Engagement, Technology

The Limits of the Zoomiverse

After a year and a half of attending everything via Zoom/WebEx/Google Meets/Teams, etc., I have just spent four days attending two in-person conferences. That they were back to back was a bit of a juggle for me, but the distance between them was not too daunting and off I went. Both conferences asked for proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test; Both conferences asked for masks in the scheduled sessions. One had the clever idea of indicating on our name tags our comfort level with hand shaking and such, which was nice. I’m pretty sure that information got totally lost in the joy felt with seeing friends and colleagues in person. There was a lot of hugging.

Now I have to play catch-up with my schedule today because of the luxurious time spent paying attention to in-person conversations (and not my phone). Nevertheless, I want to mention a few things this morning that I think are important for all of us as we navigate our post-pandemic environment. So here goes.

In-person conferences are more engaging than virtual conferences.

Our virtual platforms have been incredibly important to our survival of this pandemic, but they do not offer anything like the experience of an in-person conference. Zoom and its equivalents are great options for meetings that are focused on particular tasks. If the meeting is too large, it isn’t great, but the capacity to move through a defined agenda is fully there. We have been able to sustain our governance on campus nicely with these tools, and I think it is probably a good idea to keep some of that in place moving forward. The opportunity for small break out groups can also be effective, when appropriate, allowing a committee and subcommittee structure to work through a specific issue. This ease of attendance (folks don’t have to drive to campus or rush between our two campuses, for example) makes this a good option.

But when we are looking for the free exchange of ideas that are less agenda driven and more exploratory, in-person is still better. We miss too many cues in Zoom. It is hard to see reactions and we can’t hear them at all, because to function well folks must be muted. So, even though we are “called on” in the in-person session, which is imitated with the raised hand features on Zoom-like platforms, the rest of the nonverbal messages are missing and the speaker(s) never know how their ideas or comments have landed in the room. The virtual experience just doesn’t compare to the live one. Ultimately, they are just a bit boring for lack of the response experience.

Physical co-presence creates better conditions for focused attention.

Let’s face it, most people are multi-tasking when they attend meetings and conferences virtually. It is just too easy to look like one is paying attention while still answering email. Our screens are places where we jump from thing to thing, often with sense of urgency that is in the medium but not the messages we consume. This means that we are necessarily giving less than our full attention to the conversation at hand.

I am not naive. Folks do this in in-person meetings as well. I mean, why else have there been so many conversations about how to manage students and their phones in class? I’ll add that I see the same problem with faculty, staff, and administrators who can’t seem to disconnect for a meeting. It is actually a pet-peeve of mine because I do put my phone away to engage in the meeting fully. Despite this, the simple fact is that it is harder to check one’s phone in the room than it is online. We have to do it surreptitiously because we know it is rude and disruptive. That feeling that we need to hide this activity encourages us to give the speaker more of our attention.

It is attention, without distractions, that can help us understand the issues and ideas important to the people present. With that attention, we might develop a thoughtful response to what we are hearing. Without that attention, we tend to miss the finer points of a debate or presentation as we move between screens. It is the meeting equivalent of skimming, and that is only good for summaries, not rich understanding.

The conversations outside the meetings are the real benefit of the in-person conference.

Although it is entirely possible for me to pop into a particular panel of interest to me at a virtual conference and learn something, what is missing most of all from these online experiences is the conversation that follows the session. Those spontaneous interactions as we pass through the halls, processing what we have heard just don’t happen in Zoom. The realization that you and a person you have just met have a shared interest in a topic, or that you and a colleague are facing a similarly complex scenario, is just harder to discover in the sequestered spaces of a virtual meeting. It is those conversations that restore our energy and re-engage our enthusiasm for our discipline, the work we do, and our colleagues.

As I catch up with the many tasks I ignored while I enjoyed those conversations with new acquaintances and long-time friends, I know I have benefitted from the time away from my desks at home and at work. I have a few new ideas, to be sure, but I also have that restored sense of community that always follows the opportunity to connect with peers in informal ways. It encourages me to think more carefully about what we are doing online and what we should bring back to campus as the year progresses. It isn’t just a set of decisions about classes, it is really everything that we do.

So, let’s not default to virtual conferences post-pandemic. It may be less expensive, and perhaps we should be selective about how often we go, but we need the away time and those great or silly conversations to inspire ideas and rekindle our spirits. And let’s not opt for Zoom meetings for everything on campus either. The efficiency of the online meeting comes at the cost of the spontaneous conversations that help us connect with each other. We can be selective about our in person experiences, but we need to gather even if it just to remind us that we are a community.

Engagement, Higher Education

Engaging the “Why”?

