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.

Engagement, Higher Education

Education must be the Fifth Estate

If ever there was a moment to reflect on our national (natural?) inability, to think beyond the moment, it is now. The wrath of COVID-19 and the havoc wrecked across the United States is an unbelievable tale of our narrow focus on the now. From the defunding of the continuous foundational research necessary to stay ahead of, or at least keep pace with, evolving viruses, to the knowing neglect of creating a PPE stockpile, our policies have led us to the highest COVID-19 casualty rate in the world.

Then there’s Texas, who committed to ignoring calls to strengthen their power grid from disastrous storms, in favor of the low-cost status quo. Not connecting to regional power grids left people even more vulnerable than they should have been. The statewide commitment to independence from environmental and other regulations is a statewide commitment to today, not the future.

Whether or not you want to accept the science of global climate change, the fact of it is right in front of us. Without arguing about primary causes, it is clear that our infrastructure needs significant overhaul to deal with rising sea levels and disastrous storms. It isn’t just Texas folks; we’ve seen the impact all over the country. But we are content to do the emergency recoveries (mostly poorly), rather than prepare for the coming storms.

And of course, there is the pervasive economic decision-making that favors quick wins and get rich quick schemes, rather than systematic planning for an equitable society where everyone has food, healthcare, homes, and opportunities. I’m tired just thinking about how stuck we are in reaction rather than long term planning.

Consider the COVID-19 vaccinations. Millions of dollars of emergency funds helped to incentivize the research necessary to get us to the several vaccinations that have emerged. I am so grateful this happened, but let’s not mischaracterize the event as some private industry, entrepreneurial advantage over the slow path of publicly funded scientific research. The knowledge necessary to succeed so quickly was based on years of university based research into mRNA, that had varied levels of success and investment. There were also tremendous gains from earlier research on HIV, and the development of a worldwide testing infrastructure. We made it to several vaccines in record time, but we can’t forget how the foundational research efforts were often hampered as funding dried up. The un-evenness of the investments in this long haul research is a failure of imagination at best, and blatant irresponsible at worst.

The story of our energy infrastructure is a similar tale of unreliable funding streams. The need to change our reliance on non-renewable energy resources has been known for a long time. It isn’t just climate change, it is the math of the number of people in the world, the things we like to do, and the resources available. Yet our investments come in fits and starts, largely due to politics and an inability to think about the long term when there is still cheap oil, gas, or coal available. We have not committed to the sustained investment in the research for the future. Discoveries are made and then insufficiently tested or implemented, and they disappear as we stick with cheap and convenient. The fact that after proper investment, the new resources could indeed be cheaper is no enticement, we live in the now. (For a great read, I recommend Mariana Mazzucato’s, The Entrepreneurial State.)

As educators, I know we can’t cure everything. There are powerful forces beyond our walls that chafe at our input. When we do enter the national conversation, it is our “liberal biases” that are featured. This liberal frame frequently allows hard work to be dismissed or made fun of for its apparent minutia because no one puts the work in context. Even worse, it makes it permissible to reduce funding for education and scholarship because we appear to be out of the mainstream or trivial. But the thing is, we aren’t terribly liberal. Despite the mythology in the reporting about higher education, most of the work we do relies on a slow and measured approach to creating knowledge that is rigorous, peer reviewed, and honest about the scope of our discoveries. It takes time to do this work. It is woven into a million other smaller or larger studies with an occasional big breakthrough. It is work that informs the future and helps to explain the past and the present.

This work happens at every level of higher education. The big, elite, research universities get the big grants and credit for the big discoveries. They, and some in the middle range, have access to public/private partnerships (sometimes fraught with ethical questions, mostly not), that help sustain the slow and painstaking work that brings about new discoveries and solutions to old problems. The teaching universities with less of a research emphasis, often participate in the larger projects through partnerships, regularly conduct original and replication studies, involve students in the process of discovery, and indeed secure the occasional patent. Together, higher education is the home of the slow and steady look toward the future that is grounded in all that has come before.

Universities are just about the only place where slow and steady can happen in our culture. The world of face-paced, profit-centered invention is built on all this work. Innovation doesn’t happen without us. We are the home of measured deliberation and we eschew soundbites (most of the time). As fun as TED Talks are, we are the place of the real work behind those talks, that is, deep reading, thinking, and the long view. We are essential for the long-term planning necessary for a balanced and equitable nation.

