Community, Critical Thinking, Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion, Uncategorized

The Age of the Straw Man

Two of the six core values that support Western Connecticut State University’s mission are:

  • Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
  • Respect. We value the right of all people to be treated with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.

These statements reveal a campus that has embraced the difficult and exciting discussions that follow when people of different social, political, and cultural backgrounds gather to address current and ancient societal debates.  This is who we are, and these values should be at the heart of any educational organization. But acceptance of the challenge of exploring differences in civil and thoughtful ways may need more support than just open minds and empathy.  Given the preponderance of fallacious arguments in the ether, it may be time to commit to some direct instruction in informal logic.

For the uninitiated, informal logic springs from the field of philosophy (also embraced in writing and communication curriculum), that provides a toolkit for examining arguments for structure and validity. Much like the old grammatical diagrams that were once used in the teaching of English (helping to break down nouns, verbs and connecting parts of speech), informal logic allows us to diagram arguments in terms of claims, support for those claims and conclusions. This diagramming is a great way to identify places where the supporting evidence or facts under discussion may have strayed from the initial claim or premise.

I recall my first encounter with informal logic as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the 1980s.  Sitting in a room of over 100 students listening to Dr. James Freeman introduce the structure of argument I felt a light go on.  For years, I had felt like there were problems with the statements/beliefs/worldviews that I encountered, but I could not figure out what was wrong.  These diagrams of arguments were a first step to uncovering the weaknesses or other leaps not supported by the claims I regularly faced. That course changed my life.

Now the field of logic has many nuances that most of us will never really dig into or fully understand, but the basics should be accessible to us all.  Among the basic concepts is the idea of a fallacy.  Simply put, fallacies are irrelevant evidence for a claim.  They are included as evidence, with no real bearing on the debate. They are distractions, keeping us from examining the central claim.  Typical examples are ad hominem fallacies (attacking the speaker instead of the argument), false dichotomy (setting up an argument around two choices, when many others are possible), or appeals to authority (invoking opinions of famous people, who may or may not have a connection to the actual topic).  Learning to see these tricks is incredibly helpful as one tries to evaluate a substantive issue.

One particular fallacy that seems to be dominating our lives right now is the straw man. The straw man fallacy is a way of distorting the central claim of an argument and then arguing against the distortion, rather than the actual claim. This tactic usually relies on taking things out of context or exaggerating the initial claim.    Since any example I give at this point is likely to draw some kind of bias claim, I will relate a totally unintended version that happened in an interaction with a six-year-old, twenty years ago. The six- year-old (let’s call her Sally) came to play with my daughter some time in mid-December.  The two began to discuss holiday plans and decorations. At some point, Sally stated that “everyone” would be going to church on Christmas Eve.  Since our family would not be heading to church, I interjected, “You mean everyone who celebrates Christmas.”  Sally responded, “You mean you hate Jesus?”

Sally was not malicious.  Her words were the innocent observations of a child who had never encountered a non-Christian before. I will not say things were easy to clarify, she was young and I wanted to be gentle, but we sorted things out.  However, I think you can see that in malicious hands, this statement is an interpretation of my words that was not in any way accurate.  In adult hands, with intention, this can become very ugly indeed.

This is a strategy that is dominating political arguments from all directions (left, right, and everywhere in between).  You name the issue (environment, immigration, gun control, healthcare, equity, etc.) and you will find a plethora of straw man arguments designed to distract us from the central argument.  At their worst, they are baiting us into discussions that are entirely false or at best, beside the point.  This is not a good state of affairs.

So what of my university’s values?  Well, like all universities, we are engaged in conversations like the one I had with Sally. In nearly every course, we challenge our assumptions about how the world is, was, or should be organized. Whether studying chemistry, biology, criminology, marketing, or history, students and faculty will uncover long held ideas and assumptions that may need to be reconsidered. Our task, then, is to insure that the reconsideration does not go astray with straw man arguments, or any other kind of fallacy.

To put it more plainly, when we ask ourselves to grapple with ideas that contradict everything we have known to be true, we may feel discomfort. That discomfort should not drive us to tactics that distort the question.  We should not start casting complex debates as either/or, us/them, and allow them to be reduced to slogans. We cannot allow simplistic, straw man fallacies, to distract us from our commitment to reasoned discourse on all issues. If keeping this commitment means more instruction in logic for all of us, let’s do it!

