Dialogue, Free Speech, Higher Education

Embracing Discomfort

It is election eve and all the pollsters and news outlets are busy predicting outcomes. Well not really. The margins of error seem large this year, with predictions so hedged as to appear meaningless. Issues (or single issues) seem to have taken a backseat to strategy, power, and control. We wait with bated breath, uncertain about the future but certain that we want something to change.

What is that change we crave? Well, of course, most of us have a few specific issues about which we care deeply. We care about the future of our social programs, how we fund education, access to healthcare, and the state of the economy. There are concerns about energy and transportation infrastructure and the impact of international relations on how we live. Everyone cares about the supply chain, even if the complexity of it all eludes most of us. There are plenty of specific issues to attend to in this election. But, I don’t think that any of these are at the heart of the something we’d like to change. It’s a change in the discourse that we crave.

I see it in myself. Like all elections, as we near the finish, the coverage is “horse race” coverage. There is no new information, just a kind of gamblers’ commentary as we bet on winners and losers. I’m no gambler, so I switch to music instead of the morning news. But even before the final weeks of the campaign, I have been wanting to switch to music, because I could see no honest conversations taking place. Everyone has staked out their corner, ignoring all chance of finding common ground.

Honest conversations? Common ground? What on earth am I thinking? I know, I know. The politics of running for office is always about those corners. People are playing margins and stirring up discontentment on purpose. This is the only way that candidates seem to be able to differentiate themselves. This is how they win their seats. But this conforms with only one definition of politics “the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government.” It has nothing to do with the other definition of politics “the art and science of guiding or influencing government policy.” (Thank you Merriam Webster).

I admit that you need some of the control to have the influence. Nevertheless, I’d like to see the path to that control more concerned with the substance of what that influence would mean. I dream of conversations that are less focused on winning the margins and more on the lived experiences of our communities. I know from my own experiences, that those conversations are sometimes very strained as we try to listen to those with whom we disagree. But they can also be extremely rewarding, because we often find that we are far closer together than those strident yells to (from?) the margins would let on.

I was struck by this today as I read “What a 1960s Housewife Can Teach Us about Politics in Higher Ed” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article details the ongoing debates on the rights and responsibilities of faculty to speak freely about controversial issues. It is a timely story that helps me think about the “conversations” we are having about twitter posts that offend some sensibilities, potential and actual policies banning discussion of Critical Race Theory, and the complexities of discussing Roe v. Wade, or other cultural flashpoints in the classroom. I say “conversations” because the arguments about what to do are mostly happening in the same manner that our political “debates” are happening – at a yell, often decontextualized, and without nuance.

At the heart of the Chronicle story is the notion of “indoctrination.” This word is invoked whenever a teacher or professor, school or university brings forth ideas that contradict widely held beliefs. The adoption of evolution in the science curriculum was a moment when educators were faced with accusations of indoctrination. So are those moments when things get uncomfortable in our discussions about religion, economic structures other than capitalism, political structures other than democracy, civil rights in total, and examinations of power structures in total. Questioning the status quo is often politicized as indoctrination. But according to Merriam Webster, to indoctrinate is “to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion.” To my way of thinking, then, to not discuss alternatives to commonly held beliefs is indoctrination. To discuss them is what I’d like to call education.

But it isn’t that simple, because to do this well is to be able to navigate fairly a lot of discomfort. We are comfortable in our world views and we experience discomfort when they are questioned. This discomfort is one of hardest things we navigate in education. If one believes we are a Christian nation, then questioning that will cause discomfort. If we believe that capitalism is the right economic structure, then we will experience discomfort if alternatives to that structure are discussed. If we believe that “normal” families look a specific way, we will experience discomfort when discussing alternatives to that definition of normal.

Responses to that discomfort are often feelings of anger, shame, and a sense of being diminished in some way. Indeed, one definition of discomfort acknowledges the experience of grief or distress. I might describe this as a feeling of loss, and that sense of loss can be profound indeed. That sense of loss can drive people to the extremes of a subject, defending rather than listening. Discomfort is often what convinces people that rules against these conversations are reasonable. They are not.

