of-class sessions can be used as a strategy to address specific difficulties that are pertinent to your classes: to give students more practice in verbal presentation, to pair English language learners with skilled English speakers, etc.
  • As a means of helping students provide support for each other while they are engaged in individually assessed tasks, allowing for students to hear constructive feedback on their progress.
  • To model work groups that students will likely encounter after college (e.g. in computer science, design-oriented classes, or scientific research).
  • To address non-content related issues that have surfaced in the class: perhaps you are concerned that you have not created the kind of positive learning climate you think is essential for significant learning. It is possible that forming groups of students outside of class to address the issue and return with positive recommendations is one approach to think about. (There are potential downsides to this approach as well, so think carefully about the issues you face before trying this route.)

In summary, we are fortunate to teach in a context that allows for a substantial amount of reciprocal peer learning outside of class. How do you take advantage of it?

Back-To-School Lit

Steve Volk, September 13, 2015

They arrive on our electronic (or real) doorsteps as punctually as the back-to-school adverts, and seemingly in the same quantity. Late August and early September in the United States is the season when the public is called on to contemplate the world of higher education… most often, what’s wrong with it. Today’s (Sept. 13) New York Times is devoted to higher ed. It includes an insightful piece on college tuition by Adam Davidson, a thought-provoking article by Annie Murphy Paul on whether college lectures discriminate (“A growing body of evidence suggests that the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students”), a terrific essay by Edward E. Baptist on the challenges of “Teaching Slavery to Reluctant Listeners” (“Whenever we dredge up the past, we find that the rusty old chains we rake from the bottom are connected to some people’s present-­day pains and others’ contemporary privilege”), and Syreeta McFadden’s contemplation on “Teaching Martin Luther King Jr. in the Age of Freddie Gray.” Read them.

Eva Hesse - Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Eva Hesse – Exhibition Catalog. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Along with these types of stories in the New York Times one encounters a raft of articles that chronicle a student arrival at college for her first semester, describe high schoolers teetering on the cusp of the college-decision-year, follow parents unsure of whether they can afford the university that has plucked their daughter’s heartstrings, and sermonize on how higher education has sold it soul.

And then there is the burgeoning journalism (back-to-school lit, I call it) that falls into the subgenre of “What’s-The-Matter-With-Kids-Today,” a nod to “Bye, Bye Birdie” of Broadway fame (“Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?”). These are the articles that lament the “The Coddling of the American Mind”, the rise of intolerance on campus, or, in the latest to appear, and in which Oberlin takes pride of place (The Atlantic, Sept. 11, 2015) , the spread of a new “victimhood” culture, an argument first described in the research of two sociologists.

There is much that can be said about the issues raised in these latter articles, and I would hope that faculty, staff, and students can discuss them further in a variety of settings. Here, I will only say that while many of us are confused or upset or angered by what not only appears to be, but is in specific instances, a fundamental disregard for the principles of academic freedom, we should also be aware of the context in which these articles continue to appear. Not to discount some of the arguments made, nonetheless the tendency in some of the reporting to generalize a relatively few examples of specific behaviors into a new student culture raises the question of how widespread these trends are within higher education. Similarly, to dismiss what scholars have found to be real and significant barriers to some students’ learning (what scholars have termed “microaggressions” ) by decrying or ridiculing the fact that a few students have deployed the concept in ways that are no longer recognizable or defensible, does not encourage a deeper understanding of what are important issues, and principles, for those of us who teach and interact with students on liberal arts campuses. Nor do these articles open the way to a productive discussion of the subject, something which is desperately needed. (Those looking for a well-researched introduction to the topic of microaggressions, for example, should consult the work of Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College, Columbia University – you can start here and here – or Kevin Nadal of John Jay College, CUNY – try here.) There certainly is much which we can, and should, discuss, including what I would term the emergence of a “safety” narrative on some campuses (usually elite, selective colleges or flagship university), but the seeming intent of the back-to-school-and-the-liberal-arts-colleges-have-all-gone-crazy articles to ramp up outrage against the education that takes place in these colleges should be interrogated along with the behaviors they describe.