 

Affordability, equity, Higher Education

New Educational Models

This morning’s news about higher education included two articles related to the financial structures in higher education.  The first, A New Model for a New Reality, discussed St. John’s University’s efforts to replace tuition funds with donor funds, to reduce the cost to students.  The second, A Public College Merger in Arkansas, describes the merger of Henderson State with the Arkansas State University System.  This is a cost saving measure, seeking to leverage shared services (IT, HR, etc.) to reduce costs in the face of shrinking enrollments due to demographic shifts. These stories are part of steady stream of stories about vulnerable institutions of higher education.

Much of the eastern United States is facing the squeeze arising from a significant decline in high school graduates and these cost containment strategies may help us get through it.  Indeed, in terms of public systems, my frugal side suggests that sharing some resources, already invested in by the residents of my state, is a fair and thoughtful strategy.  However, I think we have only scratched the surface of the problem (sustainability) for higher education.  We need to think much more broadly about new models, than these efforts to balance budgets suggest.

To get a little more insight into this, we need to look beyond the headlines surrounding particular colleges and universities in dire financial straits, and consider the many environmental factors affecting higher education right now.  Here is but one intertwined example: the expansion of advance placement (AP) to full associate’s degrees in high school, and the national strategy of increasing post-secondary education attainment to 60% by 2020 (https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/37720-Challenges-and-Opp-Exec-Summary.pdf).

Advanced Placement courses were once available to a limited pool of students at relatively well-funded high schools.  Today, earning college credit in high school is widely available.  This transformation has involved a variety of steps.  First, we have expanded opportunities by moving from a simple AP test, provided by the College Board, to offering Early College programs, which include partnerships with local colleges and universities.  Early College is overseen by faculty at the partner schools and provides students with direct college credits (Calculus, for example), at that university, and a very low cost.  Progressive school districts have found ways to support the costs for the neediest students, broadening access to a college level curriculum.  This is a positive, but there is more to the story.

Because of the affordability of this model, and a desire to expose more students to college-level experiences, there has been a move to offer the full associate’s degree in high school. The difficulty here is simply this–high school is not college.  Although a student may master calculus in high school, and deserve college credit for it, in reality the conditions under which that material is learned are very different from college.  The pace is slower, and the supports for learning much stronger, because there is not the same presumption of independence (appropriately so) in high school.  In addition, this is mostly a cost-shifting scheme, making high schools responsible for supplying an educational opportunity for which they receive little financial support.

A related development, driven by the focus on increasing the attainment of post-secondary credentials, is a tremendous investment in community colleges. The target of 60% degree attainment by 2020 is driving a focus on two-year degrees and certificates.  There are significant barriers to increasing the number of people enrolled in four-year degrees, so focusing on two-year degrees and short-term certificates makes a lot of sense.  This, however, effectively leaves four-year degree granting institutions out of the conversation, and frequently underfunded.

Now, all of this is complicated and not something I can fully dissect in this blog, but I would like to consider a few implications.  First, the structural issues that are keeping students from four-year degrees are largely financial.  Moving education to the high schools just hides the problem and cheapens the educational experience. Focusing on investing in community colleges, at the expense of investing in universities, is likely to reduce the number of students who consider pursuing four-year degrees.

Second, while these cost cutting schemes look like great paths to access, they tend to prioritize completion over growth.  I am all for access to jobs that can stabilize family finances quickly, but certificates and two-year degrees tend to be less than is needed for a full career arc in a constantly changing economy.   Funding access to those, at the expense of four-year and post-baccalaureate degrees, is likely to keep the neediest students from access to the full education experience that they deserve.

It is hard to discuss the complexity of these issues without appearing to devalue first-level credentials. That is not my point at all.  I am a champion of community colleges and a supporter of reasonable early college initiatives. What I am suggesting, though, is that we need to look at these initiatives in the context of the full range of opportunities we hope to provide to our community. Perhaps, reconfiguring our education timelines should be part of this conversation. If we determine that supporting initial credentials in high school can help students find their way to additional education and careers, fine. Then that should be the path for all students, not just those who can’t afford college. If a stop at community college to round out that initial certification and provide some career foundations is a good idea, great. Then it should be the norm, and not a strategy just for those without a family history of attending college. After this, attending universities for baccalaureate and graduate degrees should be financially available to everyone, as we support long-term growth in the rapidly evolving workplace.

