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Reflections from Some Colleagues’ Classrooms

Steve Volk, March 12, 2018
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All images from Geometrical psychology, or, The science of representation: an abstract of the theories and diagrams of B. W. Betts (1887) by Louisa S. Cook, which details Benjamin Bett’s attempts to model the evolution of human consciousness through geometric forms. Full book, to see how it’s done, here.

Last week offered me the opportunity to sit in on some colleagues’ classes as part of “Open Classroom Week.” Rarely, if ever, do I get a chance to attend someone’s class unless it’s part of a formal evaluation process, either as requested by the faculty member (formative) or as part of a larger, departmental, evaluation (summative). We don’t sit in on colleagues’ classes simply to learn from what they do as teachers. Other than those who are visiting to pass judgment on our teaching, the only guests we have in our classrooms are prospective students and their parents, some Kendal residents, or the occasional emeriti who, having forgotten that they no longer teach in that room, wandered in. it’s not surprising that we remain wary about having “outsiders” in attendance. Which probably explains the brief flash of panic that crossed the face of one colleague who, after setting up in the front of the class, looked up to see me happily installed in the back row!

My take-away after attending five classes during Open Classroom Week? Absolutely fantastic!

In this “Article of the Week,” I’ll provide some feedback on my experience, which I know was shared by many of you who took part in the program and wrote me. I will also braid in some insights provided by the always-inspired Parker Palmer from The Courage to Teach. My observations are far from original, but might serve some purpose even if you’ve heard them many times. My schedule allowed me only five visits; I wish I could have attended the classes of all 17 instructors who participated in the program; I know most of you had even less time available. I picked classes from the College and the Conservatory, and from all three divisions in the College.

Some years ago, Ken Bain wrote What the Best College Teachers Do (Harvard 2004), a frequently cited text. Well, here’s what I observed our best teachers doing, and I have no doubt that I  witnessed only a tiny sample of the kind of teaching taking place across the campus every week, teaching that highlights the same quality, intensity, and deep level of student engagement as that which I observed.

Teaching in Your Own Skin

In the first place, there is no one way to teach. All the instructors brought their own style of teaching to the classroom. You could say, “well, duh” (I did warn that nothing I say will be particularly original), but one of the hardest things to figure out when one is beginning as a teacher is what will be your teacherly style, how will you be able to teach in your own skin? We come into the profession greatly influenced (for better and for worse) by those who have taught us, by our mentors. We may even spend our early years trying to imitate our mentors, a process that can easily go south. We know what they did that worked for us, but when you come right down to it, we’re kind of weird. Many of us were already deeply engrossed in our fields and could already picture ourselves standing where our teachers stood. On the other hand, relatively few of our students will follow our path into the professoriate – the times they are a- changin’ – so understanding what will make them engaged and excited about their learning is not the same as recreating what our grad school mentors did, what turned us on.

And it’s not that easy to find your own teaching persona. We hear a colleague lecture and we say, “I want to be like her.” Of course, the question is who will we be as teachers? Teaching “in your own skin” is not quite as straightforward as “being yourself,” since teaching is a performance: who we are as teachers is not always the same thing as who we are outside of the class in our “civilian” lives. Those teachers whose classes I had the pleasure to visit had all figured this out to the great benefit of their students.

The classes I visited were all taught by experienced faculty, and they shared a comfort in what they were doing which was expressed in their very different styles. Parker Palmer advises that “we teach who we are.” Teaching, he writes, “like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse.” In the end, he concludes, “knowing my students and my subject depends heavily on self-knowledge.” So, good teaching, at some basic level, requires self-knowledge. I can’t comment on what “self-knowledge” those I watched brought to their teaching, but I can say that each brought something different, and that all had different ways of engaging their students that demonstrated their great comfort and ability to teach who they are. Funny or serious, in motion or stationary, talking or listening, prodding or standing back: each had a different approach, and all demonstrated how deeply they were paying attention to the rhythms of their class and their students.

In Love with the Subject

Spanish, biology, psychology… In each class that I attended the deep affection (I think the word is appropriate) that all held for their subject was completely evident. They wore it on their sleeves, pinned to their clothes like so many badges. You, students, are not being introduced to secondary dominants in music theory because you “have to” know them (ok, you have to know them), but because they are fascinating. “Saccadic eye movement velocity” is not a term that’s thrown out to impress or to be memorized. It’s offered as a fascinating way to begin to identify panic disorders experimentally. De rerum natura? Who knew Lucretius could be so enchanting.

We are all drawn to our subjects, or, as Parker Palmer would say, our subjects chose us. Palmer found meaning by reading C. Wright Mills who taught him to view the world through the lenses of social theory, since “by putting on new lenses, we can see things that would otherwise remain invisible.” Falling in love with our subjects is often about coming to understand our own place in the world and what it is about our particular discipline that helps us comprehend what we were aching to understand. Some of us, like Palmer, come to it through books, others through experiences. I think I came to my own subject when, as a 15-year old high school exchange student in Chile, I took a night-long trip south from Santiago. We pulled into a small town at about 3:00 AM to use the bathroom and, as I stumbled out of the bus, I saw three kids, probably 6-8 years old, sleeping on the sidewalk. Trying to answer the question of why they were there was probably what drove me to study history.

However one comes to it, in every class I sat in on, the instructors were clearly in love with their subjects and communicated that affection with their students. To be sure: this won’t happen all the time. Sometimes we are in intense dislike of our disciplines because they fail us, they resist providing us the answers we demand. And, frankly, sometimes we’re too tired to manifest passion of any kind; that’s how life is. But bringing students into a discipline, i.e., into a “disciplined” way of looking at the world, is something the best teachers do with much love, not because their chosen way of understanding the world is the only one available, but because it is the one that chose them and they are eager to pass that along to their students.

Accessing Deeper Understandings

It seems a little gratuitous to say that our faculty know what they are teaching. (Another “duh” moment.) What impressed me was how they shared that knowledge with their students. Let me explain. Part of the process of coming to know a subject is to understand its complexities, intricacies, and uncertainties. To “know” history is to know more than what happened when. To “know” chemistry is to know more than the chemical notation for potassium. Knowing how complex our subjects are, we are cautious about simplifying them because we know how easily the simple can become simplistic. (It’s easier to do with fields that aren’t our “own,” and I’m quite aware that It’s something I do all the time in these articles, probably much to the annoyance of the cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists among us.) I think this is probably one of the reasons that popular science writing is so challenging: those who write or explain science for a broader public (Ira Flatow on NPR’s Science Friday: I’m looking at you!) are doubly careful about maintaining the integrity and intricacy of their subjects while helping a non-specialist audience understand what they are talking about.

That said, what I saw in all the teachers I observed was an ability to present complex ideas in a manner that helped students grab on to them at the level they are at without sacrificing complexity. There are certainly many ways to do this, often subject dependent, but, in the classes I observed the faculty usually did it by deploying a repertoire of thoughtful and appropriate analogies and carefully chosen metaphors. Some of these probably occurred to them on the spur of the moment, in response to a specific question. Others have likely been developed over time and are held in the ready, like arrows in a quiver, to use a metaphor.

Both figures of speech are extremely helpful in bringing students into complex subjects. Think about what a metaphor does. If we go with Artistotle’s definition, and why not, we read that “Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else” (Poetics (1457b). Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor (1978), writes: “Saying a thing is or is like something-it-is-not is a mental operation as old as philosophy and poetry, and the spawning ground of most kinds of understanding, including scientific understanding, and expressiveness.” Metaphor and analogy take something from one domain and place it in another. Teaching with metaphors and analogies allows the best teachers to replace the complex items in their subject with appropriate examples in a domain that is more familiar to students. Each of the teachers I observed had his or her own way to use these devices to make their subjects accessible and interesting.

Connecting to Students

Metaphor and analogy are means by which effective teachers map their domain of knowledge onto a student’s domain of interest. Like much of what we do, its success depends on context and appropriate usage. Sports metaphors can become truly obnoxious if the idea behind them is that everyone loves football. But thinking about Cortez’s encounter with Moctezuema II on a causeway into Tenochtitlán on November 8, 1519 as the equivalent of two athletes taking the field but playing completely different games and by fundamentally different rules, can bring some students to a deeper understanding of what their momentous encounter was like because it taps into their set of interests.

A lot of literature on successful pedagogical approaches emphasizes the importance of being able to connect to student interests. And yet, such an approach often smacks of the purely transactional and, frankly, is very close to pandering: We’ll show students we care if we play their music, dress like them, or learn the latest slang. Maybe we should only teach to their interests? Goodbye to most of our subjects!

Connecting with our students is no more about imitating them than being a good teacher is about imitating our mentors. This doesn’t mean that one can’t explore their “vernacular” as a way into deeper understandings. Hip-hop, to take just one example, can and has been used as an important pedagogical approach (see, for example, Hill and Petchauer, Chang, or Akom).  But helping students find fascination in a subject doesn’t require becoming an 18-year old. As often is the case, Palmer explains this best. “What we teach,” he writes, “will never ‘take’ unless it connects with the inward, living core of our students’ lives, with our students’ inward teachers.” What he means by this, I think, is at the heart of what we value so highly in a liberal arts education. It means turning extrinsic motivation (the external, the transactional, learning for the job) into intrinsic motivation (internal, meaningful, learning beyond the job). It is what we mean in our quest to shape “live-long learners” rather than adopting a singular focus on seeing that our students can land their first job after college. This doesn’t separate learning from career – anything but (and stay tuned for more on this). But it does speak to the importance of connecting to our students’ “inward teachers.”

Again, what I experienced in the classes I visited were a variety of ways, some profound, some whimsical, that faculty connected to their students’ lives and interests. They connected through their subject matter: An upper-level genetics course examined the marketing of BiDil, which Arbor Pharmaceuticals calls “the only heart failure medicine specifically indicated for self-identified African American patients,” generating a discussion about race and genetics. A history course explored how medieval writers connected ideas of sex differences with how they configured the world. Others brought the esoteric into a more common resonance through little “factoids” thrown out like bonbons: Do you know what “appoggiatura” means? Probably not. Did you know that it proved to be the winning word in the 78th Annual National Scripps Spelling Bee? Others brought in popular culture to teach particular points, listening to a YouTube video to hear how a pop singer from southern Spain aspirated her “T’s”.

Finding Our Authority

I’ve talked in the past about challenges to our authority in the classroom, challenges that are often socially determined and rooted in the ways that students (and we) perceive power. Let me close by returning to the notion of authority, once again by way of Parker Palmer. For Palmer, the ability to cultivate our “inner teacher” is a question of finding a comfortable way into our authority as teachers, into our “capacity to stand [our] ground in the midst of the complex forces of both the classroom and [our] own” lives. Authority, he points out, is not meant in the external sense of power, working from the outside in – the authority we bring to a classroom that is expressed by the fact that it is we who will determine our students’ grades. Rather, he references authority as “coming from a teacher’s inner life…as people who are perceived as authoring their own words, their own actions, their own lives… Authority comes,” he argues, when one reclaims one’s own “identity and integrity, remembering my selfhood and sense of vocation.”

What I saw in my visits were the many ways that these teachers brought their authority into the classroom. I know that the teachers whose classrooms I visited are just a few of the many here who teach with similar truth, conviction, and authority. So, my final take-away is to hope that we will continue to allow ourselves to be inspired and instructed by the many wonderful teachers who surround us and who, by authoring their lessons in the classroom, are helping our students to author their own lives.

Difficult Discussions, “Hot Moments,” and Contra-Power Harassment

Steve Volk, March 5, 2018
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Last week’s CTIE workshop on “Facilitating Discussions” focused in large part on techniques for organizing and promoting effective classroom discussions, in large part thanks to the excellent suggestions provided by workshop participants. The conversation was so rich that we only turned to the theme of “difficult discussions” in the last 20 minutes. To compensate, today’s Article of the Week will focus exclusively on those complicated, “hot moment” challenges that spring up in our classes: how to prepare for them, manage them, and learn from them. I’ve addressed this topic before (here and here), but just as the events that create a need for this conversation continue to manifest in our classes, so it’s always useful to return to the theme.

Why “Difficult Discussion” Are Necessary

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café,” Illustrated London News, 17 Sept 1870

The definition of what is a “difficult discussion” is fairly important in that most of our classroom discussions should be “difficult.” By this I mean two things. The first is tied to the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky who argued that the social engagement arising in a discussion itself is central to the way that children and adolescents learn. Cognitive structures, for Vygotsky, originate in social activity and are “inextricably linked with language, which is itself a social construct. It is through social language” that students learn the cognitive and “communicative tools and skills of their culture.” This also relates to Vygotsky’s notion of the “zone of proximal development.” To put this simply (perhaps simplistically), there are tasks that students can do without any outside help. Activity that remains within that zone will quickly become boring; no learning will occur. Similarly, there are tasks that students are not able to do by themselves at the beginning. Setting up activities in this zone without providing support will guarantee failure and frustration. Optimal learning takes place in a “zone of proximal development” where learners, aided by the social context provided by teachers and peers, push beyond what they already know into new learning. In that sense (and I hope to be forgiven by the psychologists among us who are probably appalled by my presentation), learning occurs when students, scaffolded by the support they receive from teachers and peers, are thrust into the unfamiliar, the difficult. The discussions that provoke learning, then, are almost by definition, “difficult.”

Difficult discussions can be useful in a second way, most recently and poignantly described by Elizabeth Barnes, a philosopher at the University of Virginia, in “Arguments That Harm – And Why We Need Them.” Barnes begins by asking whether some ideas are “so offensive that they shouldn’t be engaged with?” Focusing on Peter Singer’s work on disability (“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed…”), which she finds “offensive, to say the least,” she concludes that, for a variety of reasons, “it is literally my job to think and talk about difficult ideas. The discomfort and hurt when dealing with views like Singer’s are real. But if I’m unwilling to take on a measure of discomfort, given how much privilege I have and how little I have to lose, then I’m not sure I’m using the privilege of an academic life the way I ought to be.” (I would not be doing justice to the richness of her argument if I didn’t also reference her argument that “there are some ideas that shouldn’t be engaged with.”)

