Tag Archives: Students

Documents and the Undocumented

Steve Volk, September 11, 2017

LicenseWhen I was growing up our social studies teachers firmly inscribed a line between “history” and the “prehistoric.” The prehistoric, we were instructed, was the time of dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, saber tooth tigers and “Indians.” (Unprepared or unwilling to teach about one of the numerous Native American cultures that inhabited California before the arrival of Europeans, my Los Angelino classmates and I learned about a fictional indigenous tribe, a sort of cultural composite that mashed together north and south. No need to worry our elementary school brains over the differences between Chumash and  Payómkawichum.) The dividing line between “history” and “prehistory” was not animal vs. human, but those who inscribed their past in a written form and those who were “pre-literate,” another troubled term of the time. Prehistory was the time of the people who didn’t write. In short, we were taught to distinguish between those with “papers” and, well, the undocumented.

Eric Wolf, a path-setting anthropologist, was one of the first to challenge my California-befuddled brain in his 1982 monograph, Europe and the People Without History (University of California), proposing that people without formal writing systems were not by any means without history, although waves of European colonization had rendered them prehistorical.

When I went on to study history in college, and then made the decision to become a historian, my desire, part and parcel of the rebellious 1960s, was to inhabit an academic discipline that would reveal the history of those who hadn’t written their own in the form of monographs or journal articles. My first efforts, exploring the history of the Bolivian tin miners union, brought me to the archives and in contact with the octogenarian founders of the first Bolivian sindicatos. In my romanticized imagination, I would give voice to the voiceless, documents to the undocumented. Further study clarified that, while doing nothing of the kind, I was at least part of a larger historical process that searched the archive for traces of those who previous generations of historians had ignored.

Texupa, Mexico, 1579. Reproduced from Kenneth Mills, William B. Taylor, eds., Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

Texupa, Mexico, 1579. Reproduced from Kenneth Mills, William B. Taylor, eds., Colonial Latin America: A Documentary History (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

As a teacher of history, my colleagues and I challenged students to “read between the lines,” or “listen to the silences” when studying a past that seemed quite determined to ignore the vast numbers of people who had inhabited the earth. Silence itself could, perhaps, reveal a hidden documentation when asked the right questions. If we couldn’t provide a voice to the voiceless, we could attempt to read the shadows and listen for the murmurs as a means of crafting a history of the “prehistoric.” This was not an act of magic, nor really of imagination: we just became attentive to spaces we had previously overlooked. If the pre-conquest history of the Nahua and Zapotec was largely written by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico, we could still read the complexities of a colonial history inscribed in the maps Spanish administrators ordered their indigenous artisans to draw, or in the court records that charged them with a variety of misbehaviors and misdemeanors. The documentation that makes up a history comes in many forms, but only if we value the people who have lived it. To render a people “undocumented” is to endeavor to remove their history.

DACA and Documentation

I have been thinking a lot about documents, documentation, and history as the Trump Administration first threatened, and then, disgracefully, sent out Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program on September 5. DACA was created by President Obama in June 2012 to provide modest but important protections for some young people who had been rendered invisible because they lacked documentation. When it was announced, DACA won the support of nearly 2/3rds of the U.S. population according to a Pew Research Center report. Once approved for the program, DACA recipients would (generally) be protected from deportation, could work legally, and obtain a driver’s license. To qualify, DACA applicants had to have entered the United States before 2007, be younger than 16 when they arrived and not older than 31 when the program began. They were required to maintain a virtually spotless criminal record, and needed to be enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma or the equivalent.

Loyola Marymount University student and ‘Dreamer’ Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of DACA. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP - Guardian- Sept 5, 2017

Loyola Marymount University student and ‘Dreamer’ Maria Carolina Gomez joins a rally in support of DACA. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP – Guardian- Sept 5, 2017

One key to the program is that they had to apply, which meant giving the government information that could easily put them at risk: fingerprints, addresses, biometric information. They had to make themselves even more vulnerable to a government that had betrayed them so often in the past and now said, “trust us.” Of an estimated 1.3-1.7 million individuals eligible for DACA, close to 800,000 ultimately applied.

To be clear, DACA status didn’t provide them with a “path toward citizenship” or permanent residence in the United States; it gave them a temporary way to come out of the shadows and at least momentarily put aside some fears, for they still faced the possibility that their parents could be deported. And they had to reapply every two years.

It is not easy to research this undocumented group of young people, but according to study by Tom Wong of UC San Diego, DACA recipients were, on average, 6½ when they arrived in the U.S. In other words, for a great number of these individuals, the only life they have known is in the United States. While we don’t know how many DACA recipients are undergraduates, the University of California system, for example, has approximately 4,000 undocumented students, a substantial number of whom have DACA status. Harvard enrolls perhaps 65. In all, an estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from college each year.

Acts of Erasure

There are many ways to analyze Trump’s demented decision to terminate DACA: as yet another indication of his determination to re-impose the white, patriarchal, straight, Christian America of his Queens upbringing in the 1950s, the New York borough represented so subversively by Archie Bunker, as Jelani Cobb recently observed; as another piece of candy offered to his political base equally rattled by its own ethnic anxieties; or as a further measure of his determination to break anything that President Obama built. Whatever else this decision shows, it is more evidence that the man is devoid of empathy. He will not or cannot allow himself to imagine the life of an 18-year old brought from Honduras as a child, who, with much effort, became a young woman who danced with joy at her high school prom, proudly joined the military to serve “her country,” and now is encouraged to “self-deport” lest she find herself with a one-way ticket to a country whose language she no longer speaks, a town she doesn’t remember, and a family that no longer lives there. For Trump and his anti-immigrant backers (a faction which has been active since the nation was founded but which modifies its targets over time), she lacks documents and therefore neither her past nor her future is of concern. She does not exist in history. She has been rendered prehistoric.

Activists rally in New York. Photograph: Albin LJ/Pacific/Barcroft Images - Guardian; Sept. 1, 2017

Activists rally in New York. Photograph: Albin LJ/Pacific/Barcroft Images – Guardian; Sept. 1, 2017

Frankly, I’m not interested in understanding why this man does what he does; my concern is for those who will suffer from his actions. There is no time in this short essay to explore the historically sour welcome given migrants, both “sanctioned and subjugated,” into this country. Nor can I explore the virtual lack of citizenship that has been the reality for African Americans living here. But some brief background is needed to understand, in particular, the existence of millions of migrants from Mexico and Central America.

Mexican workers arrive in San Francisco, World War II

Mexican workers arrive in San Francisco, World War II

For more than a century, the United States has depended on the labor of those coming from south of the border. They came when their toil was needed, and returned home when conditions turned. A purposefully porous southern border encouraged both an inflow of low-cost labor to U.S. farms, mines, and other industries, and the opportunity of a return home to their natal communities.

But in the 1990s a trap door fell. As the U.S. beefed up its border enforcement in response to conservative political pressure, those workers who had previously moved back and forth across the border no longer could risk leaving the United States to return to what most still considered their homes. Further, as Washington began toughening its immigration laws in response to the same pressures, those who were already here found that they had no way to legalize their status (or that of their non-U.S. born children) if they stayed, and virtually no legal way to return to the States if they left. So while the decision to terminate DACA is particularly cruel for the hundreds of thousands of young people who have known no other life than what they have experienced in this country, U.S. immigration laws are no less punishing for the millions who have come here to pick our crops, tend our gardens, and care for our children, who, in short, have taken jobs that others don’t want.