What I am trying to say is this; it is time for us to have a real conversation about what our post-secondary education goals should be, not just in terms of attainment, but in terms of equity, and real access to life-learning. We must re-imagine education for modern standards and expectations, and then create funding models that make the full range of post-secondary credentials truly accessible to all.

equity, Higher Education

Credentials

Last week, the Lumina Foundation released, Unlocking the Nation’s Potential: A Model to Advance Quality and Equity in Education Beyond High School. This report details some of the ways in which the structure of post-secondary education has not fully adapted to the needs and expectations of our students and their potential employers.  In reminding everyone that students attending college have different preparation and numerous demands on their time (jobs, families, etc.), one of the most important messages of this report is simply that education designed for traditional four-year experiences does not meet the needs of the students we are serving today.

Got it.  We have been working on the differential needs and preparations of our students at WCSU for a very long time.  We know that some of our students are working multiple jobs, some have children, some are hungry, and some are able to focus on college completely, without all of the distractions just listed.  Clearly, those who have the benefit of not supporting themselves while in college are having a different college experience than those who do not.  Equity issues immediately follow.

Consider the criteria for awards or induction into honor societies. Awards usually come from efforts like working with a faculty member on a research project or doing exemplary volunteer work.  These will not be accessible to the student who is paying the rent and their tuition.  That student may thrive in the coursework, but simply does not have the extra time in the week to do these above and beyond things.  Some manage to accomplish this anyway, but that bar is far too high for the working student. This small observation is indicative of the long list of advantages and disadvantages we should be cognizant of as we consider the bestowing of honors or scholarships or other opportunities to excel.

Like many universities, WCSU has focused on strategies for supporting differential preparation for college. Some of that preparation is about being the first in the family to attend college. Higher education can have a lot of confusing vocabulary and hidden expectations that those of us immersed in education just know.  Adding a First Year program is our way of trying to level the playing field and demystify our processes. Similarly, we focus on getting students the tutoring or academic coaching support they need to succeed.  We invest in these resources because we know they can help us support the differential needs of our students as we strive to achieve some level of equity.

But the big can of worms opened by the Lumina report is about the quality of credentials.  The report offers a framework for developing credentials of all kinds (certificates, two-year, four-year, and graduate degrees), so that the goals and outcomes of those degrees can be easily labeled and measured. Although this is motivated by the most important of observations – the advantaged students have access to credentials that have value, the less advantaged are often duped by low-quality certificates and degrees that may not – the solutions proposed are problematic.  While trying to create a system that allows for differing missions and degree types, the outcomes measures proposed very clearly favor education that has direct career connections.  Oh boy, I can hear my humanities faculty shudder as I write.

Here are my three problems with this approach:

  1. The report itself notes ,”65% of Gen-Z jobs don’t exist yet.”  Then how can we look for direct career connections when we do not know what the jobs are?  To be fair, Lumina does note clusters of skills rather than specific training, but even those clusters are suspect if the success of the credentials are going to be measured largely on employment outcomes.
  2. Input from business and industry about the gaps in preparation for work, always ends up being descriptions of the traditional outcomes of a liberal arts degree (communication skills, critical thinking, and more recently, teamwork and cultural awareness). Yet the measures of the quality of credentials do not seem to embrace the ambiguity that a liberal arts educational experience implies.
  3. In trying to solve the problem of regulating organizations that charge a lot of money for credentials that do not connect to jobs (and are not recognized as valuable), Lumina has proposed a solution that does not recognize all of the quality education that is taking place.  It feels like No Child Left Behind all over again.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are trying to fit too many different kinds of post-secondary education into one set of outcomes.  Certificates in technology support or carpentry skills or introductory graphic design are all great educational opportunities that can link directly to careers.  A four-year degree in English, Communication, Chemistry or Psychology can also link to careers, but the focus of this educational experience is different.  This approach adds breadth to the experience, emphasizing critical thinking and life-long learning, and helping students carve paths to careers that have yet to be defined. Each of these types of credentials is valuable, but they are different.  Measuring them by the same outcomes measures is silly.

What is not silly is the reality of the equity issues that the Lumina report identifies. They are real, persistent, and troubling. Attending to these issues by focusing on designing supports for all students, better supporting K-12 education, and devoting adequate funding to public post-secondary education is very important. The work on credential design is also helpful.  They offer some excellent frameworks for reviewing what we offer, and perhaps strengthening some of what we do. I imagine I will be working through those ideas for the next few months. Most of all, the report’s overview of how inequities are being created and replicated is very valuable.  It definitely keeps my focus on the different kinds of things I should be looking at to support my wonderfully diverse student body.

