Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Productive Conversations

Eons ago (last Tuesday), before we learned that the President and First Lady had COVID-19, I was thinking a lot about the first presidential debate. As an educator, I’ve always encouraged my students to tune into these events as part of their obligation to be informed citizens. As a communication professor, I used to put these debates in context in terms of media employed and the stylistic elements that followed. I would provide them with excerpts from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, show clips from the Nixon and Kennedy debate, and remind them that hyperbole and mudslinging are in no way new. We would discuss the impact of the medium on these events, thinking through the biases of sound, image, and the differences between being in the room or watching from home. We also discussed rhetorical strategies and the key points of argument and persuasion. The students may have groaned at watching the debates, but they perked up in the discussion. It was fun.

Last week we saw what media ecologists might describe as the obvious “debate” style, when living in a world of instant, participatory communication, fueled by for-profit media structures. These media are antithetical to a true investigation of ideas and are devoid of a commitment to evidence. Television fully succumbed to shouting matches when we moved to 24-hour news cycles in the 80s. Time had to be filled, advertisers had to be bought with good ratings, and in the crowded world of cable TV, yelling was the winner. Indeed, through the 90s, I watched most of the shows with any kind of deliberation, become shouting matches or go off the air. Deliberation is lousy TV, after all, and not nearly “amusing” enough to survive. (1) Websites of all kinds then added immediate feedback to these shout-fests, and Facebook and Twitter helped us all promote our shouting to the world. We don’t just watch shouting, we shout along with the debaters, much in the way an audience at a pop concert no longer listens to the music but sings every song with the band. That’s not debate, that’s a chorus.

I am not going to go over what we saw on screen last Tuesday, smarter people have already done their best. What I am really thinking about is how to create some opportunities to foster productive conversations between regular people, off screen, and in non-monetized contexts. It seems to me that education is an important counterweight to all that cyber-yelling. (2) We absolutely cannot stop what is happening in all forms of electronic media. We can, however, model another way.

The good news is that education is the perfect context for this kind of modeling. We are all about argument (not yelling), evidence, and reflecting on different perspectives on a topic. Indeed, if we are not doing this, then we are not doing education. Whether we are talking about critiques of art and literature, arguments among philosophers and political theorists, or competing hypotheses about DNA, we are modeling arguments. As we sort through differences, sometimes the evidence is clear enough that we might even support a side/perspective/hypothesis (at least for now). But, not necessarily. Usually, we live with ambiguity.

But maybe it is time to be even more intentional about this, so that students really see that they are developing some good discussion skills, not just learning about a particular subject. In the past I have mentioned the idea of Debate Across the Curriculum (3) as an interesting educational strategy. Today, I am thinking about the civic learning initiatives from AAC&U. Drawing on A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future (4), they have spurred on several initiatives to try to promote teaching practices that foster engagement with democratic ideas. Well, it seems to me that productive conversations are at the heart of democratic ideas.

In a nice short summary chart called A Framework for Twenty-First-Century Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement two things really jump out at me (in 5).

  1. Understanding one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public. (Knowledge).
  2. Seeking, engaging, and being informed by multiple perspectives. (Skills).

Both of these are essential to supporting productive conversations. They ask us to think about our opinions/values, examine their sources, and reflect on how they shape our interactions with the world around us. This isn’t just argument for a right answer, it is a path to understanding. It is such a thoughtful phrasing, that does not seek to demean, but rather to examine. This seems like an excellent way to start showing our students that our goal is to prepare them for productive conversations, not yelling.

I think about the times I tried to discuss the semiotics with my students. Roland Barthes is engaging, but sometimes culturally distant from students in the United States (or in the 21st Century). To translate the ideas in Mythologies to my undergraduates, I often talked about hamburgers, yes, hamburgers. As a nearly life-long vegetarian, it is easy for me to access to symbolic value of hamburgers in the US. We usually had a lot of fun unpacking the ways in which refusing a hamburger can be, well, un-American. Then discussions of flags, national anthems, etc., would start to flow.

From this approach, and using myself as a foil, it seems like we could start to honestly discuss things like not standing for the national anthem or skipping the pledge of allegiance without hostility. It is not that we were all convinced of the validity of these moments of dissent, but we were all civil. We could better access understanding of that dissent by looking at our own values, their sources, and then thinking about those who disagree. On a particularly productive day we might even get to that most important of next steps –

3. Deliberation and bridge building across differences. (Skills)

This is the part that is so sorely lacking from our world right now. Our habits, like the media we use, tend toward taking sides and staying there. But important questions don’t have sides, they have nuances, deeply held convictions, counter-evidence and the need for reflection. I know I am not alone in yearning for more opportunities to build understanding with my students, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. So, let’s seize that desire and do something about it.

No, television, Facebook and Twitter “debates” are not going to improve. The media they occupy just do not support the details and the slow transformation that a depth of understanding requires. They are excellent places for slogans and barbs, but not for evaluating policy or supporting community engagement with important ideas.

But education, now that is the right place to be working on this kind of thinking. After all, we love slow. We live in an older kind of discourse that requires evidence, reflection, and fallibility. We absolutely have the time to go ahead and examine why we are disagreeing and potentially identify some paths forward.

