Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

Graven Images

SUNY New Paltz recently announced that they will be changing the names of the buildings in the Hasbrouck Complex.  While the buildings were once named for celebrated founders of the region, their status as slave owners has come to the university’s attention.  After a lot of community conversation and input, the College Council voted to rename these buildings.  The history is no longer something the community can ignore.

I grew up in that neighborhood and went to school with descendants of the families associated with the Hasbrouck Complex. I’m sure that they never thought about, or perhaps even knew about, this part of their family history.  They were like me, just kids going to school comfortable in the knowledge that slave ownership was something that happened elsewhere in the country.  Those days are gone.  While the scale of slavery was different in the north, and many of our ancestors fought on the winning side of the Civil War, our history is in no way pure.  I applaud the bravery of SUNY New Paltz in their tackling of this issue.

This has me thinking about all of the name changes and statue removals that have been occurring as the details of our histories become visible to us. Our understanding of discrimination, in all of its forms, has expanded every decade of my life.  While it is true that there have been enlightened people throughout history who have pointed out our hypocrisies and hideous behavior as they emerged, for the many, identifying the beliefs that have supported our bigotries has taken time. We discover our blind spots, we battle over their meaning, and slowly we change.

In my children’s school district, there is a tradition of studying the monuments in Washington, D.C. and then traveling there to see them in person.  I was a chaperone  on this trip (twice). As I hopped on and off of our tour bus, watching excited children see their monument (each had reconstructed and reported on one of them), it never occurred to me to see those monuments as vulnerable to new understandings of history.  They represented the celebrated leaders and conflicts that underpin our sense of America.  I should have thought about it as we traveled to Mt. Vernon to observe the home of one of our early slave-owning presidents, but I didn’t.  We weren’t in this moment yet.

What I did observe was the small museum tucked away under the Lincoln Memorial.  I wouldn’t have found it, we were focused on the steps and statue above, but two of my charges needed a rest-room.  As we poked around downstairs, I discovered a room full of protest memorabilia.  There it was, the waves of our awakenings to patterns of discrimination.  Marches for African-Americans, Women, LGBTQ, and more are remembered in this small room.  These histories are the moments that mark our readiness for change.  Much more has needed to follow those marches, but they are a record of our move from the enlightened few to movements for change.

As we go through the conversations that precede or accompany the re-naming of buildings or the taking down of statues, there is a sense of loss and conflict.  Some argue that these changes erase history.  I don’t agree.  These changes make the history more visible.  They require us to look more closely at the stories we are telling, and those we are not. Questioning our decisions about who we honor makes us more open to fullness of our histories.

Then there is the other protest… when will it end?  Are we just going to keep taking down names as we discover the faults in our heroes?  Probably.  It is unlikely that anyone we celebrate will be thought heroic forever.  Perhaps we should try to get  our minds around that.  Embracing our fallibility could make us more open to making the changes we need to make.

So, I’m thinking  about the Second Commandment.  The prohibition against graven images is frequently interpreted as a ban on idolatry.  It seems a good caution in today’s context.  We select our heroes at our peril, knowing that they will be fallible and may not bear close scrutiny over time.  Maybe we should avoid these homages to perceived importance and greatness completely.

I don’t think so.  We like heroes and it is important to celebrate greatness, even if our definitions of greatness change over time.  Indeed, we have to make room for the  heroes that emerge as we change, making room for the new values and achievements they represent. But we are going to have to let go of the sense of permanence that accompanies our monuments.  They reflect a moment in time: they are not forever, no matter how massive our tribute.

As for the names of our buildings, I think we should consider the meaning of the word “graven” in the 2nd Commandment. It is frequently translated as etching, and that something that is difficult to erase.  Perhaps, in the spirit of our openness to change, we should stop the etching and move to plaques. They’re much more easily moved.

 

 

 

Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

Diversity in the Curriculum: What do students see?

Like many universities, WCSU has identified cultural understanding as an important core value.  We have indicated this in two of our values statements:

  • 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.

We have also included Intercultural Competency in our general education requirements:

Intercultural competence is defined by the following general characteristics: (1) knowledge about cultures, including knowledge about issues that can arise when members of diverse cultures interact; (2) receptive attitudes to learning about and maintaining contact with diverse others; and (3) skills required to draw upon both knowledge and attitudes when learning about and/or interacting with others from diverse cultures.

