Critical Thinking, Higher Education

Back to Basics

As I listened to the news this morning, an old concern of mine re-emerged. From reports on vote tallies, to COVID-19 vaccine results, to the interpretation of census data and the potential impact on representation, I kept hearing statements that only partially captured the reasoning underneath. News reporting in every medium simplifies the story for the audiences involved, but that simplification leaves me worried about the conclusions people are drawing.

Today’s big news is about the results of Moderna’s vaccine trials. It is exciting to hear that, of the treatment group, @ 15,000 people, only 11 contracted COVID-19 and of those 11, none became severely ill. So, the short version is, this thing is 94% effective, and the next steps are for emergency approval. Yippee, I say. There is a light at the end of this semi-quarantined tunnel.

But here’s the thing, about 42% of Americans say they won’t take the vaccine, expressing a deep distrust of the science. Among those who distrust the results are groups of people who have historically been denied appropriate care or been deliberately abused by those testing treatments for various illnesses. Certainly, there is good reason for their skepticism. Memories are appropriately long, and trust is hard to regain. Nevertheless, I think the larger component of distrust stems from a lack of skill in evaluating evidence, probabilities, and arguments in general.

Consider the pre-COVID-19 world when we were discussing the growing opposition to vaccinations. For at least 20 years, we have been experiencing an erosion in trust of our vaccination protocols. While some argue from a freedom perspective, many more revert to arguments about safety. The feeling seems to be that since a very small percent of people who do get the vaccine either get the illness anyway or experience side-effects, then the vaccinations are unsafe. These exceptions, however small, seem to undermine the entirety of the vaccination argument for this group.

But what about the 95-98% effectiveness? Can we not build comfort in those probabilities? What about the fact that side effects are usually sore arms and low fevers? Can we not ease fears when the consequences appear so limited? What about the greater good created by herd immunity, protecting those who might be unable to take the vaccine due to other conditions? Can we not appeal to a sense of community to persuade? No, for the frightened parent, those assurances aren’t enough. That tiny, tiny chance of a bad outcome is enough to persuade them. The exceptions hold sway.

Ok, I understand. I raised children and I remember that deep breath I took when I held my child as the doctor administered vaccinations. For me, the fear still existed, but all those other things persuaded me to act. I also let my kids go to the playground, where thousands are injured each year. I let them ride in cars, where thousands are killed each year. I also lived by a lake knowing that accidental drownings are not uncommon. Perhaps, it was knowing that I play the probabilities all the time, helped me commit to vaccinations. Maybe.

Reflecting on this habit of focusing on the exceptions, I am once again driven to the conclusion that higher education needs to work a little harder at developing strong reasoning skills in our students. We need to help them understand that there are always uncertainties, but uncertainty should not lead to paralysis. Instead, it should help us make informed choices based on the best information we have at the time.

A lot of what we do in higher education is about opening our students’ minds to the complexities hidden in the stories they’ve learned all their lives. We dig into the challenging parts of our histories. We uncover the gaps in our exposure to voices from many cultures. We even reveal the non-linearity of scientific discovery, shaking faith in the certainty of that arena. It is a lot. It is a joy. It is necessary.

But those revelations are not enough. Indeed, they need to come second in the hierarchy of learning at college. To help our students see these big picture things, we should commit to some basic instruction in mapping arguments and evaluating evidence. We need to be intentional about developing the following basic skills:

  • Argument Mapping: Like the A, B, Cs, and the multiplication tables, we need to see argument mapping as a foundational skill that is introduced in the first year of college and revisited multiple times thereafter. Logic professors, rejoice. We need you to provide direct instruction in the form of arguments, the nature of fallacies, and the use and abuse of syllogisms.
  • Statistical Reasoning: Our students must develop a reasonable grasp of probability. So much evidence is based on probability, and written in statistical forms, that it would be neglectful to not make it a foundational skill for everyone. This, too, should be introduced early and woven throughout the curriculum thereafter.
  • Information Literacy: Finally, we need to help students understand how to weigh the credibility of a source. This is probably the hardest of all, but our librarians offer excellent, non-partisan ways to start. Yes, year one and repeated thereafter.

These skills must be part of all first year curriculum because they lay the foundation for everything else we do in college. They are also the tools necessary for all the important decisions our students will be faced with after graduation. They are, indeed, the capabilities necessary for life-long learning.

