Tag Archives: racism

2017 – The Year in Higher Education

Steve Volk, January 22, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

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

Attacking the Foundations: Alternative Facts and Fake News

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traveller_40, “Alternative Facts,” Flickr CC

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

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

Access to Data, Control of Language

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

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

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

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

Free Speech…

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

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

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

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

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

…And Academic Freedom

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

Viewminder, “Strange Bedfellows,” Flickr CC

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

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

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

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

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

The Public and Higher Education

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

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

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

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

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

Title 9 and #MeToo 

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

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

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

Optimism of the will

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

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

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


Locate and Contextualize: Facilitating Difficult Discussions in the Classroom

Steve Volk, September 26, 2016

All images from Lewis Caroll, "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There" (London: McMillan, 1871)

All images from Lewis Caroll, “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” (London: McMillan, 1871)

As part of a class assignment, two Muslim students from Middle Eastern countries attended a Catholic Mass in Philadelphia. What happened next was sobering. The students were members of a course in religious studies, “Religion in Philadelphia,” taught by Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez of Temple University. In the course Alvarez sought to introduce her very diverse students to a variety of religious practices and institutions in the Philadelphia area.

I’ll quote from the article that Alvarez wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education (“Fostering Open Communication in a Culturally Diverse Classroom”) to describe what happened next:

They were enjoying the beautiful building and taking in unfamiliar practices — holy water, repeated kneeling and standing, communion lines — when a parishioner photographed them with her cellphone and then abruptly left. After the mass ended, they ran into her outside the church, where she asked them if they spoke Arabic — yes — and if they were Catholic — no. When the students walked to their vehicle, multiple police cars stopped them.

The incident thankfully ended without further offense to the students when they explained the nature of their assignment for their religion course. But it left them, their classmates, and the instructor deeply shaken. While the professor had prepped both the students and the institutions they would be visiting in a responsible and professional manner, Alvarez was left to wonder whether “in today’s xenophobic climate” she could “continue to assign interfaith exchanges to my diverse students?”

Acknowledging the Moment

alice2It’s probably fair to say that most of us whose lives are absorbed with teaching and learning share that concern. It is no exaggeration to say that the current political climate, and – let’s be frank here – the Trump campaign in particular, are making our job as educators that much harder. Calls to ban Muslims, introduce racial profiling, support stop-and-frisk policing, wall-off the U.S.-Mexican border, apply torture to suspected enemies, disqualify judges on the basis of ethnic origin, and other atrocities that Trump has endorsed, strike at the heart of democratic and human rights that are a vital part of national and international law and challenge the inclusiveness that is an essential ethical and moral underpinning of the educational process itself. (For a forceful rebuttal to the argument that college administrators and faculty must remain on the sidelines of all political contests, see “Help Stop Trumpian Calamity” by Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University.)

If the heightened xenophobia and fear exhibited across sectors of U.S. society has led faculty members to wonder if they can still conduct their classes in the ways that are necessary and have proven most fruitful to the learning process, the persistent killings of black men and women, and the concerted attempts by many students (and faculty and staff) of color to get higher education to respond in a serious fashion to a history of grievance and exclusion, are also shaping the classroom environment. All of this can make faculty feel, at times, that we are walking on eggshells, uncertain how to approach difficult topics (see below on what makes them “difficult”) or when a comment will head us in directions we feel ill prepared to pursue. All of which can lead to the feeling that we should keep our distance from such themes or rapidly steer away from them when they come up.

This is not to say that we are not used to teaching through discomfort – indeed, learning is often most successful when we create a context of discomfort that calls forth deeper questions and new answers. But, to be honest, most of us aren’t all that skilled at engaging topics that are outside our own comfort zone, ones we fear will be potentially explosive. And for most of us, race is often at the very top of the list. [(Among many others resources on this, see Beverly Tatum, Can We Talk About Race? (Beacon 2008)]. Why does race, in particular, offer itself as a “difficult” conversation? Derald Wing Sue, et al argue that difficult dialogues on race:

represent potentially threatening conversations or interactions between members of different racial or ethnic groups when they (a) involve an unequal status relationship of power and privilege, (b) highlight major differences in worldviews, personalities, and perspectives, (c) are challenged publicly, (d) are found to be offensive to others, (e) may reveal biases and prejudices, and (f) trigger intense emotional responses…Any individual or group engaged in a difficult dialogue may feel at risk for potentially disclosing intimate thoughts, beliefs, or feelings related to the topic of race.