So, by referring to “difficult” discussions, I’m talking about both the need to address difficult topics and other kinds of challenges, particularly challenges rooted in one’s identity, that can, and do, arise in our classes.

Three Kinds of Challenge

There are many ways that such problematic conversations can arise, but here I’ll focus on only three. They have to do with:

  1. Content: There are topics in our culture which have proven to be incredibly fraught, topics that we, as a society, are not good at discussing. Race is probably at the top of the list. While managing conversations about race or sexuality or privilege requires a tremendous amount of skill for those whose academic training is in these fields, even thinking about guiding such discussions can immobilize many of the rest of us, leaving us to hope that these subjects don’t arise in our classes. And yet we live and teach in the United States in the early 21st century: these topics are part of our students’ lives, and our lives, whether we are prepared to teach them or not.
  2. Silencing and Self-Censorship: Mark Twain once observed, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” I remember coming home after my first year at college practically bursting out of my new tweed sports jacket, eager to show my parents just how little they knew about the war in Vietnam or the civil rights movement. Oy gevalt! Late adolescents and young adults can be merciless to their peers as well as their “elders,” provisioned as they are with lots of new knowledge but not the commensurate skill set that would help them engage productively in conversations. Discussions in our classes can become difficult when students explicitly demean or otherwise rip into their peers for views that the latter express, or when students self-censor their comments for fear (whether real or imagined) of immediate or later reprisals.
  3. Challenges to Authority: Talk about contradictions! On the one hand, we crave students who challenge our ideas, taking issue with the readings we have assigned or drawing very different conclusions than we might have expected. On the other, when these become what has been termed “contra-power” harassment, challenges to our authority as teachers based on our identities and not our ideas, that’s a very different matter. There is no question that this topic, even more than the previous ones, is highly contextual. It’s not that a student’s challenge to a senior, white male faculty member teaching a course on – say – Latin American history is particularly easy to handle. But contra-power challenges to the authority of a junior, Black, female professor are of a different order of magnitude altogether.

In this article, I’ll focus more on “hot moments” in class that can unexpectedly arise, rather than on teaching planned course material that deals with very contentious issues. For that (and much else) I’d recommend Kay Landis, ed., Start Taking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (University of Alaska Anchorage, 2008). The book is available as a free download, so what are you waiting for?

Start at the Start

Establishing class “rules of engagement” is the single best way to prepare for the difficult discussions that might come. Class rules won’t put an end to difficult discussions, but they can help you manage them. Whether you establish the framework for classroom behavior or you encourage your students to write their own guidelines, it will help to have some previously agreed upon procedures to turn to when conflict arises. (I would note that rules written by the students themselves have a greater authority in these moments than rules that you have presented without discussion.)

Rules should cover some obvious (if easily ignored) terrain:

  • treating everyone with respect
  • listening without interrupting
  • allowing everyone the chance to participate
  • prohibiting name-calling or character attacks
  • encouraging questions when something isn’t understood
  • never assuming that one knows what another person is thinking
  • avoiding assumptions about class members or generalizations about social groups
  • not asking individuals to speak for their (perceived) social group

You can go a step further by establishing guidelines that can help you achieve the intellectual seriousness required by the learning process:

  • Maintaining confidentiality, pledging to keep the classroom as a “safe” space, a space in which students can work through their understanding of an issue without fear that rhetorical missteps, a lack of knowledge, probing questions, or unpopular positions will be used to attack them on social media or in face-to-face interactions outside of class. If students are public with their own thinking, whether hegemonic or heterodox, that’s on them, but what occurs in the classroom stays in the classroom.
  • Responding to a speaker’s comments is a complex act that can usefully be discussed. And here we’re not talking about interrupting or yelling, which should not be allowed. But it is one thing to discourage body-language signaling when in disagreement (eye-rolling, looks of exasperation), and another to suggest that students must remain in rigid (and, let’s be honest, white, middle-class) silence when in agreement. Perhaps you’ll find it OK to let students snap their fingers, or say “un-huh” when they agree. Responses are not without cultural histories and practices, and even discussing them can create an environment that makes difficult discussions less difficult.

If you are the one coming up with the rules, you need to explain why they are there and what is their intended purpose. If students come up with them, have them discuss why they think they are necessary, what purpose they are to serve.

The final point here is that coming up with classroom conduct guidelines in the first week does not free you from the need to remind everyone of them often, both when they are breached and as a way of reminding everyone of what was agreed upon earlier. (A recent book by Frances E. Jensen on The Teenage Brain notes that prospective memory – the ability to hold in one’s mind the intention to perform a certain action at a future time – is associated with the frontal lobes of the brain. This area develops significantly between 6-10 years old, and then again in the twenties; not so much in between. In other words, forgetting is not simply a function of not paying attention. Blame their brains!)

Handling “Hot Moments” in Class

Mr. Vesuvius erupting, photo by Tempest Anderson, Yorkshire Museum

It is possible that many of you, fortunate readers, have never had a “hot moment” experience in class – the unexpected flash where tension crystalizes in a comment, gesture, or action that cuts across the normal flow of things. But most of us have experienced such moments. These can be contra-power challenges to you (“I find it really racist that you’ve assigned this text”), confrontations with peers (“like she would know!”), or pronounced physical reactions to something that has happened, and you might not even know what (a loud groan, the student who walks out in tears). In each example, you didn’t see it coming. 

I suppose the good news is that you can prepare for “hot moments” as well as for the class where you know that the content will be contentious. Here are a few responses to consider, keeping in mind that sometimes the best response to a challenge, particularly when directed at you, is to ignore it in class and take it up in a different venue. I’ve gathered the suggestions below from a few sources (which you’ll find at the end of the article), as well as my own experiences.

  • Allow speakers to clarify their comments: Sometimes we launch full speed into a discussion of something that actually wasn’t intended in the way it emerged from a student’s mouth. Asking for clarification can prevent this unnecessary detour as well as allowing the speaker more space to more fully consider what he or she just said.
    • Did I understand you correctly? Did you really intend to say that? Let me summarize what you said: Is that right? Can you expand on that statement so we can understand it more fully?
  • If the comment was, indeed, intended and the student chose not to amend it, you can discuss the impact of specific language choices or words used. If you choose, you can explain why a particular approach or choice of language used raises the stakes of the conversation, especially if you think that some students don’t understand or respect the likely emotional responses of other students.
    • Let’s remember that we may be talking about classmates when we say… I can imagine that your use of that metaphor could easily feel like an insult to… There are good reasons why some people will find it hard to take your comments seriously after you use such language. I worry about the impact of those words on students who have experienced…
  • Where a conversation is running aground on the basis of differing conclusions that the students are coming to, try to help them find evidence for their positions or look for remaining questions to be answered. You can write on the board: “what is known” (evidence from the readings, lectures, etc.), “what is disputed” (is there contradictory evidence?), and “what they want to know more about” (remaining questions).
  • Remind students of your class guidelines. This can be useful in a number of contexts, both in terms of inappropriate verbal acts as well as disruptive non-speech acts (pronounced groans, eye-rolling, angry looks, etc.).
    • Remember when you insisted that we include a statement on our class guidelines that said we should try not to personalize viewpoints?
    • Remember the class guidelines that require that we treat each other with respect even if we dislike their ideas? If you don’t like what you heard, present an argument that can be discussed.
  • Depersonalize the issue: Try to separate the comment from the person who said it, and introduce the topic into a broader discussion:
    • A lot of people think that. Why do you think they do? Are there other ways of looking at this? Is someone willing to share a different view?
  • Engage the entire class: As with the previous example, this move allows you to broaden the discussion, taking it away from a single, adversarial student and allowing you, if possible, to tie the comment to something you have been examining in class:
    • Do others have concerns they want to share? How does this relate to what we were discussing/reading last week?
  • Help students to think of themselves as teachers as well as students. I’ll repeat what I wrote in an earlier Article of the Week: Quite often I have found that students who feel that they have attained a certain expertise in particular topics (often those related to contentious subjects such as identity, race, gender, sexuality, etc.) will “call out” (“correct” or challenge) peers who may lack the vocabulary or conceptual background in the field, or who perhaps just disagree with them. The discussion or disagreement can be useful; the tone not so much. I have found it useful to reminded students that we are all both learners and teachers, and that a good teacher is one who helps others understand, or provide a way into, complex topics. And this is best done with patience, empathy, and some recognition that one doesn’t always have the “correct” answer. When a student takes exception to the way someone has phrased a comment, ask that person to try to present a critique or correction in a way that all can learn from it or can be invited into a discussion rather than feeling shut out, intimidated, or silenced.
  • Reflect through writing: If an incident was significantly disruptive, or if the topic is producing nothing but silence, have the students reflect and write for 5 minutes. They can write about what they are feeling and thinking about the incident that just occurred in class, why the topic and your invitation to discuss it has produced silence, and why they don’t feel that they can talk about it out loud. You can ask a few students to share their comments or, if that seems too fraught, collect them and use them as a way to prepare a future class.
  • If someone rushes out of your class in distress, send a friend to be with them.
  • Help students move ahead. Sometimes our impulse is to avoid these difficult moments or to get them over with as quickly as possible. We can help move on from the eruption by suggesting ways to transition away from the “hot moment” without at the same time ignoring or burying it:
    • One of the things that this discussion demonstrated was the problem of generalizing from a particular experience.
    • Let’s keep these points in mind as we get back to the topic we were discussing…

Contra-Power Challenges

It’s hard enough to manage a difficult discussion, let alone one that challenges your authority in the classroom. To be clear, these are challenges which go beyond a disagreement with something you have said – which we often welcome – and largely involve your identity. What you have said, the readings you have assigned, the topics you have brought up, and even your “right” to be teaching a particular course, are contested because of who you are. A few students can be quite adept at saying things in ways that can trigger our emotional reactions and push all our buttons: Why are you even teaching this course? I refuse to read this book – it’s clearly racist and homophobic! I just looked it up and, actually, the correct date is…

It’s a lot easier to suggest that your best response in these situations is to recognize that your buttons have just been pushed and to stay calm and maintain your perspective than it is to actually do so. But, if you are able, attempt to turn the criticism into a broader discussion, while trying to prevent a one-on-one dispute with a student:

  • So, the way you said that suggests that there is strong link between one’s identity and knowledge. That provokes a strong response in me, because it challenges my qualifications to understand and teach a subject because of who I am. OK, let’s look at that. To what extent does one’s social location limit or inform the questions she asks? Does identity constrain knowledge and, if so, how? Do identity and social formation give insights that others who don’t share that identity can’t obtain? What additions would you recommend to the syllabus?

Easier said than done, and there are times that the emotions that have been triggered in you are such that you need to let the moment pass, either to return to later, or to discuss outside of class (see below). If you need some time to collect your thoughts, give the students a brief writing exercise, perhaps suggesting that they reflect on whether the discussion reflected class guidelines, or discussing the difference between comments intended to trigger and arguments that can lead to debate.

Taking it Outside

There are times when you find yourself at an impasse in class, either with a particular student, or in terms of the larger discussion. At that moment the best approach is to move on and think of what can be done outside of class.

  • Invite the student who challenged you to come to office hours where you can discuss the issues that were raised in class in a less freighted atmosphere. You can show that you care about the student’s learning, and want to follow up on comments that were raised in class that were important but couldn’t be dealt with at the moment.
  • Follow up with the distressed student who left class, encouraging him or her to come visit you and to bring a friend if that would help.
  • Follow up with the class as a whole via email, either reflecting on the discussion now that you have had time to absorb it more fully, or discussing questions that were raised that you would like them to think about before the next class.

Finally, if you have been caught up in these “hot moments,” in any form that they take, you will know how truly debilitating they can be. It is vital that you connect with your own support network at these moments: talk it through with colleagues, friends, or partners. You are not the only one to go through this, so don’t keep it to yourself. If you feel that something that was said in class rose to the level of a threat or negatively impacted your ability to teach the class, talk to your department/program chair or the Dean.

I’d like to say that accumulated experience with “hot moments” in the class lessens their emotional impact on you, but It doesn’t. Still, experience does give you a broader repertoire of responses that you can draw upon and makes you aware that the class will go on, and that, because of your skills, students will continue to learn.


City University of New York, Handbook for Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom,

Kay Landis, ed. Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University), 2008.

University of Michigan, Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, “Making the Most of ‘Hot Moments’ in the Classroom,” and “Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics.”

Vanderbilt University, Center for Teaching, “Difficult Dialogues.”

Open Your Doors!

Steve Volk, Feb. 26, 2018
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Diego Rivera, “Open Air School” (1932), lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

I fell in love with Diego Rivera’s lithograph, “Open-Air School” when I first saw it many years ago. An indigenous teacher, surrounded by her multi-generational students, sits at the edge of a field, open book in hand. In the distance, we see campesinos working the fields with their horses. A lone, armed horseman watches over the class, locating the lithograph in its historical setting, the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. Those who fought the Revolution promised to bring literacy to the masses, a goal that was not necessarily welcomed by conservatives (nor always observed by government officials). In a process that would foreshadow literacy campaigns in Cuba in the 1960s and Nicaragua in the 1980s, young literacy workers fanned out across the countryside, teaching reading and writing to those too poor to go to have attended school previously.

Literacy campaign, Nicaragua.

Many times, as in Rivera’s lithograph, which I was delighted to find in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, they taught their classes out of doors, in open air schools. And while, because of recent events, my attention immediately shifted to the man on horseback, the vigilant guard who was needed to secure the students their right to learn and the teacher her right to teach, I have always been struck by the openness embodied in the image, the way in which teaching and learning unfold in an enveloping environment rather than closeted away behind closed doors.

Alone Together

Much of what we do as academics, we do alone. Research, writing, and creative artistry all require considerable solitary time. We are alone in our offices, studies, labs, studios, and practice rooms for a good part of the time when we’re not teaching, although maybe not for as much as we would desire. What is more, when we’re teaching, we’re strangely alone even though surrounded by students. The western model of teaching, at least since universities came on the scene almost 1,000 years ago, is one in which teaching takes place behind closed doors: teacher and students, the expert and the learners. We do our teaching in the privacy of our closed-door classrooms, even if a few of us move outside at the slightest hint of a spring thaw.

