Tag Archives: Teaching

Finding our Voice in a “Post-Truth” Era

Steve Volk, December 12, 2016

Where to begin?

(Photo: Judy van der Velden/flickr/cc))

(Photo: Judy van der Velden/flickr/cc))

Why not with a definition of “post-truth” from the Oxford dictionary: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Oxford has selected “post-truth” as its “word of the year,” narrowly besting “bigly.” (OK, that last part was my own rocket into the post-truthian universe.)

Or perhaps we should start with a New York Times headline from the December 7 edition:

as-fake-news-spreads

From there, it’s but a quick hop to this clip from a CNN interview with a small group of Trump supporters on December 1. You’ve probably seen it, the one where Paula Johnson, a Trump enthusiast from New Hampshire, informed CNN’s Alisyn Camerota that at her (Johnson’s) polling station in Nashua, she caught people voting illegally who told her: “The president said I could vote, I’m here illegally.”

Taken from the perspective of what we naively referred to as “reality,” you’ve got to admit that Johnson’s statement is, well, nuts. I mean, why would someone expose her illegal activity to a total stranger? But let’s leave that aside and go on because the entire panel of Trump backers agreed that President Obama told undocumented people (“illegals” as they prefer to call them) that they could vote. Camerota asked Johnson where she heard that President Obama said the undocumented could vote. “Google it,” Susan DeLemus said. “You can find it on Facebook.” After “Googling it” on her phone and finding a video that had been falsely edited, the CNN reporter observed that Obama “had said nothing of the sort.” This was not a problem for Johnson who, with the endorsement of the other Trump supporters, clung to the belief – now known as “fact” – that “there is voter fraud in this country.”

“There’s no such thing…[as] facts”

scottie-hughesCome along next to the Diane Rehm show from November 30, 2016. Among other guests including James Fallows of The Atlantic and Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post, Ms. Rehm spoke with Scottie Nell Hughes, described as a “former Donald Trump surrogate” who is a political editor of RightAlerts.com and a contributor to the aforementioned CNN. Hughes joined the program about 20 minutes into the show and was brought into the conversation by Rehm in the following manner:

Rehm: Now I know you’ve been listening since the top of the program, and I’m sure you’ve heard James Fallows talk about lies that Donald Trump has put out there in tweets, in things he’s said. What do you make of that?

Hughes: Well, I think it’s also an idea of an opinion. And that’s — on one hand I hear half the media saying that these are lies, but on the other half there are many people that go, no, it’s true. And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true.

There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up. So…

When the other journalists gathered their “jaws up from the floor” — and one could fairly ask why Ms. Hughes was given space at a table of journalists — James Fallows, concluded: “I think it actually is an intended result of this campaign and administration to think, well, really there aren’t any facts, it’s all opinion, so we’re going to sort of manipulate the things that we care about.”

The Past of Post-Truth

post-truth

Is post-truthism a peculiar and ugly side effect of the 2016 presidential campaign? Yes and no. Certainly, anti-intellectualism has long been an observable part of U.S. history: the road from the Know Nothing Party to McCarthyism has been well traveled. Nor is the rejection of observable facts (only) a contemporary malady. As educators trained to pay attention to historical realities and to raise critical questions about them, we should keep in mind that for many members of the U.S. community, the willful and persistent denial of facts all too familiar.

To cite only two examples: On December 6, 2016, a jury of six white men, five white women, and a one black man was unable to come to a unanimous decision that a police officer unlawfully killed Walter L. Scott, a black man who had been pulled over for a broken taillight. This is the case despite the existence of a video that recorded how Scott, who was running away, was shot in the back some 17 feet from the officer. If this stirred memories of the Rodney King trial, it should have. A video showing Rodney King being unmercifully beaten by the Los Angeles police in 1991 was not accepted as fact in the officers’ trial for assault; all were acquitted. As Jelani Cobb recently observed, “Taken in total, the reluctance of juries to hold police accountable is an inversion of the ‘fake news’ crisis in the Presidential election. There, a gullible public believes outrageous claims that reaffirm its world view. In the criminal-justice system, as black America has long known, an indifferent public sees evidence of outrageous actions but chooses not to believe it in order to preserve its world view. We have moved far beyond facts.” Large parts of white America have never accepted many of the facts that smack black Americans in the face every day.

In a similar vein, Elizabeth Kolbert observed that the current political climate suggests not that “too many people do not seem to care about the truth (though this is certainly a huge problem); it’s that a lot of people—an increasing number of them in high government positions—insist that their ravings are true, and try to act on them. This naturally brings them into conflict with those whose job it is to distinguish fact from fiction; hence the subpoenas and attempts to intimidate [journalists and others seeking the facts].”

Post-Truth and Our Responsibilities as Teachers

If journalists are having a hard time rethinking their role under the coming Trump Presidency, what does the post-truth era that he has ushered in mean for educators, we who are tasked with helping students recognize and appreciate the difference between facts and opinion, between informed and uninformed opinion, and between all of the above and a steaming pile of poop? We chuckled when Stephen Colbert invented the idea of “truthiness,” but have stopped laughing in an environment where facts are scorned “because nobody knows what’s really true anyway.”

Here’s a reality check: We are teaching – or attempting to teach – at a moment when the scientific consensus that climate change is both caused by humans and poses a massive threat to the planet’s future is ridiculed by half the population including the incoming head of the EPA.  We labor with our students to insure that they are able to craft evidence-based arguments at a moment when Republican-controlled state legislatures (as well as  the incoming Attorney General and the President-elect who appointed him) cite articles which claim that “millions of voter registrations are fraudulent or invalid.” This although evidence points to incident rates of voter fraud as lying somewhere between 0.00004 percent and 0.0009 percent. Why trust social science research when you can reference an article in the Federalist which discloses, “stunningly,” that in Colorado, “a woman named Sara Sosa who died in 2009 cast ballots in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013”? (What are the chances of two people named “Sara Sosa” living in Colorado? Just saying…)

Pew Research

Perhaps we can take a small morsel of consolation from the fact that the truth-crisis that surrounded the election of 2016 can’t be deposited on higher education’s doorstep. After all, Clinton carried college graduates by a 9-point margin. And yet I have felt unnervingly at sea writing this post because my arguments, conscientiously authenticated by links to authoritative sources, would only serve as proof of their irrelevance, if not contemptibility, in the eyes of millions of voters. If Mr. Trump were to tweet that he actually received more votes from the college educated than his opponent, his claim would be accepted as truth by many, if not most, of his supporters.

What is to be done?

So, what is our role as classroom teachers, members of institutions of higher education, and intellectuals who are also concerned citizens?  The past few weeks have produced a profusion of commentary about how those of us in academia should situate ourselves in the post-truth world of President-elect Trump. You can read some general propositions about the stance to take here, here, or here. You can read statements that many college presidents, including Oberlin’s, have signed on to. You can investigate the sanctuary campus movement (which we are a part of), or take advice as to how we should react to threats to academic and intellectual freedom that can emerge when Trump takes office (and have already emerged in the transition period).