What is evident to me in all of this is that higher education is in the business of discomfort. Our job is to ask questions about what we do/know/believe, how we came to do/know/believe those things, and how they might be understood differently. It is also our job to try to navigate the discomfort these conversations inspire in ways that allow people to recover from feelings of anger, shame, or disempowerment they may cause. This is hard work, indeed, but it is imperative that we do so, because there is no other social structure designed to support these honest and difficult conversations.

As we approach election day, I see clearly that higher education must play a vital role in helping people move from discussing the horse race and the politics of power to discussing the paths to a better world and the politics of policy development. It is in our classrooms and our research that we can take the time to sort through the jolts to our worldviews and explore the potential for common ground. We will find ourselves deadlocked over some things, to be sure, but I think we’ll also find that those things are far rarer than we imagine. That discovery alone is worth the effort of cultivating difficult conversations in our classrooms.

Higher education must continue to cultivate these difficult and, one hopes, intriguing conversations. It is how we prepare people to become productive participants in the governance of their towns, schools, states, and the nation. It is our job to get folks used to engaging ideas that challenge their worldviews, and by extension, people who do the same. Those people are usually our neighbors, classmates, and colleagues with whom we must find a way to co-exist. Limiting the scope of our conversations will never achieve this.

Engaging dissent, disagreement, and differing worldviews is the most important job we do in higher education. It is the best way for us to support a productive democracy. It will never stop causing discomfort. But, perhaps, with practice, we can learn to embrace that discomfort in the service of finding more common ground.

Dialogue, Engagement, equity

Continuous Engagement

As provost, I am constantly reading research on good teaching practices, scouring our outcomes measures, and thinking about how we might do better. WCSU is a public regional comprehensive university serving many students who are the first in their families to go to college. We are increasingly diverse and must be attentive to the different experiences and assumptions about education that our students bring with them to our campus. We also need to attend to any differential outcomes that might reflect structural biases within our curriculum and our organization. Most of all, we need to be prepared to continuously examine the information we have about how we are doing and act on that information. It is a lot.

It is important to keep up with the emerging research on teaching, learning, and systemic biases and use that knowledge to develop strategies to improve the experiences of our students. As usual I find myself trying to simplify the pile of things that are keeping me up at night by identifying some relatively simple and direct action. In this post-midterm moment, I am thinking about some steps we can take right now to impact this fall and the spring semester ahead. While I am necessarily obsessed with the kind of continuous improvement that centers around course and degree learning outcomes, this time, I’m focusing on continuous engagement with our students.

I know, you’re all thinking that I’ve forgotten what it is like to be in the classroom. Isn’t that continuous engagement by default? Yes, of course it is. But that engagement is shaped by all sorts of decisions faculty make about their approach to teaching and it is often constrained by the few hours shared in the room or online with our students. In this case, I am thinking about just a few other steps to encourage our students to be active participants in their learning experience and ultimately their own success. Here are some possible actions.