Cours de philosophie à Paris Grandes chroniques de France, late 14th century. Public domain.
fin XIVe siècle

There are obvious reasons why this is a reasonable approach to our task as educators, but the closed-door model has more than its share of downsides. For me, this is not so much a question of the desirability of, literally, “open air” teaching, of being in nature, as much as it is about the benefits that can come when we open our classroom doors both literally and figuratively to let colleagues in to share our practice. I don’t think it’s too great an exaggeration to say that we have precious little sense of how our colleagues teach, what methods they use, or how they engage their students, in our own departments and programs, let alone others. All of which is a shame, since we can take pride in our abundance of exceptionally thoughtful and accomplished teachers.

The other problematic aspect of teaching solo, behind closed doors, is that we’re often convinced that we are the only ones who face difficult questions in the class, students who have become strangely cold, a classroom that has gone quiet, or technology that has just crapped out on us. We are alone even though there are scores of us going through the exactly the same things.

If we don’t open our doors to others, it’s likely because opening our classrooms to outside observers generally is freighted with negative, or at least anxiety-producing, connotations. When colleagues visit our classes, their purpose more often than not is to sit in judgment. They are there in order to provide some kind of required, summative evaluation, for annual review purposes, or at tenure time. And while presidents or deans may pop in to observe, a welcome gesture carried out to get a better sense of the institution, knowing they are coming to your class tomorrow can provoke acute gastric distress the evening before. And if you know that they (the review committee, the college president, the department chair) are coming, you will likely be up late into the night preparing in an especially rigorous manner.  There’s a joke from the UK that the Queen associates hospitals with the smell of fresh paint because every time she visits one, all the corridors have been touched up in anticipation of the royal arrival. Knowing that your colleagues are coming to evaluate your performance, you bring out the fresh paint.

Open Class Week

So, how can we open our classrooms and share our experiences without causing anxiety or disrupting on-going lessons? Here’s a plan.

During the week beginning Monday, March 5, CTIE will be sponsoring an “Open Classroom Week.” Faculty and staff are encouraged that week to throw open the doors to one or more of their classes, labs, or studios to welcome visits from colleagues. We hope this will be seen as an invitation to open up the teaching and learning process, normalizing (to ourselves and our students) the notion that we have much to learn from each other, and promoting cross-campus conversations about our approaches to pedagogy. Opening our classes during this week is intended as an encouragement for faculty to invite colleagues into their classes on a regular basis, as a way of normalizing the process of getting helpful feedback from colleagues we trust while removing the “fresh paint” anxieties that are a part of the way observations currently take place.

So, here’s what Open Classroom Week is (and isn’t) and how you can participate. Faculty who want to participate by opening their classes will indicate the classes and times during that week when they would be willing to have colleagues visit their class/es. (You can access the form here.) Those who want to participate – and it would be phenomenal if lots and lots of you did, from all parts of the College and Conservatory – should indicate the basic type of class you are teaching (e.g. seminar, lecture, discussion, etc.) and any particular pedagogical approach that they will be using (e.g., active lecture, community-based pedagogy, Socratic dialogue, etc.). I will compile and post a list of all the classes that are available so that those who want to visit a class can plan accordingly. (Please note: this is only for Oberlin faculty and staff; visitors to campus should go through the usual procedures in the Admissions office or elsewhere.)

Alexander Calder, “Open the Door and Let Me Through…” (1944), pen and ink on paper. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Those who visit a class should do their best to arrive a few minutes before class begins so that they can introduce themselves to the instructor. Visitors should sit at the back of the class in larger classroom or ask the instructor where to sit in smaller seminars. Instructors don’t have to acknowledge the presence of class visitors, but I’d strongly recommend that you do call attention to the “Open Classroom Week,” indicating that it is part of a project of encouraging cross-class visits among faculty as a way of breaking down barriers, sharing expertise, and promoting productive interactions across the campus. It’s important for students to recognize that we learn by observing others and by inviting feedback and discussion.

Class visitors are not expected to participate in the class. They can take notes for their own purposes, and if they have follow-up questions that can encourage dialogue, they should contact the instructor by email or in person. But, to be clear, the visits are not for assessment purposes. While a visitor’s notes can be shared between visitor and instructor, they are not public and should remain confidential.

I would strongly recommend that those interested in visiting other classes consider attending courses in different departments and divisions from the one in which they teach. Sit in on a science lecture if you are a creative writing instructor; attend an aural skills class if you teach math. Meet some new colleagues and see how others engage their students.

The week will come to an end with a “Talking Teaching” social hour hosted by CTIE on Friday, March 9 (5:00-6:00) in StudiOC, where all who participated, visitors and visited alike, and others even if you didn’t participate, are encouraged to share drinks and talk.

To participate in “Open Class Week,” please visit this link or let me know if you have any questions.

Teaching with Tenderness

Steve Volk, February 19, 2018

Always start with the names:

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bird and Mallow Flowers (ca. 1842), Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College



Alyssa Alhadeff
Scott Beigel
Martin Duque Anguiano
Nicholas Dworet
Aaron Feis
Jamie Guttenberg
Chris Hixon
Luke Hoyer
Cara Loughran
Gina Montalto
Joaquin Olivier
Alaina Petty
Meadow Pollack
Helena Ramsay
Alex Schachter
Carmen Schentrup
Peter Wang

Victims of the Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. Since Adam Lanza killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been more than 140 school shootings in the United States. And, of course, those were preceded by Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and too many others.


How do we respond?

The appalling toll of gun violence in this country should need no reminding. But when we, as teachers, read of school massacres, it is a kick to the gut. Again. As individuals, we feel anger and sadness, rage and compassion all at the same time. Our empathy with the victims is strong. But as teachers, our response is direct and visceral; we feel a need to hold our students, a deep desire to protect them even as we know we can’t.

How do we respond?

Do we talk to them about Parkland? Do we talk to them about Albert E. Morton, a 31 year old Black man who was shot and killed by police while driving in his car in Harrisburg, PA, one of 123 people shot and killed by police in 2018? Do we talk to them about 20-year old Alexis G. who was deported to Mexico, a country he doesn’t know, in June 2017 after having lived almost his whole life United States? “If I were to sing an anthem right now, it would be the Star-Spangled Banner,” he said before being deported.

We shouldn’t be surprised if our students preferred to get on with their French lesson or hunker down in the biology lab, totally reasonable responses. And, since I never know what approach students would choose, I always check with then, and then follow their lead. So, I asked some students I’m working with how they reacted to the news of the Douglas High shootings. They all said the same thing: they have grown numb, anesthetized to events that have become commonplace in the United States. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said.  Since Sandy Hook, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide in which 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed. I had forgotten the date of the Columbine massacre, so I looked it up: 1999, which means that school massacres have been part of our students’ reality for their entire lives.

That was the end of our conversation. They wanted to get down to the work at hand. But I continued to think about how we respond to these criminal moments that crash into our daily existence. I refuse to call these events “tragedies.” As Simone Weil once pointed out, tragedy arises from a situation where one absolute obligation comes into conflict with another. Being in this country without documentation is a tragedy; massacring school kids is a crime. But how do we respond? How do we react to these continual horrors without always talking about them? Is there is a way to answer the violence around us without being overtaken by it? How can we help our students cope with trauma without forcing them to continually reflect on traumatic events?

“We are not all that is possible,” June Jordan, the remarkable poet wrote in “Outside Language.” “None of us has ever really experienced justice. None of us has known enough tenderness.”

“None of us has known enough tenderness.” The answer suggested in Jordan’s poem led me to Becky Thompson’s most recent book – which opens with Jordan’s poem as an epigraph. Thompson, who describes herself as anti-racist and feminist, a sociology professor, and yoga instructor, invites her readers to practice a “pedagogy of tenderness.” In Teaching with Tenderness, she suggests how we might adopt “gentler ways” of teaching. For those whose new-age bullshit antennae have begun to waggle uncontrollably, stay with this, at least for a few more paragraphs. I’m not going to talk about sitting in a circle and holding hands – although I could and she does. And I’m not going to suggest that our fundamental purpose as teachers is to make our students feel better. Teaching with tenderness, Thompson offers, is about locating our teaching not just in models of intimacy, but also in forms of intensity and intellectual depth. Teaching with tenderness is about improving student learning, as well as their mental health, by lending attention to emotions as well as cognition, body as well as mind.


Utagawa Hiroshige, Autumn Flowers on the Otsuki Plain in Kai Province, no. 31 from the series Thirty-six Views of Mt. Fuji
(1858), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Rituals are important in life events, from birth to death, and, Thompson argues, in class events, from first class to last.  She begins the semester with her students’ names (one reason why I began this article with names). I’ve written before about the importance of learning names at the start of class, and, when possible, taking steps to help everyone remember each other’s name. I’ve always thought of this as a form of simple politeness and inclusion. But Thompson suggests that there are deeper reasons than courtesy for this practice. We start with names because unnaming, removing names as was done through enslavement or during the Holocaust, and as is done in prisons today, is a radical form of dehumanization. Naming, then, is a step toward recognizing each other’s humanity by calling attention to the fact that names matter, “they hold stories to people’s heritage, to what they know or don’t know about their ancestors, to gender. It is a start in seeing each other” (42).

Thompson starts each semester with all the students sharing their whole name, where it came from, what it means, and how they feel about their names. The process begins with the first student, and each student thereafter has to repeat the names of all who preceded them.

Naming is one ritual, and Thompson’s classes are marked by others, such as checking-in at the start of class, and reflection at the end. It is her way of always honoring the students as individuals, as humans who stand at the center of her practice of teaching. It is a means of teaching with tenderness. 

Embodied Teaching

After many years of teaching, Thompson came to the realization that she “was passing on to my students some of the same costs I had paid to become an academic. When I was finishing one of my earlier books…I began to realize that the academy asked people to trade in their body parts, anything below the neck, in order to be successful. I remember feeling like I had ransomed off all of my body parts, except my head, in order to finish the book…After I finished, I realized that I wanted my body parts back – my legs, my arms, my core, my feelings especially…” (pp. 36-37). Tyrone Simpson, one of her colleagues at Simmons College, speaks of the academy as a “decorporealizing process.” Holding a Ph.D., he observes, is the proof that you have been “willing to be out of your body for an extended period of time.”

Utagawa Hiroshige, Akasaka, no. 57 from the series Sixty-nine Stations on the Kisokaidō (late 1830s), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Which is kind of weird, when you think about it, because both learning and teaching are fundamentally embodied practices. Stephen Cope writes that mind and body are “different points in the spectrum of subtlety…The body is a gross form of consciousness. The mind is a more subtle form of consciousness.” But we know this on a more obvious level: the process of imagining, studying, planning, analyzing, and creating continually bump into and interact with the limitations of our physical selves. We are tired, hungry, suffering various aches and pains. Thinking has embodied limitation. As does teaching: since we haven’t yet been replaced by robots, we still teach in our bodies, whether standing or sitting, whether we want to or not.

When Thompson remarked that the academy “asked people to trade in their body parts,” other than the brain, in order to succeed, she was speaking not only to the fact that most of us live extraordinarily sedentary lives, parked in chairs, staring at computer screens. And even if we move around class when we teach, our students remain largely stationary. (Indeed, one frightening aspect of the state of education today is that young children, beginning in the pre-school years, are required to spend more and more time glued to their desks, toiling away at “paper and pencil” tasks.)

Does “disembodiment” really matter for us, who teach college students who (generally) know how to stay (relatively) still for 50 or 75 minutes or longer? Absolutely. Consider the following: It’s Tuesday afternoon at 1:45. Class has been going on for 45 minutes and your students’ eyes have begun to glaze over; even you are feeling the energy leaving you drop by drop. What do we do? If I’m any example, we probably just soldier on, ignoring the tired or restless bodies. Or, we could take approximately 1 minute to have the students stand up and “shake it out.” Now, which approach will have the greatest impact on student learning? You can answer that.

Thompson was one of Maurice Stein’s graduate assistants at Brandeis University. Stein, a sociologist, was already a legendary instructor 50 years ago when I was an undergraduate there (he retired in 2002), and he evidently got even better over time. He always resisted the notion that there was one specific model for good teaching, suggesting that “there are probably as many possibilities as there are varieties of human beings doing the job of teaching.” When Maury felt a lull in the class’s energy, Thompson reports, he would insist that everyone get up and do the hokey pokey. “People thought that was hilarious, embarrassing, and silly,” she writes, “allowing them to roll their eyes at him as they twirled around. Perhaps because Maury is a serious scholar, and chose seriously intense books, he could get away with this frivolity, knowing that tenderness is a quality that balances between joy and rage, despair and hope” (35).

Utagawa Hiroshige, Catching Fireflies on the Uji River, from the series Famous Places in the Provinces (late 1830s), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Embodied teaching, of course, is neither easy nor straightforward. Tyrone Simpson, Thompson’s aforementioned colleague, is a “six-foot-one Black man with dreadlocks” who teaches in the “white space” of Simmons College. He can neither deny his body (“I am a walking limb,” he remarks), at the same time that his context requires him “to render invisible his own thoughts and experience of embodiment.” Further, the important feminist work to politicize sexual harassment has been used to render problematic attention to the body in the workplace. Nevertheless, keeping these in mind, there is pedagogic value in recognizing our own embodied ways and those of our students.

Emotional Amplitude

Thompson’s teaching-with-tenderness pedagogy is conscious of the impact of emotions on the learning process. She is a sociologist, not a psychologist, but significant psychological research has confirmed the links between emotions and learning/memory (in both positive and negative directions), and suggested that students’ emotions influence self-regulated learning and motivation, and these, in turn, impact academic achievement. Maury Stein, Thompson’s mentor, argued that it was important for students to develop both their intellectual and their emotional amplitude, and it is a lesson that Thompson uses in her approach to “teaching with tenderness.”