Trump’s decision to rescind DACA is above all an act of erasure, an attempt to remove those without documents from “our” history. Iowa Representative Steve King was quite explicit about this. DACA recipients, he argued, should either self-deport or “live in the shadows,” where they can, presumably, provide cheap labor for Iowa’s meat packing firms. The question, though, is what can we do to protect the tens of thousands of DACA (and non-DACA) students who attend our classes and graduate from our universities?

DACA and Higher Education

Institutions of higher education and their associations have been uniform in their condemnation of Trump’s actions. Shortly after Trump’s election, more than 600 college and university presidents, including Oberlin’s president Krislov, signed a statement urging continued support for DACA. This week, Carmen Ambar, Oberlin’s newly installed president, circulated a letter to the campus linking the institution’s support for DACA to its historic mission of inclusion: “Today,” she wrote, “we are called to continue that legacy as we fight for the rights of young, undocumented individuals who have benefited from [DACA].” Going a step further, on September 8, the University of California filed suit in federal court against the Trump administration for unconstitutionally violating the rights of the university and its students by rescinding DACA on “nothing more than unreasoned executive whim.”

Carlos Esteban of Woodbridge, Va., a nursing student and DACA recipient, rallies with others outside the White House, Sept. 5. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press) – LA Times, Sept 6, 17

Carlos Esteban of Woodbridge, Va., a nursing student and DACA recipient, rallies with others outside the White House, Sept. 5. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press) – LA Times, Sept 6, 17

Colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to protect the privacy of student records, provide DACA students with legal aid and, in some cases, financial support, establish offices to provide targeted support and counseling, enroll students without regard for their immigration status, insure that campus security and police forces do not make inquiries regarding any student’s legal status, advocate in the name of their institutions for new laws to protect DACA recipients and all undocumented students, and lobby their legislators to pass legislation to reform an immigration system that has grown increasingly punitive and threatens to spill back into a racially exclusionary system.

But what do we, teachers of these threatened students, teachers of all students in our classroom, do? The issue, as Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities recently noted, is not a partisan one: “We do have values to serve, and these are not partisan values.” For obvious reasons, we are unlikely to know which students in our classes are DACA students or who lacks legal status. This is all the more reason to make known to all our students that we are part of an educational community that is formed by the values of equity and inclusion, that all our students are equal members of that community regardless of any aspect of their identity or status, that all are deserving of a quality education, and that we will work with them to insure they receive it. It is also important to indicate again, that if any student is in need of special consideration and feels unable to communicate that need directly to us, they should work with the Dean of Students’ office, which can bring the matter to our attention.

One of the consequences for our DACA and undocumented students who have been forced to live a life of intense vulnerability is that we do not know, we cannot know, their histories; we do not know, we cannot know, the effort they must put in just to keep up with our classes, let alone excel in them. Preparing for an exam or writing a 10-page paper is hard enough given the complexity of our young students’ lives. Concentrating on those tasks when you don’t know if your mother will be put on a plane and sent to El Salvador when she reports to her next meeting with ICE agents, planning what courses to take for a future which may crumble at any minute, requires more focus and effort than most of us can muster. And yet, we do not know, cannot know, about it because their vulnerabilities have rendered them silent.

And this is where we come in. We must be clear that in our classrooms and in our communities, our students will not be made voiceless; they will not be made invisible; they will not be stripped of their past and turned “prehistoric” because it matters to us, deeply. If our students can’t speak up, we need to become better listeners who can be aware of the silences. If our students can’t ask for our support, we need to offer it without their asking. DACA and the undocumented have a home in our colleges and universities, and we need to make sure that they know it.

Group-defend

Meet the First Years!

Steve Volk, September 4, 2017

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

Goodbye Mr. Chips with Robert Donat (1939)

One thing we learn as educators is that all students are different and need to be taught in ways that can best promote their learning and growth. I’m not talking about the “learning styles” literature, which needs to be approached with a good degree of caution and should not be confused with Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” research. (Indeed, a veritable “learning-styles-industrial complex” has developed around the approach, giving rise to dozens of companies all trying to sell their particular “learning-styles” product, even though, as many researchers have discovered, there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.) Rather, I mean that one of the great joys of teaching is getting to know students on an individual level so that we can provide the most appropriate help when needed. And, the other side of the coin, one of our great frustrations is lacking the time to do this to the extent that we would desire.

Nonetheless, there is something to be gained by examining an incoming class as a whole, not just at our own college, but across the country. At Oberlin, for example, we have just welcomed 765 new students (College and Conservatory combined). 58% of the class are women, 42% men, which puts us just slightly above the national figure of 55% women). We have learned that approximately 26% of the class are students of color, and that 88 foreign students from 40 different countries now call Oberlin home.

What about the national picture, where some 20.4 million students are expected to attend American colleges and universities in 2017 (an increase of about 5.1 million since fall 2000)? For many years, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA has published The American Freshman: National Norms, an annual survey of full-time first-year students (FTFT). I always find the survey a useful means to follow trends that are developing in higher education, some of which are mirrored on our own campus.

This “Article of the Week” will present some of HERI’s data for students entering in 2016 which were published a few months ago, as well as figures from a few other sources. The HERI data were compiled from a survey of 137,456 students including 80,000 students at baccalaureate institutions, of whom about 49,000 were from private 4-year colleges. While HERI and other sources I’ve examined report on a multitude of topics, here I just including a few snapshots that I found most informative.

Political Orientation

It will come as no surprise to learn that the entering cohort of full-time, first-time college students in the fall 2016 semester was the most polarized in the 51-year history of the Freshman Survey, in general and by gender. (Any guesses as to what the results will show for the 2017 entering class? I shudder in anticipation.) Fewer students than ever before (42.3%) categorize their political views as “middle of the road,” while an all-time high of 41.1% of women self-identify as “liberal” or “far left” with respect to their political views. This compares with 28.9% of men who consider themselves in the same categories, yielding the largest gender gap in self-reported political orientation to date.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 4.

More broadly, here is how incoming first-years thought of themselves politically:

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac, 2017-18, p. 34.

Openness to other viewpoints:

The fact that more students nationally are moving away from a “middle-of-the-road” self-definition is not, it itself, either surprising or necessarily troubling. It could suggest that entering students are more aware of political issues and more willing to define themselves in relation to on-going debates. What IS troubling – you thought I’d skate away from this one, didn’t you? – are the findings regarding the degree to which politically defined students profess that they will “tolerate” others with different beliefs. (What “tolerating” other beliefs means isn’t fully defined.) Somewhat less than one-third of self-identified right-of-center students indicated a low tolerance of others with different beliefs. This compared to 82.0% of “middle of the road” students and 86.6% of left-of-center students who said that they “strongly” or “somewhat strongly” would “tolerate others with different beliefs.” The complexities of teaching in an environment where those who hold different political beliefs aren’t “tolerated” are enormous.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 6.

Why are students going to college?

