Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Starting with Learning

The drumbeat of mergers and closures of small colleges appears to be speeding up.  Chancellors and Presidents of public systems of higher education are examining mergers, shared leadership, and stripped down administrative structures to try to preserve the range of opportunities available in their states.  In New England (and Alaska), shrinking demographics are driving these conversations forward at a sometimes alarming pace.

At the same time, we have seen other developments such as SNHU’s competency-based degrees, Stevens Point’s proposed cuts of several majors (now reconsidered and reconfigured as mergers), Hamilton’s promotion of an open curriculum (less focus on majors, more on developing an area of interest), and this morning, Wichita State’s shrinking of their general education requirements from 42 credits to 33.   And in the background is the constant credential refrain, with short certificates gaining more and more traction.

How can those of us in higher education leadership respond to this tidal wave of change in sane and thoughtful ways?  Well, I don’t really know where to begin, but here are a few thoughts.

Credit hours may be an archaic idea, but the idea that it takes time and interaction with other people to develop the habits of mind we associate with a college education is not.

I am happy to consider online or blended learning, shorter and longer times on material, and even the opportunity to test into higher levels of courses to reflect learning prior to higher education.  These considerations are driven by focus on what and how our students will best learn with us. This does not mean, however, that I am willing to consider the notion that higher education should be construed as a series of tests of existing skills in exchange for a credential.

While the complexity of non-standard times, differing learning modalities, and the evaluation of prior learning are much more difficult to manage well than the simple admissions tests of our existing structures, I embrace them because they are responding to genuine changes in the world of potential students. Information is everywhere and it is clear that people can learn to do many, many things from a YouTube video (play an instrument, develop a computer app, pass algebra, build a shed).  We must not ignore this, or the fact that some of the things we want our students to be able to do are well supported by these short tutorial formats.

Nevertheless, the more complicated abilities that are described as critical thinking, lifelong learning, cultural competency, and communication take sustained interactions with others and with the support of a professor.  The opportunity for (slower) sustained interactions is the opportunity for students to develop comfort with ambiguity, stumble on their assumptions with the chance to revise them, and learn that all knowledge is developed through insight and error. If we move to new time constructs, we must not lose this part of education.

Interdisciplinary connections matter, but they do not replace disciplinary expertise. 

I love the imaginative things that are happening with majors.  Hamilton’s open curriculum mirrors what many elite schools have done for years.  They allow students to discover connections between subjects to build a major or a portfolio of capabilities that will help them pursue advanced study or careers.  At my university, we do this through Contract Majors or the Interdisciplinary Studies degrees.  We have lots of traditional majors, but we also make room for those new or yet undiscovered connections. Making  more room for those authentic connections might be a good idea, because disciplines are evolving and sometimes students see the change before we do.

Nevertheless, a biologist is still a biologist.  A literature scholar still offers depth of understanding of genres and structures of the novel, poem, etc.  A mathematician is still the expert on differential equations.  Combining disciplinary perspectives should be the heart of a college education, but that combination should be made by experiencing learning with people who have advanced knowledge in each topic.  Without that advanced expertise, students will not discover the nuances of a topic or the complications that arise from ambiguity. Instead, they will end up with a simplified overview of a topic. That is not college, that is YouTube.  So, let’s support the pursuit of connections with new strategies, but let’s not lose the value of the expert.

Focusing on higher order learning outcomes is a good idea: making everything the same is not.

AAC&U has long supported the Essential Learning Outcomes and as we see an increased emphasis on what employers want, it turns out that they frequently list the very same things.  Everyone wants college graduates who are skilled in critical & creative thinking, oral and written communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, problem solving, inquiry & analysis, the ability to collaborate, and some understanding of the world around us (history, culture, ethics, etc.).  These essential learning outcomes (codified in the VALUE Rubrics) prevent the narrowness of focus found in course finals or major field tests and frame the outcomes of a college degree as habits of mind and skills that prepare graduates to engage with all kinds of questions for the rest of their lives.  In short, graduates should know how to evaluate information, make decisions, and ask more questions.

As a communication scholar, it is easy for me to see that at a high level of abstraction everything we do in college is about inquiry and analysis. The behaviors and skills that represent competence in inquiry and analysis can be summarized in a way that allows every discipline to demonstrate some level of mastery in these abilities.  But this does not mean that every discipline is the same. Comfort in inquiry and analysis will reflect the specific skills most emphasized in the major.  For it to reflect the whole of an undergraduate degree, it must include some comfort in the areas that are not well situated in the major. That was the point of the liberal arts degree.