Allowing, let alone welcoming, emotions into class is complex and often fraught. It is difficult both for classes like macroeconomics or statistics, where the subject matter doesn’t lend itself as a “natural” outlet for emotion, as well as in classes whose subject matter foregrounds issues of social justice, particularly, she writes, as “colonialism, militarism, racism, and patriarchy remain structural impediments to tenderness” (15).  Yet the emotional life of students in either context will not be denied. Teachers need to be aware of our students’ anxieties, their feelings of being imposters in intense academic settings, or the emotional turmoil that may undermine their ability to concentrate, even as we know that we will not be privy to the specifics of their emotional states. We need to be conscious of how emotions can be launched by the subject of the class, and of our own role in dealing with the consequences. Thompson describes how she often “back[ed] people against the wall” when teaching about power and privilege, setting people apart from each other. “What I didn’t know early in my teaching,” she writes, “is that creating multiracial communities required finding ways to teach about power and privilege that loosened people up rather than hardened them, that countered defensiveness, that helped people get to a soft place with each other” (36).

Over time, she became more aware of how to deal with student anger and intensity, and the “complicated emotions that surface when examining oppressions, including how they are reproduced in class dynamics” (46). She now addresses these in a variety of ways, often through ritual, reminding students of their shared humanity by repeating part of the “Who Am I” naming procedure in every class, by changing her mid-semester evaluations (students evaluate teacher and course content, and their own participation and work of class as a collective; these are passed out randomly and, protecting student anonymity, students then read aloud their classmate’s commentary), and by introducing more literature into her classes. In this she took a lesson from the Puerto Rican poet, Martín Espada, who realized in his own work that the more horrific an event was that he was writing about, the more beautiful the language needed to be, to “keep the readers’ hearts open as they read.”

Nor are these lessons only for our students. “Teaching with tenderness,” Thompson writes, “involves a promise we make to each other, and a way of living, requiring consistent and radical acts of self-care…Tenderness opens us up to grieving, to ambivalence, to anger, to confusion…not easy feelings for sure.”

Slow Pedagogy

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bridge at Tsurumi, from the series Interesting Rest Stops at Towns Between the Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō (1919), Allen Memorial Art Museum

Teaching with “tenderness” demands that we slow down the pace, helping to pull students out of the frantic rhythms of the news cycle that technology dumps into our laptops, and into more deliberate and contemplative modalities. Practices that slow our students down can help them resist the temptation to jump after every shiny thing that comes across their screens, to focus, and to engage with each other and with the subjects of their study with depth and respect. Holding them in front of a painting in the museum so they can become trained at careful observation, whether for use in their labs or in their daily lives; cultivating the patience they need to read a text closely, whether they are reading the news or a novel: these are practices that can help our students respond to the world around them with resilience and compassion. But above all, teaching with tenderness requires helping our students develop as respectful and active listeners.

“In academic culture,” Mary Rose O’Reilley writes, “we tend to pay attention only long enough to develop a counterargument…In society at large, people only listen with an agenda… Seldom is there a deep, open-hearted nonjudgmental reception of the other…By contrast, if someone truly listens to me, my spirit begins to expand.”

The same theme is woven through Anna Deavere Smith’s review of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, a novel, she writes, which “honors paying attention: seeing, listening, and, finally, singing. The novel inspires me to think that we need new songs, new ways of seeing, new ways of listening.” The importance of fashioning new ways of listening was, for me, the most important lesson of Thompson’s book as I tried to answer the question of how we respond to these continual moments of anger, frustration, sadness, and loss. “In the face of individual and collective deaths,” she writes, “we may not be able to fix anything. The most we can often do is listen.”

Digital Distractions? Technology, Teaching and Learning in the Contemporary Classroom

Steve Volk, February 12, 2018
Contact at:

In my current day job, leading Oberlin’s teaching and learning center, I am frequently asked to observe colleagues’ classes to offer some “formative” feedback, remarks that go to them alone, not to department chairs or deans. (Let me know if you would like me to sit in on one of your classes, by the way.) Many of these classes are relatively large, and I park myself in the back of the class where I have a clear view of the class, including the students’ laptops and phones. Oh, the things I have seen! Chats and texts, Amazon purchases, sporting events and Netflix movies, emails and emoticons.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed the disruption and distraction that digital devices introduce into the classroom, adding to the potential for a wandering attention that was already present in a pre-internet age. Reporting on the dangers of digital distraction is no longer confined to academic journals or the education press. Articles in Forbes (“Students spend nearly 21% of class time using a digital device for an unrelated activity like email or social media…They also check a digital device 10.5 times per class day on average”), the New York Times (“A growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures”), Fortune (“Score one for the Luddites. Taking notes with pen and paper may be more effective than with a laptop or tablet, studies show”), and myriad other sources have reported on the research findings (usually citing the same research study).

While I’ll go over some of these research findings in this article, let me summarize them here for those who are just about to stop reading so they can look at that text that just came in…

Digital technologies (cell phones, tablets, and laptops) have been shown to have a negative impact on a student’s ability to concentrate in class. They can prove almost irresistible both for the user and for those sitting nearby – a “second-hand smoke” effect. On top of this, some persuasive research suggests that even “legitimate” technology use, taking notes on a laptop, for example, can impede learning when compared with taking notes by hand. All of this provides a cogent argument for banning (with some exceptions) digital devices in the class room. My point in this article is to encourage you to think twice before adopting such bans.

In this article – which is based on the research literature and a recent CTIE workshop on the topic – I’ll  summarize some of the research about the impact of digital technology in the classroom, suggest some unintended consequences of outright digital bans, encourage you to consider policies that stop short of banning all devices, and, above all, suggest that encouraging your students to design a technology policy for the class, based on an informed discussion, may be the best approach of all.

What is Distraction?

Henriette Browne ( pseudonym for Mme Jules de Saux, née Sophie Boutellier), “A Girl Writing” (1870), (c) V&A Museum

Let’s begin by addressing the question of what is distraction. (Much of this is drawn from James Lang’s review in the Chronicle of Higher Education of Adam Gazzaley (neuroscientist) and Larry D. Rosen’s (psychologist), The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT, 2016). Lang recommends the book as “required reading for every teacher today.”) Distractions, the authors suggest, are about something blocking our efforts to achieve a goal that matters. Multitasking (texting, listening to music, watching a video, making a cup of coffee, reading email, etc.) on a lazy Sunday afternoon is not a distraction. Doing the same when studying for a calculus exam is.

Distraction, Gazzaley and Rosen argue, is the result of a conflict between our brain’s ability to conceive and plan long-term goals and our ability to control our minds and our environment as we work to complete those goals. To understand distraction, picture a huge wave (our goals) crashing into a sea-wall represented by the limitations to our cognitive control which “diminish our ability to direct and sustain our attention, to remember things, and to switch back and forth between tasks.” Barriers to sustained attention will always be there, but they don’t always defeat the pursuit of our goals. Further, what these barriers (limitations) are change over the course of our lives: they were different when we were children, are different for our students, and are different for us now.

OK, hold on to that thought (if you can!), as we’ll come back to it when talking about how to develop new approaches to digital distractions in the classroom that focus on helping our students (and ourselves) set and pursue goals.

When Digital Is Distracting: Cell Phones

It’s so annoying when I’m giving a lecture and half the students are talking on their mobiles! Well, duh! No one (at least no one I know) permits students to talk on their phones in class. And we don’t allow students to check their phones for texts, email, or interact with social media while in class. Of course, the fact that we don’t allow this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. (I’m always amused by student who are convinced of their own superpower: invisibility. They don’t think that we can see them looking down toward their laps while we’re talking away at the front of the class.) A study in 2012 found that 53% of undergraduate students at one university reported texting during class; a 2014 examination of 99 college students during a 20-minute lecture found that the average amount of texts sent and received among each student was 26.29 (14.10 sent, 12.69 received). Let me say that again: a 20-minute lecture, so, for each minute of class, students were sending or receiving more than one text.

According to a recently released survey conducted by Top Hat, 94% of students said they “wanted to use their cell phones in class for academic purposes,” and 75% believe using personal devices in the classroom improved their ability to learn and retain information even though more than half reported using their cell phones to text friends or browse social media. And these are among the more “optimistic” numbers. Other studies report 86% of students sending text messages in class, or 94% of students using their cell phones for non-academic purposes in class, or 125% of students using their cell phones to play Candy Crush in class. (OK, I made up that last one just to see if you were still paying attention.) But you get the idea.

Is this distracting? Of course, particularly when it comes to the ability of students to do well in their classes. Researchers at Kent State University surveyed more than 500 students, controlling for demographics and high-school GPA, among other factors. They found that more daily cell phone use (including smartphones) correlated with lower overall GPAs. (Correlation is not causation, but the findings are concerning in any case.) A number of other studies have also reported on correlations between cell phone usage and test scores (as usage goes up, scores go down).

Research also suggests that cell phone use has a differential impact on students. A recent study on student phone access and the achievement gap by Louis-Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy for the London School of Economics and Political Science, for example, found that banning mobile phones “improves outcomes for the low-achieving students … the most, and has no significant impact on high achievers.”

In short, we likely have enough data to suggest, at the very least, that instructors need to show some concern about cell phone use in class for other than allowable uses (e.g., taking photos of white boards or PowerPoint slides, looking up facts when requested, etc.)

When Digital Is Distracting: Laptops

The impact of laptops on student learning (or, to keep it accurate, on student grades) was equally troubling. In an experiment conducted at the United States Military Academy at West Point, faculty teaching multiple sections of an introductory economics course found that when they took away computers and tablets in the classroom, student grades rose. The difference wasn’t monumental, but enough to tip students into higher or lower grades. Similar research, using experimental, semi-experimental, and anecdotal data, yields the same results (see here, here, and here, for example).

zakiakhmad, Flickr cc

Researchers have also studied the impact of taking notes on a laptop versus taking notes by hand. The most frequently cited study was conducted at UCLA and Princeton where students using laptops to take notes were compared with students who took notes by hand. The researchers found that laptop note-takers performed worse on conceptual questions than longhand note-takers. The thought behind this is fairly evident: students taking notes on their laptops are essentially transcribing the lecture, whereas longhand note-takers, since they can’t write at the speed of the talker, must do some mental processing to isolate those parts of the lecture that seemed most relevant. (Of course, it is also possible that students can capture the less pertinent points rather than the most important ones, or that the laptop note-taker will go over her “transcription” to pull out the more relevant points, but we’ll let the observations represented in the study stand as the most likely outcomes.)

Equally troubling, researchers have found that, in the words of one article on the topic, “Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers.” Psychologists at two Canadian universities discovered not only that “participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask,” but also that “participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not.” Their results, in fact, indicated that the consequences, in terms of comprehending a lecture, were even worse for nearby students than for laptop multitaskers themselves. In other words, the impact of “second-hand smoke,” so to speak, was greater than the impact on the smoker.

Finally, studies of both workers and students have found that the impact of breaking away from a main task lingers even if you only spend a few seconds “away,” to check email, a text, or responses to the latest Tweet from the WH. One study cited by Gazzaley and Rosen in The Distracted Mind, found that it took research subjects almost 30 minutes to refocus and fully engage with the original task.

When Digital is Distracting: Challenges to Authority

I have taught more than one class where a student asked a factual question for which I didn’t have an answer. Look it up, I suggested, and they always did. Smart phones can give us immediate answers, provide needed information, and allow discussions to advance where the lack of information might have been stymied an important line of inquiry. But in-the-moment access to information can also raise issues that we need to be aware of. Two examples.

(1) Two years ago I was teaching a summer course for high school students on morality and decision making. I had posed, as a purely hypothetical, what was an actual British case from the 19th century (R v Dudley and Stephens) dealing with a shipwreck, cannibalism, and eventual charges of murder when the survivors were rescued. As the students were discussing whether the (still hypothetical) survivors should be charged with murder for the death of a young crew member who had, after many days without food, lapsed into a coma, one student was busy on his cell phone. He finally raised his hand and reported that my example wasn’t hypothetical at all, and he informed the class of the results of the actual trial of the surviving seamen. I didn’t feel undercut, since it didn’t matter if the case were an actual one or purely hypothetical. But the student’s Googling set the discussion off in an unwanted direction as students now wanted to know the outcome of the trial rather than putting themselves in the place of the jurors.

(2) A faculty participant at a recent workshop (female, fairly new to campus) reported that a student had looked up something she said and noted that it was incorrect. While her response, as reported to us, was welcoming and non-defensive, I have little doubt the student would never have challenged a senior (male) faculty member in the same way. In other words, in the context in which newer, female, or under-represented faculty need to be more concerned with establishing their authority in the classroom than more senior, male, or white faculty, access to information via classroom digital technologies can be a means not just of distributing classroom knowledge and participation (something I would see as positive), but of challenging the authority of specific categories of faculty.

Pedrik_BioModLat-2012. Flickr cc

Hold On; Wait a Minute!

Enough, you’re probably begging by now. Ban laptops, confiscate cell phones, turn tablets into cafeteria trays and get them out of the class. There is a lot of evidence that more and more faculty are doing just that, minus the cafeteria tray suggestion. But there are reasons to think again about the unintended consequences of a total digital ban, and there are reasons to turn the conversation around and think of potentially more productive approaches to digital distractions in the classroom.

In terms of unintended consequences, the issue of note-taking accommodations is an important consideration. Students with the proper documentation can apply to Office of Disability Resources either for a note-taker, or for permission to use a laptop in a “no-laptops” class as an accommodation. The problem with this should already be evident: if you’re the only student in class who has a laptop open in a no-laptop class, you have just been outed. Other possible options: Assign note-takers for the class, to rotate among students for credit or extra credit. The note-takers can take notes by hand or laptop, but if the latter, they should be encouraged to go over their “transcriptions” to prepare a summary of the class, not a textual recording. Note-takers would have one day to post their notes to Blackboard.