For many years after the financial crash of 2008, students focused on economic criteria as the primary reasons for going on to post-secondary education. As the unemployment rate began to decline from 2012 to 2016, the trend was paralleled by a decline in more purely job-related or financial reasons expressing why a high school student wanted to continue on to  college – although such reasons are still very important. The percentage of students concerned about going to college to get a better job has modestly declined from an all-time high of 87.9% in 2012 to 84.8% in 2016, hardly a dramatic decline. First-time, full-time college students in 2016 were ever-so-slightly less likely to consider “making more money” as a very important reason to attend college (72.6%) compared to their peers who started college in 2012 (74.6%). It’s heartening (at least from my perspective, others might disagree) to see a rise in the desire to gain “a general education and appreciation of ideas” and learning “more about things that interest me,” as reasons for going on to college. But we be foolish to neglect the underlying economic considerations when thinking about our students.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 8.

Here’s a chart listing the “top objectives” that in-coming students named as  essential or very important goals they wanted to achieve by going on to college or university.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p 35.

First-Generation Students:

Of course, there are significant variations among student cohorts. First-generation students, for example, are more likely to consider the cost of their selected institution and being offered financial assistance as very important factors in selecting their college (56.1% and 58.2%, respectively) compared to continuing-generation students (45.1% and 43.9%).

Over the past 10 years, the proportion of first-generation college students enrolling full-time in four-year institutions has hovered around 20%. In 2015, approximately 17.2% of incoming first-year students self-reported as first-generation, the lowest proportion of first-generation students in the history of the survey. In 2016, roughly 18.8% of the cohort of incoming students identify as first-generation college students.

If it’s hard to understand exactly what these numbers suggest, the demographic composition of first generation students is striking and suggests the changing racial and ethic composition of higher education which is already strongly underway. Only 10% of first generation students were white, whereas 27% were Black and 57% Latino.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 11.

Mental Health Concerns:

Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such conditions. Distressingly, the number of students with suicidal thoughts has risen as well. According to studies published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 33% of students in the past 12 months felt so depressed that it “was difficult to function.”

The trends are likely to continue based on data on incoming students. More than one-third (34.5%) of incoming first-time, full-time college students reported frequently feeling anxious. Students identifying with any of the disabilities, psychological disorders, or chronic illnesses listed on the instrument have a greater likelihood than other freshmen to have frequently felt anxious in the past year.

Disabilities

Last year Oberlin graduated 178 students who had been registered with the Disabilities Services office. This number included students with regular accommodations (i.e., those whose documentation was in order), students considered as “provisional” (those whose documentation was not up to date or incomplete); and temporaries (about 3-5% of students with broken arms, concussions, etc.). By the end of the spring 2017 semester, the office had seen about 700 students, or approximately 23% of the student body. Think about it, people. That’s a very significant number.

The Oberlin figures are generally in line with national trends. Overall, nearly 22% of incoming first-year students identified as having at least one disability/disorder. All reports indicate that the figure is increasing. A decade ago (2007-08), 11% of undergraduates reported a disability.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

For those interested in reading more about students on the autism spectrum, I can recommend two recent articles: Jan Hoffman, “Along the Autism Spectrum, A Path Through Campus Life,” New York Times (Nov. 19, 2016), and Paul Basken, “Colleges Are Trying a Broad Approach to Autistic Students. What Will That Cost?Chronicle of Higher Education (August 28, 2017). [Note: “premium” content available via the library.]

Gender Identity and Sexuality:

The HERI survey for the first time in its history asked students to identify themselves by gender identity, and then used this data to ask about levels of confidence in specific skills or attributes. Compared to the nationally normed sample, students identifying as transgender have far greater confidence in their artistic ability (52.0% vs. 30.7% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”) and creativity (64.0% vs. 52.6% rating “highest 10%” or “above average”). By contrast, transgender students rate themselves lower than first-time, full-time students in the areas of social self-confidence, leadership ability, and physical health.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

Source: HERI, The American Freshman, 2016, p. 13.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offered an overview of the sexual orientation or identity as self-reported by in-coming first year students.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Social Media Use:

I found it both interesting and somewhat counter-intuitive that increased social media use on the part of in-coming students didn’t reveal any decline in the amount of time they spent with face-to-face contacts. Full time, first-year students entering college this fall do not seem to substitute more frequent use of online social networks for in-person interactions with friends. Three-quarters (75.2%) of students who spent at least six hours per week using social media during the past year also spent at least six hours per week socializing with friends in person. By contrast, roughly half (48.2%) of students who averaged less than six hours each week connecting in online social networks also spent six or more hours socializing with their friends in person. More time online = a greater likelihood of more face-to-face interactions? I need to think about that one more.

If you, like me, wondered where all this time was being spent, here’s some indication.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Source: Chronicle of Higher Education, Almanac 2017, p. 34.

Wait — one might say at this point — students are spending more (or the same amount) of time on average socializing, exercising, and hanging out online as studying? Obviously, the data need unpacking, and will vary widely by the type of institution. But when we think despairingly of “today’s students” (as in “what’s the matter with students today”), I’d strongly recommend reading Gail O. Mellow’s recent op-ed in the New York Times. Mellow, the president of La Guardia Community College, observed in “The Biggest Misconception About Today’s College Students” (August 28, 2017), that “Of the country’s nearly 18 million undergraduates, more than 40 percent go to community college, and of those, only 62 percent can afford to go to college full-time. By contrast, a mere 0.4 percent of students in the United States attend one of the Ivies.” Four in ten students work at least 30 hours per week; 25% work full time and go to school full time. My guess is that they aren’t the ones exercising or socializing with friends during their “free” hours.

Whatever the numbers and the trends suggest, we all know that all students bring their own stories, strengths, and concerns to college and that, if the statistics can help us better comprehend the state of higher education, only by getting to know our own students can we provide them with the support and guidance they deserve.

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Between the World and Our Students

William Blake, "America a Prophecy," New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “America a Prophecy,” 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Steven Volk, August 16, 2016

Another hot summer of discontent dogs our heels as we prepare for the start of classes. It has been two years since Michael Brown was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, 18 months since a grand jury sitting in St. Louis County refused to indict officer Darren Wilson for his death, sparking protests in 170 cities across the United States.

Two days prior to the grand jury’s verdict in Missouri, 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot to death by officer Timothy Loehmann two seconds after Loehmann and a second officer slammed their squad car to within a few feet of the young boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park. A grand jury convened by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor refused to indict either officer in the case.

These two were a small part of the hundreds of cases of black men, and women, killed by police in the past two years.

The death roll, sadly, infuriatingly, continued to grow over this past summer with, among others, the shooting of Sherman Evans in Washington DC (June 27), Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge (July 5), Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul (July 6), Earl Pinckney in Harrisburg (Aug. 7); and 23-year old Sylville Smith in North Milwaukee (Aug 13). According to an on-going project by the Washington Post, approximately 28% of the 587 individuals killed by police so far in 2016 (whose race was recorded) were black. An additional 17% were Latino. The proportions are similar to those from 2015.

Over the course of the sweltering summer we also witnessed the shooting deaths of numerous police officers, most notably five officers in Dallas, killed by Micah Xavier Johnson on July 7 and three officers in Baton Rouge, killed by Gavin Long, 10 days later. (Thirty-six officers have been killed by gunfire so far in 2016, which compares with 39 killed by gunfire in all of 2015).