  1. Consider taking a moment in the next week to ask your students to re-read your syllabus. Ask them to provide feedback on the pacing of the material, the topics they are most interested in, and any topics that they think might be missing. Be sure to give them the opportunity to evaluate the expectations conveyed and whether or not they are clear. In particular, at this midpoint, they are probably able to comment on what they wish they had known earlier in the semester. I suggest that you dedicate some real time to this process. Start with individual written responses, then move to small group conversations to help students solidify their comments. Then ask the groups to report out. It may take 30 minutes from your course content, but it will give you the opportunity to see where there might be confusion, where there are ideas to consider and most of all, it will engage your students with their learning process. Be prepared to make minor adjustments as a result of this conversation. Big adjustments should probably wait until the next semester, but not always.
  2. Although your students may have done this organically earlier in the semester, now is a good time to establish some official study groups. At mid-semester there are students who are thriving and those who are struggling. Putting together some study groups with a few review tasks assigned by you could help your students establish relationships with their peers that are productive going forward. With all of our new online communication options, students can meet remotely to go over some of the tricky concepts that might need another look. If you provide an assignment or two and organize the groups with a balance of known talents (so far) in each, you are connecting your students with each other and engaging them with the material. If you are willing to give an opportunity to improve their midterm grades with this activity (re-doing an exam question or quiz after their group meeting, for example), they might be encouraged to continue to work together after your initial prompting. Best of all, they might ask you to clarify topics and ideas, which is a big win for teaching and learning.
  3. Finally, now is a great moment to look at the campus events calendar and pick one or two for you and your students to attend together. I say one or two just to allow for the conflicts that will inevitably occur as you try to add this activity at this late date. It doesn’t matter what you choose, so long as you can link it back to your course in some way. This shared experience is an opportunity for faculty to be seen less as an authority and more as a peer, learning with their students. Let’s face it, right after midterms is a good time to plant this idea in your students’ minds. This is an extra that may seem like a lot in the assigning but can yield a shared bond that might just inspire new conversations about the central issues of your course. By the way, there is no downside to awarding bonus points for these activities. For those who are excelling, it is just a nice thing. For those who are struggling, it is one more chance to succeed.

Each of the activities above are meant to focus on engagement, not specific content or learning outcomes. The syllabus assignment asks students to look at the structure around their learning and actively contribute to improving that structure. Study groups can encourage students to support each other on a path to success, while also providing a path to improving their own progress in the course. Attending campus activities with faculty invites students to see their professors as co-learners, engaging ideas together. Cultivating this kind of engagement could also provide a context for learning about the harder things, like systemic bias, because all of these assignments are invitations for students to talk and opportunities for us to listen. I’m pretty sure that dialogue is the answer to most of the hard questions we are asking about the student experience in higher education right now, so fostering it could do us all some good.

P.S. I left out the buzzwords, but I am guessing you could put them in if you’re reading anything about higher ed these days.

Dialogue, Engagement, equity

An Invitation to Consider Difficult Things

About 15 years ago, I was teaching an undergraduate course focused on the ethics of communication. This was one of the core courses in a sprawling discipline that addresses all sorts of human interactions from our internal monologues to mass persuasion. In an effort to help our students understand the power and responsibilities of our communication practices, both personal and professional, our curriculum included this course to provide a framework for thinking through the ethical issues that are part of all communication. It was a challenging but rewarding course.

This morning, as I read that Boise State has suspended its mandatory course on diversity amid concerns the potential discomfort some students may feel, I remembered my experiences in Communication Ethics. The narrative about the course at Boise State is one we’ve heard countless times over the last several years, with assumptions about discomfort, blame, and even accusations of disloyalty. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not really buying the stories of classrooms that call out certain groups, asking particular students to absorb that blame. Reports of that kind of behavior usually end up being a misquote, or a selective piece of conversation that doesn’t fully represent the full discussion. These stories generally reflect a politicization of higher education that distorts the real work going on in classrooms all over the country. Nevertheless, there are moments when our conversations about diversity and equity do lead to tough realizations about our own biases, no matter what culture or group we feel we represent. At some point someone will feel uncomfortable.

As I think about the conversations that are really going on in many classes, not just a mandatory course on diversity, I am remembering the most profound experience I had when I was teaching that communication ethics course. We had lots of the usual debates around honesty, ends vs. means, situational ethics, and ideal vs. real world ethical challenges. They were fun, but they stayed a little abstract. There were no real risks in the classroom version of these decisions, so students participated but were not necessarily transformed. I hoped it was going ok, but I wasn’t thrilled. Then we came to the chapter about stereotypes, and the conversation shifted.

Stereotypes come up in communication classes all the time because they are ever-present and generally relevant to the topic at hand. You cannot consume media without noticing stereotypes. You cannot conduct research in communication without wrestling with decisions about categories of analysis, which leads to conversations about stereotypes. You cannot produce communication thoughtfully without considering stereotypical messages. All of this is true, but there was still a kind of detachment in our approach to this topic. You see, my students knew that “stereotyping is wrong” and so felt that they could just dismiss the conversation right there, with that morally absolute but practically impossible sentence. I needed to find a way to break through.