But instead of looking at measurements of quality that are one-size-fits all, maybe, just maybe, we can start attending to the strengths and potentials of our differences and see where that takes us in addressing equity.

 

 

Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion

Reflection and Inclusion

I confess.  I play Words with Friends and Puzzly Words.  If there is anyone left who does not know what these are, they are digital variations on Scrabble.  In the morning, I check my email, read Inside Higher Education and the daily Chronicle of Higher Education summary, and then play a few rounds of these games while I sip my coffee.  I have never been much for any board games other than Scrabble (well, I love Banagrams, too), so when these came along they fit my fun criteria nicely.  

 A few years ago, I noticed something while I was playing.  As we all moved from impersonal screen names to our Facebook photos, I could see images of the people I was playing.  As it turns out, these digital games had greatly added to the diversity of my game partners.  It gave me pause, not just because my own circle of friends is so homogeneous (a worry to be sure), but also because it unearthed a previously un-noticed assumption I had about Scrabble.  Invented in Connecticut, in my unconscious mind I saw Scrabble as a white game.  It was a startling realization.

I never knew I held that thought.  Indeed, it never surfaced until I had contradictory evidence. As I saw my word game partners broadening and becoming wonderfully diverse, this bias rose from my unconscious.  I took the time to acknowledge the thought, felt more than a little ashamed of it, and then embraced the change in my point of view.  I eagerly look forward to the seeing the diversity of my online partners and the sense of commonality it engenders. This change was relatively easy to make because it was virtual, I could acknowledge the error of my ways privately, and because I care to change the biased assumptions I find buried in my mind. 

It was a simple thing to surface this bias. Seeing images of my partners fostered the discovery.  As I played this morning I noticed the diversity once again, and it reminded me to ask my colleagues who are busily preparing for the start of the fall semester to look at their course materials.  Are they wonderfully diverse?  I know you are rushing and making final edits to your syllabi, but can you take a moment to look at your readings, slides, films, and examples and see if you have been inclusive?  This simple step could be the start of uncovering all sorts of unconscious biases.

I know I have written about the inclusivity of course materials before, and it does bear repeating, but I would like to acknowledge another piece of the inclusion puzzle today.  You see, this morning’s reading of Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle was not encouraging when it comes to our ability to create environments that support inclusion.  I won’t list all the recent articles, but here’s what is coming through loud and clear: In our efforts to be inclusive, we don’t seem to be successfully creating the space for the reflective process that I went through in the privacy of my home.  This missing piece appears to be fostering anger and defensiveness instead of reflection and inclusion.

Selecting course materials that reflect a breadth of cultural experiences and the contributions of the many is an excellent first step in creating an inclusive environment. It can encourage students and faculty to notice assumptions and, perhaps, reflect on biases they did not know they had.  This private reflection can be very productive.  We know from our attempts to use less gender-specific language (chair instead of chairman, firefighter instead of fireman) that the change in language can make our thinking more inclusive. Including diverse images and authors is likely to have a similar effect, so this is an effort worth making. However, once we start talking about it, well it is no longer a private process.  The conversation piece is much more threatening, particularly if the bias we discover is one that deeply offends our sense of self and/or the sensibilities of others in the room. 

Yet, the conversations are so important. We must figure out how to have them in ways that are not alienating.  We have to understand that while some of us have benefitted from “privilege,” we have not all benefitted equally.  Some of us have been so excluded that we don’t even know how to begin. And none of us is without bias. The variation in access to wealth and power and education means conversations about those privileges must be nuanced.  Entering discussions with all of this in mind is paramount to creating an environment in which conversations that address bias are about discovery, not accusation.

Now listen, I am not blind to the real structural racism that we are dealing with as a culture.  I understand the force with which we need to be seeking real change and asking for nuanced conversation is cold comfort for many.  However, as I scan the reports on higher education I am worried that we are skipping a step.  As educators, we need to create the space for reflection and the room to breathe as we all come to terms with each new hidden bias we discover.  

There will always be hidden biases.  Each new bias discovered opens the door to the next one, and that is a good thing.  It is, indeed, progress. But discovering them will always be uncomfortable. So we need to get better at this part, the part where we learn together without demeaning anyone. It is hard, but it is an effort worth making.

 

 

equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Uncategorized

The Jobs Act and False Equivalencies

Today, I awoke to read Andrew Kreighbaum’s Insider Higher Education article about the potential Jobs Act legislation. He quotes Senator Kaine (co-sponsor of the bill) here:

We need to broaden our definition of higher education to include quality career and technical programs, and we have to make sure that federal policy supports this kind of learning, too,” Kaine said in a statement. “So the idea behind the JOBS Act is to be more flexible with Pell Grants and allow students to use them for high-quality career and technical classes if they want to.

