Higher Education, Technology

Engagement and Adulthood: A contradiction?

This weekend I spent some time preparing a paper that I’ll be presenting at the Media Ecology Association Conference in Toronto next month.  The paper explores the ethical implications of using artificial intelligence (AI) in higher education.  As Provost, I am routinely bombarded with sales pitches for the latest gadgets to encourage student engagement.  Each one has a plethora of data points that suggest that it will increase student success. Each one raises concerns about the notion of adulthood.

Consider, for example, the ways in which we might employ smartphones to take attendance.  One vendor presented a simple and elegant way to set up a sensor in a classroom doorway so that. as students come in. their presence is automatically recorded in a spreadsheet for the faculty member.  As a bonus, photographs of the students can show up an a computer monitor at the teacher’s station, helping them learn their students’ names.  For students who don’t have phones, there is still the opportunity for manual entry.  Great.  Attendance tracking solved!

But the thing is, once it is turned on, students can be tracked for all sorts of things.  If a student doesn’t go to the cafeteria for a few days, an alert might come up.  If they don’t leave the dorm for a few days, an alert might come up.  If they are missing multiple classes, an alert might come up.  OK, we should be concerned about the student, but I have concerns about privacy and self-determination. While I truly wish to engage students who are starting to disappear, I’m not sure I want to do it by tracking their every move.  It’s a little creepy and I think it’s an invasion of privacy.  More importantly, it creates a relationship with students that does not encourage them to be responsible for their actions.

There are similar products being sold to advising centers to try to prompt engagement with students.  There are alerts sent to advising staff by faculty, coaches, and anyone else who might be in contact with the students, letting them know about excessive absences or other looming issues.  Part of this is fantastic.  The student experience is dispersed in higher education and this function allows us to see patterns that might be invisible without it.  An advisor can then reach out to the student and that student might respond.  Great! But then what?

You see the painful truth is that most do not respond. Are we to stand outside classrooms or doorways to find them?  Do we text and email and call multiple times to try to prompt that response?  At what point are we to say, this student is not ready to engage in this conversation, and just stop?  When do we get the message that the student is making a decision not to respond?

Then there’s the “nudge” technology, meant to prompt students to action on all sorts of things: registration, financial aid, meeting an advisor, applying for graduation.  It’s a good idea.  In the whirl of semesters, deadlines are easy to miss.  As a basic communication strategy, it seems like a helpful tool in our efforts to keep our students informed and on track.  But, when they consistently ignore these messages, what are we to do? And, more importantly, is our nudging turning into one more thing for students to tune out? All I can think of is the teacher’s voice in the old Peanuts cartoons.

As fond as I am of being a professional nag, these technologies seem to be undermining the notion of adulthood in higher education.  While I have always conceptualized our traditional aged undergraduates as beginner adults, they are adults none-the-less.  We know that they will stumble, as all adults do, but is catching them every time they fall a good idea?  Well, it’s complicated.

In fact, some of our students really do need extra support and nudges and outreach.  They come to us with no experience of the culture of higher education or they come to us with just adequate, but not stellar, high school grades. We know that these students are more likely to stumble.  These students need our thoughtful and persistent attention. But, does that attention need to be at the cost of supporting adulthood? I don’t think so.

Here’s where I am on this today.  First, we don’t need the technology to tell us who the  at-risk students are.  We have a slew of reports that have already done that.  For those students, we need a carefully constructed program of support that moves from high touch to self-determination as quickly as possible. Let’s use the large body of research that tells us the best strategies for cultivating that self-determination. Let’s leave the technology out of this one, in favor of some good old fashioned human interaction.  This program of support should help the students take control of their education, instead of relying on prompts and nudges for all the answers.

For those students who don’t need that extra support at the start, let’s be clear in our expectations and not obscure the paths to great educational experiences.  Let’s orient them to campus, help them create their plans, and then leave them alone. They can figure it out.

Some of our students will ignore our efforts no matter what we do. Some of them will end up leaving. It happens.  In fact it happened to me.  I needed time to figure out why I should be in college.  It wasn’t a lack of technology that caused this. I certainly didn’t want additional oversight from concerned professionals. I wanted to solve my own problems and make my own plans. I was a beginner adult, making my own mistakes and finding my way.