And “witnessed” is the right word since, many of these deaths were recorded as they happened and circulated via social media, placing all of us at the “scene of the crime.”

William Blake, "Thus Wept the Angel..." 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “Thus Wept the Angel…” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Literally thousands have died in terrorist attacks in the past three months, from the massacre of 49 party-goers at an Orlando night club on June 12, to countless hundreds killed in attacks in Istanbul (June 28), Baghdad (July 3), Dhaka, Bangladesh (July 1), Balad, Iraq (July 7), Nice, France (July 14), and Kabul (July 23), among many others. And these do not even take account of the on-going annihilation of Syria. (Wikipedia carries a continually updated list of what it terms “terrorist incidents.”) Closer to home, in Chicago, 67 people, almost all black, and as young as 2, were murdered in July alone.

And to this list of unsettling events we can add the tumult of what has surely been the most unsettling presidential campaign in many decades.

The purpose of this catastrophic catalog is not to lend credence to the Trumpian charge that all “we” hold precious rests on the thinnest of threads (which only he holds in his hands), but rather to call attention to the fact that as our students arrive on campus over the next two weeks many, likely most, will carry the events of this summer with them in their heads and hearts, not to mention their smartphones. And so will we – faculty, staff, administrators, and all who have a hand in the education and well-being of our students.

The question is how should we address the events of the summer when our students return to class? How do we attend to our own health and well-being? I would propose both an immediate answer and some thoughts for the longer-term.

When Classes Begin

Most immediately, we must recognize the emotional toll that this past summer (and the year before that, and the one before that) has likely taken on our students and on us. We arrive at the first day of classes well prepared to teach calculus, Russian, Middle Eastern history, modern dance, Buddhism, organic chemistry, and much else. Addressing the crises of this and other summers doesn’t mean that we drop everything to examine the moment in which we live and ignore what we are trained to teach. Our responsibilities as teachers are much greater.

But we should, I would argue, acknowledge the emotional and mental costs of the on-going turmoil on our students, and recognize them in ourselves. We are humans before we are biologists or computer scientists, and many of our students want to know that we are not oblivious to what is happening in the world or to the pain that many of them feel.

In the end, such an acknowledgement is not difficult or time consuming. The easiest thing to do is to state, simply and directly, that the we are well aware that summer has been a hard one for students, just as it’s been for faculty, staff and all who work at the college. It is also important to note that there is support for students when they need it and to encourage them to speak to us or to others who can help in times of greater stress. But, even as we recognize how current events pull on their time and emotions, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide them the education they will need to succeed in the long run, and that we will strive to do that in each of our classes and all of our interactions with them.

In some classes, the subjects studied will directly address on-going events in the United States and elsewhere. But for most, our subject matter is different. Nonetheless all of our classes have as a goal the same fundamental objectives: to prepare students for their lives after college: to enable them to think analytically, reason critically, write persuasively, argue from evidence, engage with energy and passion, see different sides of a debate, and contribute productively, intelligently, and compassionately. These are things that they will learn in astronomy and art as well as in courses on Middle East politics and race in America. These are lessons to be absorbed in classrooms, athletic fields, co-ops, and dining halls.

Our task, then, is not to make our classes something that they are not intended to be or to privilege a relentless preoccupation with the present that can obscure a thoughtful consideration of both past and future. But it is a recognition of the burden of the present that allows us to better engage our students with their own future.

William Blake, "The Terror Answered," 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “The Terror Answered,” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

The Long Run

In the longer term, we answer the question of how we address the events of the summer by acknowledging that this is hardly a new question; the world is always with us although we like to think that we can somehow escape it once inside our classrooms. But not only does the “real” world shape the complex lives of our students, it also influences the outcomes we seek through our teaching and how we imagine and plan for a future that our graduates will soon inhabit.

Secondly, we answer the question by building communities that are both a part of the world and apart from it. When we invite students into our classrooms, laboratories, studios, athletic fields, and residence halls, we usher them into a world that should honor the communities they come from, but also allow them the space to imagine and practice new ways of thinking, new forms of being, the creation of new selves and new communities. In this sense, education as an act of transformation can help students recognize the urgency of the world while also understanding how they will need to prepare themselves in order to change it. In other words we want to help our students address, in Shakespeare’s words, “necessity’s sharp pinch” while equally gaining the patience and perseverance required not only to get to the end of a semester, but to last over a lifetime of struggle.

To the extent that we are strategically positioned between the world and our students, to borrow from Ta Nehisi Coates, we can most productively occupy this position by acknowledging the many ways that the world presses in on them, and us, and by providing them the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to understand and change the world for the better.

Share Your Fears

Steve Volk, April 3, 2016

NoFear“No Fear” is a U.S. clothing brand designed for “active living”: extreme sports, mixed martial arts, surfing, energy drinks (energy drinks?). Anyway, you know the stuff and the message: go anywhere, do anything, live on the edge. (The company, by the way, filed for bankruptcy in 2011 – maybe the “fearless” life doesn’t always pay dividends.)

While the attempt to brand Oberlin “fearless” back in 2005 stopped short of bankruptcy, neither was it a hit. Oberlin College, after all, wasn’t marketing a lifestyle or an energy drink. But, even more than that, the slogan was peculiarly inept because it suggested that we, whose essence is to introduce our students to the “examined life,” either have no fears or that we can (and should) brush them off like crumbs from our pants.

I was reminded of this episode when reading a blog post from Cathy Davidson. I’ve been following her work for some years now. Davidson, a cultural historian, is the director of the “Futures Initiative” at the CUNY Graduate Center. Trained in English, linguistics and literary theory, her current work, in her own words, “focuses on trust, data, new collaborative methods of living and learning, and the ways we can change higher education for a better future.”

I’m also an attentive follower of the HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) project she co-founded in 2002 with David Theo Goldberg. In 2004, Davidson and Goldberg published “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” in which they argued that emerging global forms of communication and digital learning are so complex and potentially so revolutionary that they require a new alliance of humanists, artists, social scientists, natural scientists, and engineers, working collaboratively and thinking and acting collectively, to envision new ways of learning that can serve the needs of a global society.

Diego Rivera, "Open Air School," lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Diego Rivera, “Open Air School,” lithograph, 1932, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Last August the HASTAC community of scholars sponsored an on-line conversation entitled “Towards a Pedagogy of Equality.” The conversation was led by Danica Savonick, a HASTAC (pronounced “hay stack”) Scholar and doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center; it was sponsored by The Futures Initiative at the CUNY Graduate Center. The program’s planners designed this “conversation” to be the first of eight discussions which would serve as a foundation for a larger project intended to tie student-centered, engaged practices in our classrooms to larger issues of institutional change, equality, race, gender, and all forms of social justice. Quite nicely, I thought, they call the project: The University Worth Fighting For.

The Pedagogy of Equality

As part of the “Pedagogy of Equality” conversation, the organizers launched a Google Doc on which they asked all those participating in the online discussion to describe their favorite strategies, practices, activities, techniques, or assignments that were designed to promote or model equality in the classroom. In the document, contributors gave the activity a name and provided a short explanation of how it works.