Beyond that, here is my own list of 7 propositions that those of us in higher education can do to challenge the threat of post-truthism in a time of Trump:

(1) Take even more seriously the task of helping students evaluate sources of information. Nicholas Lemann, a professor of journalism and former dean at Columbia, recently made the case for a new kind of core curriculum that includes “information acquisition” as the first item in the list.  We can argue about the value of a core curriculum later – an argument I’d relish – but now the focus is not just on our long-standing responsibility to teach “information literacy,” but on the consequences of not taking that responsibility seriously.

For those who seem to think that our students have no trouble identifying credible information sources, think again. Stanford University’s History Education Group recently tested nearly 8,000 students for “civic online reasoning” skills, i.e.  the ability to assess the credibility of information served up by smartphones, tablets, and computers. From January 2015 through June 2016 the group collected and studied responses from 7,804 students from 12 states. The schools ranged from “under-resourced” inner-city schools in Los Angeles to “well-resourced” suburban schools in Minneapolis. Testing in colleges ranged from large state universities with near-open enrollment, to Stanford University. What they found was that more than 80% of the tested students couldn’t tell the difference between real news articles and fake news.

For those of us who teach at selective liberal arts colleges, our concern as educators is not – or not solely – that our students are likely to be sucked into the dark vortex of whole-cloth fabrications whose most recent poster child is the Comet Ping Pong insanity (although the fact that such invented conspiracies are being circulated by an important member of the incoming Trump administration, should lead to much concern).

Most of what our students absorb via social media or other internet sites is usually of a lesser order of preposterousness (one hopes).  But to the extent that the flow of pixels is constant and constitutes the largest part of the information ocean in which our students (and we) swim, we need to pay attention to how they (and we) are navigating these waters. Take the following tweet which was evaluated as a part of the Stanford study:

moveontweet

The authors of the study found that:

Only a few students noted that the tweet was based on a poll conducted by a professional polling firm and explained why this would make the tweet a stronger source of information. Similarly, less than a third of students fully explained how the political agendas of MoveOn.org and the Center for American Progress might influence the content of the tweet. Many students made broad statements about the limitations of polling or the dangers of social media content instead of investigating the particulars of the organizations involved in this tweet.

Faculty have work to do, in close partnership with the library, about basic online information literacy and cannot assume that our students have a sophisticated understanding of how information is generated in a content zone that has developed outside academic or journalistic oversight, as limited as that might be. Nor is the problem lessened because our (largely progressive) students aren’t likely to submit as evidence data that originate on white nationalist sites. We need to ask whether we are we equipping students to bring the same critical eye to more progressive media sources. Do they know what questions to ask about information sources and how to answer them? We need to develop new and sustained ways to help students navigate this information world. We need new courses in information literacy and the funded development of media literacy segments for on-going courses in the regular curriculum.

2) Help students understand (and question) the unspoken authority of the text. If we are not to spend the next 40 years wandering around in an epistemological desert, where all utterances are judged to be as valid (truthful, factual) as any other, we need to help our students understand where the authority that underlies knowledge comes from – and that means being able know on what grounds that authority can be sustained or challenged. And we need to empower students to question authority when necessary.

Especially as liberal arts institutions, we need to build into our courses not only a greater ability to assess information, but a deeper understanding of the ways in which knowledge is generated and the legitimate grounds on which it can be challenged. Acknowledging that Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity reworked Newtonian physics does not prove the scientific method of knowledge-generation to be untrustworthy and that, in consequence, anything that Rush Limbaugh has to say about climate change is as valid as the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The above may be a handy exaggeration, but I would argue that we often fall short on one of the central tasks of liberal arts colleges: engaging students in the central (and different) ways our disciplines produce and authorize knowledge, and that a critical and historical approach towards knowledge-generation is a fundamental part of the on-going work of disciplines. For those who maintain that critical views towards “established” knowledge areas only enhances the arguments of “post-facters,” I would counter that not to question where and how knowledge is generated and established not only leaves the door open to those who would freely invent realities to further their interests, but leaves us poorly positioned to defend the work that we do in colleges and universities. At the end of the day, the best way we can enhance our students’ understanding of the difference between fact and crap is to make them aware of how knowledge is generated, and the ways it can be legitimately challenged.

(3) Be the critics that we are trained to be. Emphasize, at every turn, evidence-based reasoning and the importance of transparency regarding sources and information. Help our students (and our colleagues) question not just the assumptions of others, but their/our own assumptions as well. As Cornel West observed, “It’s not a matter just of having the courage of our convictions, but the courage to attack our convictions.”  We need to challenge arguments based on blind appeals to authority. We need to do this not just in our classes but in the broader decisions we make as an educational institution; not just in our institutions, but, as a national community of educators, from early childhood to higher education. And, as a community of educators we need to demand that local, state, and national governments make evidence-based decisions, are transparent about the evidence they bring to decisions making, and are open to discussion, information, and challenge.

(4) Fight ideological and political blacklisting. A variety of news sources have reported that the Trump transition team “wants to know who at the Department of Energy attended domestic and international climate talks. It wants emails about those conferences. It also asks about money spent on loan-guarantee programs for renewable energy. … The Trump team questionnaire also asks… for the 20 highest paid employees at the department’s national laboratories.” The educational community is painfully familiar with ideologically inspired firings and the blacklist, and even the hint of retaliation against those who come to fact-based but inconvenient conclusions cannot be allowed to be normalized. It’s not enough to challenge false news in a “post-truth” environment, we must strongly defend truth and evidence, and those in the academy and outside who produce them.

(Image: Federico Calandria - Flickr cc)

(Image: Federico Calandria – Flickr cc)

(5) Understand why many are pissed off at higher education – and do the work to show what is generating the most serious problems in higher education. Higher education leaders and the faculty in particular have not been forceful defenders of the transformative purpose of higher education, allowing the image to coalesce of college as a snobbish club where it costs a lot to get in,  students spend all their time talking nonsense and hiding from ideas they don’t like, and, when finished, move back to their parents’ basement without a job or any “real” skills. We shouldn’t be surprised by the growing anger directed at the higher education sector. Like a carrot dangled in front of a donkey but always out of reach, a college degree is both a necessary means to a more secure future, and increasingly out of reach for a growing percentage of the population. One consequence is that the total outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. is $1.2 trillion, the second-highest level of consumer debt behind only mortgages.

The problems of the the public higher education sector (representing over 76% of all students), we should be very clear, are rooted in many factors including the growing income inequality produced by stagnating wages, the decline of unions, the growth of an insatiable gazillionaire class, and the increasing unwillingness of state legislatures (i.e., “the public”) to fund post-secondary education. State funding of higher education is down by almost 50% from 1975 to 2011. There are many ideological reasons for a retreat from the very notion of education as a public good, but new research suggests that, “As the population has grown more diverse, support for grand efforts like the GI Bill to open doors to higher education has dwindled. Coincidence?” Anthony Carnevale, a well-regarded educational researcher at Georgetown, found that,

Since the 1990s, the number of black and Latino high school graduates who enroll in college has more than doubled. But three-quarters of that increase has been at open-access colleges. Meanwhile, white college enrollment has increased only at the nation’s top 500 universities. [There are about 4,600 institutions of higher education.] Thus, American higher education has evolved into a two-tiered separate and unequal system that fuels the intergenerational reproduction of white racial privilege.