Change, Evaluation, Higher Education

The Pace of Change

It is the end of another academic year, and as we move through award ceremonies, research presentations, and finally commencement, I take the time to look at my to-do list from last fall.  It is a bit deflating to see all of the things I didn’t complete.  I expect some of this to happen, after all, not all of my plans were good ones. A few things actually got done, some were re-imagined, a few were abandoned, and some just didn’t get the attention they needed to come to fruition.  It isn’t all bad, but I confess to being a bit disappointed in myself.

Then I remember, higher education is designed to slow the pace of change.  While we are great places for advancing knowledge (yes, new discoveries and inventions do come from higher education), we are best at slow deliberation.  We analyze cultural patterns large and small and try to see them in context, rather than jumping to conclusions.  We look at small changes in forecasting models for weather or economics, tweaking them slightly each year to get closer to a better predictor, and then analyze the results of those changes.  We reflect upon the past to try to divine how we got to this moment.  Change is not something we’re avoiding, it is something we’re vetting.

So here I am, an academic with an administrative role. I understand the care with which my colleagues approach change and I share their suspicions about the innovation of the week.  The brakes they are putting on in the form of more questions, more input, more research are justified.  However, I also spend my time looking at the whole organization and the whole student experience, and I see patterns of successes and failures that are calling for us to move a little faster. I feel the push/pull of the deliberative mindset and the urgency of responding to areas for improvement.

Take, for example, the way this generation of learners is coming to us.  It is well-documented that their experience of reading is very different from that of the generations before them.  (See “The Fall and Rise of Reading” by Steven Johnson in the Chronicle of Higher Education). It isn’t that students can’t read, it’s just that they really haven’t had to grapple with critical reading. The books read and tests taken prior to coming to college are all about short forms, summaries, and highlights.  And of course, there’s the endless interaction on the Internet to reduce the time spent with texts. Reflective reading of long form texts is just not what they are used to doing.  We know this to be true, yet we haven’t reviewed the literature on how to teach critical reading, and then incorporate into our classes.

Maybe we think this isn’t our job. High school was supposed to do it, so just pile on the readings and the students will get it eventually.  But they don’t.  We have to adjust our teaching strategies, and quickly, because we’re losing too many to this gap in skills. Even worse, we are diminishing the conversations we’re having in our classes because we’re not really expecting students to do the reading anymore.  This is a terrible spiral, but the good news is we can stop it from happening. But we have to act, and sooner rather than later.

And then there is the issue that really made me sigh this morning.  After repeated reports on who struggles to succeed at my university, I concluded that the at-risk group is any student who had less than an 85 average in high school.  I learned this two years ago and started a conversation about advising strategies to address the at-risk group. At that time, I used the words “intrusive advising” which is a term found in much of the advising literature. Several of my colleagues objected to the term, so we moved to the idea of enhanced advising.  I brought together a group to develop a protocol and nothing happened.

Then I appointed some faculty members to investigate ways that we might develop an advising protocol for those students.  Like all good faculty members, they went out and talked to their peers. While they found out a few good things about how to support faculty as advisors (and I will work to support those findings), in reality, enhanced advising was set aside in favor of better advising for all.  This is a good idea, but it will take too long to identify and scale those improvements.  Meanwhile, those at-risk students are left with no direct support.

I just got an updated report on at-risk students and it is still students who earned less than an 85 average in high school.  The difference in retention rates for this group is at least 10% lower than those at 85 or above, and the differences in graduation rates are even more stark.  And there’s plenty of literature about how to support these students, so, I’m feeling an urgency.

So, I’m left pondering ways to balance the deliberation with the urgency.  I do respect the reflective and thoughtful nature of my colleagues, but when I keep the larger patterns of student success (or lack thereof) in view, the pace of change is just too slow.  I’m going to have to find a better balance, a better way to move the deliberation along just a little faster.  Because, what I don’t want to do is have this on the unfinished list again next year.

 

Dialogue, Free Speech, Inclusion

What are schools for?

The two best classes in my Ph.D. program were taught by education historian, Henry Perkinson.  The first, What are Teacher’s For?, opened my eyes to the metaphors and practices that shape how we understand the relationships between teachers, students, and learning.  I’ve drawn on the work in that class nearly every day of my career in higher education.  The second, was What are Schools For?  This one explored the many ways that we construct the role of education in society.  As our expectations for a good society evolve, so do our expectations for education.  Though an Imperfect Panacea (Perkinson, 1977/1991),  thinking about education as the path to a good society guides my thinking as an administrator.