But most of all, we need to commit to these foundations because we don’t want students to take our word for things. We want them to have the right tools to make informed decisions for themselves. That, my friends, is what schools are for.

Resilience

Thankful

Well, it is the Monday before Thanksgiving and we are hosting the last of our in-person classes this week. By Wednesday all of our residential students will have gone home and, after a few days off, we will return to classes online for the rest of the semester. It seems we averted the worst disasters of COVID-19, with only a small number of infections related to campus and no known spread in the classroom. I am thankful.

Our collective efforts seem to have worked. We reduced room capacities and wore our masks. Our facilities team kept hand sanitizer distributed everywhere and produced plastic barriers in the necessary locations. Hours of operation were reduced in common areas, mostly for our sanity – it is stressful managing the protocols and the fear. Most of our classes are hybrid and online, but we preserved important in-person experiences, particularly in our labs and our visual and performing arts programs. It hasn’t been an ideal learning environment, but it has been acceptable.

As we look ahead to spring, our campus is not planning to make many changes to our fall plan. Given the outcomes, it seems like we have chosen a prudent course of action, and with all magical thinking in place, I don’t want to jinx it. So, as I reflect on the fall, I want to say thank you to our entire university community for their collective efforts at safety. Despite the distance and the endless virtual meetings, we came together as a community and rose to the challenge of this crisis.

What next? Well, since we already know that spring is more of the same, I think we can focus on getting better at creating connections in a virtual world. As a person who has taught online, I know that it takes a few semesters to get really good at teaching this way. Since online teaching is no longer a one-semester (plus the abrupt spring exit) experience, I hope that everyone takes to opportunity to review what worked and revise what did not. It is an effort, of course, but these online courses are likely to be part of our regular teaching portfolio from now on, so getting good at it is not a bad goal.

We might also look at how to strengthen our support programs. Our tutoring centers are reporting a drop in usage, which is unfortunate, so it is clear that some in-person tutoring is a good idea. Perhaps, we should be examining how to get that first connection, that usually happens face-to-face, to happen online. It is clear to me that once the connection happens, people use the services. It is also clear that for some of our students, online is the better platform, for scheduling reasons. That being said, we should also look at that schedule. When not bound by buildings, it is easier to imagine support at later hours, which often suits students well. I’m not sure what we need to do, but there are lots of things to explore, because this online delivery of support services is also likely to be a permanent part of our portfolio of services.

Office hours moved online this year. This was probably the easiest decision I had to make in this whole mess, because the technology we have is great for one-on-one meetings. I am very curious about how students and faculty feel about this. Was it effective? Did students show up? Perhaps, it is time to take a look at how well this is working and recommend some best practices to everyone. Like later hours for tutoring, it might be that the flexibility of on-line office hours is better for everyone involved. I’m not sure, but I’d like to know.

It is also time to figure out if we were able to make our first-year students feel like they were part of our community. Our returning students, though not thrilled with the distance, know us already. They expressed their connection by re-enrolling. We are happy to have them back and, it should not go unstated that we feel grateful as we see familiar faces and names in our classrooms – virtual or otherwise. But our first year students had a tough start to college. Some opted out of college this year, and I get it. I am tremendously grateful to those who chose to try this strange campus environment out, but I do wonder if we were able to support them enough. Perhaps, as we move to the completion of the fall term, it might be good to ask them how they are doing. I’m thinking about how to best accomplish this one.

All of this is a to-do list of sorts, but I feel so lucky to have this list. It means we are still here, and we are still working hard to create good educational experiences. It also means that we are no longer in the morass of unknowns that made decision-making so difficult last summer. We have acted on the best guidance of the health experts and it worked. Uncertainty about how to navigate this environment has been reduced. There is a path forward–a path I recognize, where the choices are within the realm of my experiences.

So here we are on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and yes, I am thankful. I feel so much better than I did in August and I hope that everyone else at WCSU feels the same. We showed that adhering to the recommended protocols can work. We showed that we can do this thing called higher education in a COVID-19 world after all. So, yay team!

Now let’s not blow it people. Keep following those CDC recommendations during the holidays and protect your loved ones. Because, after all, my magical thinking is silly. It’s not magic – it’s masks.