Put simply, as both the public K-12 system and the public higher education system become progressively non-white, they are increasingly starved of funding. If we support diversity in higher education, as we must, we also are called upon to support funding for that diversity, whether in state funding of higher education or federal funding of Pell and other grants. Whether at public or private institutions, we must fight for the right for higher education for all; fight to sustain the understanding that education is more than skills; fight to make K-12 and higher education a public good; fight to make higher education something that lessens, not increased, inequality in this society.

anti-intellectualism(6) Be humble. With the rise of the Tea Party and the advent of the Trump campaign and his victory, many commentators have returned to Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1963 study, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. One of the more insightful recent reviews was written by the previously cited Nicholas Lemann in the Columbia Journalism Review. Lemann highlights two quotes from Hofstadter we should consider.

Anti-intellectualism — Hofstadter wrote — is founded in the democratic institutions and the egalitarian sentiments of this country. The intellectual class, whether or not it enjoys many of the privileges of an elite, is of necessity an elite in its manner of thinking and functioning . . . . Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: They have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces. It is rare for an American intellectual to confront candidly the unresolvable conflict between the elite character of his own class and his democratic aspirations.

At a moment when the in-coming President staffs his cabinet with the very same billionaires and Goldman-Sachians he savaged during the campaign, we should not be surprised (as my wife continues to remind me!) that his supporters don’t (yet) see them as the “elites” against which they turn their anger. That anger is still directed at us, the pointy-headed intellectuals. Never mind that power doesn’t reside in Oberlin, Berkeley, or Cambridge. We can tear out our hair over the ludicrousness of this… or we can take to heart another Hofstadter quote:

Intellectuals dwell in the realm of ideas and values, where almost nothing is ever right without qualification. So if anti-intellectualism is a natural aspect of a democratic society, humility ought to be a natural aspect of intellectual life.

Our task is not to make ourselves likable to those who have turned their anger against us. Our task, as critics, is to lay bare the reality of what is happening and at the same time make what we do as educators both relevant and accessible, financially and intellectually, and doing it with humility and a sense of our own limitations.

(7) Insure that our campuses are welcoming, diverse, and supportive. The post-truth environment poses many problems for all of us, but it presents particular threats for the most vulnerable among us, those, as Parker Palmer recently put it, who are at “risk of being bullied, harassed, publicly maligned, physically threatened, denied opportunity, or deported.”

Our campuses must remain not just welcoming for, but fundamentally protective of, these communities. Whether becoming sanctuary campuses or underlining our opposition to racial or religious bigotry, particularly if such attitudes receive a covert or overt support from the highest offices in the land, our job as educators is to defend the inclusiveness of our project and to call out any attempts to challenge or undercut it.

Conclusion

Courtney E. Martin, a prolific author and recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, recently wrote a column titled “Where I’m Turning to Be Comforted and Challenged.”  It’s a stunning piece of writing in which she concludes that she needs art to “cut through the noise” to be the “fact-check from hell.”

I need it — she continues — to disrobe the emperor in a way that all the pundits in the universe cannot. I need it to knee me in the back. I need it to humble and embolden me simultaneously. I need it to paint new worlds that help me understand this one. I need it to yank me out of the haze of the Internet and plop me smack dab in front of another human being staring into my eyes and making me uncomfortable. I need it to reacquaint me with truth. I need it to put marrow back in my bones. I need it to be fearless and maybe even earnest and I need it to come from…a place beyond strategy and semantics, a place of calm indignation, a place of spiritual redemption. I need art to remind me of the immediate danger and convince me of the safety available in collective rebellion.

While it is art that Martin looks toward to find her voice and her community, it is to the liberal arts and to teaching that I look to “put the marrow back in my bones.” We don’t need to stop what we’re doing to confront the challenges of a post-fact world, we need to do what we’re doing better. We need to defend the task of liberal education as a means of creating an “intellectual engagement that fulfills our nature as thinking beings,” as Ramesh Ponnuru recently argued. But we also need to insure that the opportunities to do this are available and accessible to all. At the end of the day, the best way to confront a “post-truth” environment is to continue to do what we do, but to do it better, to do it with humility and conviction, and to do it with the knowledge that failure is unthinkable.

“You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back.”

Steve Volk, November 14, 2016

Frank Tuitt, professor at the University of Denver and organizer for the Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education event. Photo: Andre Perry

Frank Tuitt, professor at the University of Denver and organizer for the Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education event. Photo: Andre Perry

More than 250 black faculty members, administrators, graduate students and allies gathered in Columbus a day after Election Day to offer their perspectives in a long-planned session titled “Making Black Lives Matter in Higher Education in Challenging Times: A Conversation for, by, and about Black Faculty, Graduate Students, and Staff-Administrators.” In response to the question, “What has it been like to be a black faculty or staff member on a predominately white campus in the era of Black Lives Matter?” one professor responded, “You don’t pray for an easy road; you pray for a strong back.”

I wasn’t at that conference but I was thinking about the strong backs we will need as I drove down to Louisville, KY, on Wednesday for the annual meeting of the POD Network, a group of some 1,000 “faculty developers.” I’ve never much liked the concept of “faculty development,” mirroring my objections about “developed” and “undeveloped” countries, as if some countries — or some faculty — just needed to be “developed.” But that’s what our job is called, those of us who run teaching and learning centers, work in instructional design, and generally collaborate with faculty, graduate students, students and staff around issues of pedagogy and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Truth be told, I hadn’t wanted to go. I just wanted to sit in a dark corner of my house. But I figured I could get something out of it, and, now back at home, I realize that I did. It was healing to be in a room of hundreds and hundreds of people who care about the values of diversity, inclusion, social justice, and, frankly, education.  It was healthy to be at a conference where the president of the POD Network used every opportunity to remind us of the values of the organization:

  1. Collegiality
  2. Inclusion
  3. Diverse perspectives
  4. Advocacy and Social justice
  5. Distributed Leadership
  6. Innovation
  7. Evidence-Based Practices
  8. Respect/Ethical Practices

It was good to sit  with so many others who care about their students and their colleagues and their country and to ask: what do we do now, where do we go from here? For thousands and thousands across the United States, the answer has already come in the streets. Some of my answers emerged in Louisville.

This posting is coming long after you have taught your first “morning after” class, long after you’ve figured out what you need to do to reassure many of our students that we are there to honor, uphold and protect the values that serve as the foundation of higher education: diversity and inclusion, social justice, respect, evidence, truth and fact. So all I can do now is tell some stories of the last few days, and suggest ways to uphold our values in our classrooms and on our campuses. In storytelling, many have said, is the process of healing.

DividerI served as a poll observer on election day at the Mt Zion Mission Baptist Church in Lorain, OH. About 75% of the voters who came in were Spanish-speaking, largely of Puerto Rican and Mexican ancestry; a large number were black. A few were illiterate, a chilling observation for the United States in the 21st century. More than anything, I was taken by the seriousness with which they approached the responsibility of voting. One image in particular will long stay with me. An older African American woman came to vote with her husband. She walked slowly and with considerable pain, it was clear, and we helped her over to the voting station. She remained for about an hour standing at the voting booth; her husband had long since taken a seat to wait for her. She read every word of every issue (I could see her mouthing the words) before she checked a box, and then used the “back” button to read them again before finally casting her ballot. I, of course, have no idea who or what she voted for, but voting was her right and damn if she wouldn’t take it seriously.