So where does this leave me and my quest for thoughtful consideration of the many changes facing higher education?  It leaves me with a clear focus on learning.  We can support learning in any number of formats, time frames, and disciplinary innovation, but we must remember that to support it well means to resist the temptation to overgeneralize (make everything the same) or to reduce everything to very narrow skills (badges).  It is the fluid motion between the abstract and the specific that will help students grow, develop, and take control of their own learning.  That is the environment that I’d like to nurture.

 

 

 

 

Community, Critical Thinking, Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion, Uncategorized

The Age of the Straw Man

Two of the six core values that support Western Connecticut State University’s mission are:

  • Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
  • Respect. We value the right of all people to be treated with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.

These statements reveal a campus that has embraced the difficult and exciting discussions that follow when people of different social, political, and cultural backgrounds gather to address current and ancient societal debates.  This is who we are, and these values should be at the heart of any educational organization. But acceptance of the challenge of exploring differences in civil and thoughtful ways may need more support than just open minds and empathy.  Given the preponderance of fallacious arguments in the ether, it may be time to commit to some direct instruction in informal logic.

For the uninitiated, informal logic springs from the field of philosophy (also embraced in writing and communication curriculum), that provides a toolkit for examining arguments for structure and validity. Much like the old grammatical diagrams that were once used in the teaching of English (helping to break down nouns, verbs and connecting parts of speech), informal logic allows us to diagram arguments in terms of claims, support for those claims and conclusions. This diagramming is a great way to identify places where the supporting evidence or facts under discussion may have strayed from the initial claim or premise.

I recall my first encounter with informal logic as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the 1980s.  Sitting in a room of over 100 students listening to Dr. James Freeman introduce the structure of argument I felt a light go on.  For years, I had felt like there were problems with the statements/beliefs/worldviews that I encountered, but I could not figure out what was wrong.  These diagrams of arguments were a first step to uncovering the weaknesses or other leaps not supported by the claims I regularly faced. That course changed my life.

Now the field of logic has many nuances that most of us will never really dig into or fully understand, but the basics should be accessible to us all.  Among the basic concepts is the idea of a fallacy.  Simply put, fallacies are irrelevant evidence for a claim.  They are included as evidence, with no real bearing on the debate. They are distractions, keeping us from examining the central claim.  Typical examples are ad hominem fallacies (attacking the speaker instead of the argument), false dichotomy (setting up an argument around two choices, when many others are possible), or appeals to authority (invoking opinions of famous people, who may or may not have a connection to the actual topic).  Learning to see these tricks is incredibly helpful as one tries to evaluate a substantive issue.

One particular fallacy that seems to be dominating our lives right now is the straw man. The straw man fallacy is a way of distorting the central claim of an argument and then arguing against the distortion, rather than the actual claim. This tactic usually relies on taking things out of context or exaggerating the initial claim.    Since any example I give at this point is likely to draw some kind of bias claim, I will relate a totally unintended version that happened in an interaction with a six-year-old, twenty years ago. The six- year-old (let’s call her Sally) came to play with my daughter some time in mid-December.  The two began to discuss holiday plans and decorations. At some point, Sally stated that “everyone” would be going to church on Christmas Eve.  Since our family would not be heading to church, I interjected, “You mean everyone who celebrates Christmas.”  Sally responded, “You mean you hate Jesus?”

Sally was not malicious.  Her words were the innocent observations of a child who had never encountered a non-Christian before. I will not say things were easy to clarify, she was young and I wanted to be gentle, but we sorted things out.  However, I think you can see that in malicious hands, this statement is an interpretation of my words that was not in any way accurate.  In adult hands, with intention, this can become very ugly indeed.

This is a strategy that is dominating political arguments from all directions (left, right, and everywhere in between).  You name the issue (environment, immigration, gun control, healthcare, equity, etc.) and you will find a plethora of straw man arguments designed to distract us from the central argument.  At their worst, they are baiting us into discussions that are entirely false or at best, beside the point.  This is not a good state of affairs.

So what of my university’s values?  Well, like all universities, we are engaged in conversations like the one I had with Sally. In nearly every course, we challenge our assumptions about how the world is, was, or should be organized. Whether studying chemistry, biology, criminology, marketing, or history, students and faculty will uncover long held ideas and assumptions that may need to be reconsidered. Our task, then, is to insure that the reconsideration does not go astray with straw man arguments, or any other kind of fallacy.