This morning I’m thinking about just one step on that path. It is not about technology or innovation or pedagogy.  I’m not wondering about the connection between career and philosophy (though I frequently do).  Today’s answer to the question of the purpose of schools is simply this: schools are for helping us understand that our certainties and assumptions may not be the same as those of our neighbors.

This is not a small thing.  Indeed this openness to differences in attitudes, beliefs and values is hard won, and never done. The conflicts are written in our histories — segregation, prayer in schools, gender specific curricula, evolution, and climate change — and will never be completed. As neighborhoods shift, new cultures emerge and we struggle.  As science advances, new facts emerge, and we struggle.  As technologies connect us to far flung places, we encounter new governments or foods or religions, and we struggle.

As a child, I was very aware of the differences in beliefs in my family as compared to my friends.  We were different in terms of religion (really, the lack of religion).  We were different in terms of gender roles (my mother re-married several times, she was the head of the household at all times).  We were different in our understanding of bias (participation in civil rights marches and anti-war marches was a regular feature of my upbringing). It didn’t take me long to figure out that I was different. It also didn’t take me long to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between my family’s values and those of my friends. It didn’t always go well, but my nature seems to be to try to find some common ground.

As a parent, I saw this again for my children. I found it a bit awkward that Halloween celebrations had to be hidden in a Harvest Fair (out of consideration for religious differences), but I could go with it.  Then there was the DARE program that I objected to (I just kept my kids home on those days). But there was one incident that shook me and it continues to shape my thoughts about education today.

Like me, my children were raised to make their own decisions about religion. We embraced some of the festivities of Christianity and Judaism, while also connecting them to the histories in which they arose.  Practically speaking, that meant latkes for Hanukkah, presents for Christmas, a bonfire for winter solstice, and an Easter egg hunt with our neighbors.  One year, as we prepared the latkes, a friend of one of my children came to visit.  She was discussing the birth of Jesus and pending family celebrations.  I don’t remember what she said, but I felt the need to add the qualifier, “for those who celebrate Christmas.”  The little girl was horrified.  She came straight out and said, “You mean, you hate Jesus?”  Oh boy. She didn’t come back to our house for about 8 years.

Of course, I had shaken her understanding of the world.  Not only did she not know that there were non-Christians, she didn’t know there were non-Catholics. Yet, she went to a school with children of other faiths.  Unfortunately, our schools have been avoiding these conversations. Religion, in particular, is not in the curriculum and might inspire controversy so it is avoided.

This may also be happening more than we realize in higher education.  If we’re doing education right, all of us should have those overwhelming moments when we realize that what we thought everyone believed just isn’t so. And then we should dig in. Because unlike that little girl, we are adults and walking away for 8 years just isn’t a reasonable response. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we should be embracing the rich conversations and the deep soul searching that can arise from those moments when our set of facts falls apart. I fear that opposite is true. I think we might be avoiding most of these conversations.

This feels urgent to me today. With Easter bombings in Sri Lanka and Passover shootings in California, it seems the need to give our students the tools for the rich conversations about our differences is the most important thing we can do. Our media environments have reduced all dialogue to shouting and our political system seems to have cut out all paths to solutions in favor of election strategies and litmus tests.  In the midst of all the shouting, we find tales of protests on campuses that shut down rather than foster dialogue. We can’t let this go on.

Schools are one of the only places where we have the opportunity to cut through the shouting and actually talk about our differences.  They offer us the opportunity to make sense of the fact that we are not all the same. Schools should be places where we are comfortable discussing what is making us uncomfortable, and not for entertainment value, but for understanding. Rather than avoiding tough conversations, we need to seek them out and take hard looks at the reasons they are tough. This is what schools are for.  This is our most important role in society right now and we need to take it on rigorously and enthusiastically.

 

 

 

 

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Supporting Diversity: We must do better.

Well, I just finished reading the Chronicle Review’sBeing a Black Academic in America.” Sadly, it was unsurprising.  The many stories told in the Chronicle, Inside Higher Ed and elsewhere, that focus on biases in the classroom, on campuses, in yearbooks, and invited speakers all tell us that we are nowhere near achieving equity in higher education.  The faculty members who tell their stories in this issue, report issues that have been reported so many times that I can feel nothing but shame that we haven’t figured it out yet.