So, let’s make modeling productive conversations a priority and let’s make sure our students recognize these as the core of what education does. In doing so we just might make the world a better place.

  1. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death.
  2. Neil Postman, Teaching as a Conserving Activity
  3. Alfred Snider and Max Schnurer, Many Sides: Debate Across the Curriculum
  4. AAC&U, A Crucible Moment: College and Democracy’s Future
  5. Caryn McTighe Musil, Civic Prompts: Making Civic Learning Routine Across the Curriculum

Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The COVID-19 Toolkit: Critical Thinking

A few years ago, my university adopted a new general education curriculum.  We moved from a distribution model that featured exposure to ideas in different categories (humanities, social sciences, sciences) to a model with defined learning outcomes for ten general education categories (scientific inquiry, mathematical reasoning, oral communication, etc.).  We named this a competency model, which was definitely a mistake, but the change did help us focus on the notion that our students should develop particular skills and habits of mind as part of the general education experience.

Among those “competencies” was critical thinking.  We had a lot of conversation around this one.  As it turns out, every discipline wants to claim that they teach critical thinking. The agreed upon definition, which describes the evaluation of arguments, was twisted to fit into every possible version of critique. The word “argument” was stretched to include every aesthetic choice and there was a general claim that you cannot teach anything without doing critical thinking.  Would that this were so.

In the face of this pandemic, it has become exceedingly clear that as a culture we have failed to teach critical thinking in any meaningful way.  From the misunderstanding of the use of masks to the over-generalization of preliminary scientific investigations to the mistaken notion that this quarantine is designed to stop COVID-19 completely, we are awash in evidence that we do not know what evidence is. And don’t get me started on the idea of trusted sources. We have clearly lost our collective minds on that one. Higher education must remedy this immediately.

Here is where I think we went wrong.  We do teach the basics of critical thinking, but we do not always connect those basics in humanities classes, to the hypothesis testing in science classes, or to the structure of probabilities in statistics. We also seem to be satisfied with the starting principles (often black and white/true or false constructs), and less committed to the complications of the gray areas.*

For example, most of our students have had an experience of science that involves hypothesis testing. This is good because hypothesis testing is the primary mechanism for moving knowledge forward in the sciences.  It is an important method because it can yield both positive and negative results. To put it plainly, if there is no option to find your hypothesis wanting, you do not really have a hypothesis.

The trouble is  our basic understanding of hypothesis testing often leads to the faulty idea that hypotheses yield true or false conclusions. This is rarely the case.  They lead to conclusions that are more likely to be true or more likely to be false.  A good research protocol continues to build on those likelihoods until there is enough evidence to propose an action or at least a reasonable working assumption.  That leaves a lot of gray area, yes gray area is science.

Then there are the informal logic classes.  These focus on the structure of arguments, and the incredibly important tool of the syllogism.  You all remember a variation of this one:

  • All human beings are mortal.
  • Socrates is a human being.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

It is such a simple and elegant tool.  I remember when I first encountered it.  It was as if I suddenly had the tools to defend myself from arguments that I had felt bullied into accepting.  I went on to learn about manipulations of syllogisms, which abound in the world of politics and advertising, and the abuses of language that can mislead (weasel words), and I was properly empowered.

The trouble is most of our knowledge is not as simple as this construct allows. True and false are rarely the conclusions of an argument. More true and less true are the much more common realities. As much as I love the syllogism, it has a way of suggesting certainty where none exists.

Then there are our statistics classes. We have determined that statistics is foundational for many research programs (business, psychology, communication, and so on), because it is how ideas move forward in these disciplines. Basic understandings of T-Tests or Chi-Squares or ANOVAs are important tools for many career paths, and students who pay attention in these classes will develop their ability to use these tools. This is to the good. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be succeeding with the other important part of statistics–decoding and interpreting probabilities.

The person not tasked with doing statistics must still be able to interpret them. In all cases, what we are interpreting is the strength of the findings–the probability that we could get the same result with another, similar sample. Understanding how to determine the strength of a finding is so important to our lives, that I would call it an essential learning outcome. As we consider the barrage of “information” about COVID-19, essential learning becomes a matter of life and death.

Take the question of the effectiveness of face masks. Masks are a containment measure, but not an absolute one. They contain the spray we emit from our mouths and noses when talking, coughing, sneezing, etc. The argument for wearing them is to protect others from you in case you are an unknowing carrier of COVID-19. The argument is not that the masks will prevent all spread of COVID-19, but early studies suggest that it is a good tool in the effort to reduce the spread of this virus.

But wearing masks is not enough. We must use masks properly (cover nose and mouth).  We must remember not to touch our faces, even if we are wearing a mask, because we may encounter droplets spread by someone else.  We should probably stay 6 feet apart even with masks on (although, I think this argument is conflated with the typical spray range of 6 feet, and may be nullified by the wearing of masks), because that will remind us not to touch each other.  If we are in a high risk category, we should probably continue to stay home.

In other words, it is not as simple as

  • Wearing a mask will stop people from spreading COVID-19.
  • Everyone is wearing a mask.
  • Therefore, we will stop the spread of COVID-19.