The Google Doc of that conversation is still available, and if you check it out, you’ll find a wealth of concrete ideas for increasing participation in the classroom, making assignments more interesting, and bolstering opportunities for student learning. Among others, these include some relatively well-known activities such as “Think-Pair-Share”: the instructor poses a question, students are asked to think about and then write their responses, pair with another student to discuss the question and their answers, and then share their conclusions with the whole class. (You can find a more detailed description of the activity here). But I also found activities and approaches I hadn’t previously encountered, such as pairing learning with music (after we have a particularly heady or difficult text pair it with a song that is a mnemonic device or another way into the work”).

One exercise, in particular, caught my eye. It was from Cathy Davidson and she called it, “Share your fear.” Here’s what she wrote:

Have people write down, on post it notes, three things that they fear will keep them from mastering the material in the course and then, on post it notes, three skills/experiences/areas of expertise where they excel and that they know they can offer to others. Have them put the “fears/inadequacy” post-its onto giant post-its arrayed around the room.  Then, in a single file, have everyone go and silently (no talking or joking) circle the room and read all the things classmates are afraid they won’t/can’t/lack the ability to fully master. Take that in. It’s humbling to see all the areas where people feel inadequate.  Then, have everyone go around and put the “skills” post its, with their names, over all the “fears.”  These are partners for the course, resources, collaborators.

Davidson suggested that such an activity can help students:

  • take advantage of other people’s expertise beyond the teacher’s as a way of understanding that the instructor is not the only expert in the course;
  • demonstrate their own expertise; and
  • embrace their own expertise.

And Students Are the Only Ones with Fears?

From "Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End," by Atul Gawande

From “Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End,” by Atul Gawande

It is very late in the semester for such an exercise, and so I offer it as a morsel for you to tuck away and perhaps pull out at the start of the next semester.

But Davidson’s exercise also got me thinking about teaching and learning in general and the fact that students are not the only ones who have worries and fears when they enter the classroom. It is no less certain that, as teachers, we carry our own bundles of anxieties into the room. To be sure, most are different than student fears although some (perhaps a nagging sense of inadequacy) probably are shared. But no fear? No way!

Our apprehensions often march about most demonstratively during the night hours towards the start of each new school year. I don’t have to tell you about the dreams and nightmares which trouble our mid-August sleep, the ones in which we are taking math tests we didn’t prepare for, German exams in courses we never bothered to attend. They are the dreams where we are required to read aloud in a language we have long ago forgotten, and, anyway, the letters seem to be swimming about on the page. The dreams where we show up to lecture in our bathrobes. These pre-semester doubts are part of what I think of as our common culture of teaching.

But anxiety is not the same as fear; fear is a step further, something that often develops after the mid-point of the semester when we no longer find we have time to correct a problem, when we feel that we have lost control of a class, can’t find a way into a conversation that is essential for student learning, worry that we no longer share an epistemology that will allow us either to resolve disputes or even discuss differences. And fear is when we feel that we are about to trip over the barely visible wires that someone (students? colleagues? ourselves?) has set out for us, when we can no longer imagine getting done what has to get done, when there simply is no time for friends, partners, children.

No, students aren’t the only ones with fears. So is there an exercise or assignment we can design that can help us “share our fear”? Perhaps.

If I could gather all of you into a big room, here’s the exercise I’d prepare for you. I would ask you to write down, on post-it notes:

  • Three fears you have about your pedagogical practice, what you are trying to do in the classroom. These can be things that you worry will keep you from doing what you need to do to allow you to reach your goals as a teacher, help the students learn, or permit you to create an environment in which everyone will get the most out of the few weeks we share with our students.
  • Three fears you have about the impact your professional life has on your personal life.
  • Three fears you have about the institutions in which you carry out the work of teaching and learning.

Then I would have you write on separate post-it notes three things you can rely on to help you address your fears: the skills, experiences, or expertise you rely on when you’re feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, the histories of past practices you can remind yourselves of when you wake in the night worried about a class that you feel is crashing and burning, the strengths and resiliency you have built up that have carried you to where you are today.

Finally, I would ask you to write the names of three people you can talk to when these fears gnaw at your stomach and trouble your sleep. You know who they are – the question is whether you will talk to them.

The “Share Your Fear” Virtual Exercise

We’re not sitting together in a big room, but the internet exists for just such moments! While you can’t put post-its on a wall, I’ve put up a Google Doc which you can populate with your fears and the skills you have to help address them, your anxieties and your support networks. While you’re at it, write down the people to whom you can turn to share your fears (although you’ll want to leave that off this doc) You also can add additional information about yourself that you think is relevant in terms of providing context to your concerns (e.g. gender, race, length of time you have been teaching, etc.).

The “Share the Fear” document will be our wall of post-it notes; it will be available for anyone with the link to read and add to (so keep that in mind when posting). After some time, I’ll try to summarize what has been written, where our concerns overlap and where they diverge, and what we can learn by sharing our fears. If this exercise, when used with students, helps them understand their own strengths and how to take advantage of other people’s expertise, this can help us understand that we are not alone in our fears, and that we have resources built up over years and networks of support that can help.

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.

Beruit-Paris-Syria

 

Grading: Fairer? Better? Utopia?

Steven Volk, November 8, 2015

Seth Anderson, "Violate This Parking Dibb," CC

Seth Anderson, “Violate This Parking Dibb,” CC

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is There a Fairer Way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is There a Better Way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Back-To-School Lit

Steve Volk, September 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creating the World Anew: Thoughts on a New Semester

Steve Volk, August 30, 2015

Grace Lee Boggs. Photo: Robin Holland

Grace Lee Boggs. Photo: Robin Holland

Grace Lee Boggs celebrated her 100th birthday on June 27. For those who don’t know her, Grace Lee Boggs is a philosopher, activist, teacher, and an inspiration. Her father, Chin Lee, ran a restaurant in Toishan, China, before emigrating to Providence, RI, where Grace Lee was born. Facing the enormous obstacles of race and poverty, she was nonetheless able to enroll in Barnard College on a scholarship. There she followed some inner voice that pointed her towards philosophy. She went on to complete her doctorate in philosophy at Bryn Mawr.

In the 1940s there were no jobs for a Chinese American woman in the academy, and certainly not in philosophy. So when she moved to Chicago in the early 1940s, it was for a $10 a week job at the University of Chicago’s library; she lived rent-free in the basement of a nearby building. Grace Lee Boggs, an adherent of Hegel, has long argued that one has to suffer the negative in order to make progress, that the greatest lesson we can learn is to “make a way out of no way.” And so for her, the reality of living in a rat-infested building was not without its positive outcomes. Her determination to address her own basement circumstances led her to a group of African American activists who were fighting the same miserable housing conditions. She soon became a tenants’ rights activist, and eventually met and married James (Jimmy) Boggs, a black auto worker and labor activist.

Grace Lee and James Boggs

Grace Lee and James Boggs

They moved to Detroit in 1953, where she still lives, always a philosopher, always an activist, always an educator working with others to “make a way out of no way.” Grace Lee Boggs has been an active participant and valued voice in the movement for civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and black power. In 1994, she co-founded Detroit Summer, “a multi-racial, inter-generational collective” that functions as a training ground for activists, attracting young people across the country each year.