These statements are great, but what are we doing about it? Do we foster understanding and dialogue enough to support these learning goals and values? In several of my earlier blogs I have asked questions about whether or not our curriculum is sufficiently diverse. Today, I’d like to focus on student input into this conversation.

Now, I’m guessing that most students have not spent much time thinking about our values statements.  They arise more from the vision of faculty, staff, and administration, than from our students, and they serve as a guide for how we should conduct ourselves.  All of our students should know that their general education curriculum requires a course in Intercultural Competency, but many of them may not think about looking at the entirety of their education through a cultural lens.

I think it is time we ask our students what they think about our curriculum, as it pertains to ongoing interactions with ideas from cultures other than their own. Here’s what I’d ask:

  1. How many of the classes required in your major include cultural perspectives that are different from your own? List all relevant courses.
    • Did you know this from the course descriptions?  Please paste the relevant passages here.
    • Did you discover this in the syllabi? Please paste relevant passages here.
    • Did any of the courses have an Intercultural Competency (IC) label? Please list those courses.
    • If a course was an IC course, do you remember how the learning outcomes were addressed?
  2.  Have you taken courses outside of your major that included cultural perspectives that are different from your own? List all you can remember.
    • Did you know this from the course descriptions?  Please paste the relevant passages here.
    • Did you discover this in the syllabi? Please paste relevant passages here.
    • Did any of the courses have an Intercultural Competency (IC) label? Please list those courses.
    • If a course was an IC course, do you remember how the learning outcomes were addressed?
  3. Thinking about the classes you’ve taken so far, how many of them included opportunities to discuss cultural perspectives different from your own? List all you can think of.
  4. How were those discussions approached? Check all that apply.
    • Debates
    • Presentations
    • Small group discussions
    • Part of routine class discussion
    • Other (please describe)
  5. If you were to look for a course that included discussions of cultures different from your own, how would you go about finding that course? Beyond the IC label, are there specific words that indicate a cultural perspective different from your own?
  6. Looking at all of your responses above, do you think there are sufficient opportunities to learn about cultures different from your own in the WCSU curriculum?  Please explain your answer.
  7. Are there ways that WCSU could improve on the opportunities to learn about cultures different from your own?

This survey could form a baseline read on our success at living up to curricular goals and university values.  It might help us create better titles and course descriptions.  It might reveal that there are gaps in our offerings.  It might also give us some insights into what students are perceiving even before the register for a course.  The question of the impact of these experiences should come later.  First, we have to understand what our students are seeing in the curriculum.

You may notice that I haven’t asked if students want to learn about cultural perspectives different from their own.  Given the diversity on our campus, the diversity in the workplace that students will experience after graduation, and the questions of cultural perspectives that arise within the political landscape both locally and nationally, I’m willing to commit to the need for this kind of education.  I’m just not sure we are achieving the levels of exposure and engagement with cultural perspectives that we are hoping for.

There is one more thing that I should consider asking about though.  I haven’t included a question about the cultural group the respondent identifies with.  I probably should at the very end.  I don’t want it to shape the responses, but it may be very telling in terms of their perceptions of our curriculum. We have a wonderfully diverse student body at WCSU, and that question might be really important to the interpretation of the results.  So, I’m thinking about it.

What I do know is that I must provide a definition of a “culture different from your own.” That will be a project in inclusiveness, but I’m ready to take it on.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Inclusion

From Tolerance to Understanding

It’s Christmas Eve and all is quiet on the WCSU campus.  Grades have been entered for the fall semester, students and faculty have departed to celebrate and relax with family and friends. A few of us remain to address any last-minute questions, problems, or queries, but we will join our families later today.  Whatever we celebrate, we have reached an ending and a pause. It is a blessing to have our lives organized around these moments of closure.  It makes way for reflection and reinvention.

As I think about some of the themes emerging in this blog, I realize that I have been wrestling with education’s role in supporting a diverse society.  I am struggling to find ways to support the conversations that can help develop our understandings of diverse perspectives.  I am reaching for opportunities to build foundations that will support collaborative responses to the problems our graduates will face in the years to come.  At this intersection of religious and cultural holidays from all corners of the world, I am pausing to wonder, are we doing enough to foster dialogue about faith?

This is probably a surprising question coming from a person who was raised without religion and who champions the first amendment argument for government to just stay out of it.  Working at a public university, I am committed to secular education, leaving faith to the personal lives or all who work and study here.  That is a position I have always embraced.  But I think it is a position that may be leaving important gaps in a well-rounded education that prepares students for a diverse society.