Stay healthy everyone.

Dialogue, Hope

Policies Not Parties

On the day after the presidential election was completed in 2016, a colleague wrote an impassioned email to me. People were scared and shaken by the results, they said, so the provost should send out a soothing email. I respectfully declined. Given the not insignificant number of students and faculty who were happy with the result of that election, it seemed overly partisan.

To be fair, my colleague teaches in a discipline that attracts students who were likely to have voted for Hillary Clinton and for what are often called “liberal” policy initiatives. The heart of that discipline focuses on care of the neediest members of our community. In that department, people were shaken (honestly, so was I), and they did need to discuss the results of the election. They held conversations in the department where it seemed more appropriate to me.

Here we are four years later, and I continue to think about the appropriateness of any kind of message about winners and losers in political campaigns coming from my office. I support a diverse community of students, faculty, and staff, and we vote according to our consciences not as a block. The usual conversation in the media about liberal indoctrination on college campuses just isn’t true. Disagreements abound and most of the time they are respectfully expressed and passionately argued. Teaching students how to respectfully disagree, using credible evidence, is one of the core purposes of education at every level, and that is where my commitments lie. So, like four years ago, I do not find a message to the whole community appropriate.

Committing to the diversity of opinions is a core value for me, not just at work, but also in my life outside of the provost’s office. Whether in my elected position on a school board or in my social life among my musician friends, I do not agree with everyone’s position. Nevertheless, these are my friends and neighbors and I want to understand our differences, so I continue to communicate with them. Over the last four years (and the last 7 days) political comments on social media have been vile and inflammatory, and I have worked hard not to participate in that kind “conversation.” I have also refrained from unfriending people with whom I disagree (although I confess to an occasional “mute” to regain my perspective). Unfriending just leads to echo-chambers and no chance for understanding the underpinnings of our disagreements. Social media sites are terrible places for conversations, mostly because they support instant reaction, rather reflection. They are, however, good opportunities to find out what people are thinking.

It is that “what people are thinking” that I am focusing on today. You see, I have had some really great conversations with people who disagree with me over the years. Those conversations helped me move past party lines and into the heart of what was bothering both of us. Sometimes the conversation was about what we disliked about a candidate, but more often it was about how we think the world should be. I have learned how powerful and long lasting a sense of betrayal can be, from a Vietnam Veteran voting against Kerry those many years ago. I have learned that disagreements about accountability measures in a school district benefit greatly from sustained conversations about scale and measurement. Our board did not disagree about improving the outcomes, just the meaning of the measures. The discussion moved us forward. I have understood that even though most of my neighbors are not as committed to the kind of social safety net that I support, they are committed to making sure that no one in our community is hungry and that is as good a place to start a policy conversation as any. Sometimes these conversations actually lead to a path forward, which is great. Not always, of course, but sometimes is pretty rewarding.

So, this is what I propose–let’s stop talking about politicians and parties and start talking about policies. Let’s not talk in slogans or memes or partisan doctrines, but instead dive into the boring details of the policies that might help us create a better world. Let us acknowledge our differing worldviews but then speak in the possible shared goals rather than our seemingly insurmountable differences. And let us please let go of absolutes. While there are some proposals and ideas that I find absolutely offensive and unlivable, the path forward is not in stopping the conversation at that point; it is in starting it there instead.

Here we are, the Monday after another tough election. Some are cautiously optimistic, some are devastated, some are still angry with the choices we had. No, I will not send out any announcements about the election. I will, however, continue to focus on the intersection of equity and education, moving forward policy discussions in an effort to make a better educational experience for everyone at this university. There will be disagreements reflecting deeply held beliefs about the meaning of a good education, the notion of merit, and what equity looks like. I welcome those disagreements because policies always improve with thorough and passionate review. But as we argue, I hope we remember that we are a community that wants to create a great educational experience for all. It isn’t partisan, it is our shared purpose.

