Tag Archives: Learning

Assignment for the First Day of Classes: Define What Makes Us a Community

Steve Volk, August 21, 2017

Clip BoardLate August, for those who have been on campus, has been a time of frenetic activity, particularly for those charged with insuring that the buildings and grounds, torn up by myriad summer construction projects, are put back together before the students return. Project managers race around campus on golf carts and bikes, check lists in hand, fretting over what remains to be done in order to reopen buildings, unblock parking lots, and return pedestrians to their regular byways.

Faculty, too, consult our punch lists as the new semester approaches: finish the syllabi, read the books we just assigned our students, get the manuscript out the door. But this year our lists seem longer and more intimidating. Besides constructing classes to teach students calculus and creative writing, French and physics, we must prepare to help them cope with the madness spilling out of Washington, Bedminster, Pyongyang, and Charlottesville, from challenges to Title IX and affirmative action, to threats of nuclear war and the hatred radiating from an increasingly aggressive white nationalist movement. We must prepare to say something coherent about a “justice” system that, in the short time our students were away, saw fit to acquit the police officers charged with killing Terance Crutcher (Tulsa), Philando Castile (Minneapolis), and Sylville K. Smith (Milwaukee). After two hung juries, charges were dropped against the officer charged with the shooting death of Samuel DuBose (Cincinnati).

And we will need to prepare, with patience and passion, for the activism these provocations will surely generate, understanding how to support our students when they target injustice and inequity, and how to critique them when, in the process, they inadvertently undermine what makes us a community.

We return to classes in what is surely the most challenging time for higher education in generations. Without even discussing our financial tribulations and the disturbing findings that highly selective colleges and universities are perpetuating, if not increasing, social inequality, we find ourselves plying our trade in a country in which, for the first time, growing numbers question the value of what we are doing. In July the Pew Research Center released the results of a survey which found that the hyper-partisan divide that characterizes almost every policy dispute in Washington now shapes the public’s regard for higher education as well. For the first time on a question asked since 2010, a majority (58%) of Republicans say colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country; only 36% of Republicans found higher education to have a positive effect. In contrast, 72% of Democrats held a positive view.

Pew Research Center

Pew Research Center

Think about it: in a deeply divided country, a significant percentage of the population feels that as a society we would be better off without higher education. And if those views, as I’ll argue in a moment, are shaped by events at a few elite colleges and universities, they inevitably carry over to legislators’ decisions to cut funding to the Cleveland State universities and the Pima County community colleges of the country.

Speech Issues on Campus

There are many reasons for this divide, and many which are worthy of serious consideration (with the almost unimaginable cost of a degree at the top of the list), but only a few are central to the national debate. David Hopkins, co-author of Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats (Oxford, 2016), recently argued, that the negative view of colleges and universities is an “expectable manifestation” of increased coverage of protests over speakers and issues such as cultural appropriation, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. All are complex issues that tend to be flattened (and most often ridiculed) by the media, and not just at Fox News. Further, these stories are then magnified by higher education’s internet outrage machine led by Campus Reform and The College Fix.

A Heckler at Cooper Union (Jay Hambidge, artist). New York Public Library, Art & Picture Collection, Public Domain

A Heckler at Cooper Union (Jay Hambidge, artist). New York Public Library, Art & Picture Collection, Public Domain

More than other issues, the national conversation about higher education in the past few years has largely focused on student disruptions of campus speakers. To be sure, the issue is a serious one, but, if facts still matter, the actual incidents are few in number. The student-led commotions that shut down Charles Murray at Middlebury and Heather MacDonald at Claremont McKenna are well known, as are the protests that prevented Milo Yiannapolous and Ann Coulter from speaking at Berkeley. Leaving aside the cancellation of speaking engagements where honorifics were involved (commencement speakers, by and large), which raises a different set of issues, I could find only one or two other instances in the last year in which students prevented speakers from delivering invited lectures.

Even if there were more examples of disruptive student behavior, it would still be deeply troubling to learn that legislators in a number of states have used these cases to muscle through measures to discipline students “who interfere with the free-speech rights of other students on their campuses.” Certainly, from the standpoint of academic freedom, this is a case where the “solution” promises to be far worse than the issue it seeks to address.

But the intense focus on Murray or Yiannapolous has raised substantial problems for faculty and others who are deeply concerned with the way in which inquiry and difficult discussions are pursued on our campuses – what has come to be called “campus climate” issues – largely because it has levered the discussion of complex matters into a free speech/First Amendment box. In fact, the conversations we need to be having are much broader and they have to do with the very particular kind of community we aim to establish on our campuses. The conversation we need to be having is about defining, at this moment, the social contract that stipulates how we will behave towards one another, and how that aligns with what we hope to accomplish as institutions of higher educational.