When I was growing up, the language used to urge openness to different cultural, religious, and political values was “tolerance.”  In its moment, that word was progressive.  It was urging us not to dismiss the views of others, but to try to co-exist in peaceful ways. In the path from ethnocentricity to an understanding that not everyone sees or experiences the world in the same way, it was a good start.

But here we are in a post-911 world that has shaken our commitement to tolerance.  There is a pronounced fear of “others,” a fear that sometimes progresses to hatred and violence.  This fear and hostility is easily tapped into via the stereotypes in the mainstream media and the open bigotry that is so often promoted online. The tactics that have undermined tolerance are easily mapped to the strategies of persuasion described by the “father of public relations,” Edward Bernays, and even more hauntingly, the propaganda techniques outlined by Jacques Ellul. Our tolerance is no match for fear mongering.

So what does this reveal? Tolerance is not enough.  Tolerance allows us to stay in our separate corners without truly probing underlying beliefs.  We “accept” that others organize their cultures differently from us, but tolerance doesn’t urge us to develop an understanding of those differences. Indeed, it inadvertently gives us permission to disengage and adopt a live and let live attitude.  But disengagement leaves all kinds of room for us to slide back into hard categories of “other” that are the breeding ground for racism and intolerance.

At a secular public university, we might have a few conversations about history and cultural traditions, but we mostly avoid faith traditions.  There are comparative religion courses in our philosophy departments, but we don’t generally require students to take them.  We don’t want to be seen as promoting any particular religious view, so we avoid all of them.  Yet, so many of our cultural traditions and distinctions arise from our connections to religion.  The avoidance of the topic leaves a gaping hole in our narratives.

So, today I am reflecting on this gap in our expectations for public higher education.  At WCSU, our general education curriculum includes something we are calling “intercultural competency.” Courses that count for this competency are those that address learning a language other than English, history courses that do not focus on European and American histories, and a couple of applied courses in nursing and social work.  These are good options, but if we are to truly consider our graduates capable of seeing the world through multiple cultural lenses, I think we need to do more.  Instead of avoiding the religion question, perhaps we need to face it directly, and include it in the intercultural repertoire as a requirement.

Maybe it is at the secular university that we have the greatest opportunity to look directly at the different understandings of our purposes and obligations as human beings. Without the need to serve a particular religion, we might be well-equipped to truly compare and discuss the differences in the many faith traditions on our campuses. Perhaps we can start in the classroom and then move to the student organizations. Instead of separating into Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Atheist groups, we might create a place for real interfaith dialogue.

It’s complicated, to be sure, mostly because it is hard for any one person to represent the perspective of multiple faiths fairly.  But, I think we are failing our students by not engaging the conversation.  We have to go beyond simple symbols and festivals, and explore the deeply held convictions about what is true.  We need to deal with the complexity of our faith traditions.  Only then will we have the tools to develop understanding, instead of mere tolerance. Only then will we be preparing our graduates for the possibilities that a diverse society might bring.  And only then will we have any chance of preparing them to resist the appeals of the insensitive and often hateful stereotypes that keep us from seeing each other as connected human beings.

Peace to you all.

 

 

 

Dialogue, Higher Education, Inclusion

Diversity by the Numbers

C.J. Cregg changed my life.  For those of you who don’t know, Cregg (played by Allison Janney) was the press secretary on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant political drama that ran from 1999-2006.  I’ve always been a sucker for a good political drama, but the inclusion of a powerful woman, keeping up with and sometimes outwitting the men around her, was both inspirational and life affirming.  I finally had that fictional role model I never knew I missed.

And there it was.  I understood in an instant the importance of providing that affirmation of the value and strength of all groups in our media and in the education we provide. All of the arguments about literary canons, affirmative action, and political correctness disappeared.  In this one case the answer is clear:  We must deliberately review all that we offer to ensure that we are representing the cultures of all of our students and faculty in a truly life affirming way.  Unlike all other attempts to build an inclusive society, we can take immediate and decisive action to achieve this end.