It is important to be clear that “race” and, therefore, the “dialogues about race” that take place in U.S institutions of higher education, are relevant to every class that is taught, not just those that have “race” in the course title. Because we teach in institutions that are a part of a larger history of exclusion, and because we claim, even if we fall short of the mark, that we value inclusion, we are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., recognize what is going on) when we look out at the students sitting in our classes and see who is there and, more importantly, who isn’t. We are called upon to “talk about race” (i.e., take steps to change our practice) when we devise our curriculum and see who is represented and who isn’t, when we examine our pedagogy and realize what kind of learning it attends to and what kind is pushed to the margins. In short, the discussion of race happens even when it doesn’t happen. So no one gets a free pass from this discussion.

These were some of the things that crossed my mind as I read Alvarez’s disheartening narrative. And so I wondered:  If the world outside our classrooms is becoming less hospitable to the conversations and interactions we need to have, and if we worry about how these essential discussions will happen in our classrooms if we are nervous and worried about missteps and feeling unprepared to have them, where will they happen?

Approaching Difficult Discussions

alice3The heart of Alvarez’s essay is not what happened to her students, but the advice she offers in order to engage these difficult conversations so that the pervasive xenophobia does not set the tone of her classes. She observes that encouraging these discussions requires “helping students develop an awareness of their own cultural narratives and differences,” and that we need concrete strategies if we’re going to do this. (I would only add that she could easily add “faculty and staff” to the category of “students.”) These strategies, she continues, “include explicitly clarifying the assumptions and methodologies of academic inquiry, breaking down required skills into components that are addressed at the assignment level, and, most crucially, making the classroom a safe place for discussion so relationships can grow and empathetic engagement can occur.”

“Yeah, right,” you’re probably thinking. Easier said than done, and bromides aren’t going to help me when I’ve opened the door to something I’m not prepared for.  And certainly we all know of examples (of colleagues, if not ourselves) where attempts at such discussions, or even less challenging ones, crashed off the rails. There are no guarantees that these discussions will prove useful for our students or ourselves; but there probably is a guarantee that avoidance of critical topics is abrogating our responsibilities.

Location and Context

Among the many suggestions that Alvarez raised to help educators think about engaging difficult discussions in the classroom, I found one in particular to be quite helpful. Faculty, she writes, should “instruct students in how to locate and contextualize their comments, and to model such behavior themselves. At a minimum, this involves indicating whether statements are based on experience, observation, academic research, or some other source.”

Her examples are illustrative. One student’s broad assertion that “Christians believe that Jesus is returning soon,” can, with purposeful questioning by the instructor, be located and contextualized into a more grounded, and limited, claim: “When I was growing up, I was taught in Baptist churches in Western Pennsylvania that Jesus is returning soon.”

She suggests that faculty help students specify the context or location of a statement they make or questions they offer. For example, when a student in Alvarez’s course stated that “Muslim women hide when men enter the home,” she asked that it be rephrased to help locate where that statement was coming from, whether it was generated by something the student read or observed, for example. A follow-up rephrasing that: “I read in an article by Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud that African-American Muslim women in Philadelphia in the 1970s often moved to the kitchen when men entered the home,” provides specific context for the assertion and also locates its origin in a research article.

Personal experience can also be brought in as part of the evidence, but it is to be contextualized as just that – personal experience.  Alvarez quotes from one of her students who responded to the first comment that, “When I was growing up in a Sunni home in Kuwait, my mother moved to a private area of the home when unrelated men entered.” Or, as another added, “In my extended family in Turkey, women welcomed friends and neighbors into their homes and ate with them as long as male relatives were also present.”