In the throes of these recent (yet predictable) crises, I would like us to be louder about this role. We need to be shouting for long-term thinking. We must demonstrate the ways in which our scholarship underpins those beloved market forces, and therefore requires investment. We must provide the context for that “first draft of history” instead of allowing national conversations to focus on recent events as exceptional. We need to support the path to the long-term thinking necessary to protect us from global pandemics and climate change and whatever is next. We must assert our authority and our place in the functioning of a productive and responsible democratic society. We must claim our place as the Fifth Estate.

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

Engagement, Innovative Pedagogies

The In-Between

Last week, Western Connecticut State University launched the fall semester online. We had hoped to open with a blend of online and on-ground experiences, but an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the city of Danbury put us on pause. We are still optimistic about moving to some on campus experiences, but in the meantime, we are in a strange in-between world where we are online only, with an expectation of on-ground eventually. This is a very complicated instructional design challenge. Already, our students are feeling adrift.

When designing for online only, and when students willingly enroll in online only programs, the expectations for instruction are clear. Faculty will choose a variety of strategies for connecting with their students, and though not all courses will be the same, some things are pretty standard. For example, most courses designed for online instruction include an opportunity for introductions. This is often a simple discussion thread where everyone, including the professor, says a few things about who they are and why they are interested in the topic. In most cases, there is also a requirement of some number of responses to peers just to make sure that people start to get to know each other.

This is something we do without thinking in classrooms. We usually spend a little time on the first day doing ice breakers, asking for introductions, and helping students get a sense of who we are as professors. In the online world, we have to think about putting this into the first week experience. Even if the rest of the course is primarily focused on independent work, that little moment to humanize the learning experience makes all the difference to students’ comfort levels.

Unfortunately, if the course was designed as a hybrid experience this step might have been missed. It is likely that faculty thought they would do introductions in the face-to-face part, and now they are jumping into the course material without this vital step. This is kind of alienating to students, especially those who did not want to be online in the first place. The grumbling has begun.

Good news. This one is not too hard to fix. Even in week two, introductions can go a long way toward building community and trust. It is okay to back up for a second. Here are a few good ways to do so:

  1. Add a discussion thread for introductions today and start it with a faculty bio to start. If possible, there should be a few ideas about what to include in the intro to keep things interesting.
  2. Enhance the above by asking for photos of favorite things, places, activities.
  3. Enhance the above with video snippets to support the intro.
  4. It might be nice to award a point or two, so everyone gets a little something for their effort.

In addition to getting to know each other, students who expected to have some face-to-face experiences really wanted that overview of the course that faculty so naturally do as they discuss the syllabus on the first day. With the somewhat abrupt switch, some faculty may have skipped the overview and launched directly into the course material. While the material and the assignments might be exactly what is typically covered in the first class, that missing overview is disorienting for our students. It gives the impression that they are “just teaching themselves.”

Once again, this is not too difficult to remedy. I recommend video for this, but audio is also fine. Record a brief introduction to the material, discuss course expectations, and then go over the syllabus. This should not be longer than 4 minutes. (No one watches things like this that are longer than that.) Doing this work and posting it on the first page of the course will let students know that their professors are actively engaged in creating the learning experience. Without it, students often feel like they just should have read the book on their own.

It would also be great to approximate a few of those casual conversations and opportunities to ask follow-up questions that often happen before and after class. We all know that web conferencing tools do not really support spontaneity in largish groups, but they are excellent for drop-in office hours. Scheduling one or two opportunities each week for students to pop in and ask a question can be very helpful, especially at the start of the semester. Like on-campus office hours, attendance will vary. To encourage participation, you may wish to set topics at the start. Or not. Like on-campus office hours, you can work on other things while you wait. Creating these opportunities for conversation will help students feel supported.

One last thing. It is probably a good idea to do at least one thing in groups. For some faculty, there are lots of group activities woven throughout the course. Groups might work without the instructor, and then turn in projects each week or so. Other faculty like to have groups take place during the designated course time and pop in to interject and steer the conversation. These are great strategies. But, if none of this was in the original course design, then just a small effort can go a long way. Consider some fun reasons to group students, perhaps around some of the interests they posted in the ice breaker activity, and set them up as a study group. (Create a space in the course shell for this). Give a little guidance on the first thing to study for–perhaps insight into a first assignment or quiz–and encourage students to send a representative to the drop-in office hours for any follow up questions. This small step will help students connect with each other. Those connections are more important than ever in this COVID-19 world.

Now, none of what I described above is foreign to those designing a fully online course, and I suspect many of those who prepared for that modality already did these things. But for those who prepared for blended teaching, these steps might not have been in the plans. I offer the above as simple strategies that require no redesign of the course, but just layer on a few small activities to build the human into the course. It is a small effort that can make a big difference. After all, we still want to be a community, even if it is remote.