This morning, I read with interest “In Defense of Disinterested Knowledge” by Justin Sider. His essay chafes at the recent over emphasis on connecting the ideas and disciplines in higher education to political goals/social action. He argues that this propensity for tying disciplines to, well, outcomes beyond the university, provides a narrow lens that undermines the value of higher education as a whole. Ultimately, he argues that this lens has become a convenient tool for administrators to use in justifying program cuts or elimination. I stand accused.

I agree with Sider on several points. First, not every course needs to address the current sensibilities of our culture. Second, reducing all that we study to a direct (political) consequence is antithetical to the very idea of a university education. He summarizes this here:

Our students deserve to find themselves in whatever subjects, authors, texts, and ideas they may light on during our time together. That’s the great promise of higher education, especially public higher education, and there’s no predicting beforehand what concerns students will take as their own — just as we ourselves chose our own disciplines and fields. The attempt to make all scholarship accountable to the political exigencies of the moment removes that freedom.

I couldn’t agree more. Universities should provide room for the serendipitous experiences that provide the possibility of enlightenment and engagement in any area. Not everything we do should connect to a career or political action. To reduce education in this way would miss the point of the holistic that is an undergraduate degree. To be clear, I mean a liberal arts degree, with the idea of breadth built into its design. Indeed, when we narrow these opportunities, we inadvertently narrow the chances for our students to stumble upon an insight or a passion that was wholly unfamiliar to them at the start. Without these possibilities, the notion of a liberal arts degree is undermined.

Where I disagree with Sider is in two important areas. The first is in his assertion that administrators are taking advantage of this trend in linking degrees to “political exigencies” or even to careers and using it as a tool for course or program elimination. Not really. We are just as likely to be horrified by a program closure as faculty. We are, however, terribly concerned with enrollments because the health of the university depends on enrollments overall. Most of us do not have large endowments to tide us over when enrollments slide. We are directly impacted by missing our recruiting and retention goals, leaving us to make tough decisions about staffing in all areas of the university, including faculty. When a department has persistent low-enrolled classes, questions about the better investment to sustain the whole become paramount. Sometimes that can lead to program closures.

Recently, our campus closed four programs – two in STEM disciplines and two in humanities disciplines. All of them had long histories of low-enrollment in the major. In closing them, we lost no faculty; they are all still actively engaged in teaching in their disciplines. We simply made room for other areas of focus that seem to better speak to the students we are serving right now. Indeed, we have opened more new programs than we have closed.

But there is more to this story because I believe one of those degrees could have been saved had we come to an agreement about how to reposition it. I do not think that everything needs to be connected to a particular career, nor do I think everything should have a direct political or practical outcome. I do believe that we must be able to communicate the value of the curricula we offer and that communication needs to engage the students we are serving right now. Unfortunately, in this case, that did not happen.

This leads to my second disagreement with Sider. There is a difference between treating our students as consumers and trying to understand how to engage their sensibilities. Careers and politics are just two of the ways that we can appeal to our students right now. The career focus responds to important questions about return on investment. We cost a lot of money, even at public universities, and students and families want to know whether that investment will pay off. Career opportunities are one of the answers to that question. Politics and social change are also compelling for some (but by no means all) students. The desire to do some good in the world is a powerful argument for education. It is inspiring and empowering and may drive enrollment in some majors.

But what are the other arguments for what we do? We need to develop arguments for the “disinterested knowledge” that Sider celebrates. I know this seems counter to the wander through education that many of us enjoyed on our way to careers in higher education, but the students we are serving are not us. We are removed from their sensibilities in at least three ways:

1. They grew up after us and experienced different things – technologically, politically, environmentally, culturally. This means they are interested in different things.

2. Students coming to us right now have heard endless stories about debt and are less willing to just risk it and trust that the value will emerge.

3. Not all of them are curious about a breadth of ideas. This is not because they are a different generation, lots of our peers were not that curious either. It is because we were particularly interested- you know, kind of nerdy – hence we went into higher education.

These differences in our experiences and expectations seem to be driving our students to ask the question “why” – why should they value what we value? The question is reflected in their enrollment decisions. We need to give them some answers.

There are more cases to be made for the many disciplines and ideas explored at a university than simply linking everything to careers and political exigency. We might make a case for the value of understanding context, or the benefits of connecting ideas across the curriculum, or even for the joy of discovering new things. We can’t just say it though, we’ll have to show it, but I know we can. The why of what we do can be found in a million places, and honestly, I don’t think it is too much to ask that we provide that explanation. Doing so might just save us from our enrollment challenges. It might also lead our students on a journey through the very questions that might appear superfluous to them right now. If we give them a little help in understanding the why, they might just get interested in that “disinterested knowledge” after all.

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