By contextualizing and locating statements or questions, broad claims that often leave us either speechless or wanting simply to close off the conversation can be further examined, contextualized, and evaluated on the basis of the evidence: direct evidence, reported evidence, academic evidence, cultural evidence, visual evidence, etc. Such an approach can move the discussion from a series of unsupported statements to a conversation based on evidence, while allowing students to “hear one another’s comments as unique experiences.” This kind of opening can easily lead, if one allows, to a deeper examination of what counts as evidence in our disciplines, as well as what might get left out or become undervalued, and whether critical voices in the discipline have explored ways to compensate for this.

alice4Further Suggestions

Beyond locating and contextualizing, Alvarez and others offer some suggestions that can help us think about how we can use these discussions to help generate greater understandings, light as well as heat:

  • No class member should be asked, or assumed, either by the faculty or other students, to speak for a whole group.
  • Don’t load the weight and responsibility of explaining racism on students of color; explaining homophobia on queer students; explaining Islamophobia on Muslim students. Audre Lorde put it quite succinctly: “People of color are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.”
  • Be aware of the ways that unconscious stereotyping and implicit bias impacts how we “see” our students, even if we are sure that we are not doing this and certainly don’t intend to stereotype. (CTIE’s workshop on “Implicit Bias,” on September 29, will address these issues.)
  • Respond to questions and situations honestly: “I’m unsure right now,” or, “Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with that, too. Is there a way we can talk about it?”

These conversations are not easy to have, and it is likely that some will go awry. But as the public conversation becomes more degraded, it increasingly falls to us take on and model discussions that need to happen. As the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano reminded us, describing what he called the “looking glass [upside down] school” which “teaches us to suffer reality, not change it; to forget the past, not learn from it,” we can do things differently if we put our minds to it. Perhaps, Galeano continued, there is “no disgrace without grace, no sign without a countersign, and no school that does not beget its counterschool” [Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World, (Picador 1998)]. Creating the space for difficult discussions is one way to foster those increasingly needed “counterschool” spaces.

Contract Improv – Three Approaches to Contract Grading

Steve Volk, March 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Full Disclosure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Contract grading as a means of negotiating authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non-negotiated contract grading to improve learning

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS 10027.ee

Spectroscope_British Library HMNTS 10027.ee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contract grading to encouraging active learning and community building

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Inoue explains,

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

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

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

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


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

Some additional bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening, Hearing, Changing

Steven Volk, November 30, 2015

Some people find this moment of  ferment on our nation’s campuses confusing, particularly as important principles that have defined the academic community are seemingly under assault. Safe space competes with academic freedom, intellectual diversity with political orthodoxy, and so on and so forth. It will take some time to sort it all out, particularly as not every protest seems well thought out and students, like all of us, are learning from their mistakes. But tumultuous moments such as the present also provide a way to hear things that, previously, we might have ignored. This week’s “Article of the Week” offers two such learning moments, one arising from the protest demands and the second, from a teacher’s reflections on her own practice.

Renaming: The Case of Woodrow Wilson

I am no longer surprised with how quickly protests have jumped from one one campus to another, for the underlying causes of concern and anger have been present – and unheard – for a long time. Student protests that recently have called our attention to the stubborn persistence of racial injustice both on campus and off have hopscotched from Yale to Ithaca,  Occidental to Princeton, Amherst to Brandeis, Lewis and Clark, and Western Washington. What started at the University of Missouri did not stay at Mizzou, as students, faculty and staff seized on potentially the most promising opening for change in a generation. Among demands that have been raised by students of color are for the renaming of buildings that honor individuals who were particularly notable in their defense of slavery or, after the Civil War, segregation and racism.

Protesters at Princeton University  (Photo by Mary Hui for The Washington Post)

Protesters at Princeton University (Photo by Mary Hui for The Washington Post)I

Among these, the case of Woodrow Wilson and Princeton stands out. President Wilson’s relationship to Princeton was anything but casual. He was an undergraduate (class of 1879), a professor (hired in 1890), and finally the university’s 13th president (1902). The deep identification of the university with Wilson can be seen all over the campus. Now, many students are questioning this relationship.