The truth is more like

  • Wearing a mask will help to limit the spread of COVID-19.
  • Most people will wear a mask (I hope).
  • Therefore, we will limit the spread of COVID-19.

What the second syllogism needs to help us all feel a little better is some well-supported testing results that yield some probabilities that we can be comfortable with.  We are also going to need some points of comparison to help us live with results that are less than 100% perfect, because 100% effective is never a result of anything. We are going to need reminders of the things we already do that are not 100% safe and those statistics need to be calibrated to reasonableness (please do not give us car accidents).

We need to understand the connection between probabilities and hypotheses and/or syllogisms, and the realities of the vast gray areas in which we live. That is the only way we will be able to move out of our quarantined world. Critical thinking is the best tool we have for navigating the gray areas in which we live.  Higher education must address this habit of mind directly and often because our lives are at stake. To ignore this urgent need would be a dereliction of duty.

*Apologies for the simplification of logic, hypothesis testing, and probabilities. This is an essay. We all need to full courses.

Critical Thinking, Engagement, Higher Education

One Book Re-imagined for COVID-19

For the last 10-15 years, many campuses have welcomed first year students with a one book program.  The concept was to assign a common read to the entering class to help bind them together in a shared conversation.  Often part of first year programs, this ritual also allowed for a preview of college level reading and analysis expectations. It had varied levels of success in terms of community building, but it was a go-to approach for schools interested in improving retention rates (among other goals).

We did this for a few years at WCSU, but ultimately found there was not enough buy-in to have the desired impact.  As we moved to a more eclectic version of a First Year program, this common read concept went by the wayside. I am not really interested in bringing it back. I am, however, very interested in seizing this moment in history to foster dialogue about the aftermath of COVID-19.

Here are ten topics that we should all be talking about in the fall (whatever fall looks like).

  1. Tracing a Virus: The origins and future of the study of epidemiology.  This is an opportunity to bring the non-science major into a rich understanding of how science research works, why math matters and, how to decode information about illnesses.
  2. Healthcare: From corporate benefit to a national security issue. COVID-19 laid bare the dangers of unequal access to healthcare when trying to quell a fast moving virus. This is an opportunity to discuss the realities of a “gig” economy, massive unemployment, and systematically marginalized groups in relation to our national healthcare strategy.
  3. From Smallpox to COVID-19: Public investment in science and the development of vaccines. As we rush to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, it is useful to consider both the protocols necessary for developing a reliable preventative effort and how market-based vs. coordinated international efforts can impact the results.
  4. Economic Crises and Social Change: Homelessness, economic insecurity, and plans for a more equal society. Large scale social changes like the 8-hour workday, child labor laws, social security, Medicare, and civil rights, nearly always occur as a result of a deeply felt national crisis.  What changes can and should we expect from the COVID-19 crisis?
  5. Illness as Metaphor Reconsidered: How language drives our actions and our search for cures. Susan Sontag’s classic work on how language shaped our understandings of tuberculosis and cancer provides a perfect context for considering the ways in which (mis-) characterizations of COVID-19 have shaped our responses.
  6. The Nation vs. the State: Closed states, nationalized production, and other constitutional questions in a time of crisis. When to close, when to open, ensuring access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing, bail outs of businesses large and small, and so on – what are the constitutional realities of these questions?
  7. Globalism Revisited: From supply chain disruptions to closed borders in the COVID-19 crisis. For over thirty years, the world has been moving toward an integrated supply chain system that is mostly controlled by private corporations and bottom line considerations.  Given the shortages that occurred with COVID-19, is it time to develop a more balanced system of profits vs. public safety?  What might that balanced system look like?
  8. Unintended Consequences and Opportunities: The Environmental Benefits of the COVID-19 Shut Down.  The reduction in travel at every level has been having a positive impact on air quality.  What other hidden benefits to the environment can we uncover and how might we extend those benefits into the future? We cannot stay locked down forever, but this is a real opportunity to reconsider the structure of our work lives, school lives, and the shape of our communities for a healthier planet.
  9. Internet as Public Utility: The digital divide and access to everything in an online world. As everyone scrambled to move operations online, the digital divide emerged in full force.  From regions of the country with little to no connectivity, to entire school districts with families who cannot afford laptops, the reality of the barriers to social stability and social mobility have come into focus. What would it take to level the playing field? Can access to the internet be re-cast as a public utility?
  10. What are Schools For? How large scale disruptions can help us re-imagine the structure and delivery of, and access to education. Online learning is not all it is cracked up to be and anyone working in education could have told you that.  As we moved pre-K to post-secondary education online, the holes in this approach became very clear. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot from this impromptu experiment that could have long term benefits for education.  What might school look like if we must always be prepared to go online?  What goals will we shed? What will become essential?

If every student (not just First Year) was engaged in one of these topics in the fall, think of the conversations we could have! Perhaps some good policy ideas would emerge. Certainly, we would all have a broader understanding of how a health crisis can shape policy.  For those who are wondering where we will find the time for all of this, I ask, how can we not? What on earth could be more important than learning from this crisis.

Be well everyone.

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!

 

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.