If you have been to a professional conference in the last decade, you’ll have noticed the large number of audience members who pull out phones and tablets to take pictures of the PowerPoint slides, particularly the ones that contain way too much textual information. Other possible options: Put less on your slides, allow each slide more time, or, better yet, make your slides available after the lecture. And allow cell phones for students to photograph white boards, the blackboard, or sheets of paper that have been put up, so that that can capture some of the discussion that occurred. (Or you can take a photo and post it to Blackboard.)

And, finally, we have been encouraging our students to read articles we have posted to Blackboard, rather than printing them out. But if they can’t use their laptops to access the readings during a class discussion, it forces them to print out the articles or not to bring them in. Without laptops, you can’t ask your students to quickly find the reading from two weeks ago and compare Hobbes to Locke. Other possible options: Allow laptops for discussions of readings, having gained an understanding from students that the pdf’s will be the only tabs open.

But beyond potential fixes to specific issues, there are many other reasons why we should think twice about an absolute ban on laptops or other digital technology use in the classroom. Obviously, technology, when used well, can add a lot to classroom learning, engagement, and interaction. I’ll just mention one way I have used laptops in the class to very productive ends. I’m sure that you have many others. I’ve found that one of the trickiest aspects of conducting small group discussions in class occurs when the groups are asked to report back on the insights they have gained or the questions that have been raised. If there are many such small groups, student report-backs can grow tedious and time consuming. I began to use laptops to solve this problem. I would split the class into smaller (5-7) groups, making sure that one student in each group had a laptop. Before class, I set up a Google doc, and I would give the laptop students access to it. Then, as the discussion in each group occurred, I would have the student with the laptop to record their answers to questions I had posed directly into the Google doc. This document would be projected onto a screen at the front of the class. I got a sense of what was going on in each group by simply looking at the unfolding Google doc. When I called the discussions to a close, I already knew what points they shared, where the differences were, and how to direct my remarks or questions. Finally, I would preserve the document and make it available to the whole class. (I did a “how-to” video on this which you can find here.)

The Bigger Issues

Let’s return to some larger issues before we join the rush to ban digital technology in the classroom.  We can start with perhaps the most important issue: our students’ ability to succeed in the future will depend to a significant degree on their ability to use contemporary technology responsibly and to their advantage, not to pretend it doesn’t exist. In that sense, it is better to encourage a conscious, targeted use of technology in the classroom than to banish it altogether.

One of our standard approaches to the issue of technology in the classroom is to wonder about why students don’t (can’t?) seem to control their behavior around its use. While many students report that they think that multitasking can improve their ability to learn, results of a study by Tassone et al (2017) indicate that a majority of students were aware that multitasking was detrimental to their grades. So, it’s not like they don’t know of the consequences of disruptive technology use.

New research points to the fact that students are increasingly anxious when away from their cell phones. A University of Illinois study found that high engagement with mobile technology is linked to anxiety and depression in college-age students. A review of 23 studies of the impact of cell phone use, anxiety and depression, confirmed this finding, although noting that the impact of increase cell phone use was weak to moderate. A psychology professor who wrote an “autoethnographic reflection” on his students’ cell phone “addiction in the classroom,” quoted one student, who observed that, “For just about everybody, their phone is their life. That is how they keep in contact with everyone; that is where all their pictures are, and so on… I do not think one could imagine life without technology and social media.”

We could benefit from more research on what appears to be a correlation between the amount of cell phone use and student anxiety (again, correlation is not causation). But the take-away for me when thinking about technology use in the classroom, is this: if, as the emerging research suggests, some students are tied to their cell phones in a way that is not beneficial for their mental health, simply banning them in class won’t address the underlying issues. Perhaps we should engage, as teachers, in a different way?

Which brings me back Gazzaley and Rosen’s The Distracted Mind as reported on by Lang. Gazzaley and Rosen, you will remember if you weren’t playing on your phones, suggested the conflict in our brains which goes on between two separate neural processes: the first directing our attention to goal-related activities, and the second blocking out irrelevant distractions. (Gazzaley’s experiments have also suggested that, as we age, we don’t lose the ability to focus our attention, but we do have a harder time blocking out distractions, which could be why older adults have a harder time focusing on conversations in a noisy restaurant.).

If this is the case, the challenge  – which Lang raises in his review – should not focus on modifying this second neural process, banning digital devices in order to block out distractions, but on the first, i.e., by helping students focus on goals.  As Lang put it, when thinking about one of his students who was a cell-phone-offender: “What goal had I established for Kate’s learning that day? How had I created an environment that supported her ability to achieve that goal? And perhaps most important — assuming that the class had a learning goal that mattered for her — did she know about it?”

Can Democracy in the Classroom Remove Digital Distractions?

No. We should be about what we can do. But the creation of transparent, student-centered classrooms can go some way to threading the needle between outright technology bans and an anything-goes approach. Again, we start with the assumption that students, to succeed, will need to know how to manage their technology use, and that just telling them to turn off their phones won’t give them practice, direction, or motivation for how to act when they are outside of class, studying, writing a paper, or doing their reading.

So, some suggestions:

(1) A technology use policy in the classroom is, in my mind, like any other policy one creates for a class: it can serve as an opening for a discussion as to why such a policy has been adopted (note the passive tense). Better yet, it can serve as a springboard for a discussion in which you would invite your students to come up with their own policies governing technology use in the classroom. Students may or may not think that a glance at a text in the midst of a lecture is distracting, but they likely don’t know the research that concludes just how problematic it can be. They probably don’t know that their watching of a music video on their laptops will negatively impact nearby peers even more than it will impact them. In other words, use this discussion to provide information (you’ve got all you need just in this article!) and help students develop their own classroom technology policy. And don’t expect that such policies will immediately solve the problem or that everyone will obey the class rules that they have established for themselves. Public health experts know very well that telling young people that smoking is bad for them doesn’t do the trick (nor have students stopped smoking on campus now that we have banned it). But, in the context of digital uses in the classroom, the rules have the potential of constructing a new social contract that might give students pause before they text in class.

(2) To the extent that you can, create an active classroom. Long lectures without breaks of any kind will make digital distractions much more likely as attention begins to flag. Cut down the time between the lecture and a task that engages students directly: asking questions, polling them, breaking them into group discussions. Digital distractions decline when students shuttle between short lecture segments and discussion groups or think-pair-share activities.

(3) Help students focus on the goals for that class, and remind them to stay focused on the goals. To rephrase Lang’s question, do students know what your goals are for the day? Distractions will win the game if the only goal a student has is making it to the end of the class.

The literature on the impact of that new technology is having on our brains, or better said, our students’ brains, is already large and will continue to grow, particularly with the advent of high quality virtual reality. Probably the most honest thing to say is that we don’t actually know how digital intrusions are shaping the lives of our students. But we do know that one of our greatest responsibilities as teachers, regardless subject matter, is to help students develop the capacity for deep and undivided attention as a means of problem solving, reflection, sustained engagement, and mental calm. Inviting our students into a discussion about digital distractions, and giving them the shared authority to establish policies, is at least a beginning.  

Your experiences in this regard? Please share!

Ground Control to Major Tom: Supporting Music Across the Curriculum

Steve Volk, February 56, 2018
Contact at:


Here I am sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

            David Bowie, “Ground Control to Major Tom” (1969)

David Bowie memorial in Brixton, London, 2016. Photo: Steve Volk

Could you use David Bowie’s songs to teach a cultural studies class? Certainly. How about English, History, Environmental Studies, Physics or Math? The question was answered at the “Music +” workshop which unfolded Friday in StudiOC. Kathryn Metz, an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, crafted the session designed to help us think about the whys, hows, and with-whats of using music across the curriculum. If the lessons learned can apply in literally any liberal arts setting, it wasn’t hard to understand why the appeal of using music across the curriculum seemed particularly opportune for Oberlin, which has a unique (in the true sense of the word) set of resources that faculty and instructional staff can tap into. These include, of course, everything that a world-class Conservatory brings to the table: faculty, staff, a superb library that features a massive collection of books, scores, and music, streaming options, instruments, photographs, art works, and an impressive archive. Further, there is the opportunity to attend over 500 live performances a year including an Artist Recital Series that brings some of the most revered musicians as well as many rising young performers to campus each year (Sleep? Pfff, that’s for the weak!). Finally, we have an often overlooked but unparalleled resource: our students. Whether in the Conservatory or the College, a substantial number of students not only have come to Oberlin because of the music, but are at home with music from Bach to Beyoncé.

But, as much as I love bragging about how Oberlin’s musical button is bigger than yours, the central message of the workshop was that any teacher in any school can leverage music to increase student learning with access to a simple sound system and the internet.  

For me, the workshop stressed the learning potential of using music across a liberal-arts setting, both in the curriculum and in a broader, extra-curricular fashion, explored the resources one can use to make this happen, and provided a methodology that can be applied for teaching popular music in a variety of contexts. And it asked one important question: Why the hell aren’t more or us making use of this unparalleled resource?

The Role of the Arts in Learning: Arts Across the Curriculum 

A fantastical musical machine as imagined by Athanasius Kircher in his Musurgia Universalis (1650). Public domain.

Oberlin can be justly proud of two outstanding artistic institutions that bolster teaching and learning across the campus: The Conservatory of Music, as I’ve already indicated, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Let me turn to the AMAM as an example of the potential of using art to scaffold an entire curriculum.

In the past decade, based on an outstanding staff headed by the Curator of Academic Programs, Liliana Milkova, and a well-conceived and designed outreach program, the AMAM has become an important pillar of instruction in the college, reaching far beyond the art history or studio art curriculum. In the 2016-17 school year, for example, over 6,000 students visited the museum as part of 368 class visits from 33 different disciplines in the College and Conservatory. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we now have in place a significant art-across-the-curriculum program at Oberlin.

The Music + workshop was intended to encourage a process that can replicate the AMAM’s success in the context of music.

Of course, one question to ask is why? Why leverage the arts to support learning? Fortunately, there is a substantial body of research on the impact of the arts (music, visual, performance) on student learning. If you are interested, I would recommend the following, among many others:

One of the most influential studies in the field, highlighted at the workshop, was the 1999 study commissioned by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (Sigh. Remember when we had a White House that cared about … ? Sorry, must stay on task!). “Champions of Change: The Impact of the Arts on Learning,” edited by Edward B. Fiske, argued that the arts, when well taught, “provide young people with authentic learning experiences that engage their minds, hearts, and bodies.” I probably don’t have to convince you, esteemed readers, of this, but just in case I’m bullet-pointing some of their conclusions. The arts, they argue,

  • Reach students who are not otherwise being reached;
  • Reach students in ways that they are not otherwise being reached;
  • Connect students to themselves and each other;
  • Transform the environment for learning;
  • Provide new challenges for those students already considered successful;
  • Encourage self-directed learning;
  • Promote complexity in the learning experience;
  • Allow management of risk by the learners.

So what, in particular, can music add to the mix, and what is the best way to go about integrating music into the curriculum? The question was answered through a wonderful demonstration, “What’s Music Got To Do With It?,” presented by Metz and Jason Hanley, the VP of Education and Visitor Engagement at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland.  The interactive discussion was based on a model for studying popular music developed at the Rock Hall. You can read more about the approach in Susan Oehler and Jason Hanley, “Perspectives of Popular Music Pedagogy in Practice: An Introduction,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 21:1 (April 2009): 2-19. Oehler and Hanley explore a set of guiding questions that can be used to help students to dig more deeply into different genres of popular music. The authors organized them into three categories: context, sound, and meaning. And that’s where we went in the workshop.

From Oehler and Hanley, “Perspectives of Popular Music Pedagogy”

Ground Control to the Workshop

We examined the value of using music in a variety of ways through the work of Major Tom, aka, Ziggy Stardust, aka David Bowie, although his name was only revealed (to the unenlightened few who didn’t already know it) towards the end of the session. Our engagement with Bowie helped us think about how the investigation of a single musical example can lead students down multiple avenues, exploring aural experiences, the importance of historical context and cultural reception, repetition and creativity, and so many other things.

stratopaul, “David Bowie New England- Music News,” Flickr cc.

Begin with “Meaning.” We dissected the lyrics to “Ground Command to Major Tom.” (You can find them on, but here they are in any case if you’d like to try this at home.)

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills
And put your helmet on
(10) Ground Control (9) to Major Tom (8)
(7, 6) Commencing (5) countdown
Engines on (4, 3, 2)
Check ignition (1)
And may God’s love (Liftoff) be with you

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirt you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare
This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
She knows
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you….

Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Within no more than 5 minutes we had generated dozens of questions and observations about the lyrics. We discussed issues of communication (Can you hear me?), technology (I think my spaceship knows which way to go), environment, religion, shirts, relationships, allegory, history, and oh so much else! And while it’s true, as a colleague pointed out, that we are more expert at pulling meaning and questions from texts than our students, the exercise highlighted the potential of using popular song lyrics as a gateway to a variety of subjects as well as different pedagogical practices (close reading, evidence and analysis, etc.).

Turn, next, to “Sound,” listening to the song itself.  The exercise brought me back to museum pedagogy. Much as the “Visual Thinking Strategies” (VTS) approach employed by the curators in the AMAM and other museums is launched by asking the simple question, “What do you see?” the “Rock Hall” pedagogy of popular music, which I’ll here officially name as the “Aural Thinking Strategies” approach, begins by asking, “What do you hear?” And, just as VTS follows up by asking “What more do you see,” ATS did the same: “What else do you hear?” Those with training in music theory or who can boast a performance background will certainly hear different things than the lay listener, but we all heard – and reported on – what the aural experience was for us. (While I won’t cover this point here, both VTS and the ATS approach can be modified and used with those with visual or hearing impairments.)

Investigating the “sound” layer opened new areas for discussion: instruments and instrumentation, tone of voice, employment of instrumental bridges, shifting narration, use of base, reverb, harmony and chaos, all of which suggested different meanings for the lyrics than those we had discussed previously. Adding visuals to the music added yet another layer. We watched the original 1969 video of “Ground Control,” and suggested how the visuals either supported or undercut understandings that we had developed before as well as how the music in the video different from the original audio performance, and why the changes were made.