To put it more plainly, when we ask ourselves to grapple with ideas that contradict everything we have known to be true, we may feel discomfort. That discomfort should not drive us to tactics that distort the question.  We should not start casting complex debates as either/or, us/them, and allow them to be reduced to slogans. We cannot allow simplistic, straw man fallacies, to distract us from our commitment to reasoned discourse on all issues. If keeping this commitment means more instruction in logic for all of us, let’s do it!

 

Affordability, equity, Higher Education

New Educational Models

This morning’s news about higher education included two articles related to the financial structures in higher education.  The first, A New Model for a New Reality, discussed St. John’s University’s efforts to replace tuition funds with donor funds, to reduce the cost to students.  The second, A Public College Merger in Arkansas, describes the merger of Henderson State with the Arkansas State University System.  This is a cost saving measure, seeking to leverage shared services (IT, HR, etc.) to reduce costs in the face of shrinking enrollments due to demographic shifts. These stories are part of steady stream of stories about vulnerable institutions of higher education.

Much of the eastern United States is facing the squeeze arising from a significant decline in high school graduates and these cost containment strategies may help us get through it.  Indeed, in terms of public systems, my frugal side suggests that sharing some resources, already invested in by the residents of my state, is a fair and thoughtful strategy.  However, I think we have only scratched the surface of the problem (sustainability) for higher education.  We need to think much more broadly about new models, than these efforts to balance budgets suggest.

To get a little more insight into this, we need to look beyond the headlines surrounding particular colleges and universities in dire financial straits, and consider the many environmental factors affecting higher education right now.  Here is but one intertwined example: the expansion of advance placement (AP) to full associate’s degrees in high school, and the national strategy of increasing post-secondary education attainment to 60% by 2020 (https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/37720-Challenges-and-Opp-Exec-Summary.pdf).

Advanced Placement courses were once available to a limited pool of students at relatively well-funded high schools.  Today, earning college credit in high school is widely available.  This transformation has involved a variety of steps.  First, we have expanded opportunities by moving from a simple AP test, provided by the College Board, to offering Early College programs, which include partnerships with local colleges and universities.  Early College is overseen by faculty at the partner schools and provides students with direct college credits (Calculus, for example), at that university, and a very low cost.  Progressive school districts have found ways to support the costs for the neediest students, broadening access to a college level curriculum.  This is a positive, but there is more to the story.

Because of the affordability of this model, and a desire to expose more students to college-level experiences, there has been a move to offer the full associate’s degree in high school. The difficulty here is simply this–high school is not college.  Although a student may master calculus in high school, and deserve college credit for it, in reality the conditions under which that material is learned are very different from college.  The pace is slower, and the supports for learning much stronger, because there is not the same presumption of independence (appropriately so) in high school.  In addition, this is mostly a cost-shifting scheme, making high schools responsible for supplying an educational opportunity for which they receive little financial support.

A related development, driven by the focus on increasing the attainment of post-secondary credentials, is a tremendous investment in community colleges. The target of 60% degree attainment by 2020 is driving a focus on two-year degrees and certificates.  There are significant barriers to increasing the number of people enrolled in four-year degrees, so focusing on two-year degrees and short-term certificates makes a lot of sense.  This, however, effectively leaves four-year degree granting institutions out of the conversation, and frequently underfunded.

Now, all of this is complicated and not something I can fully dissect in this blog, but I would like to consider a few implications.  First, the structural issues that are keeping students from four-year degrees are largely financial.  Moving education to the high schools just hides the problem and cheapens the educational experience. Focusing on investing in community colleges, at the expense of investing in universities, is likely to reduce the number of students who consider pursuing four-year degrees.

Second, while these cost cutting schemes look like great paths to access, they tend to prioritize completion over growth.  I am all for access to jobs that can stabilize family finances quickly, but certificates and two-year degrees tend to be less than is needed for a full career arc in a constantly changing economy.   Funding access to those, at the expense of four-year and post-baccalaureate degrees, is likely to keep the neediest students from access to the full education experience that they deserve.

It is hard to discuss the complexity of these issues without appearing to devalue first-level credentials. That is not my point at all.  I am a champion of community colleges and a supporter of reasonable early college initiatives. What I am suggesting, though, is that we need to look at these initiatives in the context of the full range of opportunities we hope to provide to our community. Perhaps, reconfiguring our education timelines should be part of this conversation. If we determine that supporting initial credentials in high school can help students find their way to additional education and careers, fine. Then that should be the path for all students, not just those who can’t afford college. If a stop at community college to round out that initial certification and provide some career foundations is a good idea, great. Then it should be the norm, and not a strategy just for those without a family history of attending college. After this, attending universities for baccalaureate and graduate degrees should be financially available to everyone, as we support long-term growth in the rapidly evolving workplace.