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Richard Bosman, The Signal, from the Olive Press Print Portfolio II, Woodcut. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

We (the approximately 130 residential liberal arts colleges that remain) are a tiny percent of the overall higher education framework in the United States today (just over 2%, to be exact). There are nearly 20 million post-secondary students in the U.S. today, and many are struggling with debt, thinking about future employment, juggling studying with jobs and families, and just trying to learn in a political environment which disparages teachers and belittles actual knowledge. While writers in the Atlantic enjoy skewering liberal arts colleges as hotbeds of “political correctism” and left-wing students run amuck, and while we can share the anxiety of those wondering how any but the very rich will be able to afford a university degree, we are, in fact, doing many things right, and the back-to-school season is a good time to remind ourselves of this. Even researchers who have launched the most serious critiques of higher education for not adding to students’ capacity to think critically (Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift, for example) have concluded that liberal arts colleges are getting it right.

So, what is it we do (and, I could add, why does it seem to make our detractors so angry)? To help answer this question, I turn to my polestar in these matters, John Dewey, and to a lovely article that the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in 1989 (“Education as Socialization and as Individualization”). In the article Rorty offers an explanation of why liberals and conservatives see the purposes of education so differently. Conservatives, he suggests, stress the importance of education for socialization while liberals argue in favor of education for individualization. (Interestingly, he observes, in the United States, education up to the age of 18 or 19 is mostly a conservative stronghold; it’s mostly about socialization, “of getting the students to take over the moral and political common sense of the society as it is.” Higher education, on the other hand, has been mostly a liberal’s domain, about encouraging Socratic skepticism, a place where “we hope that students can be distracted from their struggle to get into a high-paying profession, and that the professors will not simply try to reproduce themselves by preparing the students to enter graduate study in their own disciplines.”

Ernest C. Withers, The "Little Rock Nine" first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Ernest C. Withers, The “Little Rock Nine” first day of school, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Dewey’s approach, Rorty writes, wasn’t based on either conservative or liberal precepts. He offered “neither the conservative’s philosophical justification of democracy by reference to eternal values nor the radical’s justification by reference to decreasing alienation.” For Dewey, the promise of an education was its democratic value as an on-going experiment engaged in…by us. Dewey asks that we “put our faith in ourselves – in the utopian hope characteristic of a democratic community…” For Dewey, hope, “the ability to believe that the future will be unspecifiably different from, and unspecifiably freer than, the past – is the condition of growth.”

We, on campus, have been thinking much about both the value and valence of hope, as we pondered the words of Bryan Stevenson, of the Equal Justice Initiative, who was on campus last week and continue to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in our reading groups.

For his part, Rorty sadly observed that there now are certain aspects of the U.S. educational establishment that Dewey couldn’t have foreseen, but that we should not hold this against his vision of hope. Dewey “could not have foreseen,” he wrote, “that the United States would decide to pay its pre-college teachers a fifth of what it pays its doctors. Nor did he foresee that an increasingly greedy and heartless American middle class would let the quality of education a child received become proportional to the assessed value of the parents’ real estate.”

Rorty is a Deweyan, and, as he put it, “We Deweyans think that the social function of American colleges is to help the student see that the national narrative around which their socialization has centered is an open-ended one. It is to tempt the students to make themselves into people who can stand to their own pasts, as [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and [Susan B.] Anthony, [Eugene] Debs and [James] Baldwin, stood to their pasts. This is done by helping the students realize that, despite the progress that the present has made over the past, the good has once again become the enemy of the better. With a bit of help, the students will start noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surroundings. With luck, the best of them will succeed in altering the conventional wisdom, so that the next generation is socialized in a somewhat different way than they themselves were socialized…To hope [this way] is to remind oneself that growth is indeed the only end that democratic higher education can serve and also to remind oneself that the direction of growth is unpredictable.”

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

Diego Rivera, Open Air School (1932), Lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum (Oberlin College)

There are politicians and pundits, and, yes, some administrators, who, when reading the back-to-school lit which will make its way to their desktops, think that higher education is too important to be left in the hands of professors, let alone allow the students to have a voice in it. But I think of what it is that we have done and what we should continue to do. And I am reminded of what the Civil War historian, James McPherson, pointed out in his 1975 book, The Abolitionist’s Legacy (Princeton): an extraordinarily high percentage abolitionist leaders were shaped by their colleges. In a sample of 250 antislavery leaders, nearly 80% either had college degrees or spent time in college. This, at a moment when less than 2% of the overall population was college educated. If we are doing what we should be doing, our students, even those who might not get everything right as they attempt to cope with the world around them, what they bring with them, and what they are learning, will succeed in “noticing everything that is paltry and mean and unfree in their surrounds” – and try to change it.