The Goals of Higher Education

While institutions of higher education have many objectives (the production of new knowledge, the perpetuation and enhancement of culture, the socialization of 18-22 year olds, the creation of an informed citizenry, etc.), our central purpose, particularly at liberal arts colleges, is to support student learning. Our mission statements often reference other goals – to “foster…effective, concerned participation in the larger society” (Oberlin), to help students become “engaged members of society” (Pomona), or to engage “with the central issues of our time” (Denison). But these broad mission objectives are always built around what we hope our students will do with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that they have acquired during the time spent with us. In other words, these critical goals of engagement and a commitment to social justice always presuppose the learning necessary for the formation of effective, aware and informed members of society. In that sense, the primary understanding that underlies all others, the pledge that defines our interaction with others in our community, whether students, faculty, staff, or administrators, is rooted in one central principle: What promotes student learning is to be valued; what hinders it, is to be questioned, challenged, and if needed, rejected. As hazy as this formulation is – for student learning will involve uncomfortable challenges as well as embracing support – such a starting point can add clarity to discussions that are muddled when approached as First Amendment or “free speech” issues.

Saul Alinsky speaking at the Symposium on Civil Disobedience in a Democratic Society, Oberlin College, December 1965. Oberlin College Archives

Saul Alinsky speaking at the Symposium on Civil Disobedience in a Democratic Society, Oberlin College, December 1965. Oberlin College Archives

Student Learning and Campus Speakers

So, how does this approach help anything? Let’s take the issue of invited campus speakers (and here I’m principally referencing private colleges and universities that are outside of specific First Amendment requirements). Speakers whose primary intent is to demean members of our shared educational community and who have made it abundantly clear that what they have to say will not contribute to student learning, should not be invited. As Stanley Fish recently put it, the university’s “normative commitment is to freedom of inquiry,” not to freedom of speech, and those whose vicious bigotry would deny that freedom to members of our community, speakers such as a Milo Yiannapolis or a Richard Spencer or a Jared Taylor, are not welcome. To believe that freedom of speech is at the center of what we do is to displace our obligation to student learning.

For these very same reasons, speakers who can contribute to student learning, even if their approaches make some students intensely uncomfortable, and who locate arguments within the conventions of academic inquiry, even if their outcomes are obnoxious and their methodologies subject to question, must be considered as guests who can further student learning. They should not be denied a platform, as tiresome as it may be to hear repeated arguments that have been refuted many times before. The best response, particularly for students who may not have heard the arguments previously, is to refute them again. The Charles Murrays and Heather MacDonalds of the world fit into this latter category. How these talks are organized, what space is given for Q&A, alternative discussions, preparation, venue, etc., are all important points that must be considered and addressed before the speaker comes.

By suggesting that some speakers must be allowed a platform while others can be denied, I am arguing that cases must be decided on their merits and judged by the standard of whether student learning is to be served. To sidestep that process either by arguing that all speakers must be given a platform or that any controversial speaker should be prohibited avoids what can be learned in such a discussion. I don’t suggest for a moment that these are easy conversations, but they are necessary and presuppose that we have a shared understanding of the social contract that unites us as a community.

Supporting the Learning Environment

A more difficult question arises when addressing the campus climate that supports learning, i.e., dealing with the daily, not the transient. The need here is to prevent the consolidation of an environment that permits orthodoxy – any orthodoxy – from becoming hegemonic. I have heard too many stories from students who say that they don’t speak up in class because they fear repercussion from some of their peers, and from faculty who worry that a few students seem intent on setting intentional trip wires for them to fall over, to imagine that this is not an issue. Indeed, if we fail as educational institutions intended to challenge students to think in complex ways about difficult issues, allowing this climate to continue unchallenged will be one road to failure.

ABUSUA protesting the lack of black theater and dance, early 1970s. Oberlin College Archives

ABUSUA protesting the lack of black theater and dance at Oberlin, early 1970s. Oberlin College Archives

Some perspective is needed here. I understand, but have little patience for, those who recall with nostalgia a “golden age of inquiry” when they were students, when “everyone was challenged to think critically,” when discussion wasn’t stifled by campus orthodoxy. Jonathan Haidt, the NYU social psychologist who, with Greg Lukianoff, gave us the “Coddling of the American Mind,” recently observed that, “When I went to Yale, in 1981, it said above the main gate ‘Lux et Veritas,’ Light and Truth. We are here to find truth.” While some aspect of Haidt’s (and others’) concern might be reasonable, no less true is the fact that Yale’s commitment to “Lux et Veritas” was based on a thoroughly Eurocentric canon that limited what students were given access to as either “Light” or “Truth.” (And I won’t even mention – OK, so I will – that African Americans only made up 6% of Yale’s student body in 1984, when Haidt graduated, and that the university only admitted women 11 years before he arrived on campus.)** In short, we can’t address what is a real concern – creating a climate that supports learning by challenging all orthodoxies – by posing a mythic golden age to which we should return.