DividerAt the POD conference, I sat in on a number of sessions on diversity and inclusion in higher education. Most in attendance were still processing what had just come down and the implications for those of us in education, both higher education and K-12. Underlying all the conversations were deep concerns for students of color, immigrants, foreigners, and undocumented who were scared and already witness to a racist “whitelash.” One black faculty member from Northeastern remarked that faculty of color are even more frightened by the educated, white faculty who make them feel unwelcome on their own campuses. And an African American faculty developer from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville talked about the fact that all day on Wednesday white faculty were in her office crying and she’s thinking, “I can’t be positive for both you and me. What about the faculty of color who by virtue of the fact that they are pushed into this position of being there to support not just faculty and students of color but everyone?” (On this, you might want to take a look at Christine Malsbary’s “The Passionate Ethnographer” blog, “Dear White People: Things you can do instead of cry or try to hug us. Sincerely, People of Color.”)

“How do we welcome the future?”

Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni

We at the conference were fortunate to be graced with a fierce and funny keynote by the poet Nikki Giovanni who began by wryly observing that “One of the advantages of being black is that so much shit has happened to us that this is just one more. We just make up a song and go on.” And she reminded us of what it is we teachers do by reading some stanzas from her poem, “Always There Are the Children,”

 

and always there are the children

there will be children in the heat of day
there will be children in the cold of winter

children like a quilted blanket
are welcomed in our old age

children like a block of ice to a desert sheik
are signs of status in our youth

we feed the children with our culture
that they might understand our travail

we nourish the children on our gods
that they may understand respect

we urge the children on the tracks
that our race will not fall short

but our children are not ours
nor we theirs they are future we are past

how do we welcome the future
not with the colonialism of the past
for that is our problem
not with the racism of the past
for that is their problem
not with the fears of our own status
for history is lived not dictated

we welcome the young of all groups
as our own with the solid nourishment
of food and warmth

we prepare the way with the solid
nourishment of self-actualization

we implore all the young to prepare for the young
because always there will be children.

It was Giovanni who talked most about storytelling and healing: we sit together, we listen to each other, we have to talk to each other, share with each other. “There are stories,” she told us. “Don’t be afraid to tell them.” And she concluded in her inimitable fashion: “Either learn something or shut the fuck up. We’re going to be alright.” I figured that I never need to listen to another conference keynote: I had already heard the best.

As a break from the conference – and who doesn’t need a break from a conference? – I walked the few blocks to the Muhammad Ali Center. It seemed the right thing to do and I wasn’t disappointed. The center is organized around Ali’s six core principles:

  • Confidence: Belief in oneself, one’s ability, and one’s future
  • Conviction: A firm belief that gives one the courage to stand behind that belief, despite pressure to do otherwise
  • Dedication: The act of devoting all of one’s energy, effort, and abilities to a certain task.
  • Giving: To present voluntarily without expecting something in return.
  • Respect: Esteem for, or a sense of the worth or excellence of, oneself and others.
  • Spirituality: A sense of awe, reverence, and inner peace inspired by a connection to all of creation and/or that which is greater than oneself.
Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville, KY. Steve Volk photo

Muhammad Ali Center, Louisville, KY. Steve Volk photo

As I was making my way through the museum, I latched onto a group of some 15 students and their teacher; all were black. The kids were about 8-12 years old. The teacher was an inspiration, a magician, a ball of fire, telling her students that they had to believe in themselves and “never, never let anyone tell you that you can’t be great.” She read them the wall text at the start of the exhibition: “Know who you are and believe. Trust yourself: let yourself take the steps that get you where you want to go. Sometimes this requires a leap of faith…The self-confidence that Muhammad Ali showed the world irritated some people. But it inspired – and empowered – many, many others.”  “OK,” she said, “I want you to take a picture of that. Did you take a picture of that? I want you to look at it and not forget it.” These are the teachers who will heal the world.

DividerBack to the conference where POD’s president, Kevin Barry, was remembering the words of Christian Moevs, a professor of Romance Languages and Literature at Notre Dame, on receiving the “Sheedy Award” in 2006, an honor given to an outstanding faculty member. “In a human being,” Moevs began, “generosity and love are one with consciousness, with awareness. I began to learn how much students will give, how much they will give of themselves, how they will respond, come towards you, if you step towards them. Any success of any teacher,” he continued, “depends on that light, love, generosity in our students. I learned then that the key to all teaching is: You must love your students with a deep, self-giving love. There is a famous phrase in Dante, about how no one loved can escape from loving in return. That is not actually true with sensual love. It is true with selfless, self-giving love. That love is the bond, the link of communication, through which real teaching and learning happen.”

His words recalled to me what bell hooks said in Teaching to Transgress: “To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence. There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes.”

And how do we do that? We begin with ourselves. James Baldwin argued in 1948 in “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth’” that a “rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”  We carry out our work in our classrooms, and it is in those spaces above all that we pledge to look into ourselves to ask if we doing all we can to insure that all of our students can thrive and are supported. It is in our classrooms that we can make the greatest difference, where we must insist that everyone’s presence is valued and that all our students can achieve their goals. It is in our classrooms that we “prepare the way with the solid nourishment of self-actualization.”

leonard-cohen

Guillaume Laurent, “Leonard Cohen, Nice Jazz Festival 2008,” Flicker CC

The great Leonard Cohen, who passed this last week, has been quoted much in the last few days, particularly his observation that “there is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” I can do no better than close with his song, “Democracy.” Written in 1992, it seems to have uncannily predicted this moment:

 

It’s coming through a hole in the air
From those nights in Tiananmen Square
It’s coming from the feel
That this ain’t exactly real
Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there
From the wars against disorder
From the sirens night and day
From the fires of the homeless
From the ashes of the gay
Democracy is coming to the USA
It’s coming through a crack in the wall
On a visionary flood of alcohol
From the staggering account
Of the Sermon on the Mount
Which I don’t pretend to understand at all
It’s coming from the silence
On the dock of the bay,
From the brave, the bold, the battered
Heart of Chevrolet
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
Oh mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the Squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA

It’s coming from the women and the men
Oh baby, we’ll be making love again
We’ll be going down so deep
The river’s going to weep,
And the mountain’s going to shout Amen
It’s coming like the tidal flood
Beneath the lunar sway
Imperial, mysterious
In amorous array
Democracy is coming to the USA

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen
But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags
As time cannot decay
I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet
Democracy is coming to the USA
To the USA

[Democracy lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC]

Affirming Our Values in a Time of Fanaticism

Steven Volk, May 9, 2016

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Bertrand Russell, by James Francis Horrabin, The Masses (August 1917)

Writing in the New York Times in late 1951, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed what he called a “new Decalogue” for teachers – intended to supplement, not replace the “old one” – as his response to the gathering fanaticism he perceived. As we have most certainly entered our own age of zealotry, it seems fitting to reproduce his words here:

1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition…endeavor to overcome it by argument any not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for it you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness. [New York Times, December 16, 1951]

While some bright spots remain in the global political landscape – the election of Sadiq Khan as London’s mayor, the first Muslim mayor in a western capital, stands out – the primary campaign season in the United States has seen intolerance and fanaticism take center stage. The campaign has produced a wholesale slide from (at least) modest regard for the truth to “spin,” “untruths,” and, finally, outright fabrications. According to one study, about three-quarters of Donald Trump’s assertions are either “mostly false,” false, or “Pants-on-Fire” false. His statement that he “watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering” as the World Trade Center collapsed was only one of a string of invented “facts” and illusory assertions. It hasn’t helped that Trump pushed the boundaries of what one can say so far that almost any statement could be made, and believed, by trusting followers. Certainly the calumnies leveled against President Obama paved the way.