Here is the path as I see it. In the last U.S. Census the following gender and racial/ethnic distributions were reported:

  • Women:  50.8 % of the US population
  • Black or African American: 13.4% of the US population
  • American Indian and Alaska Native: 1.3% of the US population
  • Asian: 5.8% of the US population
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander: 0.2% of the US population
  • Hispanic or Latino: 18.1% of the US population
  • Two or more races:  2.7% of the US population
  • White, not Hispanic or Latino: 60.7% of the US population

(https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/RHI525217)

Let’s just try to achieve these proportions in everything we do.

Start at the course level.  Can we achieve this proportion of voices in the readings we assign? Let’s examine the founders of our disciplines and then look a little further to see who else was there and try to include them.  In most great discoveries, there are other players, usual mentioned in footnotes, that represent a great diversity of contributors to the field.  Feature them. And let’s look at our other course materials (slides, videos, special guests, etc.) and deliberately revise them to reflect the proportions above.

Next,  we should meet with our colleagues and look at the design of our majors.  Are there gaps in the offerings that may have the cumulative effect of ignoring significant contributions to the discipline from the many cultures our country represents?  It isn’t just literature, folks. There are scientists in India, economists in China, philosophers in Brazil.  Let’s dig in and work together to fill that gap.

Look at the overall catalog of our offerings.  If we imagine our students specifically looking for courses that might celebrate their varied cultural histories, would they easily find them? If we know things are in the syllabi, but not in course titles and descriptions, then we should fix that. These options must be visible. If courses don’t exist at all, we must find ways to add them.

Now look at the guests invited to campus.  What does that tell us about who is celebrated?  If it isn’t balanced, we should be more intentional about it.  Perhaps we need a committee to review the schedule of performances, speakers, and events, to insure some balance. If we do, let’s make it so.

Finally, we must look at the images we chose  to represent our universities.  Do they reflect the proportions listed in the census?  If not, let’s fix it.

I am sure some of you are now thinking that I’ve reduced complex arguments about curriculum to a simplistic quota system.  You are correct, I have.  Here’s why. The people we habitually select in our curricula and events may be tremendously talented, but they are still reflections of social inequities and access to power.  We need a systematic plan to disrupt these habits.  Establishing new habits generally takes a deliberate set of steps that can be easily followed and measured.  This method provides those easily followed steps.

In every discipline there are the others who were in the labs, on the battlefields, creating art and music and theater, and negotiating peace treaties.  They were the “hidden figures,” eclipsed by our bias toward those in power.  These people are ready to be  layered into our habitual go-to examples.  Their routine inclusion will bring them to the forefront.  Regularly including the many contributors to our stories and discoveries will help us avoid the tokenism of the single example (generally perceived as an exception), in favor of the routine recognition of the greatness that lives in all groups.

This is not a small job, but is entirely achievable.  As I think  back to that moment when I met C.J. Cregg, I recall my excitement, and shockingly to me, the tears I shed as I felt a hole in my list of role models suddenly fill.  Hollywood has been moving  forward in its efforts toward inclusion (slowly, but surely),  but I fear education is not keeping up.  (Check out John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons for a particularly insightful example of why this matters.) We get bogged down in debates over how to be inclusive, and they are important debates.  But, some things are just obvious.  Examples exist, so let’s use them. We can help fill the gaps in the narratives that our students are experiencing.  They may not even know they are missing these examples, but I suspect their inclusion will be life-affirming to all of us.

 

 

 

 

Dialogue, Evaluation, Higher Education

Evaluating Teaching

Last week many of my friends and colleagues were discussing Nancy Bunge’s essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which she addressed student evaluations of teaching. Bunge argues that these evaluations are biased (they are), damaging to the relationship between faculty and student (perhaps), and most damming to me, that “Administrators, who are well paid for supposedly assuring that students get good educations, apparently have never heard of grade inflation or bothered to read the studies questioning the value of evaluations, since they routinely turn the job of ranking the faculty over to the people the instructors grade.”  I can’t help but respond.

I was a faculty member for many years, and during that time student evaluations (student opinion surveys, as they are called at WCSU) were a regular part of the mix of how I was evaluated.  At my former university, my average scores were not just reported to me and the dean, they were also placed in a context of a) other sections of my course, b) other courses in my department, and c) similar courses across the university.  These reports also included average grades earned in these courses, so that I would be keenly aware of potential grade inflation. I confess that this practice was a bit overwhelming at first, but ultimately, I learned a lot from it.