We continued along the visual path by examining the album covers from the original UK edition released in 1969 and the U.S. release (“David Bowie: A Space Oddity”), highlighting the impact of Op-Art on the UK edition and considering the impact of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey on the second (“A Space Oddity”), moving – as with VTS – from “what do you see?” to interpretation: why?

David Bowie – Phillips:

Then to “context,” as we followed the reappearance of themes raised for the first time in “Ground Control” (1969), to Bowie’s reimagined appearance as Ziggy Stardust in “Starman” (“The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars,” 1972), and on to “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), “Hallo Spaceboy” (1996), and, ultimately, sadly, following some of the religious themes (“And may God’s love be with you”) through to his last album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, January 8, 2016, two days before he died. Intertextuality, the continuities and disjunctions of artistic lives and themes, the opportunity to see an artist reprocess central images over 40+ years of creativity, the historic meaning of Bowie in 1969 and at his death… So many themes to explore!

David Bowie, “Space Oddity,” 1972 RCA LP;
Fair use

But the discussion didn’t end there. We considered how “Ground Control” was taken up anew in the work of other artists, viewing Peter Schilling’s video, “Major Tom (Coming Home)” (1996). One could go on and on: we could have checked out K.I.A.’s version (“Mrs. Major Tom”) from 2002, in which Larissa Gomes narrates the story from the perspective of Major Tom’s wife who has been left at home. Or Sheryl Crow’s cover of that version on William Shatner’s Seeking Major Tom album from 2011. But my hands-down favorite was a version of “Ground Control” recorded, mixed and produced on the International Space Station by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2013. Promise me that you’ll look at that, not to mention the original. (And I’ll leave it up to you and your students to discuss among yourselves what is original, or the meaning of authentic, or how we understand creativity itself in the context of remixing, sampling, or reimagining.) All of this by looking at one song and its history.

acb, “ZIGG’/ ST’-.|/DUST,” Flickr cc.

Where do you fit in?

If you haven’t figured out by now, I was incredibly energized by the workshop, not only because it featured the artistry of David Bowie, but because it offered teachers, particularly in liberal arts colleges, another way to integrate our students’ learning and their lived experience. Much as with (visual) art, and the value of the Allen Memorial Art Museum to students’ learning across the campus that I referenced earlier, music can provide a link into virtually any course.

At my “breakout” table, for example, we discussed the distinctions that different people or cultures make between “sound” and “music,” and just how critical these distinctions can be. Fredara Hadley, who teaches an “Introduction to African American Music,” among other courses, in the Conservatory, reminded us of the case of Jordan Davis, an African American teenager, who was shot and killed in Florida in 2012 because his white, middle-aged killer, Michael Dunn, was “offended” by the loud hip hop music that came from his car.

Much as we peeled off the various levels of engaging with “Ground Control,” so we can think of the many ways of deploying music across the curriculum. As with art, the most straightforward approach is through its content or subject matter: Medieval European history can be enriched with medieval music, either in live performances (and we are fortunate to have the exceptional Collegium Musicum, directed by Steven Plank), through recordings, or by viewing the instruments of the period. Courses on U.S. history in the 1960s or a study of social movements will easily find ways to use music as a text in their courses. Nor is this limited to social science or humanities courses. Our massive 4,014 pipe Kay Africa Memorial Organ in Finney is a perfect instrument, pun intended, for a physics lesson. But content or subject matter aren’t the only ways in when thinking about music across the curriculum.

As Professor Hadley observed, so many of our students traverse the campus with headphones on or ear-buds firmly in place, surely listening to music. But, are they listening or just hearing? Is the ubiquity of music actually getting in the way of listening (and not just because they don’t take out their ear-buds when they’re talking to you).  Bringing music into a class can be a method for helping students become careful, discerning listeners which, I would argue, is a skill that we could all use more of today. In a similar way, music can be used to bolster dispositional outcomes, ways of being in the world, that we hope to foster in our students. We know quite well that students (as well as most of us) are hyperactive; moving rapidly between various operations. “Empty” time that previously existed between tasks has basically disappeared since technology provides us with something to do to fill quiet spaces. What deliberate listening, as a learned disposition, can provide, much like close looking or careful reading, is a means of slowing students down, moving them out of hyperactivity – which has its place, to be sure – and into a modality where deep analysis and reflection can occur. While it is unlikely that most classes will find the time to play an entire album that students can listen to collectively, even 5-6 minutes of thoughtful and close listening can help students slow down.

Music to Unite

At the beginning of the Music + workshop, Dean Andrea Kalyn talked about music as a “thing” and a “mode”. In the former sense, music, she argued, is an experience that can awe us, an artifact that stands in its own right and in relation to the culture around it, and a set of skills to be learned whether via performance or as a new language, a different way of understanding. In the latter sense, it operates as a mode of creation (composition), re-creation (performance), and collaboration, a mode of listening, synthesis, and practice (discipline). Each of these aspects holds out potential to further engage and activate student learning by weaving together cognitive and affective, what they study and what they experience across the campus and the community. Music, then, has the potential of crossing barriers, both imagined and real.

Let me conclude, then, by referencing one of my favorite composers, John Luther Adams, who has been featured in these pages a number of times. Music (its study, composition, performance, reception, discipline, magnificence) offers us the potential of speaking to everyone on campus. But, in the wider world, it can unite those who have been separated. In late January, Steven Schick, a percussionist and conductor, peered through the fence that separates San Diego, California, from Tijuana, Mexico, and proclaimed, “Con la música nunca se puede dividirnos”: “With music, we cannot be divided.” He proceeded to lead a group of musicians located on both sides of the border in a performance of John Luther Adams’s hour-long percussion work “Inuksuit.” Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, observed the event from the Tijuana side of the border.

“The performance began almost inaudibly,” he wrote, “with musicians breathing into paper and plastic tubes. Then Schick let out a foghorn tone on a conch shell. This was a signal for a gradual crescendo, building to a gaudy roar of drums, gongs, cymbals, and sirens…Only performers were allowed in the adjacent strip; for security reasons, Border Patrol kept the audience behind the second fence. Some two hundred and fifty Americans showed up, having hiked nearly a mile to reach the site.”

Ross had seen “Inuksuit” a number of times but this performance, he wrote, “was overwhelming in its impact, for obvious reasons. As I listened, I couldn’t help registering the messages inscribed on the [Mexican side of the] wall: “What God has joined together let man not separate”; “Stop family separation”; “How many hearts must bleed?”; “La poesía es gente con sueños” (“Poetry is people with dreams”); “Love trumps hate.” Yet, as at other performances of Adams’s remarkable creation, the sheer volume of the climax had the effect of wiping my brain clean of concrete thoughts. I closed my eyes and found myself unaware of the wall’s existence: the wire mesh did nothing to stop the flow of sound.”

Music has the power to do so much. What are we waiting for?

Added Feb. 5, 2018 (1:06 PM)

A few additional resources:

Christy Thomas, “Active Listening: Teaching with Music,” Yale Center for Teaching and Learning (November 30, 2015).

Ronald A. Berk, “Music and music technology in college teaching: Classical to hip hop across the  curriculum,” International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 4:1 (2008), 45–67.

Janelle Monae f., “Hell You Talmbout,” Wondaland Records.

Mentoring: Small Acts That Go a Long Way

Steve Volk

All images from the Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus (commonly known as the Fables of Bidpai in the West) a Persian version of an ancient Indian collection of animal fables called the Panchatantra. Public domain.

I’m pretty sure that my primary work in the “Article of the Week” is to remind educators of what they already know. I know that I certainly could use frequent and repeated reminding. All this by way of reporting on one of the many sessions I attended at the just-concluded annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities in Washington DC. (Truth be told, I escaped at one point to visit the Renwick Gallery’s absolutely marvelous exhibit of 19 miniature crime scenes created by Frances Glessner Lee. Not to be missed!).

The presenter at this particular session was José Antonio Bowen, the president of Goucher College. I’ve heard Bowen speak a number of times before and knew that I would be in for a treat. A former jazz pianist who has appeared around the world with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck, leader of the José Bowen Quartet, composer of symphonies (one nominated for a Pulitzer), multiple recordings (including a “Jazz Shabbat Service,”) a degree in chemistry from Stanford, the inaugural Caestecker Chair of Music at Georgetown, Dean of Fine Arts at Miami, author of hundreds of scholarly articles, and numerous books, including the award-winning Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student LearningOK, you get the idea. No matter what you’ll do in your entire career, he’s already done more. On stage – and he’s often on stage even when he’s not – he’s part carnival barker, part preacher, part your favorite high school science teacher.

Combining personal stories and insights drawn from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, Bowen’s talks are filled with broad observations about where we are (and where we should be headed) as educators, and specific tips on how to improve teaching and learning. What makes his observations more fun is that, as president of a small liberal arts college, he actually has a place to bring his ideas to life.

Example of former: Learning is all about change and readjusting assumptions, not about accumulating information. At the end of the day, your smart phone is still smarter than you are. 

Example of latter: When returning papers to students, hand them back with comments on them, but not the grades. Post the grades to Blackboard (or whatever LMS you use) a few hours or a day later. It’s a simple way to help students focus on the comments you have written rather than having them immediately turn to the last page, look for the grade, and ignore your input.  (Not, I’m sure, that any of our students would do that!).

Bowen also happens to be a data freak: Goucher has done away with standard distribution requirements but, among the courses that all students must take are two semesters of data analytics. His action directives, not surprisingly, are data driven even as his argument in Teaching Naked is all about not letting technology get in the way of teaching and learning. Teaching, he argues, is a design process. Whereas we, the faculty, begin with content and a love of our subject, students are on the outside, and our first task is to motivate them, encouraging them to “fall into our content” by helping them become more relaxed and engaged around our content. Anyway, to get back to the point, as the president of a college he vacuums up every piece of data he can get his hands on to make informed decisions designed to augment student success at Goucher. Like these:

Question one: Which first-year student do you think is least likely to graduate on time: the one assigned to live in a single room, or the ones in doubles, triples, or quads? The answer is upside down on the bottom of the page. No, actually it’s here (and based on the date he collected): students living in single rooms in their first year are less likely to graduate on time than the other students. Why? Loneliness is among the most frequently reported mental health issues of incoming students. This is a problem that has increased year by year. There are many reasons for this but one, referenced by Bowen, is that today’s students “take their friends with them” when they leave high school, i.e., they remain in constant communication with their high school buddies either by text or voice. Those students in singles are least likely to make new friends and, therefore, are at risk of being most isolated and lonely, something that will impact their overall well being and chances at success. (It’s also why those in quads are most likely to finish on time.) So, as a college president, do you try to drive admissions by acquiescing to parent demand that their children be given the single rooms they desire (since they have never had to share a room) and therefore increase single-room inventory? Or do you respond to what the data says about student success and reduce the number of single rooms at the risk of crimping admissions? (For Bowen, you do both: educate parents and reduce the number of singles.)

Question two: Who is more likely to graduate on time? A student in a dorm room at the end of the hall from the bathroom or one who is closest to the bathroom? By now, you know the answer: the one who is farthest away. (Oh, the joys of data!) Why? No one knows for sure, but Bowen suspects it’s because those at a greater distance from the bathroom have more opportunities to meet their hall-mates and make friends as they drip their way back to their rooms from the shower.

Student Outcomes and Faculty Inputs

It’s interesting to think of how small, data-driven changes (“nudges,” he calls them) can improve student outcomes. But the main point I want to stress from Bowen’s talk is the importance of two factors that, students report, have had a very strong impact on their lives after graduation:

  • having a professor who cared about them as a person, one who made them excited about learning, and,
  • having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams,

A variety of different studies have come to similar conclusions, the Gallup-Purdue polling from 2014 being the most frequently cited one. Gallup-Purdue created an index to examine the long-term success of graduates as they pursue a good job (understood as the degree to which they were “engaged at work”) and a better life (degrees of “well-being”). They defined the latter as “the combination of all the things that are important to each individual… how people think about and experience their lives,” and to get at these factors they posed ten questions in each of five areas:

  • Purpose Well-Being: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.
  • Social Well-Being: Having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life.
  • Financial Well-Being: Effectively managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.
  • Community Well-Being: The sense of engagement you have with the areas where you live, liking where you live, and feeling safe and having pride in your community.
  • Physical Well-Being: Having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis.

I’m not here to judge the validity of their conclusions – they based their findings on interviews of 30,000 graduates – and I won’t presume to evaluate the nature of the “well-being” categories they have constructed. But from a layperson’s perspective, they seem adequate for the task. So, what do they find?

In the first place, they found that the odds of being engaged at work are:

  • 2-times higher if the student had a mentor who “encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”
  • 1.9-times higher if their undergraduate professors “cared about me as a person.”

Finally, if employed graduates (the study only examined graduates who were employed) had professors who cared about them as a person, who made them excited about learning, and they also had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled. (A troubling data point: only 14% of graduates could claim all three.)

In terms of well-being, college graduates who felt “supported” during college (i.e., they experienced professors who cared about them and made them excited about learning, and they had a mentor) were nearly three times as likely to be thriving as those who didn’t feel supported. (And now for the depressing news: in the 2010-2014 cohort, only 3% of those interviewed claimed to be thriving in all 5 “well-being” areas (as compared, for example, to 26% in the 1960-1969 cohort).

In case you were wondering, it hardly mattered what kind of college or university one attended: results were almost exactly the same in every category (public, private not-for-profit, selective, US News top 100, etc.) except for being significantly lower in the private for-profit sector. (And, not to overlook a very important factor, only 2% of those who graduate with more than $40,000 in debt were defined as “thriving”.)

Gallup-Purdue polling.