Indeed, I’ve been in conversations about these issues with students for over 20 years.  The perception that affirmative action is an unfair or unearned advantage has been voiced by students (and some faculty) in subtle and unsubtle ways as long as I’ve been in higher education.  They confuse the terms equality and equity, and get lost in the false logic of merit.  To be clear, merit can only be considered in context.  Simple indicators of hard work and talent must be scaled to the starting blocks in that race to secure a seat at the table (or in the classroom).  So, if you start with no money, attend a poorly funded K-12 school, and have parents who did not attend college, and then you manage an average score on an SAT, well you deserve to have that score raised to meet the average scores of those who had SAT prep tests, pre-schools, and honors programs.  That might be the start of some kind of equity, and trust me, that student has demonstrated talent and a strong work ethic.

But of course that’s just economic equity. The fact that the advantages and disadvantages are distributed along racial lines is the deep and enduring shame of it all.  That’s where we seem to be getting really lost in our merit logic.  We don’t like the idea of a person getting a score adjustment along racial lines, even though the economic disadvantages are disproportionately distributed along those lines.  Our belief in a system that only rewards hard work is so strong that we just don’t can’t see the different placements of the starting blocks.  And then we fail to make progress.

The stories in The Chronicle detail the difficulty of being a faculty member under these conditions. Every person interviewed reported the ways in which they have received messages about their “unearned” place in the academy.  Whether as students or as faculty members in predominantly white colleges (which describes most colleges), the uniformity of the narratives was clear…biased behavior is alive and well.  We are not paying attention to the ways in which we are replicating the systemic racism in the culture of higher education. We are not mindful of the ways bias manifests itself in student evaluations.  We are not attentive to the (lack of) diversity in our curriculum.  We have not attended to our committee structures (elected and appointed) and how they may be excluding voices.  We have not examined our assumptions about how the unspoken expectations for success in higher education may be obscuring those pathways for those new to the world of higher education, simply by being unspoken.

What we really haven’t begun to address is the intertwining of class, power, and race in all that we do in higher education. We have a push and pull between our commitment to access and our notions of excellence. We want to be the pathway to an equitable society, but we fail to notice that we have defined excellence in terms that represent the views of those already in power. We are frequently getting stuck in our own faulty merit logic, assuming that since we are all products of Ph.D. programs, we all have access to the same knowledge. But it isn’t that simple.  We aren’t seeing the staggered placement of our starting blocks.

And even saying all of this causes me discomfort, because I don’t want to suggest that faculty of color need special accommodations to succeed. Like all faculty, they are smart and talented and have earned their place in higher education.  Like all faculty, opportunities to study a topic deeply and enlighten students are the tasks they have set for themselves. But something isn’t going right, so questions must be asked.

It made me sad to read the Chronicle Review this morning.  I can see just how difficult it is going to be to make real change and I am sorry to have been so ineffective so far.  But I am listening and trying to find a path forward.  I have been calling for curricular change, but it is time for me to think bigger and plan the overhaul in our practices that is really required.  I’m not sure what my next steps are, but I do know that there will be next steps in short order.

Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

The Biases Within: Getting our House in Order

Over my morning coffee I read the disturbing account of yet another incident in the long list of incidents where our students of color are targeted.  The Inside Higher Ed account, Entering Campus Building While Black,  includes troubling video footage and a list of similar events on other campuses over the last year.  In every case, those involved felt they were just being vigilant, just following usual protocols, yet these events rarely (never) seem to happen to our white students. It’s time for a little self-reflection folks.

The cascade of stereotypes that provoke these incidents are pervasive and exhausting.  Our words may speak to inclusion, but our deeply held experiences of “other” are driving our behaviors.  When we add the variable of gun violence in education contexts, it gets even worse.  We see something/say something, but we don’t seem to see whom we’re saying something about. In recent years, large bodies of research have shown us that our incarceration practices are littered with racists assumptions and practices, and I’m grateful that we are starting to see some real reforms.  It’s time to turn that attention to our own practices.

I’m not going to sugar coat this folks, here’s the deal.