Despite the apparent weight given to them, it is important to note that student evaluations were in no way the only measure of my effectiveness.  Over the years toward tenure, I was observed by the dean and my colleagues in the communication department annually, and by faculty outside of my department during my tenure year. The feedback I received from those observations was invaluable.  They were gentle with me when expressing suggestions for improvement, but even the smallest observations were helpful.  Add to this, my decision to have coffee with colleagues at least once a semester, so we could discuss teaching strategies in similar courses, and I really felt engaged in good practices. I had developed a habit of self-evaluation.

Now I am a provost.  I am the last person to review all faculty applications for reappointment, tenure, and promotion.  Prior to my review, peers, deans, and the tenure committee have read and commented on the materials.  My decisions and observations are influenced by all of that information.  The student evaluations/opinion surveys are the least of it.  They contribute a small piece of the story, which is then contextualized by everyone else so that I have a good understanding of how to read them.

So, what does this administrator actually look for.  In terms of student feedback, I look mostly for patterns of responses.  I well know that responses to the two o’clock section of  your course may differ from responses to the one at ten.  I am aware that challenging gateway courses to a major receive more criticism from students than some other introductory overviews.  I am certain that no one likes remedial math.  These things are all taken into consideration as I review student feedback.

However, if most students find your courses (not just one) and expectations unclear, I explore that question. I move to the observations of your peers.  They will tell me if I should pay attention to those student concerns.  I also look at your syllabi.  They will tell me if I should pay attention to those student concerns.  And most importantly, I look at your self-evaluation.

What I look for, above all, is for faculty who are constantly questioning their approaches to teaching.  Do they look at the results of their efforts and adjust their techniques to try to better engage students? Do they try new pedagogies and reflect on their successes or failures? Do they revise courses, infusing them with new materials when warranted?  Do they take an honest look at what students are saying, on opinion surveys or in their engagement with the material, and revise or clarify? And do they reflect on their efforts honestly, celebrating successes and re-imagining courses that didn’t go well.

It is my job to cultivate that attitude toward teaching.  When I meet with new faculty, I do my best to reassure them that not all classes will receive high praise from students. Indeed, I’d be worried if they did, because we should be trying new things, not all of which will work.  I celebrate faculty experimentation, through awards, announcements, and organizing an annual faculty panel on teaching.  I also distribute funds for faculty to attend conferences and workshops that explore new approaches to teaching.  This is my job and I love doing it.

So what of those student opinion surveys? I think they are helpful to a point, if used in the context I have described. They must be read with nuance, sorting through biases and making room for growth and experimentation.  I also think there are ways to do better in terms of how they are constructed, but they will always carry the attitudes that the culture carries toward various groups.  Anyone reading them must take that into account.

While I don’t fully agree with Bunge’s argument, there is a way in which this request for student feedback can cultivate a consumer mentality, particularly if it appears to be a top-down request. That is demeaning to the profession.  But to not ask for feedback can be demeaning to the student.  If students can’t provide feedback, we are devaluing their experience, and I suspect we would be reinforcing passive attitudes toward learning.

Perhaps we can improve the use of feedback from students by changing how we gather it. One way to start is to have multiple opportunities for feedback during the semester, instead of waiting until the last week of classes.  Thirds seems like a good approach to me: Let’s ask for feedback three times instead of one.

The first two opportunities for feedback should be collected by professors, helping them to clarify where necessary and change course if appropriate. This might start with three simple questions:

  1. What is going well in this course (please consider the texts, assignments, and the in-class experience)?
  2. What needs clarification?
  3.  Is there anything else I should know?

Faculty might read and respond right then, or perhaps in the next class, but they should respond.  Giving students opportunities to discuss the course during the semester can help cultivate trust and allow them to feel that they are part of creating the course.

Then a final response, collected by a student in the class at the end of the semester, should reflect the habit of feedback that has been cultivated.  It would grow out of a practice of open dialogue about the course, rather than a single opportunity to voice an opinion. These final questionnaires should probably be short, too, with some reference to the other opportunities for feedback.

This approach is less consumer oriented than the once-a-semester evaluation, and I think it would feel less punitive or risky for some faculty. In the best case, it could help students and faculty feel co-ownership of the course outcomes, which is a real win for everyone involved.

So, I don’t know what all administrators think about the role of student feedback in their evaluation of faculty, but I can say that this is how I see it.  I can also say that I don’t know any administrator who uses a single measure to evaluate faculty, and it should never be so.