I had an idea, and I took the risk. Instead of starting the conversation about stereotypes with an introduction to the topic and the usual discussion of archetypes vs. stereotypes, I invited my students to participate in an exercise. I asked everyone in the room to write down five stereotypes that they felt had been applied to them. I suggested that no matter who we are, something applies, and it is likely that we had experienced a moment of discomfort because of this. Students began writing and so did I. Then, when everyone seemed done writing, I shifted the assignment. I asked everyone to look at the five they had listed and consider when they had used those stereotypes to categorize others. Eyes looked up, uncomfortable giggles ensued, and there was a hesitation to begin. I reassured everyone that I was not collecting those pieces of paper, nor would I ask them to report on what they wrote. I got busy addressing my own list.

This proved to be an incredibly powerful moment in this course. The simple “stereotyping is wrong” no longer worked as a dismissal. I did share some of mine to help mitigate the shame everyone was feeling. It became clear that stereotyping is what we are in the habit of doing and it needed to be examined. It also made everyone understand that we all have work to do. This was an invitation to engage, not an accusation and assignment of responsibility. What I hoped for was that the engagement would help us determine our responsibilities and, ideally, our next steps.

My little exercise is one of many that my colleagues have developed to help us have rich and informative conversations about power, oppression, and what a just society might look like. These conversations happen in biology and chemistry, history and art, or education and accounting (and everywhere else), because the truth is, we find assumptions that stem from stereotypes everywhere. In many ways, stereotypes are the easiest path to discovering structural problems around power and influence. These conversations frequently lead to moments when some of us realize we have held ideas (categories/stereotypes) that may be supporting a less than just society. These are hard moments, and they sometimes lead to discomfort. But these conversations aren’t about blame or about marginalizing anyone: They are about discovery and, in the best cases, finding a path forward.

It is easy to find a bad sentence in a textbook or a syllabus or a lecture. As far as I can tell, social media demands bad sentences on all topics, especially those that might divide us. Selective information dominates the headlines about equity on college campuses. This selectivity is easy fodder for outrage and a clear misrepresentation of what we actually do.

What is much harder to do (and absolutely rejected by news and social media), is to take the time to see words and ideas in context and navigate the challenges to our world views that they might represent. This is the challenge and the luxury we have in the classroom. We are not speaking in tweets or 10-, 15-, or even 60-minute increments; we are using a semester and even a full four years to think about these things.

I am sorry to hear that the course at Boise State was suspended because I cannot believe that stopping the conversation is an appropriate answer. We need to have lots of these conversations, not to oppress but to enlighten. These conversations take time and continued exploration. They are the very opposite of headlines, and must remain so. These conversations are education.

Critical Thinking, Dialogue, Higher Education

The Trouble with Truthiness

When Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” in 2005, I had a good laugh. Indeed, it was at the high point of my laughing at the nightly parodies of the ridiculousness of the political world, seen on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were adept at selecting clips from news briefings and news coverage to tell stories of hypocrisy, absurdity, and outright lies put forth by, well it seems like everyone, but particularly conservatives at the time.

Those evening news parodies were an interesting development. Comedy Central was taking on the mainstream and less mainstream media, when those traditional outlets seemed to have abdicated their responsibility to get at, well, the truth. Mainstream media had become all that Neil Postman described in his classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Spurred on by the 24-hour news cycle and the profit-making imperative supported by the erosion of the Fairness Doctrine, regular news had devolved into soundbites with no analysis and lots of snappy hairdos. Stewart and Colbert filled a cultural void, calling out the media as much as the politicians they were skewering.

It was a deliciously sarcastic position and I laughed. But eventually, I stopped watching. As great as some of the follow-up programs have been with Trevor Noah, John Oliver, and even Colbert, slowly but surely my ability to laugh faded away. It just wasn’t funny anymore. My sense of humor seemed to be signaling to me the world that was to come–one devoid of any commitment to reason and facts at all. In other words, I left that wonderful world of parody before 2016. Apparently, I could see what was coming.