Further, I do not hesitate to ally myself with the many students (and faculty and staff and administrators) who feel a desperate urgency to confront racist, misogynistic, or homophobic views, particularly as they have been given a platform in the White House. While some of those views certainly exist in the academy, and while it is incumbent upon whites in particular to examine the basis of our privilege, the problem posed for our institutions is not that such issues are raised, but that the methods sometimes used to raise them can undercut our identity as educational institutions based on inquiry and discussion.

Our central approach to such challenges remains in supporting student learning as best we can, in ways that are culturally relevant and sustaining and that foster equity as well as inquiry. And we know that this is not accomplished through intimidation, explicit or implicit, by calling out those who are asking for conversation and clarification, and it’s certainly not done by labeling or shaming. Just as our students must be encouraged to critique, criticize and challenge, so, in turn, they need to be open to critique, criticism, and challenge. Faculty must be responsible for creating an environment in their classrooms where difficult questions can be raised and discussed, and where students who feel more insecure in these conversations are made to feel that they can raise questions, express opinions, and challenge arguments without fear of shaming in class or social reprisal (in person or via social media) outside of class.

Faculty should be encouraged to help students see themselves as teachers as well as learners. If they have disagreements or think viewpoints are racist, discriminatory, or ill-informed, they should be encouraged to act as they would hope their teachers would act, persuading through arguments backed by evidence and experience, by drawing others into the discussion, not by intimidation or silencing.

The First Day of Classes

There are many ways to begin to address these challenges, but I’d put just one on our late summer check list. On the first day of classes, rather than discussing the syllabus, assignments, or how many absences they are allowed, think of starting in a different way, regardless of what you teach. We all know that, as a country, we are going through a difficult time marked by sharp divisions. Perhaps it’s unprecedented – but as a historian I’d only say that it is surely unprecedented in the lives of our students. At this time, as we come together as a community, we need to ask ourselves: What is this education for? How does or should the college support the learning and well-being of all students? How do we envision, and then implement, an environment in which such learning can take place? What makes us a community? What do we need and expect from each other? And, finally, what is the nature of the social contract that binds us together and what does that mean in terms of how we treat each other?

The answers can help us build campuses that protect our students, move us toward greater equity, and promote the learning that is at the foundation of our existence.

_____________________

** Just to be clear, my critique here is of Haidt’s nostalgia, not of the many students at Yale at the time who saw the invitation to find in “Lux et Veritas” a way to “change the system,” as one grad put it to me. I apologize for any misunderstandings. [Added Aug. 22, 2017, 12:41 PM]

Stand and Deliver

Steve Volk, March 6, 2017

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

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

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

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

Mind and Body

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

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

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

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

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

The Neuroscience of it All

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

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

Study from Motion #27. ScottEaton.com

Study from Motion #27. ScottEaton.com

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

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

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

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

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

Movement in Service of Learning

SpringerParker, "After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997

SpringerParker, “After Muybridge interactive web project, 1997: http://www.springerparker.com/works_muybridge.html

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

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

Movement, stasis, independence, dependence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowing it Down

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

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

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

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

 

Learning from the Semester: 2.0

Steven Volk (April 25, 2016)

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

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

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

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

End of Semester Snapshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(6) Who can help?

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

After the SETs Come In

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

Longer-term Reflection: Annotated Syllabus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Reflections: What Have Your Students Carried Away?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe that’s good enough.

Crisis and Pedagogy

Steven Volk, April 18, 2016

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

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

Crisis and Pedagogy

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

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

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

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

divider

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

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

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

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

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

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

dividerCrisis and Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

divider

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Between Triggers and Bullets

Steven Volk, October 12, 2015

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

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

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

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

Triggers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bullets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mass Shootings - Economist[Source: The Economist]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take it Outside! Supporting Discussions Outside of Class

Steve Volk, September 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Peer Instruction and Peer Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working with/through Difference

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

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

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

What Activities?

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

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

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

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

Lids Down!