I’ve been thinking about Grace Lee Boggs this week as I wrestle myself into the proper frame of mind for starting a new semester, a process which invariably reminds me of the importance of what it is we do as teachers. In the process, I came across a fairly recent interview with Boggs with Krista Tippett’s on the latter’s “On Being” podcast. Boggs spoke about what I would call the “physics” of social change. Referencing the work of Margaret Wheatley , she “pointed out how Newtonian science and scientific rationalism has made us think of life and reality as made up of particles. [But] quantum physics,” she offered in contrast, “gives us the opportunity to look at change in a very different way. Not in terms of mass but in terms of organic connections and emerging changes, of changes that take place at a lower level so that at a mass level [they] have more permanence and more reality.”

Grace and Jimmy Boggs - 1990s

Grace and Jimmy Boggs – 1990s

Boggs’ analogy struck home, positioned as I am (and as we are) at the entry door to the semester. In her strong, deeply intelligent, century-old voice, speaking from the heart of Detroit, a city kicked to the curb by the wealthy and powerful, she argued that it was an unparalleled time to be alive, the best of times. While she lamented that we “no longer recognize that we have within us the capacity to create the world anew,” she affirmed that “there’s something about people beginning to seek solutions by doing things for themselves, by deciding that they are going to create new concepts of economy, new concepts of governance, new concepts of education, and that they have the capacity within themselves to do that.” Grace Lee Boggs, an activist for 75 years, looked back at her early years in the struggle. Recalling lessons learned from Hegel, she reflected on the difference between the possible and the necessary. In the 1960s, she observed, she and other radicals thought they should address only what was necessary. Now she believes that focusing on the possible is “so much richer” because it demands creativity and imagination, and it is imagination that opens up the world that you can bring into being.

Our work, Boggs reminded me, is the work of opening the possible to, for, and with our students. It is, to return to Hegel, helping them understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom. “The goal to be reached,” he wrote in The Phenomenology of the Mind, “is the mind’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience asks for the impossible, wants to reach the goal without the means of getting there. The length of the journey has to be borne with, for every moment is necessary…”

David Gooblar’s most recent “Pedagogy Unbound” column in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested that “for our students, particularly the first-years who are right now in a near frenzy of anticipation for their college careers to begin – we [teachers] are the university.” Not the administrators, coaches, or buildings. I don’t actually agree; our students will come to define the college and their years here in a myriad of ways, from the intellectual engagement of the classroom to the thrill of performing on Hall Auditorium’s main stage, or in Finney, or on the athletic fields. For many, college will be the quantum mechanics of combining with others to make “organic changes.” But I do agree with him that “we are uniquely invested with the power to shape our students’ college experience” as well as their ideas about what their purpose in life might be. As Henry Giroux has written, pedagogy is an act of intervention, a commitment to the future. It’s always good to remember that through our interventions, we can help our students explore the idea of the possible, appreciate the difficulty, as well as the pleasures, of the journey to wisdom, and encourage in them the creativity and imagination that will carry them to own their education and shape their future.

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I always turn to two sources as particularly useful when thinking about our incoming students. Our own schools are eager to give us data on what states and countries our students hail from, how well they did on their SAT’s, and how many edited their high school newspapers.  The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes an “Almanac” each August that gives a broader sense of incoming students (always reported with a one-year delay; this year’s Almanac, for example, reports on “Freshmen at 4-Year Colleges, Fall 2014.” (Counting all undergraduates, some 18.5 million students were enrolled in 2- and 4-year programs in the spring of 2015, about 13 million of whom were in 4-year institutions.)

So, looking just at the first years, what can we say about first-year students?

  • 66.7% are White/Caucasian; 12.8% Asian American/Asian; 11.1% African-American/Black; 16.6% Latino (including Mexican-American/Chicano, Puerto Rican, and other) [All classifications are from the Almanac.]
  • 13.5% of entering students come from families earning less than $25,000 a year and 41.8% from families earning $100,000 or more.
  • Most (47.2%) defined themselves as “middle of the road” politically, with 31.7% selecting “Liberal” or “Far left,” and 21% choosing “Conservative” or “Far right.”
  • In their last year of high school, in an average week, 57% spent 5 hours or less studying; 48% spent less than one hour working for pay; 55.7% spent less than one hour reading for pleasure.
  • 61.3% reported that they tutored another student “frequently” or “occasionally” during the last year, while 43.1% admitted falling asleep in class, and 52.5% failed to complete their homework on time.
  • This is always one of my favorite data points: 71% placed themselves in the “highest 10%” or “above average” in terms of their “academic ability.” Hmmm. On the other hand, only 47.5% put themselves in those two categories when evaluating their math ability and 46.1% in terms of their writing ability.
  • They deem themselves, by very large majorities, “very” or “somewhat” strong as regards empathy, “tolerance of others with different beliefs,” or their ability to work cooperatively with diverse people.
  • What did they see as “very important” reasons for going to college? 86% said it was “to be able to get a better job” and 73% “to be able to make more money,” while 47% said it was to “make me a more cultured person.” Just so we’re not too disheartened, 82% said that it was very important “to learn more about things that interest me” while at college!

My other go-to source is Beloit’s “Mindset” list, a yearly list that points out what traditional-age students entering college that year would not have experienced or known. For current first-year students, most of whom were born in 1997, here are a few tidbits that caught my eye.

Since our incoming students have been on the planet:

  • Google has always been there with them, as has South Park, hybrid cars, and Harry Potter. The Lion King (Julie Taymor ’74) has always been on Broadway; Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have always been members of NATO; and Hong Kong has always been under Chinese rule.
  • Our incoming students have never had to lick a postage stamp, could always get Phish Food from Ben and Jerry’s (Jerry Greenfield ’73), watch CNN in Spanish, and tune in to “This American Life” (Alex Bloomberg ’89, producer). And the New York Times was always printed with color photographs!

Have a great semester!

The CEMUS Project – Lessons for Oberlin?

Steven Volk, April 26, 2015

A colleague recently introduced me to CEMUS, the Center for Environment and Development Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. CEMUS is a unique student-initiated and primarily student-run university center with the explicit ambition to contribute to a better world. Since the early 1990’s, it has offered interdisciplinary higher education and been a creative meeting place for students, researchers and teachers from Uppsala University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. The three main principles that define it are Student-Led Education, Collaboration & Partnership and Transdisciplinary Research. Interestingly, at least for us at Oberlin, its founding was at least partially inspired by a lecture given by our own David Orr in Sweden some years earlier in which he set out “six myths about the foundations of modern education, and six new principles to replace them.”

Transcending BoundariesCEMUS published a short book about its history, principles and goals in 2011. Transcending Boundaries: How CEMUS is Changing How we Teach, Meet and Learn is available as a free download. This “Article of the Week,” is a condensed version of the chapter: “What is Education For: The History of Cemus,” by Niclas Hällström, one of the center’s student founders. The Center is centrally focused (as its name would suggest) on questions of environment and “development” (which they discuss in a very specific manner), and responds in one way to David’s challenge that the task of rethinking education must be undertaken in the context of the urgency of human survival. Further, the CEMUS project offers a number of lessons for a college, our own, as well as higher education in general, which is deliberating over its larger curricular and educational goals and the ways that students can take ownership over their education.