When asked to define the difference between politics and business, Carly Fiorina, a one time presidential candidate and Ted Cruz’s running-mate-for-a-week, replied, “Politics is a fact-free zone. People just say things.” And she should know; about half of her statements were classified as “mostly untrue” or worse.

truthinessStephen Colbert coined the expression “truthiness” in 2005 to refer to people who will claim something is true because they just know it since it feels right in their gut. Presidential candidates are not alone as they trek through abundant fact-free deserts. And it is not a stretch to argue that the candidates are only following the evidence that many of their supporters have grown accustomed to hearing only what they want to hear, and believing only what they want to believe.

According to a 2014 Gallup Poll, 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement that “most scientists think global warming is happening,” majorities in 97% of U.S. counties disagreed. We’re not even talking about whether global warming is happening, just what scientists believe. In fact, 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. Jenny McCarthy, a model and television host, was invited onto Oprah Winfrey’s wildly popular program where she (McCarthy) once again affirmed that vaccines and mercury cause autism. When asked where her information came from, she replied, “The University of Google is where I got my degree from.” (I’ll leave to others a discussion of the rise of the internet as the single most important factor in the democratization of information…as well as its almost inevitable replacement of rational argument with emotional name calling and narcissism.)

Teaching and Facts

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

“The White Owl,” Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology (London, 1766). British Library, 459.g.1

While the tumble into truthiness and the rise of the internet expert should be of concern to all citizens, it is a particularly consequential development for those of us whose work it is to train students to value evidence, question sources, and approach broad claims with a degree of skepticism. We would do well to ponder precisely the value of our work as  teachers in higher education in light of the fact that the absence of a college degree is probably the single most important characteristic of a Trump voter.

And yet to maintain the democratizing work of higher education and not see colleges and universities return to their characteristic state as a sanctuary of privileged access is becoming more and more difficult. If the cost of attending private colleges and universities has been spiraling up, the real surge in tuition costs in the 21st century has been in the public sector. Sticker-price tuitions at private colleges and universities have increased by 45% between 2000-2001 and 2015-16 (17% in terms of net tuition increases); they have almost doubled at public institutions, and the reason isn’t hard to find. Legislators have removed their support of higher education as a public good.

ChartAfter all, why pay for expertise when Google can tell you what you need to know for nothing? Why should the public pay for anthropologists and philosophers and art historians when we need plumbers and welders? Indeed, why should the public pay for plumbers and welders when private enterprise should be giving them the training they need? Or, perhaps even more pertinent for those legislators slashing state education budgets: why use taxes to pay for a skeptical public who will then question their legislative priorities?

But we should not rush to congratulate ourselves for having created an insulated “bubble” where rational discourse and capacious skepticism naturally thrive and guide our interactions. We are hardly immune from the larger trends outside the liberal arts enclave. Social media whips us about every bit as much as it does those beyond our gates, if not more so for being an inward-facing community. Ironically – tragically? – discussions among colleagues who share many perspectives can seem to pose even greater challenges than conversations with strangers.

And yet we are not powerless at this time and in the face of such trials. But the question remains, how do we advance our work, and build our community, so that it is instructed more by Russell’s “decalogue” than by Trump’s demonology? How do we maintain oases of critical thinking in this terrain of truthiness? How do we establish not just the basis on which we can contest and evaluate ideas, but indicate to our students the value of what we are doing?

One way is simply to reaffirm the goals we champion for our students, and to assert them to ourselves as well. What we want for our students is no less than what we hope for ourselves.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

“Bay Owl,” J Briois (1824), illustrator. British Library, NHD 47/34.

At Oberlin we have recently completed a process of specifying learning outcomes for students in the College of Arts & Sciences, not as a list of bullet points to satisfy some external reviewers, but as a part of a much deeper discussion of what it is we hope our students will take with them when they graduate. There are many ways in which our learning outcomes will resemble those at other liberal arts colleges, as indeed they should. Prominent among these is the importance we see in cultivating in our students the ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence. As an educational and intellectual community, we understand the value of serious investigation and the difficulties that entails, and we maintain the significance of fact-based evidence in any analysis. We will surely disagree on many points and in many contexts, but we are committed to engaging in a process whose procedures are clear and which have lent meaning to intellectual disputes for centuries and in many cultural contexts.

So perhaps, as we come to the end of what has been a challenging school year, we can reflect on those goals we share for our students, the values we hope our graduating seniors will build upon for many years to come. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk from Austria, recently observed, that “Without anxiety there is no courage.” We have anxiety in excess. It remains for us to find the courage to recognize a way forward, a process that can begin by reaffirming those aspects of our students’ learning that we most value.

The statement of learning outcomes, which is excerpted and rephrased below for purposes of brevity, was passed by the College of Arts and Sciences’ faculty in December 2015 and can be read in full here. One short of a decalogue, it can still guide our work.

As a faculty, we value:

  1. The ability to become deeply immersed in a single field of study. Concentrating profoundly in a field allows students to understand the logic and epistemology, assumptions and methodologies of a particular approach. Such engagement generates the potential for students to move beyond the skills of analyzing and evaluating information and towards the creation of new knowledge or approaches and the production of original work.
  2. The importance of being open to a wide breadth of knowledge, the scope of which spans scientific, humanistic, aesthetic, and behavioral fields of knowledge and ways of knowing. We want our students to be acquainted with the wide variety of ways that humans have asked and answered questions in the past and the present, within the traditions of western culture as well as within other cultural frameworks and ways of knowing so they can better appreciate that deep understanding draws on a variety of approaches and traditions.
  3. The ability to analyze arguments on the basis of evidence, and to understand the context in which evidence is produced. To become engaged participants in their own education, students must learn how to learn. The central tools in this process are those of critical analysis: an understanding that assumptions, approaches and conclusions must be tested, and that claims are to be examined in light of evidence. To engage in critical analysis is to be aware of the social, political, cultural, historical, and scientific contexts that have shaped the development of knowledge and, therefore, to be humble in the face of its limits. To become skilled at critical analysis, one must develop a number of different capacities, specifically the ability to conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information.
  4. Our students’ participation in, and appreciation of, the creative process as an important aspect of what it means to be human. We widely recognize creativity as a central component in the arts, and have long valued the expressive talents of our students. Creativity is also a cognitive process that underlies the work of our students across many fields and endeavors. Creativity implies the capacity to generate new ideas, approaches, or hypotheses, the skills involved in planning, and the determination and resources needed to bring an idea to life: in the concert hall and the classroom, on stage, the athletic fields, and in the laboratory, in the community and with the community.
  5. The ability to communicate articulately, persuasively, dispassionately, and, when required, passionately, in written as well as oral modes, by listening as well as talking, with both specialized and lay audiences. As the world is increasingly drawn together, we understand that our students will need to develop the skills and cultural competencies needed to interact effectively in languages other than English and through a variety of means, including visual, quantitative, and digital.
  6. The ability of our students to develop a critical understanding of the historical and cultural factors that underlie difference and inequality in U.S. and global societies. It is our responsibility not only to bring together a diverse community of students, but also to place our students in the epistemological, curricular, and pedagogical frameworks where they can learn to interact across the differences they encounter. Truly engaged learning requires the presence of diverse learning communities and the reduction of barriers to inclusion at every level.
  7. The ability to engage effectively with others as they work to understand and address complex problems from a variety of perspectives. Developing the practice of successful collaboration also entails a high degree of self-awareness and an understanding of the relationship between individual initiative and the potential of working with others.  Collaborative efforts should increase one’s openness to working not just across disciplinary approaches, but also alongside those with whom one may disagree.
  8. The ability of our students to develop an enduring commitment to acting in the world to further social justice, deepen democracy, and build a sustainable future. Oberlin’s long history of challenging some of this country’s gravest inequities underlines the responsibility our graduates feel to acting beyond narrow self-interest, of working together to create local and global communities that are more just, equitable, democratic, peaceful, and sustainable. These are lifelong ethical commitments that can be pursued via a wide range of careers pathways and social commitments.
  9. The ability to cultivate those habits that support healthy and sustainable living, responsible and empathetic interactions with others, and a capacity for self-reflection and contemplation. Our students should carry with them a strong ethical and moral grounding, a capacious curiosity, a broad capacity for empathetic engagement, an awareness of their own physical and mental well-being, and an understanding of the importance of being responsible in the world, along with the humility to recognize their own limitations.

Father Daniel Berrigan died this past week at the age of 94. The Jesuit priest, committed over his long life to peace and social justice, composed his own Decalogue in a 1981 book titled, Ten Commandments for the Long Haul. One seems particular apt for today: “About practically everything in the world, there’s nothing you can do. This is Socratic wisdom. However, about of few things you can do something. Do it, with a good heart.”

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

Fr. Daniel Berrigan gives an anti-war sermon at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, 1972. (William E. Sauro / New York Times. Some rights reserved.)

Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization

Steven Volk, February 15, 2016

London is a city of museums, and I have had the good fortune to take my students to quite a few in my (still) short time here. Last week, for example, in class we studied the so-called “Glorious Revolution” (1688-89) in England (more on its glories, real or imagined, in another post!). And then on Friday we traveled up river to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see an exhibit on Samuel Pepys, the garrulous diarist who chronicled so much of the second half of the 17th century.

John Michael Wright, "Charles II in His Coronation Robes," c. 1687 (Charles II: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015)

John Michael Wright, “Charles II in His Coronation Robes,” c. 1687 (Charles II: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015).

There’s only so much I could say in class about Charles II, the man who restored the monarchy to England after a brief flirt with republicanism, without spiraling my students into a deep slumber. But, on entering the Pepys exhibition, the visitor is almost immediately confronted by a portrait of the monarch in his coronation robes painted by John Michael Wright (c. 1687). What the spectacular painting could say was infinitely more informative (not to mention entertaining) than anything I could cobble together.

Supporting the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand word, we know that images are remarkably generative texts. Perhaps this is because, as John Berger has argued in his hugely popular book, Ways of Seeing, published in 1972, and based on a BBC series of the same name, seeing and recognition come before words. We see, and then explain what we see with words. But, he continues, at the same time what we know or believe affects how we see. Our past knowledge or experience changes the way we see.

Nearly 40 years earlier, John Dewey, in Art as Experience, also considered the relationship between what we see and what we know. Dewey discussed the critical nature of seeing as experience, suggesting that “experience is a product, one might almost say bi-product, of continuous and cumulative interaction of an organic self with the world,” adding that this was the “foundation upon which esthetic [sic] theory and criticism can build” (220). For Dewey, the art object was the primary site for the dialectical processes of experience and the unifying occasion for these experiences.

In his 1934 study, Dewey challenged the assumption that art does not have a connection with outside content. Much as Berger will argue later, Dewey suggests that art can concentrate meanings found in the world. The difference between art and science, he argued, is that art expresses meanings, whereas science states them, giving us directions for obtaining the experience, but not supplying us with experience. So, to take a very recent example, Einstein gave us the “directions” for looking for gravitational waves resulting from the collision of black holes colliding, and now that we have “seen” them, it remains for artists (among others) to express the meanings of such an event.

Computer visualization of black holes colliding (BBC News, Feb. 11, 2016)

Computer visualization of black holes colliding (BBC News, Feb. 11, 2016)

This relation between words and images, science and art, and image and understanding was on my mind when I read an article (kindly sent me by Roger Laushman) by Kim Quillin (OC ’93) and Stephen Thomas, titled “Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology,” [CBE Life Sciences Education, Vol. 14 (Spring 2015): 1-16].

Drawing of Michael Faraday's 1831 experiment showing electromagnetic induction: Arthur William Poyser (1892) Magnetism and electricity: A manual for students in advanced classes, Longmans, Green, & Co., New York, p.285, fig.248, public domain

Drawing of Michael Faraday’s 1831 experiment showing electromagnetic induction: Arthur William Poyser (1892) Magnetism and electricity: A manual for students in advanced classes, Longmans, Green, & Co., New York, p.285, fig.248, public domain

There is little question that visualizations are integral to scientific thinking and the teaching of science. Scientists rely not only on words to explain their findings, but on a host of visual materials: graphs, diagrams, charts, illustrations, etc. And they have long done so.

But visualizations are also, in a more Deweyian sense, a primary way to communicate complex science to the lay reader (and the everyday citizen) as experience, and so their importance in that realm should not be underestimated.

Scholars in the sciences and arts have published a considerable amount on how work to improve visual literacy can be leveraged to scaffold learning in the sciences. [For a good example of this, see Liliana Milkova, Colette Crossman, Stephanie Wiles and Taylor Allen, “Engagement and Skill Development in Biology Students through Analysis of Art,” CBE Life Sciences Education, Vol. 12 (Winter 2013): 687-700] Two intriguing papers have suggested that encouraging students to draw in science classes will not only improve their ability to understand underlying concepts, but to become engaged and active in their science classes.

Transmission cycle of Zika virus

Transmission cycle of Zika virus

Writing in Science [“Drawing to Learn in Science,” Vol. 333 (Aug. 26, 2011): 1096-97], Shaaron Ainsworth, Vaughan Prain and Russell Tytler suggested that there are multiple ways that teachers can bolster student (novice) learning in science classes by encouraging students to draw. Drawing, they argue, can do this by: enhancing engagement on the part of students who do poorly at rote learning or might have felt excluded in more traditional science classes; catering to individual learning approaches as different students will generate different visualizations; generating their own representations, through which students will deepen their understanding of the specific conventions of representations and their purposes (e.g., this is how a line graph works and why you want your representation to communicate the most information in the sparest way); helping students learn how to reason in a method other than argumentation (an approach that research has shown to have great success when student generate and refine models supported by their teachers); helping learners overcome limitations in presented material, organize their knowledge more effectively, and integrate new and existing understandings; and, finally, helping students learn how to communicate effectively.