Small Interventions, Big Differences

The authors of How College Works (Harvard 2014), Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, reported very similar results based on a longitudinal (1999-2010), multimethod study of just one college, Hamilton. Consistent with the Gallup-Purdue study, and quite similar to Bowen’s argument, one of the authors’ central conclusions is that “relationships are central to a successful college experience.” The most important relationships are those of friends (house them in triples and quads – and far away from bathrooms!! – rather than isolating them in singles), good teachers, above all in the students’ first years in college (“when good teachers are encountered early, they legitimize academic involvement”), and mentors.  Chambliss and Takacs define mentorship as a “significant personal and professional connection,” that lasts more than just one course or semester. Mentors cannot be assigned and are not the same as advisors (although they can overlap), most often are teachers or coaches, come about only by mutual consent (this is a relationship that both mentor and student want), and often “blur the distinction between professional and personal concerns.”

The authors further explored the importance of the impact of personal (outside-of-class) connections  between instructors and students, relying on a study by Shauna Sweet that looked at seven years of Senior Surveys (2,018 respondents) compiled by the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium of colleges. The surveys asked if students had ever been a guest in a faculty member’s home and if, given the chance, would choose again to attend their college. Sweet found that a positive response to the first question was correlated to a higher response in the second. Not content with correlations, the authors subjected the data to more rigorous statistical analyses, ultimately concluding that visiting a professor’s home had a greater statistical impact on whether they would choose again to attend the same college than if their GPA was raised from a B- to an A-, and that this result persists years after the student graduated.

So, should we all be inviting students to dine with us? “Our point,” Chambliss and Takacs write, “isn’t that all professors should be inviting students to their homes. It’s that remarkably small actions can at least potentially produce huge results, noticeable even years later.”

José Antonio Bowen covered the same ground in his presentation at the AAC&U. In his case, he argued that that faculty should try to be at their students’ lacrosse games or theater performances. I don’t disagree, but what Bowen seems to overlook (and what Chambliss and Takacs better account for) is that as much as faculty and staff would like to do these things, the reality of their lived lives has changed exponentially from 50 years earlier (when, you will remember, student “thriving” was much higher). Today’s faculty, and here allow me some over-generalizations, are less likely to live close to campus, are more likely to be in a family or relationship where all the adults work, and surely are facing an increased work load. I would have loved to go to more field hockey games, or to have invited many more students over to dinner. But where does the time for these come from?

This is where I think that a stiff drink of Bowen needs to be followed by a Chambliss-Takacs chaser: the point is not that you should beat yourself up because you couldn’t get to a student’s recital (after all, you’re teaching 80 students that semester) it is that:

  • small actions can produce huge results;
  • having a professor who cares about students as individuals, and who can make them excited about learning is so critical; and,
  • mentorship is essential for all students: being the person who believes in you, the student, who will give you the honest advice you need, who will tell you that you have what is needed to succeed when so much is in doubt.

See, I told you that all I really do is remind you of what you already knew. So, as you approach the beginning of a new semester, think about the small actions you can take that can produce big results in your students’ future. If it’s attending a basketball game, great; if inviting some for dinner, also good. But support and caring can be shown in a myriad of ways, and they make a difference. The research, and our own observations, tells us that.

2017 – The Year in Higher Education

Steve Volk, January 22, 2018
Contact at:

It is stock-taking time; time to think about where  higher education stands one year after “45’s” inauguration, time to figure out how we as educators at liberal arts colleges have weathered what all agree was a very stormy year. Attempting to draw meaningful conclusions as to how our sector has been impacted by events in Washington, and how current developments will play out in the long run, or even next year, is challenging. But with this in mind, let’s look at the past year in higher ed, at where we stand on January 20, 2018 compared with January 20, 2017.

Attacking the Foundations: Alternative Facts and Fake News

Antonio Marín Segovia, “El asesinato de la verdad (No fue el mayordomo),” Flickr CC

When beginning to think about the year past, I recalled Antonio Gramsci’s often repeated remark about  “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”  The essence, the very heart, of what we do demands to some degree that we never abandon an optimism of the will. But it is fair to say that the year heaped yet more challenges on to higher ed’s already over-loaded plate. Perhaps the most serious challenge faced by educators came with the Administration’s on-going attack on facts, evidence, and truth. Two telling moments book-ended the year. The Trumpian year began, in case we’ve forgotten, when senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway defended on NBC’s Meet the Press, Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inauguration two days earlier had drawn record numbers. This, despite all evidence, photographic included, to the contrary. What could have been ignored or laughed away instead became a cornerstone of the the new Administration’s approach to information when Conway defended Spicer’s assertion as “alternative facts.” (Within 4 days of her linguistic rebranding, sales of Orwell’s 1984 had jumped 9,500%.)

The year ended with Trump’s “highly anticipated” (ahem!) “Fake News Awards,” which were intended to blast the media by pointing to some of its miscues and factual errors, mistakes which are typically corrected and updated. As everyone knows, the “awards” were fundamentally about branding as “fake” any news that challenged Trump’s view of himself or the world and casting the media as an “enemy of the people.”

Many commentators have analyzed the Administration’s continual and often bewildering resort to lies (PolitiFact is among other news organizations keeping count). The most perceptive, in my opinion, is Masha Gessen. In comparing Trump with Vladimir Putin, she argued that “It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.” While it can test one’s patience (and sanity) to hear denials of charges for which evidence (including photographic or audio) is readily available (“Who are you going to believe,” another of my favorite Marxists, Groucho, once questioned, “me or your own eyes?”), the point of the lie is not to demonstrate the accuracy of one’s own “alternative fact,” but to cast doubt on all facts; not to suggest that one’s own favored news source has better access to information, but that all “news” sources are the same – so just pick the one you like. In the end, as Gessen suggested, lies are often about the power of the speaker.

As this approach rolled out over the course of the year, it has presented a huge obstacle to educators.

The task of helping students research, analyze, and argue on the basis of reliable evidence in a world already staggering under a mountain of information is formidable. It goes beyond a simple affirmation that you can trust this source and should be wary of that. We are faced with working with students to help them understand that information is shaped within and by social and historical contexts, that neither science nor history, for example, are fields of inquiry intended to produce definitive and timeless truth. But when the Administration’s approach to information would make all facts fungible, transactional, and based on the knowledge that your political base will agree with you when you say that day is night and black is white, it means that our task as educators, and as citizens of a democracy, is complicated by magnitudes of order.

Traveller_40, “Alternative Facts,” Flickr CC

One indication of what such an environment can foster is on display in Wisconsin, where, last June, a legislator introduced a bill to the Assembly ostensibly intended to protect free speech rights on campus (more on this below). The bill stated in part, “That each institution shall strive to remain neutral, as an institution, on the public policy controversies of the day, and may not take action… in such a way as to require students or faculty to publicly express a given view of social policy.” When the sponsor of the bill, Jesse Kremer, was asked whether a geology professor would be allowed to correct a student who believed the earth to be 6,000 years old, he replied, “The Earth is 6,000 years old. That’s a fact.”

And still, thanks to physics, we know that for every action there is a reaction (even if it’s not always equal, at least in the world of politics and power). Faculty and researchers have begun to address the demand to help students develop their understanding of information, to distinguish reliable sources from questionable ones, and questionable sources from invented ones, and to approach evidence with a critical eye, aware of its contextualized production. (See, for example, here, here, here, and here.)

Access to Data, Control of Language

One of the most immediate challenges introduced by the Trump Administration was its seeming determination to remove or limit access to certain sources of government data which it found to be incompatible with its policy goals. Officials took down the data and websites providing scientific information about climate change that were maintained by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Most alarming, the EPA removed its two-decades old website of data on climate science, threatening to undermine current and on-going research. The Republican leadership in Congress, for its part, has blocked attempts to measure accurately the effects of its health care and tax cut legislation. The Census Bureau is being starved of funds, and even the F.B.I. has cut back on its publicly available crime statistics.

Gita Wilén, “När DATA brukade vara framtiden,” Flickr CC

Most recently, according to the Washington Post, policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were “forbidden” to use specific words in budget proposal documents that circulated in the administration and Congress. These included “evidence-based,” “science-based,” “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “fetus.” The CDC denied that words were banned, but did acknowledge the importance of being “sensitive” to the impact of certain words when building a case for congressional funding or White House support. Fair enough, but educators must recognize how thin is the ice on which we skate when the mere mention of “evidence” or “science” is thought to raise political hackles.

But here, too, action produced positive reaction. The Sunlight Foundation began keeping track of federal open data sets removed from government websites, posting updates to a spreadsheet hosted on their site. Protesting against the disappearance of the EPA website, officials in Chicago posted the site online as it existed under the Obama administration. Fear of the loss of decades of valuable environmental and atmospheric data led some universities, UCLA among others, to begin a large-scale, professional data harvesting operation. And run-of-the-mill citizens were encouraged to participate in a nation-wide effort to save, store, and upload government reports using a tool kit that required nothing more than a downloadable plug-in program and internet assess.

Free Speech…

Media discussion of higher education in the past few years has focused to a considerable extent on free speech issues. A substantial amount of media coverage has been taken up by incidents on liberal arts campuses such as Middlebury and Claremont McKenna, colleges where invited speakers were prevented from speaking. The media also widely reported incidents of students disrupting faculty from teaching their courses at Reed, as well as the tumultuous year at Evergreen State. While those events provoked a reaction in the national debate on higher education, they also encouraged a deeper discussion on many campuses of the complexities involved in balancing free speech rights (particularly on private campuses where there is no obligation to host everyone who demands a platform) with an appreciation of the emotional, psychological, cognitive, and physical toll on students of color or marginalized students caused by “invited” speakers whose primary intent is to denigrate them. It is understandable that these discussions have become more widespread in the Age of Trump as examples of the corrosive power of racism at the highest levels lends urgency to the task. While the disruption of speakers cast students and liberal arts institutions in general in a negative light, it also opened a discussion of the very devastating impact words can have on historically marginalized populations. For every action…

Walt Jabsco, “Free Speech for the Dumb,” Flickr CC

This past year has also seen a critical evolution in the direction the free speech debate on campuses has taken. Spurred by last year’s election, the so-called “alt-right,” white nationalist, movement saw a fertile moment to move out from the fringes. Particularly following Trump’s equating of white nationalists (“Jews will not replace us!”) with counter-protesters at an August rally in Charlottesville, alt-right spokespeople such as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Matthew Heimbach, Mike Enoch and others hijacked the free speech debate to insert their hate-filled messages on campus. Their purpose was as much to disrupt the academy (forcing it to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in security fees) as to find willing acolytes. Universities including Berkeley, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Penn State, and Florida, among many others, have been forced to negotiate this territory, which they increasingly see as difficult to manage, with some banning speakers (Ohio State, Penn State), and others allowing them (Florida).

Media reports of the disruption of Charles Murray and “snowflake” students seem as plentiful as ever, but the debate has broadened and become more nuanced as universities and colleges have had to consider the impact on their students of speakers whose main purpose is to traffic in hateful messages targeting specific and vulnerable parts of the community.

The issue has taken on added urgency as the incidence of hate crimes grew over the past year. According to FBI data released in November, more hate crimes were carried out in the United States last year than in previous years, with an uptick in incidents motivated by bias against Jews, Muslims and LGBT communities, among others. Racial incidents and hate crimes were also up on college campuses. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education keeps a tally of reports of the latest incidents, listing dozens and dozens of events in the past year alone.

…And Academic Freedom

As alt-right speakers sought to “weaponize free speech,” in the words of Joan W. Scott, and as conservative organizations such as “Professor Watchlist,” established by Turning Point USA, encouraged students to publicize any professor who advances what they called a “radical agenda in lecture halls,” more faculty began to reflect on the relationship of free speech to academic freedom. If the former references the constitutional right of speakers to deliver any and all messages in public settings – including public universities – academic freedom protects the right of faculty to teach as we determine, free from outside interference, yet within well established professional guidelines. Speech in an academic context is guided (at least aspirationally, if not in every instance) by evidence-based argument and critical thinking. That, Scott insists, is “not a program of neutrality, not tolerance of all opinion, not an endorsement of the idea that anything goes.” Rather, it is about “how one brings knowledge to bear on criticism; it is a procedure, a method that shapes and disciplines thought.” The past year, then, has produced a much richer debate on how we, as educators, struggle to balance these two ideals, cautioning those who would silence unpopular viewpoints rather than debating them, and refusing attempts of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and others to slip their racist agenda into academia under the cover of free speech protections.

Viewminder, “Strange Bedfellows,” Flickr CC

In many ways, the shoe has been on the other foot in 2017. Those who criticized students for shutting down speakers on liberal arts campuses in 2016, a critique which was often well deserved, are now silent when protests are aimed at progressive guest speakers. Chelsea Manning’s invitation to speak at Harvard was rescinded in September, with some Republican politicians going so far as to suggest that Harvard should lose all public funding for its decision to invite Manning (they had nothing to say when her invitation was withdrawn by Harvard). The Reverend James Martin, author of several books arguing that the Roman Catholic Church should find ways to interact positively with gay and lesbian Catholics, was disinvited from an engagement at the Catholic University of America; California Attorney General Xavier Becerra was shouted down at Whittier College in October.

Challenging the rights of faculty to speak as citizens by targeting them with online harassment became a more common, and deeply dan­gerous, practice over the past year. Faculty of color are over-represented among recent examples of those on the receiving end of internet attacks: Johnny Williams at Trinity College, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor at Princeton University, Lisa Durden at Essex County College, Dana Cloud at Syracuse University, Sarah Bond at the University of Iowa, Tommy Curry at Texas A&M University, and George Ciccariello-Maher at Drexel University. Dr. Laurie Rubel, who examined the relationship between race and the notion of “merit” in an article which appeared in the Journal of Urban Mathematics Education in December, has been the target of daily email threats of physical and sexual assault after her article was crudely caricatured by Campus Reform, a conservative website.