Elite campuses are more likely to end up in this awful harassment cycle because the numbers of students of color are small.  Admissions practices, unequal access to quality K-12 education, and plain old money makes this so. When numbers are small, people notice the otherness of the non-white student more intensely.  They appear out-of-place (largely because we’ve not really made a place for them) and then they become the focus when we enforce our rules related to safety and security.  It becomes a series of natural seeming steps, that reinforce our biased assumptions and practices.

But elite campuses are not alone.  Even on more diverse campuses like mine, there are other kinds of targeting that routinely occur.  Our Muslim students are called upon to explain Islam. Our African-American students are asked to explain racism.  Our LGTBQ students must share their coming out stories. Our women are frequently asked to adjust to environments that are distinctly male. In our attempts to be inclusive, we end up creating uncomfortable situations where students are asked to be representatives of that “other” culture, asking them to speak for the whole.

Our faculty are not yet diverse enough and so those who are from backgrounds other than white and middle class are faced with the same burden that our students of color face.  They become the representatives of their cultures, while at the same time serving as a refuge for students of color, who seek mentors who understand their experiences. As these faculty try to juggle the ordinary burdens of teaching, publishing, and earning tenure, the extra responsibilities of being the representative of a specific group, puts a strain on their time, making the path to tenure more strenuous than that of their white peers. And by being put in the position of being the representative of their cultures, we continuously repeat the message, you are other.

And our curriculum, well don’t get me started on that. If all of the above represents tokenism (and it does), our curriculum is the epitome of that practice.  Somehow we think a few focused courses on particular groups are enough to address the long history of exclusion.  We congratulate ourselves for noticing an absence in our offerings, write a course to address it, and then go one with the usual approaches and subjects.

Yikes!

Clearly my encounter with the news this morning made me angry.  I suspect many of my colleagues feel the same way.  We did not become educators to perpetuate the structural racism in our society.  Most of us just wanted to immerse ourselves in the fields we love and most of us thought when we did that, that systemic bias was not really part of that immersion. Unfortunately we were wrong.  Absolutely nothing we do is immune to the socio-cultural biases in which we operate.  Yes, even scientific inquiry has biases built-in, so, no exceptions here.

But I’m never one to stop with just observing a problem.  What are we to do? The list is incredibly long, but here are the first three steps we can take to get started.

  1. Don’t save meaningful encounters with diverse peoples for special occasions.  Let’s develop practices that weave real encounters with people and perspectives different from our own into the everyday life of the campus.  College is the ideal place to grow these habits.  We engage with people who are seeking new ideas and experiences by virtue of being here, so let’s redesign how we organize assignments, groups, spaces, and time so that these conversations are not the exception, but the rule.  Research suggests that just plain exposure can make a difference in our habit of stereotyping, so let’s orchestrate continuous exposure to all members of our community.
  2. Be much more thoughtful about curriculum.  Let’s not be fooled into believing that the stories and facts we have gathered represent the totality of the human experience.  Whose discoveries are we celebrating?  Whose histories are we exploring?  Which artists are we featuring?  We all know that the digital universe has given us ever more access to information and discoveries.  Our challenge is what to address right now.  If we just remember that the goal is to help our students figure out how to evaluate well and argue with information, then what we argue about is really not that important.  There is plenty of room in the curriculum to be more intentional about the diversity of narratives, discoveries, and social structures.  Rather than being fixated on the usual stories, let’s get obsessed with just how many stories we can tell.
  3. Think about the habits within our disciplines that may be excluding people.  Is the baseline knowledge for admission to your field something that everyone is likely to have encountered? If not, reconsider your baseline and build bridge programs where necessary.  Are the paths to graduate education clear enough that anyone could figure it out? If not (and no one should be answering yes to this), find ways to make the paths more transparent for all so that we might cultivate new voices and colleagues from many backgrounds.  Are the rules for academic success in your discipline (department) clearly articulated and supported? If not, make it so.  That’s not just for our students, that’s for all of our peers.  If we move from the informal to the formal articulation of the rules, we help level the playing field.

There is so much more to say and do, but I’m asking us to just start here. These things are within our control and they have the potential to transform our campus cultures. If we get serious about these three steps and take action, the next three steps will reveal themselves and we might be able to start cultivating the habits we need to truly transform our institutions.

I’m tired of waking up to these horrible news stories and I not satisfied with thinking this is someone else’s problem.  It’s time for us to get our house in order.