Flea, from Robert Hooke, MICROGRAPHIA or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665)

Flea, from Robert Hooke, MICROGRAPHIA or some physiological descriptions of minute bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon (1665)

Quillin and Thomas (“Drawing-to-Learn: A Framework for Using Drawings to Promote Model-Based Reasoning in Biology”) apply this model specifically to the biology classroom, lamenting that biology has lagged “behind physics and chemistry in acknowl­edging and explicitly teaching drawing as a skill, especially the drawing of abstract visual models as a tool for reasoning.” They argue that model-based reasoning is “a powerful tool for fostering conceptual change and meaningful learning in students.” Further, they suggest that when model-based learning is applied to science visual representations can be used to generate predictions and explanations. If many (most?) biology teachers use visual representations in their teaching, a much smaller number expect their students to draw or make models. “Drawing-to-Learn” is intended to “to distill the complexity of drawing into a ‘big picture’ framework that can serve as a launching point to facilitate future work in biology.”

Quillin and Thomas break their examination into three separate topics: They set out to: 1) define what they mean by drawing in the biology classroom; 2) articulate clearly the pedagogical goals of drawing-to-learn; and 3) propose a set of teaching interventions that can serve both as prompts for interested instructors and also as testable hypotheses for researchers. Here, I’ll examine only the second and third points while encouraging you to read the article in its entirety. Nevertheless, and to encourage you to dig further, they summarize their main pedagogical goals for assigning drawing exercises in the following chart:

ChartIt is important for faculty to have thought out the pedagogical goals of such a project from the start. Assigning drawing as a way to help students engage more actively in science learning (improve moti­vation) or to help them see more carefully (improve observation skills) are very different pedagogical goals than assigning drawings to help students understand concepts (lower-order cognitive skills) or solve a complex problem (higher-order cognitive skill). But each of these is important. “Like­wise,” the authors continue, “assigning drawings to students to help them learn (stu­dent-centered goal) and assigning drawings so that instruc­tors can assess learning (instructor-centered goal) are very different pedagogical goals, but both can be used to improve student learning. Finally, teaching drawing as a learning tool (such as the use of concept maps to help memorize content or see the big picture) is a different goal than teaching draw­ing as a science process skill (such as drawing models to design an experiment), but both are valid and worthwhile. Overall, the key is for instructors and researchers to artic­ulate goals clearly so that appropriate interventions can be designed and aligned between the formative and summative quadrants to achieve those goals.”

The authors conclude by suggesting various ways to scaffold drawing skills to address specific learning goals. The overall goal of our teaching is to move our students to more expert-like practices, and to do this most effectively we need to understand what can get in the way of learning, including whether we are placing too heavy a cognitive load on students, and therefore exercises can become unproductive (as per the theory of “cognitive capacity”).

In this light, they argue for three different kinds of faculty interventions, one based on improving student motivation and attitudes toward drawing (affect); one designed to teach the skills of translating information to a visual form within the field of biology (visual literacy), and one designed to give students the practice and feedback on the use of models as reasoning tools (model-based reasoning).

Here’s the chart they provide to summarize these points:

Chart2Quillin and Thomas conclude with a series of suggestions for further research on the application of such a model of learning to different students and classrooms. Among their questions:

  • Which types of interventions are most successful in improving students’ ability to draw and reason with their models?
  • What are the barriers that limit the utility of drawing exercises in class?
  • How do gender, ethnicity, background experience, and content knowledge influence student abilities and/or affect regarding drawing-to-learn?

As we answer these questions, it seems to me that the learning theory that informs model-based reasoning in biology can be applied not only in the other sciences, but in the social sciences and humanities as well. If you’re using model-based reasoning in your classes, share your findings with us.

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.

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!

Can We Remove the Risk from Adopting New Teaching Approaches?

Steve Volk, February 15, 2015

Last week I wrote about preparing students for active learning. This week I wanted to present one recommendation for helping interested faculty prepare more active learning teaching designs for their classrooms. I should start by saying that faculty assuredly don’t need advice from me on how to construct remarkable, active learning environments since this kind of approach happens in classrooms around the campus on a daily basis. I plan to showcase some examples as “Articles of the Week” entries very soon. Rather, my worry is that some faculty will hesitate to adopt such approaches out of concern for how they might be received by students.

Roger, Risk Management James Hotel Lobby Picture NYC NY (CC)

Roger, Risk Management James Hotel Lobby Picture NYC NY (CC)

And that’s not an idle concern. The literature seems to suggest that faculty might be evaluated more negatively in active learning contexts than in more traditional lecture courses. The Center for Teaching Excellence at Cornell cautions, in a rather understated fashion, that “Some students may not accept new learning activities with complete ease.” A 2011 study by Amy E. Covill [“College Students’ Perceptions of the Traditional Lecture Method,” College Student Journal 45:1 (March 2011)] goes further, finding that “many students may resist, and even be hostile toward, teachers’ attempts to use active learning methods.” Eric Mazur, the Harvard physics professor who has become something of a celebrity in the field of peer instruction and active learning, commented that his approach draws “a lot of student resistance.” He adds, “You should see some of the vitriolic e-mails I get. The generic complaint is that they have to do all the learning themselves. Rather than lecturing, I’m making them prepare themselves for class—and in class, rather than telling them things, I’m asking them questions. They’d much rather sit there and listen and take notes.”

While there is not a lot of reliable research on the subject, in one careful study of a large, introductory biology course (“A Delicate Balance: Integrating Active Learning into a Large Lecture Course”), the authors found that when comparing “traditional” (mostly lecture) courses with more active courses, “student evaluations of the instructors (on items such as overall teaching ability, knowledge of subject, respect and concern for students, how much learned, the course overall) were significantly and substantially higher in the traditional than in the active section” (my emphasis).

CBE Life Sciences Education

CBE Life Sciences Education

Junior Faculty, Risk-Taking, and Pedagogy

For junior faculty in particular, the risks associated with adopting more active learning techniques and moving away from standard lectures can be considerable. Many, perhaps most, will move ahead with such pedagogies regardless, because they feel comfortable with them and have found that they produce the deepest learning for their students. Some may not want to go there because they simply don’t feel comfortable using such teaching approaches. A few might be cautioned by their departments to “go slow,” waiting until after a tenure decision before shaking their students’ apple carts too forcefully. And some are sufficiently worried about their students’ reactions that they will choose to wait the 7 years until they feel less vulnerable.

Whatever the situation, it seems that a case can be made for creating a “risk-free” zone for junior faculty who are interested in introducing more active learning techniques into the mix of their teaching. This is not to say that such faculty will no longer be responsible for what goes on in their classes, a free pass of sorts equivalent to the student demand that no one should fail the course. In fact, if anything, faculty will be required to be more intentional about their pedagogic choices and to assess the results of their methods. What it will mean is that evaluation of the course will be untethered from the traditional Student Evaluations of Teaching (SETs).

risk Free

Here’s how such a proposal could work. I encourage others to chime in to clarify and improve it.