I applaud the impulse to fund career training, but I would like to suggest that we do it with some other fund, so we stop evaluating college education through the same lens as career training.  Don’t broaden the definition of higher education, separate the realms.

Let me be clear, I am all for job training.  I think, however, we need to be very honest about what job training does and does not do.  First, job training is narrowly focused, generally in service to a particular sector of the economy.  It does not usually foster transferrable skills. Second, the wages for these jobs tend to stagnate quickly because they focus on entry-level skills.  Most advancement will mean more training. Third, training isn’t college. A college education is designed for a broad focus on the habits of mind that support life-long learning.

While there are lots of direct career connections in college (nursing, education, accounting, chemistry, for example), they are couched in liberal arts thinking, preparing graduates to change course as their interests or job opportunities change.  Training just doesn’t do this. When we equate the two, we end up with a lot of guidelines and comparisons that don’t actually fit together.  To put it simply, asking if I am prepared for a particular employment (welding, for example) is fundamentally different from asking if I am prepared to navigate the changing world of work.

There’s so much more to say on this, but today I am focused on this funding idea. We should fund job training.  It is an important part of supporting economic mobility in the United States.  We see wonderful examples of this in our vocational high schools.  These schools ensure that graduates have essential skills if they want to progress to higher education (typical writing and math education), but also support direct career pathways. Many such schools offer training in carpentry, plumbing, cosmetology, culinary skills and more recently, computer science and even advanced manufacturing. These are great opportunities and we should fund them. Don’t use Pell, just fund the high schools appropriately.

For community colleges things get more murky.  Community colleges have been developed to support two different goals – job training and pathways to two- and four-year college degrees. In as much as community college is meant to serve anyone above the high school level, it is post-secondary education, but it is not all a college education.  The very narrowly focused job training (mostly certificates) is just that, job training.  This job training is not meant to serve as a pathway to a four year degree.  It is directly related to potential employment. It is meant to broaden opportunity, but not necessarily form broad habits of mind.

Like our vocational high schools, these pathways to employment are very important. People often have to re-tool at difficult moments or in ways they never expected.  We should support those opportunities, so let’s fund this, too, but not with Pell grants or student loans. We need a career training fund (perhaps supplemented by the industries who want particular skills). Having a separate funding line reminds us that this is not preparation for life-long learning, it is preparation for entry-level earning. When someone wants to move to the life-long learning part, then they should move to Pell.

Now here’s where it gets very confusing.  In higher education, we have been creating two year degrees with “stackable credentials.”  In this scenario a person might start in a culinary program then move to an associates degree in culinary arts that might even transfer to a four year degree at some point. The degree will have started with a certificate in culinary skills of some kind and then progress to include science, math, writing, social sciences, etc., all of which will add up to something we call a college education.  Separating the funding for part 1 (the job training) and then switching for part 2 (the college education)  will be a nightmare for community colleges.  They will have to switch funding streams as students progress in the program, but as my colleagues at community colleges know very well, students do not necessary take a straight path from one area to another.  Still, I think we need to make this effort so we can be clear about the experiences and outcomes expected in each path.

And there is one more thing for us to consider in this blurring of lines between training and college education.  If we accept the notion of the stackable credential, such that college education includes the training programs, we need to reimagine the definition of “college credit.”  Here’s what I mean: when we decide that there is room in a Bachelor of Arts degree for a bunch of courses that will simply count as electives (because they aren’t things that a university would ever offer), but include them in the credits toward earning a degree (because we want to value students’ prior experiences), we’ve basically called our own bluff.  What we’re saying is that we don’t really think the full liberal arts experience is important.  We’ve allowed something else to stand in for 1/4 of the degree credits (roughly equivalent to the credits carried by many certificates).  If that’s the case, well, it’s time for us to examine our assumptions about the whole enterprise.

Training and college education are not the same. Yet, as we continuously look for new ways to fund access to both of them, we have blurred the distinctions between the two,  creating false equivalencies. There is lots of room for us to re-consider our assumptions about what qualifies for college credit, and we probably should do some deep thinking about this, but even so they are not the same. Making everything the same upends all of the ways in which we might evaluate the goals of training or college education. So, let’s fund them both as the separate things that they are, and then get busy with questioning the structure of the whole enterprise.