Wilson’s well known reputation as “the architect of a lot of modern liberalism” stands in stark contrast to his record on race relations which, in the muted terms of PBS’s “American Experience,” was “not very good.” In point of fact, it was a lot worse than that. Wilson was an unrepentant racist, a segregationist whose actions as President reversed the halting advances made by Black Americans in the years after Reconstruction. (For more on this see Eric S. Yellin, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America (Univ. of North Carolina, 2013).

With this history in mind, in mid-November, the Black Justice League, a year-old group of concerned students at Princeton, announced that they would occupy the office of Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber until he agreed to a set of demands, including the following:

“WE DEMAND the university administration publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and how he impacted campus policy and culture. We also demand that steps be made to rename Wilson residential college, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, and any other building named after him. Furthermore, we would like the mural of Wilson to be removed from the Wilcox dining hall. We understand that a name change does not dismantle racism, but also know that the way we lionize legacies set precedents.”

Calhoun College, Yale University

Calhoun College, Yale University

This call at Princeton was preceded by a similar demand at Yale that Calhoun College (i.e., residence hall), named for John C. Calhoun, a congressman, senator, vice president, secretary of state and war, as well as a staunch defender of states’ rights and an outspoken advocate of slavery, be retitled. A similar call was issued at Amherst College to retire Lord Jeffery Amherst as the college’s sports mascot. It was Amherst who wrote, in 1763: “Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.”

There is no simple answer to how colleges (or countries, for that matter) should deal with a past that is less than exemplary, and I don’t propose one here. But if some agreed that it was time for Yale to remove Calhoun’s name, the parallel demand to oust Wilson from Princeton seemed a bridge too far for many. Where, after all, would it all end. The editors at the New Jersey Star Ledger seemed to have this in mind when they wrote in their November 22 editorial that individuals such as Wilson were only part of the times in which they lived. “If we were to erase tributes to every historical figure with a repellent quality,” the editorial continued, “there would be no names left on any building, bridge, airport, school, river, park, statue or boulevard in the land.” Perhaps we should pause for a moment to let the full weight of that sink in. In any case, the editorial concluded, “The students at Princeton are right to acknowledge that the 28th President was a fierce segregationist, but to expunge the entire legacy of this transformative figure is historical myopia at its worst.”

Yet what students and their supporters at Yale and Princeton are saying is not that the “entire legacy” of these figures be “expunged,” but rather that the universities should stop and consider exactly what it means for the children of slavery and segregation, who you have invited to become a part of your community, to have to live, study, and work in buildings that celebrate the figures who were not just “at one” with their times, but staunch, active and outspoken proponents of slavery and segregation. This is not, in the end, a debate about whether the “repellent” acts of the past are to be deleted from historical memory, but whether those responsible for them are to continue to be honored in the present.

Was anyone listening to what the students are saying?

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s (New York Times)

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s (New York Times)

Yes. On November 24, the New York Times published an informative and moving op-ed by Gordon J. Davis, a lawyer and the grandson of John Abraham Davis. In “What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather,” Davis describes how, early in the last century, his grandfather rose from being a laborer to a mid-level manager at the Government Printing Office only to be demoted, with countless other African Americans, by Wilson’s systematic purge of the African Americans from the Federal civil service. As Davis concluded, “Wilson was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.”

The same day, the Times editorial board threw in their lot with Princeton’s Black Justice League. “The overwhelming weight of the evidence argues for rescinding the honor that the university bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist,” the Times wrote. This is not about removing those aspects of history which current undergraduates find abhorrent; it is about no longer honoring those individuals for such actions. While the Times is hardly the avatar of progressive thinking, it is gratifying that its editors could hear.

Emily E. Smith

Emily E. Smith is a fifth-grade teacher at the Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, TX. She was hired as a language arts and social studies teacher, although she now calls herself a “teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.” The journey she took to her new identity was one that involved considerable listening.