(NOTE: I have emphasized those parts of the text I found particularly relevant to our own process. Also note that the references to “senior faculty” would, in our context, better be read as “faculty” or anyone with a teaching or mentoring function.)

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“What is Education For: The History of Cemus,” by Niclas Hällström

The Beginnings
It is the fall of 1988. Classes are starting for Biology majors at Uppsala University. Fifty freshmen, full of expectation and a little bit nervous, are seated in the “The Svedberg Hall”; in the old, worn premises of the Chemistry Department…Finally, I am here, where all the action is supposed to be; at the center of thinking and change—the university.

My images of the university were so vivid and clear: frenetic activity and enthusiasm; continuous debates and discussions; students with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, who attend lectures beyond their fields of study according to interest rather than course plans and requirements; idealism and the power to bring about change coupled with knowledge and thoughtfulness; demonstrations, actions, and protests; the courage to challenge and change the status quo. The core of social change and the triumph of reason over the follies of the world.

Where did I get these images? I don’t know—but they were certainly very real. And thus the disappointment and frustration at the reality that confronted me was just as real. A sense of disillusionment. Was this it? Was I missing something? Where was the dedication to causes and the ability to bring about change? […] Here, every year, thousands of students appeared to flow through the system without ever having been compelled to place their education in a broader context; without having been forced to challenge themselves and their educational and career choices in relation the major issues of global survival… and the global injustices that troubled not only me, but also a growing part of the world.

An essay by David Orr, titled “What is Education For?”—originally a speech to the graduating class of 1990 at Arkansas College— crystallized our thoughts but also ignited a spark to act. It was the first of several formative and deeply inspiring factors on the road to what would become Cemus. “The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climactic stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity,” Orr stated, and concluded, “It is worth noting that this is not the work of ignorant people. It is, rather, largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs, and PhDs.” In other words, the university is indeed a big part of the problem.

Orr continued, “My point is simply that education is no guarantee of decency, prudence, or wisdom. More of the same kind of education will only compound the problems. This is not an argument for ignorance, but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival—the issues now looming so large before us in the decade of the 1990s and beyond. It is not education that will save us, but education of a certain kind.”

[…] We must learn how to manage ourselves and our social systems. New knowledge does not automatically yield good values, and the amount of total knowledge hardly increases…An increased amount of disciplinary and reductionistic teaching and research will not provide the holistic and integrated understanding of the world that we need the most. Education should not primarily be a career tool. And finally, Western culture is not some kind of apex in world development, but is rather, in many ways, the opposite.

[…] The importance of these moments of “homecoming,” of making connections with people and thoughts that strengthen your own possibly unformulated but deep insights, but which also challenge you and stretches your imagination, should not be underestimated. In fact, that is probably a foundational element of Cemus’ origination as well as an important dimension of its pedagogical approach. The merging of dammed-up frustration and moments of constructive inspiration can yield unexpected results!

Universal History-Johannes Buno 1672-Cartographies of Time

Johannes Buno, Universal History (1672) in Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time

Yet another important point of departure: the Stanford Biologist Paul Ehrlich visits Uppsala University in 1989… His lecture is dazzling [and] the conclusion is challenging: which university will be first in the world to require an introductory, cross-disciplinary semester in matters of global survival for all students? And which university will be the first to allow—and to expect—everyone, regardless of discipline, to set aside at least 10% of their time to get involved in exactly these kinds of issues?

Imagine a lecture series, a course, an introductory semester with only lectures like this; lectures which affect you and which force you to contemplate, to converse and discuss matters over an entire week until, in the following week, an even more challenging lecturer arrives. The seed for the course Humanity and Nature was planted—and the vision of another, different university became a little bit more concrete.

A third departure point: An entire wall of empty tea cans inside the old stone house in the Observatory Garden. Facing us, the Astronomy Professor that so many people have told us we simply had to meet. Our idea: an interdisciplinary course aimed at all students, which takes on the great issues of global survival. A model for a required introductory course inspired by Ehrlich’s challenge. Over the course of one semester, we have been experimenting and thinking about a course design. […] We are encouraged [by Prof. Bengt Gustafsson] to go beyond what we thought was possible…Perhaps the foundation for a fairly uncommon model of respectful and straight-forward collaboration between young students and senior faculty is laid there in the stone house among the tea cans.

From Idea to Completed Course
We are now four students who are wandering through the hallways of the university in search of support for the course proposal. One person leads to another, and we discover that there are in fact many people who share an interest in global issues, people with similar outlooks and a desire to bring about change…The common meeting place and the critical mass seem to be lacking—and the disciplines reign, mirroring the situation that we as students are experiencing…

[…]We are impressed by the professors’ command of their own disciplines, but soon realize that nobody has the whole picture; that they, just as we, are truly grappling with the complexity of the issues. We realize that our common sense and curiosity go a long way, and that we are part of a common project of attempting to define and understand the integrated areas of environment and development, or “sustainable development.” One of the significant aspects of Cemus is exactly this breaking down of exaggerated respect for authority while at the same time making active use of the senior teachers and researchers in order to construct one’s own understanding of the whole—one’s world-view—and to do so on one’s own terms.

No.11 King St, W Toronto, Canada. Brian Carson. CC-Flickr

No.11 King St, W Toronto, Canada. Brian Carson. CC-Flickr

[…]We…finish polishing the course idea and send in the proposal to the University Board. We place a lot of emphasis on the need for an interdisciplinary approach and on the importance of the students’ own active participation and their communication and interaction across disciplines, but we remain silent on the topic of who is to run the course. A few months later, we receive notice that the Vice-Chancellor…has decided that the course will be [developed and carried out by the students] in collaboration with an interdisciplinary group of senior faculty [and] placed as an unusual, freestanding entity… floating above all departments… Developing the course was a way of reflecting on what gives real knowledge and deepened insight—and what triggers the joy of discovery and exploration.

The course development became a relieving experience and great fun—we were fully absorbed in the work and nothing seemed to limit us. We pondered and experimented with new interdisciplinary constellations; with modes of examination in which the writing of group papers across disciplines also became a continuous dialog with the lecturer; we made sure we always ate dinner with the lecturer before the evening’s lecture in order both to build relationships and to provide a context for the lecturer; and we developed detailed, ongoing course evaluations as an explicit, pedagogical tool.

In the full-time follow-up course, Humanity and Nature II we had the opportunity to experiment even further because we were no longer limited by the large lecture hall format, and the course was offered exclusively to advanced students with at least two years of study

[…]The most highly qualified and advanced education is not found in the course catalogue—it consists, rather, in having the opportunity to take own responsibility for development, coordination and teaching of a real course for other students.