I also hope that we remember that our actions are not infallible, and that all policies will need subsequent review. Keeping that fallibility in mind will remind us that no one is completely right, and we are never done working for a better world. No, the party lines won’t help us right now, but I am cautiously optimistic that the policy conversations will.

equity, Hope, Inclusion

Desegregating Education

This morning I spent some time reading Eric Kelderman’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled “The College Degree is Dividing America.” In his essay he recounts the powerful narrative launched in 2016, by then candidate Trump, that pitted the educated voter (ostensibly democrats) against the uneducated voter (ostensibly republicans). Kelderman does a good job of digging into the nuances of this slant, acknowledging that it really does not reflect the complexity of the relationship between education and politics. The rhetorical strategy was powerful in the moment, but it does not reflect the reality that educational opportunity is important to people from all parties, and that is likely to continue to be true.

Nevertheless, the power of the “liberal bias” trope about education should not be underestimated. It sways opinions all the time. It rings true to many, even as we work to cultivate the diversity of opinions on our campuses. It is an easy summary that helps people feel justified in their distrust of others. But as I think back on that moment when candidate Trump said, “I love the poorly educated” I see a much more important divide to be addressed: segregation.

Harboring hostilities toward groups different from ourselves is deeply supported by the segregation that is the routine practice of our nation. We may have banned outright racial segregation, but economic segregation is clearly encoded in our zoning laws, affordable housing deficits, and income disparities. Unsurprisingly, income segregation also tracks to racial segregation because of the systemic biases that keep some groups in poverty. We also organize ourselves in ways that keep young and old from mingling, religious groups from mingling, and yes, educated and less educated people from mingling. What a perfect way to keep each group comfortable in its assumptions about the other groups.

Education can exacerbate this situation. This happens first in access to pre-K. Those of us lucky enough to have had pre-K opportunities for our children know that this was an important step toward developing the habits necessary for success in Kindergarten. Whether learning to hold a crayon (important for muscle development), pass a crayon (important for social development), or identify the color of the crayon (important for vocabulary development), even the simplest of pre-K experiences have advantages with long lasting effects. One of those effects is to have the less fortunate labeled as “behind” on the first day of kindergarten.

Then it happens in K-12 education as students in districts with lesser means struggle with hunger, supplies, and adequate support for an education that leads to opportunity. Far too many students in under-funded districts cannot go on to college. For those who do, we sort them again in higher education. Those of us in colleges and universities focused on accessible, affordable education know our students are working more than they should, which tends to strain their ability to succeed. Unsurprisingly, fewer of our students make it to the finish line than those attending more elite schools, because there are too many things thrown in their way. Not finishing keeps them from advancing to better economic opportunities and so it begins again with their children.

The thing is these educational differences usually track to neighborhoods and those neighborhoods tend to be segregated by race, politics, and income. In each of our neighborhoods we get comfortable in our assumptions about those who live in other neighborhoods, and the spiral that re-enforces our biases winds unrelentingly into the future. This spiral makes it easy for us to tap into and cultivate distrust between the educated and the less so. I feel despondent just thinking about how deep these divides are, but then I reach for the hope that education can provide.

What I am about to propose is not new. We’ve tried it over and over again, and then people find ways around it, but nevertheless we should try again, because each time we do, we get a little closer to where we should be. So here goes–let’s actually desegregate our schools. This cannot be incremental; we are failing with that approach. No, we need to make one simple rule that applies to everyone. Let’s make it illegal for a school district to serve only high need or low need students. If we start with that simple guideline, so many things fall into place. With an economically integrated school comes better funding, better advocacy, and better opportunities for everyone.

Here’s the thing, education is not the cure for our biased perspectives, it is the mingling of people with different ideas and experiences of the world that makes us more open minded. It is harder to convince people that whole groups are against them if they regularly interact with each other. We will never agree on everything, but regular contact with people who are lawyers, carpenters, teachers, and wait staff can go a long way toward reducing our negative assumptions about each other. At the very least, we will have the opportunity to learn about new perspectives on the issues we hold dear.

It is not fair to ask education to take on the burden of desegregating our society, but I see no other reasonable option. The pervasiveness of public education has made it the best vehicle for building a better, more inclusive world that we have. So, on this election eve, I suggest that we make desegregating education our next national priority (again). Doing so offers a path to a more equitable society. It also provides us with an opportunity to move away from the divisiveness that makes hateful slogans so effective.

Change, Hope, Resilience

Optimism Lives in the “We”

I’m not going to lie; it is hard to tap into my normally optimistic perspective right now. The pandemic, social injustices, budget crises, and yes, the election, are all testing my reserve of hope. Keeping up with the daily news is enough to drive me under a rock, or at least under the covers, indefinitely. The problems are so vast as to appear insurmountable, and they are making me tired. We’re all tired, I know.

