Tag Archives: culture

The Honor Code: Time for a Conversation?

Steven Volk, November 22, 2015

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

John Davis, University of Virginia

John Davis, University of Virginia

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

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

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

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

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

Furthermore, the Haverford Honor Code

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

The Honor Code at Oberlin

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

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

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

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

Questions, anyone?

Final exams at Hamilton College, 1950

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

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

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

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

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

Exams at Hamline University, 1930s. Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Honor Code has taken this into account:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Teaching International Students: Opportunities and Challenges

Steven Volk, November 1, 2015

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

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

Credit: Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2015

Credit: Wall Street Journal, March 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

International Student Meeting, Oberlin College. Photo: William Rieter

International Student Meeting, Oberlin College. Photo: William Rieter

Opportunities and Challenges

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

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

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

Editing a Paper. Photo Nic McPhee, Flickr CC.

Editing a Paper. Photo Nic McPhee, Flickr CC.

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

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

Infinity and Me - Kate Hosford

Infinity and Me – Kate Hosford

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

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

The Lessons of Universal Design

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

Three examples can illustrate this point further:

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

Alumno Participando by Ivonne M.O.; Flickr CC

Alumno Participando by Ivonne M.O.; Flickr CC

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

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

Particular concerns:

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

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

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

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


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

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

Back-To-School Lit

Steve Volk, September 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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