We also realize at an early stage that the “meeting place” is at least as important as relevant courses. A physical center is needed not only to provide a formal base for interdisciplinary courses, but also to function as a magnet for all those individuals who, like ourselves, are in search of community, inspiration and a platform for taking action together with others. And such a center has to be genuinely interdisciplinary—it has to float above all the individual disciplines and departments so that it would not over time become distorted and shaped by the narrow conditions and interests of one particular discipline. The initial course proposal hence outlined the formation of a real, interdisciplinary center as a desired and logical next step.
[…]

Cemus is Founded
[…] In 1996, Cemus—the Center for Environment and Development Studies—is finally born…Throughout the years a fundamental principle of Cemus there has been the ambition to provide a meeting place for extracurricular activities and to actively encourage students to act on their knowledge as an integrated part of the teaching process. It should be easy to move from theoretical insights to real engagement on the basis of one’s new insights, points of view, and values—whatever they may be. In a deeper sense, Cemus should probably be regarded as a democratic project, rooted in the academic ideals of knowledge-seeking and critical thinking. It urges students to take responsibility by acting on their knowledge and conviction—through the support of other students, a building and infrastructure, and an attractive social environment…
[…]

Key Characteristics of Cemus
[…]
The Subject Area: Environment and Development
One basic principle from the very beginning was that issues of global survival should be approached in an integrated manner, where both environment and development are fundamental components; but more importantly, that the study of the very interface between these areas is the most central of all. “Environment and development” is here viewed as “one” integrated concept and not as two separate areas that are studied in parallel. Many institutions that offer courses in sustainable development have a disciplinary basis in either the area of environment or the area of development studies, and it can then easily happen that the courses get a bias towards one of these areas. The strength of Cemus is that the focus—and the curiosity—is almost always directed towards the interface and integration of environment and development.
[…]

Helen Keller and the Martha Graham Company. Photo: Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind (1954)

Helen Keller and the Martha Graham Company. Photo: Samuel P. Hayes Research Library, Perkins School for the Blind (1954)

The Interdisciplinary Approach
The interdisciplinary approach of Cemus has been a self-evident point of departure since the very beginning… The concept, however, is by no means unambiguous and can be used in many different ways. At the core of Cemus, I believe, there has been an urge to get to a more profound “transdisciplinary” quality, beyond the more common “multi-disciplinary” dimension, even though this is certainly quite a challenge. For some people, moreover, the ideal of a “strong” as opposed to a “weak” interdisciplinary approach is important—that is, an attempt to fundamentally re-evaluate and break new epistemological ground in relation to one’s view of knowledge and one’s understanding of the search for knowledge (and its limitations).

Critical Thinking and Disrespectfulness
“Critical thinking” is probably one of the most commonly used concepts within education and pedagogy and often used in very generalized ways that in the end devalues the concept. Yet, it is without doubt a foundational element of Cemus. This deliberate emphasis on critical thinking takes place at many different levels, with some approaches that seem to be particularly distinctive of Cemus’ courses. First, there is the often explicit ambition to explore alternative and more radical, unconventional ideas and points of view, that is, the “counterpoint” in addition to the “mainstream.” Secondly, the courses challenge students to critically question their own deep assumptions, world-views, and values, something that can make some of Cemus’ courses quite overwhelming and have a profound effect on students. Thirdly, students are encouraged to maintain a critical stance toward the pedagogical process itself and to continually provide feedback and actively influence the courses while they run (and, for some, contribute further by taking responsibility for the course as course coordinators the following year). Critical thinking is also closely connected to the culture of “disrespectfulness” (in a positive sense) for authorities, senior faculty, and researchers that permeates Cemus.

It is the student that stands at the center of the process of attaining knowledge; the lecturers pass by, and the student takes advantage of them in the pursuit to synthesize his or her own knowledge—in contrast to an educational situation where the lecturer’s agenda and the query, “What will appear on the exam?” stand in focus of the learning process.

The Focus on Active Involvement
The urge to become actively involved and engaged in the struggle for social change and a sustainable and more equitable world was the departure point for Cemus from the very beginning and is likely just as important today. A basic conviction has been the belief that if people are exposed to and inspired to think more about issues of global survival, then one will somehow change, draw conclusions, and likely also want to actively do something about those problems.

This conviction captures the idea of knowledge as an eye-opener and alarm clock. Whatever political conclusions one may draw from the knowledge one gains, and whatever form of involvement one ends up pursuing, is however something Cemus as an institution should not have any opinions about. It is of course also acceptable to choose not to act, as long as one does so with open eyes and truly stands behind one’s decision. The mission of Cemus is to facilitate and encourage as much knowledge gain, as much critical thinking, and as much reflection as possible—and to make it easier for students to act on these insights if such an urge arise.

The Pedagogical Methods
To improve teaching and pedagogical practices has, as already mentioned, been a central concern of Cemus since the very beginning. However, one may ask whether there is a distinct pedagogical approach at Cemus?… I think one can still discern several features that have distinguished teaching at Cemus through the years. One of them is the focus on norms, values, and students’ own assumptions and sense of responsibility; another is the ambition to supplement reading and theoretical discussions with practical exercises; a third is to whenever possible link theory to concrete, location-bound examples and go on field trips; a fourth is to place great emphasis on social events (scheduled coffee meetings and parties, overnight excursions and field trips); a fifth is the ambition to actively provide a sense of continuity and coherence in courses through, for example, the course coordinators’ presence at every lecture, seminar and discussion; and a sixth is provide opportunities for gaining and improving a number of skills of general importance (different kinds of writing skills, methods for problem structuring, analysis of arguments and debating techniques, communication skills, public speaking skills, and project management).

Duality at No. 664 Bay St, Brian Carson , CC-Flickr

Duality at No. 664 Bay St, Brian Carson , CC-Flickr

Students at the core—the Relation between Senior Faculty and Students
Without students as the driving force, Cemus would not be what it is. Student leadership is simply a fundamental element that must be preserved and cultivated in the best way possible. At the same time, it is important to recognize that the basic principle has always been the trustful, straightforward interaction between students and senior faculty; not the idea that students should have maximum freedom to do whatever they want. Cemus’ approach clearly demands a good dialogue between students and faculty…and who possess the ability to let go, to not micro-manage and to dare let students prove themselves and learn from their experiences. This goes for not only teachers and researchers, but also for the administrative staff of the university.

The Road Ahead and the Bigger Picture
[…] What about the university as a whole? A key incentive from the beginning was to change the entire university and its educational process in the larger sense…Can the experiences gained at Cemus somehow be converted so as to expand the debate—and moreover, can these experiences be shared and spread to universities in other parts of the world? What would be the next natural step to take? What are the great challenges of today’s students?

As the educator Myles Horton says in his inspiring autobiography, “Neutrality is just another word for accepting the status quo as universal law. Either you choose to go along with the way things are or else you reject the status quo.” How should the university be changed? What is education for? How will Cemus continue to contribute to a sustainable and just society?

Niclas Hällström actively contributed to the creation and development of Cemus and has, over the years, collaborated as course coordinator, lecturer, Board member, and work group member. After several years of work on environment and development issues, he is now in the process of building a new organization—the What Next Forum.

Page dividerCEMUS was founded within the context of a large Swedish university, but its example contains much that we at liberal arts colleges should be thinking about. How do we build transdiscipinary approaches to the greatest challenges of our time, the “wicked problems” that we face? How do we insure that it is the student who stands at the center of the process of attaining knowledge? How do we welcome students to take leadership in their own learning? How do we build “trustful and straightforward” relations between students, faculty, and staff? Can we build a lecture series which “affects you and forces you to contemplate, to converse and discuss matters over an entire week until, in the following week, an even more challenging lecturer arrives?” The answers are in our hands.