Now here we are at a shocking moment in US history and all I can think about is the notion of truthiness.

Truthiness is defined by Wikipedia as follows:

Truthiness is the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals, without regard to evidencelogicintellectual examination, or facts.[1][2] Truthiness can range from ignorant assertions of falsehoods to deliberate duplicity or propaganda intended to sway opinions.”

Yes, I chose Wikipedia over Webster’s in deference to the original presentation on The Colbert Report, in which books were called elitist (I can still laugh at some things).

Now the joke was meant to name a practice that was (is) widespread, calling it out so we might guard against it, or at least notice it. (I take the liberty of claiming that intention, but I think I have read the strategies of irony correctly.) Unfortunately, what seems to have happened is a complete embrace of the “gut feelings” that Colbert cited in his announcement of this word in 2005, without any desire to consider the (f)actual arguments that might undermine those feelings.

The trouble is the joke only works if there is a commitment to the habits of logical reasoning. As any media ecologist can recite, while the roots of good argument are debated in Ancient Greece, the habits of logical reasoning for the masses emerged with mass literacy and mass education. Moving away from mass literacy and toward television and social media has undermined the very idea of logical arguments and makes seeking truth look silly. Indeed, truth is almost impossible to pursue in a world where there is no time allotted to evaluation. Instead, we focus on the new, the next, the statement devoid of context. As we replaced sustained arguments with decontextualized “conversations” that take place in brief videos, inflammatory Facebook posts, and impulsive tweets, we made truthiness the standard, not the joke.

We are in a pickle folks because truthiness is no way to run a democracy, fight a pandemic, or resolve injustice. Something’s got to give.

Now don’t get me wrong, we have always operated on the gut feelings that trigger truthiness. It is the starting place for most (all) opinions. We all live in a worldview that shapes those gut feelings, and they are not without biases. These worldviews shape everything from food preferences to ideas about international political structures and there is no sense in fighting those initial feelings. They are, indeed, our reality. No, I am not trying to suggest that our connection to our gut feelings is new, nor are they without value. However, I am suggesting that what happens next is what matters.

What happens next must be a commitment to the thorough investigation of those feelings. Those investigations must include a well-developed understanding of logic and contradictions. They must include at basic understanding of statistics and probabilities. It must have a foundation in how science works. It must engage the moral frameworks that are shaping how we see the world. And yes, it must include some clarity on how political systems work.

It should not surprise anyone that what I am calling for is a commitment to education that truly weaves together the arts and sciences that make up our understandings of the world. In the last week, there have been many voices in higher education who are reminding us of the value of the liberal arts, and the humanities in particular. I don’t disagree, but I want to be just a little more specific. We need to commit to direct instruction in logical reasoning.

In a world that is no longer situated in the assumptions of a literate culture and its habitual search for coherence, higher education must teach these skills directly. We cannot assume that our students are getting the structure of arguments through our investigations of texts or through their exposure to laboratory procedures. No, we need to lay the foundations of logical reasoning as deliberately as we once taught sentence diagramming.

Education must commit to exposing and wrestling with contradictions in every class. We need to dig into the limits and the strengths of making decisions on probabilities wherever those decisions are present. We must not shy away from engaging disagreements in moral codes, but rather hold them up as questions to be wrestled with. We need to fully commit, not just to offering a liberal arts education, but to seeing that our students are developing the habits of mind that such an education should foster.

There is nothing new here. It is a classical liberal arts education that I am describing. But the context has changed, and the urgency of the understandings we hope to foster is clear. So, I’m giving up truthiness as a joke. It isn’t funny anymore. It represents an abdication of responsibility for seeking actual truth. But it is a useful idea and it neatly describes all that has occurred in the last week.

So let’s not laugh about truthiness anymore. Instead, I am asking all of us to commit to using the idea of truthiness to start the important conversations about logic and belief that must be the point of education. I am also asking us to be accountable for the changes we must make to our curriculum to make it happen. We can do this, and we must. The future of our country is at stake.

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.