Smith was just awarded the 2015 Donald H. Graves Excellence in the Teaching of Writing award given at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English held in Minneapolis. (My wife, Dinah, a professor of early childhood education, was at the conference, heard Smith’s acceptance speech, and brought it to my attention. Strike that: insisted that I read it.) Parts of Smith’s acceptance speech circulated in an article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, and I quote from that article here.

Emily Elizabeth Smith, fifth-grade teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, Tex. (Erich Schlegel, Washington Post)

Emily Elizabeth Smith, fifth-grade teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, Tex. (Erich Schlegel, Washington Post)

“I’m white,” Smith began. “My classroom is not. Sure, it’s been my dream to work at an ‘urban’ school. To work with kids whose challenges I could never even fathom at such a young age. And changing at-risk lives through literature is almost a media cliché by now. These were, however, how I identified myself at the beginning of my teaching career. I was a great teacher. I taught children how to truly write for the first time and share meaningful connections on a cozy carpet.”

Yet Smith also understood that “something was missing.” Slightly more than 80 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States today are white. About half of public school students aren’t white. “That means,” she observed, “America’s children of color will, for the majority of their school years, not have a teacher who is a reflection of their own image. Most of their school life they will be told what to do and how to do it by someone who is white, and most likely female. Except for a few themed weeks, America’s children of color will read books, watch videos, analyze documents and study historical figures who are also not in their image.”

Smith’s understanding of what she was doing in her own classroom changed the day one of her students told her she “couldn’t understand because [she] was a white lady.” I don’t know why we are able to hear things at particular moments when the same messages has probably been delivered countless times without any effect. But sometimes we just do, and at that moment Smith heard. As she describes it, she went home “and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy.”

From then on, she wrote, she chose to shift the curriculum she taught her class. Her 5th graders now are reading the issues that they want to explore. As they studied Sandra Cisneros, Pam Muñoz Ryan and Gary Soto, she saw a “light in their eyes I had never seen before.” TamalesThey read Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America Again” from “the lens of both historical and current events and realized that the United States is still the land that has never been. The land that my kids, after reading an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son that connected so deeply to their personal experiences, decided they still wanted to believe in. The land they decided to still hope for. The land that one of my kids quietly said would be changed by her generation. A generation of empathy.”

After reading about the Syrian crisis, Smith’s students “wrote poetry of hope, despair and compassion from the perspectives of the migrants. Many of my kids asked to write about their own journeys across the border and their [dreams] for a better future. One child cried and told me he never had a teacher who honored the journey his family took to the United States. He told me he was not ashamed anymore, but instead proud of the sacrifice his parents made for him.”

Smith concluded, “So as I stand here today I can declare that I am no longer a language arts and social studies teacher, but a self-proclaimed teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.”

“Looking back,” she continued,

I think that my prior hesitation to talk about race stemmed from a lack of social education in the classroom. A lack of diversity in my own life that is, by no means, the fault of my progressive parents, but rather a broken and still segregated school system. Now that I’m an educator in that system, I’ve decided to stand unflinching when it comes to the real issues facing our children today, I’ve decided to be unafraid to question injustice, unafraid to take risks in the classroom — I am changed. And so has my role as a teacher.

I can’t change the color of my skin or where I come from or what the teacher workforce looks like at this moment, but I can change the way I teach. So I am going to soapbox about something after all. Be the teacher your children of color deserve. In fact, even if you don’t teach children of color, be the teacher America’s children of color deserve, because we, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country.

Put aside your anxieties and accept your natural biases. Donald Graves once said, ‘Children need to hang around a teacher who is asking bigger questions of herself than she is asking of them.’ I know I’m going to continue to ask the bigger questions of myself and seek the answers that sometimes feel impossible, because my kids deserve it … you’re welcome to join me.

The Lessons of Mizzou

Steven Volk, November 15, 2015

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

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

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

Separate-Unequal-CoverDiversity: Racial Disparities in Higher Education

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

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

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

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

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

The Impact of Black Lives Matter

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

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

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

The University of Missouri

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

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

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

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

Sports and the Role of the Missouri Football Team:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Media and the Free Speech Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yale University

Arnold Gold/AP

Arnold Gold/AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunger Strikes

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

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