Change, Engagement, equity, Higher Education

Active(ist) Learning

Well here we are.  In the midst of getting our minds around COVID-19, we have a resurgence of an old plague – racism (thanks to my colleague for that framing).  It seems unbelievable that this could happen while we are all still reeling from the trauma of quarantine. But it is not unbelievable to those who have been on the receiving end of our clearly codified structural biases. Indeed, we should not be surprised at all.  This is not new, and the current quarantine has only enhanced the visibility of the cracks in our socio-economic system.

As I have mentioned in other essays, COVID-19 made obvious the differential experiences of education that we have been complicit in supporting.  In March, as we deployed laptops and hotspots to our neediest students, I wondered why we had neglected this until now.  Why had we been comfortable knowing that our neediest students were required to come to campus (own a car, pay for gas) and forgo opportunities to earn money (give up shifts so they can access our open computer labs) in order to fully access their education? We were perpetuating systemic inequities. Those same students are also unlikely to have the opportunity to

  • win awards because they will not be able to participate in our co-curricular activities, which are the foundations of most awards.
  • do an internship because they need to work to support themselves while in college; or
  • participate in a faculty research project because it will require even more time on campus, time they cannot give.

These pieces of our “meritocracy” are entirely rigged against the struggling students who are mere mortals, as opposed to the superstars we always hold up as examples of what can happen with hard work. I will not go over all of the ways in which the paths to higher education are also rigged against the have-nots.  We all know this, and we should be ashamed that we let it stand. For students of limited means, being a successful college student is nothing short of miraculous.

Yet, our less advantaged students do succeed every day. They juggle the demands of work and school, and they accept the realities of the things they cannot afford. We work hard to help–despite the barriers I have described above.  As we see the barriers, we try to address them. But we are too slow. So is our culture.  Hence the roar of anger, dismay, and pain that we are hearing in our streets.

While it would be easy for me to throw up my hands and say, I cannot think about this right now because COVID-19 is taking my every waking moment, I will not do so.  I must not shy away from a thoughtful response.  Like the people in the streets, members of my community have suffered the endless indignities of a system rigged against them, and they deserve a response. So here it is–I am proposing direct instruction in the tools that can help our students to change the world.

Proposal 1: Let’s reimagine our first year courses. At WCSU, FY courses are a combination of an extended orientation (which is an important step toward equity) and an introduction to a discipline or set of disciplines. We can do better.  Let’s skip the intro to the discipline and focus on debate skills instead. Our students need to practice gathering and presenting evidence, responding to counter-evidence, and understanding multiple points of view. Standing up and presenting one’s case will be excellent preparation for their undergraduate studies and for advocating for their ideas after they graduate. We can build in the orientation piece, but the heart of the course should be honing debate skills.

Proposal 2: Let’s adopt a second year experience that focuses on developing and advocating for policy change. There is room for this in every discipline, but we could also cluster things around special topics. Sophomore year is a great time to do this, so students can understand the connections between policies and their majors.  Think of all the future educators looking at the structure of education while learning about pedagogy. Or the chemistry majors who might partner with our environmental sciences students to develop a path to environmentally responsible invention. And, of course, our students aspiring to careers in justice and law professions might truly delve into the persistent inequities in how our laws are applied.

Proposal 3: Establish a center for policy research that is powered by faculty, embedded in courses, and connected to the relevant political arenas.  Our students can be actively engaged, serving as lead investigators or research assistants as appropriate.  Making policy research part of our required classes will remove a barrier to participation, because it will be on a student’s schedule. We can harness the varied ideas of our students and faculty, who are not uniformly left- or right-leaning in their perspectives. This will help us keep our proposals grounded in the possible. And in a state the size of Connecticut, we will have real opportunities to get these proposals into the right hands.

All of this could be done quickly.  We could just say “let’s do it” and move to logistics instead of engaging in our usual, drawn-out debates. It is not that I do not value those debates, but there is no time for that right now. We must take action. We must prepare our students to take on the hard questions, eyes wide open, and we must instill in them the confidence they need to try to change the world.  We can evaluate and adjust the strategies I have proposed as the flaws emerge (and I know they will). That is good practice. But right now, we need to act, and these proposals are a good enough start.

We (I) will be vilified, of course. Everyone hates it when higher education is political, and this is political. But, as I learned in an undergraduate history class long ago, to do nothing is also political. This proposal is not about teaching students to support a single point of view. It is a proposal in support of the development of the skills necessary for active engagement with important societal questions.  I am pretty sure that was one of the points of education in the first place.