Legislators have been particularly active in attempting to influence campus debate. Consider the following bills introduced and other actions taken during the past year:

  • A Republican legislator in Arizona proposed a bill that would prohibit state colleges from offering any class that promotes “division, resentment or social justice” without defining what he meant by those words – Arizona earlier banned the teaching of ethnic studies in grades K-12.
  • A state senator in Iowa introduced a bill that would allow the use of political party affiliation as a test for faculty appointments to colleges and universities.
  • A Republican legislator in Arkansas filed a bill to ban any writing by or about the progressive historian Howard Zinn, author of the popular A People’s History of the United States.
  • In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker tried to remove all references to the university’s commitment to the “search for truth,” and the legislature stripped state workers and professors of their collective bargaining rights.
  • A leader of the College Republicans at the University of Tennessee intent on “protecting” students from intimidation by “the academic elite,” proclaimed that “Tennessee is a conservative state. We will not allow out-of-touch professors with no real-world experience to intimidate 18-year-olds.”

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League observed that white supremacists have stepped up their recruiting in more than 30 states.

The Public and Higher Education

I was not shocked (shocked!) in the past year to learn that the polarization that underscores the public’s view of most institutions has now divided popular opinion as to the utility of higher education as well. Pew Research Center polling in 2017 indicated that 58% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents felt that colleges and universities were having a negative impact on the way things were going in the country, while just 36% thought that their effect was largely positive, according to Pew’s survey. More striking, only two years ago, attitudes were reversed with 54% of Republicans and Republican-leaners expressing the opinion that colleges were having a positive effect on the country, and 37% claiming a negative impact. Gallup polling revealed a sharp partisan divide in terms of institutional confidence in higher education. In 2017 only 33% of Republicans expressed a “great deal” of or “some” confidence in higher education while 56% of Democrats showed support.

Obviously, these distressing numbers are driven by many factors, not least of which is a sense among Republican legislators that colleges and universities have become progressive encampments where privileged young “snowflakes,” fawned over by their tremulous teachers, spend all their time railing against Trump, cultural appropriation (which they would put in ironic quotes), or any requirement that has them reading Homer or Shakespeare. Even Democratic legislators have backed away from enthusiastically supporting higher education in the face of climbing tuition, mounting student debt, and concerns (sometimes accurate, sometimes ill-informed) that the academy is too stodgy, too protective of its own interests, and too implicated in deepening social and economic inequalities in the country. As a result, the huge majority of the 20.4 million higher ed students in 2017 who are struggling to do what students have always done – get an education and get ahead in the world – are more and more left out in the rain.

The unwillingness of government at all levels to fund education was fully evident in 2017. Education is increasingly seen as a private consumable, not a public good, by which we mean something that is not simply “good for the public” but which benefits many people, including those who do not pay for it. The growing lack of confidence in higher education, combined with a dominant neoliberal suspicion of the public sphere in general, has underscored the decreasing support by legislators for funding higher education. As Secretary of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos continues to demonstrate her disregard for the public K-12 sector and willingly overlooks the often predatory activities of for-profit institutions in higher education. In June, for example, she suspended Obama-era regulations designed to make it easier to forgive loans for students who had been defrauded by for-profits and intended to prevent future abuses.

At a time when the benefits of a college education have never been greater, state policy-makers have made going to college less affordable and less accessible to those most in need. State spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historic levels. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2016-17 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, adjusting for inflation. The downward-spiral that this places many institutions on is obvious, as administrators see increasing tuition or reducing educational quality as the only way to balance their budgets. They have turned to limiting course offerings, closing departments and programs and, most frequently, reducing full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty and replacing them with well-qualified but immensely over-worked adjuncts and part-timers who simply lack the time to provide students with needed guidance and instruction. The percentage of tenured or tenure-track faculty and contingent faculty has essentially flipped since the 1970s, with the proportion of tenure-line faculty now at less than 30% of the total.

The recently passed tax bill is likely to deepen the challenges faced by the higher education sector;  perhaps that was its intention. With the move to limit deductions for state, local, and property taxes, the tax bill raises the effective tax rate for individuals in high-tax states (which just so happen to be blue states: California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc.). Even in states that support public funding for education, it is now less likely that legislators will raise taxes again to make up for a shortfall in education dollars. Furthermore, the bill, by increasing the standard deduction and making itemization less likely, will probably negatively impact charitable giving — one study estimates that it will decline by 4.5% next year — particularly by middle-income households.

Title 9 and #MeToo 

In September, Secretary DeVos rescinded Obama-era guidance on Title IX, allowing universities to modify the standard of evidence in campus sexual assault cases. The department’s Office for Civil Rights will use the new guidance document to assess institutions’ compliance with Title IX until a promised federal regulation dealing with campus sexual misconduct is finalized. The new guidance from the department grants colleges the ability to set their own evidentiary standard for misconduct findings, to pursue informal resolutions such as mediation and to establish an appeals process for disciplinary sanctions. The rules-change was challenged by a lawsuit filed in October by a national women’s rights group and three Massachusetts women.

Alter1fo, “[25 Octobre 2017] – Un jour, une photo… Agresseurs, violeurs… à vous d’avoir peur!” Flickr CC

These changes are generally seen as providing more protections to those accused of sexual harassment, and they come in the midst of one of the most significant developments in higher education in 2017, the spread of the #MeToo movement from the world of entertainment and the arts, to politics, and, now, higher education. As the Chronicle of Higher Education noted in November, “Higher education had already had moments of confrontation with harassment, assault, and the cultural and structural forces that underlie them. Women have described the cultures in some disciplines, including philosophy and astronomy, as corrosive and hostile. Campus officials have struggled to determine how to punish abusive employees — and how to avoid simply passing them on to other universities. Scholarly societies have taken a more vigilant approach to conferences that have long been seen as incubators for misconduct.” In the past year, accusations of sexual harassment in higher education have led to numerous firings and resignations, as well as some denials. (The Chronicle maintains an updated list of such charges here.)

Optimism of the will

While most commentators would credit the women who revealed Harvey Weinstein’s predations with opening the floodgates to the #MeToo movement that soon reached academia, it is certainly no coincidence that this opening took place with an admitted sexual predator in the White House.

Similarly, the upsurge of hate crimes in the nation and on campuses this past year, targeting people of color, Muslims, Jews, and the LGBTQ community, has produced vigorous movements to defend the rights of all students and a growing awareness of what it means to be a welcoming and inclusive institution. The demands for inclusion and equity have been growing on campuses in the past few years, spurred since 2013 in large part by the Black Lives Matter movement. That there is still a long way to go in this regard is beyond doubt. But the fact that these issues have been given greater consideration during the past year is probably another indication that actions produce reactions, if not equal in force, then at least significant.

It is hard not to conclude that the year past was massively challenging for those of us in higher education. And yet, if we maintain an optimism of the will, we can more readily address those areas in which we can have an impact, certainly by creating more equitable and inclusive institutions, challenging them to be true to their missions, and developing practices and honest narratives that better explain what we do to a skeptical public.


Ten Ways to Use Your Time (now that the semester is over)

Steve Volk, December 11, 2017
Contact at:

L’Illustration, Issue 769. Paris: Dubochet et Cie, 1857

In a survey conducted earlier in the semester at Oberlin and among the GLCA colleges and universities, I posed the question: What are the most difficult, perplexing, or problematic issues you face as a classroom teacher? The response most often repeated, not surprisingly, was lack of time.

With the semester concluded and exams, papers, and performances left to evaluate, we surely can be allowed to imagine the time, our time, when the semester past and the one to come haven’t yet collided. I figure that somewhere between the eight nights of Hanukkah and the twelve days of Christmas, there must be a top-ten list of ways to use the time that has just opened for all hard-working teachers who have fought to gain even a minute of “down-time” during the semester. So here are some suggestion for spending the delicious time that rests between fall and spring semesters; use them as you will. (If you’re on the quarter system, sorry. I have no help for you!)

While the soundtrack for these proceedings is still under development, John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” works for me.

10 are the hours of extra sleep you’ll now have to enjoy, or maybe just time to allow your thoughts to meander: small beer given the deficits you have built up, but lovely, nonetheless.

9 are the stories, poignant or funny, sad or inspirational, which you heard during the semester and that you’ll write down to share with your friends and colleagues; record them before they depart to some far-off island at the outer reaches of your consciousness.

8 are the episodes of “Stranger Things” that remain to be watched; feel free to substitute for “The Crown,” “Mozart in the Jungle,” “The Great British Baking Show,” or the second season of “The Grand Tour.”

Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark: Illustration: Peter Newell, London: Harper and Brothers, 1903.

7 are the books stacked by your bed that you promised to read over the holidays, mysteries and histories, poetry and plays: the only question is where to start?

6 are the measures you will take to stay calm and focused while the torment swirls around you. Illegitimi non carborundum (or for the Latin-speakers among you, Noli nothis permittere te terere.)

5 are the checks waiting to be written (does anyone write checks anymore?) before the year ends to the organizations that need your support.

4 are the colleagues owed a note of thanks or an invitation to dinner, the ones who have lightened your load over the past semester by lifting your spirits, taking over a class, or helping you restore your computer to life.

3 are your teachers, the ones who helped make you the teacher you are. Each year you think: I should write Mrs. Simmons, my 8th grade social studies teacher, who believed in me when no one else did. Nu? What’s wrong with now?

Optical illusion disc – Wikimedia commons.

2 are the new paths you’ll walk down in the future, not the ones that diverge in a yellow wood, but the ones that will help you keep head and heart together in the semester to come.

1 is a reminder about what you do by way of Parker Palmer: “Education at its best – this profound human transaction called teaching and learning – is not just about getting information or getting a job. Education is about healing and wholeness. It is about empowerment, liberation, transcendence, about renewing the vitality of life. It is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world.”

I Can Get Some Satisfaction

Steve Volk, December 8, 2017
Contact at:

Arabesques : mosquée cathédrale de Qous : décoration en faïence (XVIe. siècle); 1877. All images from New York Public Library, Public Domain

  Earlier in the semester I surveyed  the faculty as to what you considered to be your greatest accomplishments as classroom teachers and what you drew the most satisfaction from. As the semester draws to a close today, I am publishing some of what you offered as an end-of-semester gift.  I hope you’ll take a moment to think about all you have accomplished over the course of the semester, and, indeed, over the course of your careers, whether just begun or long in the tooth.  In a somewhat bleak moment, you still have much to be pleased about, and your students much to be thankful for.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishments and satisfactions as a classroom teacher?

  • Students falling in love with my language.
  • [The] personal connection [I make] with the students; seeing students improve over time; occasional light-bulb moments in class.
  • I’m a tough grader. [I see on evaluations that] my students appreciated this.
  • Engaged learning — project based approaches in which students directly engage in projects that (in some small way) change the world, or engage in research in which they ask and answer important questions for which answers are not already known.
  • Creating new courses, and making changes to existing courses, that keep [Oberlin’s] curriculum near the cutting edge.
  • I’m never satisfied and I really hope that my greatest accomplishments are ahead of me. However, if I had to choose one thing that I think I do particularly well it is my application of the science of teaching and learning to my own teaching in the service of my students’ learning.
  • Small things. A discussion that goes particularly well, a student who improves her writing over the course of a semester.
  • Creating an engaging classroom environment, delivering interesting lectures and creating in-class demonstrations/exercises, introducing students to the power of statistics, and encouraging students who think they are “bad at math” to succeed.

    Mosquée de Qaytbay : ornementation des portes et des armoires (XVe. siècle), 1877. New York Public Library, public domain.

  • Getting students excited about seeing the world differently.
  • Knowing that each of my students has received personal attention tailored to their individual learning.
  • Seeing students develop over the course of a semester. Hearing from students that a course truly helped them in later courses and even non-academic endeavors. My field gives me the privilege of getting to know and work with each student individually as the basis of the learning we accomplish in collaboration, and that is the most rewarding part.
  • Over the years I have arrived at (what feels like) a sense of clarity about what liberal arts education is for, and what the specific role of the humanities is within that education. This clarity has in turn clarified my teaching goals in the classroom and in individual conferences, the setting in which I spend about 75% of my teaching time.
  • Teaching students to become better writers & thinkers, and contaminate them with my love of the subject matter (language, lit, film, history).
  • Finding a way to combine lecture with discussion on a daily basis.
  • (1) Getting students to have great confidence in speaking a new language such that they learn it faster and more readily than in many beginning language classroom contexts; and 2) providing a context for undergraduates to engage meaningfully and purposefully in their college community.
  • I am not a classroom teacher, but when I coach groups, I would say it is when the kids get excited by the music and start to work hard on their own.

    Arabesques. Incrustations en stuc sur marbre blanc (du XVIe. siècle au XVIIIe.), 1877, New York Public Library, public domain

  • My upper level studio classes. I enjoy the subject matters [I teach] and have found ways to teach them very effectively.
  • Getting students to think differently and become excited about quantitative skills.
  • Teaching problem solving skills.
  • Inspiring students.
  • When students work hard and “get something,” figure something out that they hadn’t thought they could or never imagined would work out in such a way.
  • The success of my students, though I am not a classroom teacher.
  • Getting students excited about course material.
  • Meeting students ten years or more after
    graduation who tell me how valuable my classes were to them as a performer or scholar.
  • It is rewarding when students tell me that the class has been their favorite course at Oberlin or that it has changed their life for the better, but perhaps my favorite moment was after giving a guest lecture in [another professor’s] class, when a student told me how refreshing it was to hear a professor say that they didn’t know something.
  • People being excited about learning.
  • When students tell me that I have changed how they see the world; especially when they come back years later and say my lessons have stuck with them.
  • When the learning becomes a group project and you can feel the energy in the room explode with enthusiasm.
  • Serving as a positive role model for women in STEM; helping students to gain confidence in their own mathematical abilities.
  • When I orchestrate a situation in which I can see a student come to a realization or ignite a new passion.
  • Flipping an intermediate language course.

    Arabesques : mosaïques murales (XIIe. & XIVe. siècles), 1877. New York Public Library, public domain

  • Finding a way to connect with students of different backgrounds and skill sets.
  • Getting students interested in the topics and helping them grasp difficult concepts.
  • Creating an environment where students can feel comfortable asking questions.
  • When students email me apropos of something they have seen, heard, or read outside of the classroom that they relate to things we’ve talked about.
  • Actually changing the way a student thinks, and fostering true self esteem, critical thinking and confidence in young people.
  • Learning from my students and watching them and me grow.