But this is no time to give in to this feeling of helplessness. It is time take a deep breath and find ways to manage this barrage of bad news and ill feeling. Higher education has a particular responsibility to illuminate paths forward because we have the skills to find those paths. We spend our lives invested in the idea that the pursuit of knowledge will make the world a better place. To be an educator is the purest expression of optimism.

Let me be clear. I have never been a blind optimist. Those who know me are well acquainted with my snarky side. I can laugh at, and be cowed by, the fallibility of human impulses as easily as anyone. I am cognizant of hidden agendas or just plain bumbling plans, and I am only surprised by these things occasionally. I am probably best described as a pragmatic optimist, accepting the hazards but seeing the potential for good anyway. It is the potential for good that I am reaching for today.

So, here I go. What is the potential for good in COVID-19? This pandemic is daunting to be sure. Most of us have never experienced anything like this level of disruption. But, of course, historians will remind us of the precedents for this experience. Whether the Bubonic Plague or the Spanish flu or Polio, we have been here before. The pace of spread may have been enhanced by the airplane, but massive outbreaks of deadly diseases are not a new thing. That doesn’t make this easier, but it helps me see the path to optimism.

For example, despite all of the political shenanigans, I remain hopeful about the development of a vaccine. We are better at this process than ever before and our tools are improving daily. Although I frequently shudder at the ways in which profit motives impact medical research, I do have confidence in scientists and their desire to get to the right answers (right for now, at least). It is in their DNA. In recent decades, we have lost our commitment to science as a social good, at least in the United States. We have ceded investigation and experimentation to for-profit entities, while slowly eroding our investment in the education and research arms that are fundamental to advancing scientific knowledge. Perhaps this pandemic can remind us of the need for science for the common good. Perhaps, in this moment, we are ready to reimagine the structure of scientific inquiry for good first and profit later.

I am also heartened by the relative effectiveness of our basic protective measures – masks, social distancing, and washing our hands – in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Where people are following these rules, we are seeing excellent results. Although we see the ridiculous politicization of these measures in the news, many of us are indeed following the guidelines. We are desperate to avoid both the illness and the next lockdown, so we comply. That is good news. But the hope comes here – most of these actions are as much about protecting others as ourselves. Our masks keep us from spreading the disease. So does that space between us. Compliance with these measures reminds me that it is possible to engage that sense of the greater good that we have been ignoring for a generation (at least). It helps me see the possibility of a return of the notion of “we.”

As for social injustices, I am grateful that this conversation has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Our history is fraught with discrimination and ill treatment of groups of people. It is also filled with steps forward (albeit, with lots of steps backward). The confluence of Black Lives Matter and COVID-19 has helped many more people understand that there are persistent injustices that need everyone’s attention. The differences in how communities are treated are no longer hidden in spread sheets; they are visible in the nightly news reports for all to see. This is the (next) moment to do that hard work of finding better paths to equity. It is the perfect opportunity to re-engage notions of our responsibility to community, not just ourselves.

In higher education, that path to equity is just as complex as it is for the larger society. This, too, has the potential to overwhelm and quell my sense of hope. But then I think about the history of education in this country and I see how far we have come. Our history of growth and change for the better helps me press ahead with ad hoc committees, climate surveys, and an honest assessment of how we are doing. These steps are daunting and, like the world outside of higher education, they are fraught with politics and fear. But the time is now, and I won’t ignore it.

As I see it, higher education has reached a point where we must be willing to fully reimagine our goals and the paths to achieving them. I know too well how challenging this is, and how many times I will rethink the questions and reorganize strategies to move forward. I could sink under the weight of it all because I feel such a deep responsibility for it. But as I write these words, I feel the optimist coming through. Why? Because I also know how much my colleagues care about their students. None of us wants to live with unfair practices and outcomes. We are predisposed to wanting to do better. It is in our DNA.

This big mess of challenges and complex problems will not keep me from hope and optimism, because I know I am not alone in the task of addressing them. That is where optimism is sustained, in the sharing of the struggle for something better. I am heartened by the opportunities for something better and I am sustained by the “we” because “we” is where optimism lives.