The Proposal

  1. Each semester or year (the choice between them depending on available resources), pre-tenure faculty will be allowed to designate one course as an “innovative pedagogy” class. Instructors would prepare a brief (2-3 page) prospectus of the basic pedagogic innovations they plan to employ in the course, what informs their approach (citing some of the literature that supports the approach), some examples of how this pedagogy would look in action (perhaps a description of one week of classes), and how they intend to assess the impact of their approach on student learning in the class. Interested faculty would be able to get advice and feedback at regularly scheduled workshops organized by CTIE.
  1. Proposals would be approved by department/program chairs, who, in turn, would send their approval to the dean’s office and to the director of CTIE to allow further consultation and formative observation if requested.
  1. Instructors would be expected to consult with CTIE (or other faculty recommended by CTIE) over the course of the semester.
  1. At the end of the semester, faculty would assess their courses along the lines traced out in their original (or revised) proposal and would also distribute standard SET forms to their students. These would be collected and stored in the stipulated fashion, and would go to the faculty member when grades were turned in. But they would only be sent to the College Faculty Council if so requested by the faculty member.
  1. In lieu of, or together with, the standard SET forms, the faculty member would prepare a short narrative evaluation of the course including the original design proposal, any changes made, the instructor’s evaluation of student learning and engagement in the course based on their own assessment materials, and any recommendations for changes to the course design in the future.

There are, no doubt, many issues with the proposal and many ways it could be strengthened. But encouraging junior faculty to experiment with their teaching approaches in an informed, but not unduly risky, fashion seems worth exploring further.

Up Close and Confidential: Celebrity Professors Take Their Teaching Off the Record

By Ben Wieder

Chronicle of Higher Education (March 13, 2011)

Each week last semester, 20 students at Yale University met with retired four-star Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

In a seminar on leadership, General McChrystal—who had recently been relieved of his command in Afghanistan after criticizing top U.S.-government officials—shared lessons from his own experience and brought in high-profile guests to share stories from their careers as well.

There was only one catch: Students were forbidden to reveal what General McChrystal or anyone else said in class.

The Yale seminar is one of several recent instances like this. Lectures last semester in several classes at Georgetown University by Alvaro Uribe, a former president of Colombia, were off the record, as is a current class at George Washington University featuring lectures by and discussions with Ed Henry, CNN’s senior White House correspondent, and Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary.

Should institutions dedicated to shared knowledge cloak courses in secrecy? Absolutely not, says Dalton Conley, senior vice provost at New York University, who thinks the practice runs contrary to notions of academic freedom. “There’s definitely a clash of institutional cultures here,” he says.

Gregory Scholtz, director of the American Association of University Professors’ department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance, says the organization’s founding policy document suggests the opposite.

“Discussions in the classroom ought not to be supposed to be utterances for the public at large,” according to the organization’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

The universities say these classes give students inside information they wouldn’t get otherwise: a worthwhile trade-off.

The August announcement that General McChrystal would teach at Yale came less than two months after he was ousted following a controversial article in Rolling Stone. The article and his forced resignation were among the biggest stories of the summer, and his appointment to the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale brought significant media attention, says Larisa Satara, the institute’s associate director. The class policy was a response to that.

“It was more off the record in the sense that you weren’t going to talk to a journalist,” she says.

But Julia A. Knight, a senior who took General McChrystal’s seminar, said she didn’t discuss class materials with students who weren’t in the class or with her family, either, because of the command in the syllabus.

She’s studied with high-profile professors at Yale before, but this was the first time she’d encountered such a policy. There were no restrictions on classes she’s taken with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and John D. Negroponte, a former director of national intelligence.

Still, she says, silence was a trade-off that she and her 19 classmates, selected from a pool of more than 80 applicants, were willing to make.

Ms. Knight, who hopes to work in city governance, says that the opportunity to discuss leadership in an academic setting was itself unique, and that the discussion’s being led by a retired general made it all the more valuable.

She also says the policy didn’t have much impact on the classroom environment: “I didn’t dwell on the fact that it was a confidential atmosphere.”

Mr. Uribe, a visiting scholar at Georgetown, didn’t teach any courses, but he did give lectures in several classrooms on the campus. He asked professors in those courses to share the following statement with students, according to Rachel M. Pugh, Georgetown’s media-relations director:

“To encourage an active discussion and exchange of ideas, this class is off the record. All participants agree that they will not record or publicly report on this class or distribute any recordings, photographs or videos of this class or any of the participants. By attending in this class you all are agreeing to these ground rules.”

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Students Evaluating Teaching – The Unending Conversation

The New York Times Magazine for September 21, 2008 is the “College Issue,” with a cover title, “It’s All About Teaching.” Among the articles is one on “Judgment Day” by Mark Oppenheimer. While making the point that there have been over 2,000 studies on the value of student teaching evaluations (i.e., those evaluations which all students are required to fill out at the end of our classes), the research on their utility is still mixed. The article calls attention to the way that the evaluations are subject to particular gender/race biases, how they can reward “entertainment value” over good teaching, how it is difficult to rate the sciences/math (i.e. very vertical curricula) vs. the humanities and social sciences, etc. Oppenheimer closes his article (spoiler alert!) with the following: “When students in the 1960s demanded more say in academic governance, they could not have predicted that their children would play so outsize a role in deciding which professors were fit to teach them. Once there was a student revolution, which then begat a consumer revolution, and along with more variety in the food court and dorm rooms wired for cable, it brought the curious phenomenon of students grading their graders. Whether students are learning more, it’s hard to say. But whatever they believe, they’re asked to say it.”

What do you think? SET’s are required at Oberlin and we have put a fair amount of time trying to make them more reliable and uniform. Are there better ways to evaluate teaching? What would you like to see (other than superlative comments from students on ALL your classes)?

Truth and Lies…What to Do?

OK, so I’m listening to NPR this morning, and there’s a news item about the United States and Poland signing an agreement to place a missile defense system in that country. Secretary of State Rice makes a big point of arguing that the Russians have nothing to worry about, that the missiles are “not aimed at anyone.” Now, either Rice is not the sharpest knife in the drawer (which I don’t believe), or she is, how to put it, lying. But it’s a lie that most understand is a “diplomatic” lie. Those “in the know” understand that Russia indeed has something to be worried about. My point here is not with Rice, Poland, Russia or the particular matter (i.e., whether the U.S. should or shouldn’t base a missile defense system in Poland), but rather with the issue of “acceptable” lying and what it means for us in the classroom. How do we teach about the importance of “truth” (understood as an accurate representation of reality) in the classroom when the vast majority of political leaders engage in continual lying? This is, I suggest, a problem both when we think of those who don’t know that they have just been fed a lie (e.g., there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda;  Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks; the U.S. would never engage in torture; the earth is 6,000 years old, etc.) and for those who know that these are lies…but a part of political convention; it’s “what politicians do,” so don’t get stressed. But why bother with “truth” in the classroom if truth doesn’t matter? This, of course, is hardly a new question, but it is an increasingly important one to the extent that the proliferation of viral news can spread lies so much more quickly than the rumor mill used to spread stories about spider eggs inside of Bubble Yum. What do you think?

Steve Volk