What I am trying to say is this; it is time for us to have a real conversation about what our post-secondary education goals should be, not just in terms of attainment, but in terms of equity, and real access to life-learning. We must re-imagine education for modern standards and expectations, and then create funding models that make the full range of post-secondary credentials truly accessible to all.

Community, Dialogue, Engagement, Higher Education

The Fifth Estate

Last week, I had a wonderful conversation with some of Western Connecticut State University’s talented faculty, as we prepared for Scholars in Action.  The Scholars in Action series features interdisciplinary conversations between faculty whose research intersects in some way.  The intersection is sometimes very loose, perhaps around a single common word, or sometimes quite direct, particularly when we focus on pedagogy.  The fall 2019 group was selected because of a shared focus on culture as important variable in marketing, justice and law administration, sociology, and philosophy.

One of the goals of Scholars in Action is to encourage us to get us out of our departments and into conversations with a broader university community.  Indeed, each time I host one of these panels, I find myself seated at a table with a group of people who have never met each other. The simple act of introductions is enlightening and exciting for all of us, as we get to know our colleagues.  Then we start talking about the scholarship, which expands our understanding of the varied approaches to research as well as disciplinary research priorities and boundaries.

This time, however, there was something more.  We went around the table, hearing first about how social exclusion can drive consumer behavior, then a provocative question about the ways in which we define “homeland security,” then insights into how academics can facilitate dialogue during international development efforts, and finally the ways in which power and economics can exclude or mischaracterize critical voices in environmental decision-making. As I listened to my colleagues describe their research, I found myself thinking about the richness of the questions asked, and the importance of our contributions to thoughtful discourse.

You see, most of the time, when people talk about scholarship in higher education, they focus on either breakthrough discoveries (usually in STEM disciplines) or on politically charged works that are poised to shake up the status quo.  These are important and useful contributions from the academy, to be sure, but they are only a small part of the story.  For most of us, the breakthroughs are elusive, but the day-to-day insights are profound.  It is these insights that guide curriculum, inquiry, and overall conversations with our students.  Cumulatively, they help us further our thinking in our disciplines while continuously uncovering next questions. These questions become the heart of our teaching.

The value of the questions that we pursue in the academy, whether large or small, have the power to re-shape worldviews.  For example, when a faculty member asks students in a communication class to map the representation of women athletes on ESPN (perhaps as research assistants or as part of senior research project), those students may simply contribute to a well-defined body of research surrounding popular culture and the construction of gender in the United States.  This, alone, can help students see that there is more thinking to do around athletics than simply calculating the odds of a win, or mapping coaching strategies. This change in perspective can have a larger impact on how they see other questions of equity, stereotypes, and power.  It might also help them see where progress has been made over time.

The faculty member who has developed expertise in the questions around representation in athletics will add to that body of literature, to be sure, but they will also have important examples and insights that go beyond the literature review. The specificity of their examples is likely to inspire deeper connections with the subject in their students because of its freshness in the mind of that faculty member.  Let’s face it, we are all excited by our new insights and discoveries, and that excitement is visible to our students.  With each new finding, faculty demonstrate what it means to be a critical thinker and a life-long learner, and the rewards of the hard work that research requires.

Universities like mine are rarely recognized for scholarship.  While all of my faculty are engaged in projects large and small, and a few hold patents or are the recognized authorities in their field, because we are generally characterized as a teaching university, the value of our scholarly efforts are often unobserved.  Yet scholarship of all kinds is woven into everything we do.  Our passion for our subjects helps us support the very best learning environments for our students.  We model curiosity and dissatisfaction with unanswered questions. We hope we are cultivating graduates who are interested in searching for answers to questions large and small.

As I left our preparatory meeting for Scholars in Action, it occurred to me that perhaps education should be called the Fifth Estate.  Our context allows us to pursue questions without the timelines and profit margins brought to bear on journalism, and without the vagaries of re-election that drive the legislative, executive, and even the judicial branches of government. In education, we have the unique opportunity to pursue ideas that interest us and take the time necessary to sort them out.  We are also committed to challenging our own assumptions about what is right, what is real, and what is possible.  This can help us contribute wonderful insights into all kinds of things. This is valuable to be sure.

But our value to a democratic society isn’t just about the research questions we try to answer. Cultivating the habits of scholarship in our students is our much larger and perhaps more important contribution.  The ways in which our scholarship can inspire our students to ask questions and seek answers is a vital part of creating an educated citizenry.  That contribution to democracy is invaluable.

Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Free Speech

Are you listening?

On Friday evening, I attended the annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture where I  had the pleasure of hearing Nadine Strossen, professor of law at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, discuss the subject of her most recent book, Hate: Why We Should Resist it with Free Speech, not Censorship Strossen is a dynamic speaker and as she wove her legal arguments into a general semantics context, I was struck by the tremendous responsibility educators have for the cultivation of rational discourse.

Strossen’s arguments were clear and persuasive.  Having looked at the impact of legislation designed to limit hate speech (e.g., EU, Canada, New Zealand), she observes that these limits have done nothing to stop hateful actions, which should be the goal.  The most recent assassination attempt at the Halle synagogue in Germany tells the tale.  Germany has some of the strongest restrictions on hate speech.  It is also seeing a rise in anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and nationalistic attitudes, despite these restrictions.

Restrictions on (hate) speech are ineffective at best, and may be inadvertently supporting hateful acts at worst.  How? By sending those who spout hateful views underground.  Banning of hate groups from the Internet does not stop the hate group, it just moves them to a new site, frequently hidden from view.  Recent attempts to do just that after the Charlottesville incident were problematic at best. Strossen suggested that the best way to address hate is to surface it so that there is a chance for dialogue, understanding, or, at the very least, the ability to identify those who are spouting hateful views.

Members of the Institute of General Semantics present that evening largely accepted the proposition that limits on speech are problematic.  There were feelings of discomfort as we wrestled with the power of the language of bigotry.  As students of language, we know that our words do not just reflect our feelings, but also construct our worlds.  The very use of biased language can re-enforce racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes.  It can also legitimize those attitudes, just in the speaking.  Yet, banning that speech will not stop it: it will only hide it. Hearing of these attitudes offers us all the opportunity to ask why they exist and how they might be changed.

There was also some consternation about people in power using hate speech.  This is particularly relevant when we consider our hyper-connected social media world.  Facebook recently announced that it was not in the censorship business and they would not stop political ads that have false statements in them.  While this may seem absurd, and perhaps plays into the hands of unscrupulous politicians, Strossen suggested that seeing those ads allows us to better judge the candidate.  Leaving them out in the open allows us to evaluate biases, faulty assumptions, and poorly supported arguments, and be better informed about who or what we are actually voting for/against.  She may have a point.

I embrace Strossen’s perspective but recognize some of the challenges that living with freedom of speech presents.  One of the critical components to having freedom of speech be a social good is our ability to decode and validate information.  The demand for this evaluative capacity has never been stronger than right now.  We have undermined the many structures that helped us sort information in the past (editors, community leaders, investigative reporting, even just plain old time) while at the same time providing easy access to communication platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Wikipedia and, well the Internet) with algorithms to lead the way.  This means all of our education structures K-12 through Ph.D. must continuously re-enforce the tools necessary for evaluating information.

Given the urgency of the situation, and it is urgent if we want an informed citizenry to guide policy of any kind,  those of us in higher education might want to re-group and more specifically address these analytical skills.  Strossen referenced the demands on her law students, noting that they didn’t just need to know one argument, but must present as many counter-arguments as possible. Maybe we need to do the same in all of our classes.  Perhaps it is time for debate across the curriculum, with a real emphasis on putting evidence in context.

But there is more to consider than the art of well-reasoned debate.  The potential for understanding that freedom of speech makes available, no matter how controversial, can only be realized if we are willing to listen. Sadly, we don’t seem to be particularly good at this part of the equation.  This morning, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on students burning books after the author’s presentation in Georgia, University of Wisconsin moving to crack down on disruptive protestors (shutting down speech), and a case of a dean being dismissed for some remarks on Twitter (or so it appears).  None of these examples reflect a willingness to listen to speech that challenges our values and assumptions.  This is not a good state of affairs.

The true value of that first amendment will not be realized by covering our ears, liking only posts that support our views, tuning in only to those channels that resonate with our values.  We have to resist this habit of cocooning ourselves in our favorite ideas and excluding those that offend.  This is vitally important in a university context, where students have the time and support to question assumptions from everywhere.

I agree with Strossen’s support of the first amendment.  We should hold onto that Constitutional right with all our might.  But just letting everyone speak isn’t enough. We also have to take some responsibility for the conversations that should ensue.  Let’s engage the difficult, probe our assumptions, and try our very best to understand those ideas that offend our sensibilities.  If we are willing to listen to the diversity of ideas that surround us, we just might find a place to begin sorting through our differences after all.