Steve Volk (October 5, 2014)

Once again the issue of laptops in the classroom has nosed its way onto my radar screen. I’ve presented materials before to help faculty think about developing a policy for laptop use in the classroom [e.g., the “Articles of the Week” on Oct. 28, 2013 (“Paper or Screen”), which offers research suggesting that people often understand and remember text on paper better than on a screen, and that screens may inhibit comprehension by preventing people from intuitively navigating and mentally mapping long texts; or from Oct. 15, 2013: (“Use of Laptops in the Classroom”), which highlights some general research on the best practices of laptop use in the classroom.

No! Not THAT lid!

No! Not THAT lid!

I’ve also referenced the research by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer which appeared in Psychological Science (April 23, 2014) on note taking on a laptop vs. by hand, suggesting the gains to learning that occur when students take notes by hand, a procedure that requires more processing, are more significant than (essentially) taking dictation on the computer.

Now (thanks to a note from Jeff Witmer) I was led to a new (September 9, 2014) entry on the topic by Clay Shirky titled, “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away.” If you don’t know Shirky, he’s a Jedi warrior for the use of technology who teaches interactive telecommunications at NYU and a dynamic proponent of crowdsourcing collaborations. His 2008 book (Penguin), Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations discusses the impact of the internet on group dynamics. (Here is the first chapter.) Anyway, when Shirky says “lids down” to his class, it has a different resonance than, say, if Mr. Chips recommended it.

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Not surprisingly, a lot of research informed his decision. He references the work on multi-tasking, which uniformly suggests how harmful it is to the quality of cognitive work,  and, in particular, how detrimental it is for those engaged in college-level work. He discusses the research that concludes that when we multi-task, rather than doing more in a specific time frame, we actually do less. But we continue to multi-task even in the face of declining efficiency because of the emotional gratification provided by the “other” tasks we’re “taking care of.”

He also shines a light on what we have known for a long time but have tended to ignore, something that software developers and social media entrepreneurs have used to build their networks into the hundreds of millions of users. Simply put: It’s much more compelling to find out from a “friend” what he thought of the party you both went to than to understand the G protein couple signal transduction pathway. Guess which one is going to win the student’s attention? As Shirky argues, getting a visual alert that you have just received a message on Facebook is really (“actually, biologically”) impossible to resist. “Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect,” he notes. For this reason, Shirky argues, he’s “stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction.”

"Crookes Tube Xray Experiment," from William J. Morton and Edwin W. Hammer, The X-ray, or Photography of the Invisible and its value in Surgery (NY: American Technical Book Co., 1896), fig. 54. [Public Domain]

“Crookes Tube X-ray Experiment,” from William J. Morton and Edwin W. Hammer, The X-ray, or Photography of the Invisible and its Value in Surgery (NY: American Technical Book Co., 1896), fig. 54. [Public Domain]

The final piece of evidence that pushed him into the “lids-down” mode was the research published in Computers and Education in 2013 by Sana, Weston and Cedepa. They found not only that “participants who multi-tasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask,” but that “participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not” (my emphasis). This “second-hand smoke” argument (“nearby-peers”) suggested to him that adopting a laissez-faire approach to laptop use in class was pretty much the same as saying that you can choose to smoke in class if you want since it’s only the smoker who is harmed by that action..

Not surprisingly, there has been some significant internet push back against Shirky’s argument, often of the personally-offended variety that greets a strict vegan who has just recommended that his friends tuck into a 16-oz T-bone. While the arguments vary (look at the great things that you can find on the internet; the problem is in teachers who lecture too much, not in laptops; we have always had distractions of different kinds in the class, why is this different; technology makes it possible to do things, not necessary to do them), they all argue for the positive benefits of laptop use in student learning. For my own part, I’ve long been a believer that if you engage students sufficiently and have them continually moving around the class in smaller group discussions, you can overcome the multi-tasking problem that comes with laptop use. But I’ve also always admitted that this is not really an approach that those who teach in larger lecture-style classes, particularly in those classrooms with fixed, amphitheater-style seating (a whole other issue – don’t get me started!) can take.

Creative Commons (Sailor Coruscant) [http://acreelman.blogspot.com/]

Creative Commons (Sailor Coruscant) [http://acreelman.blogspot.com/]

In the end, though, two elements of Shirky’s argument have led me to rethink my own laissez-faire approach: (1) programmers and software producers spend millions, if not billions, developing programs that are specifically designed to capture your eyes and to keep your attention focused on what they have to offer. How easy is it to compete with that when what we offer is an invitation to our students to crack their brains open thinking about Kant or game theory? (2) I can no longer ignore the peer-effect literature, which is compelling.

So, give it some thought – I’d be interested to hear responses from colleagues on either side of the argument (or in the middle).