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.

 

equity, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Quality, Technology

COVID-19: Lessons Learned Round I

Final exams are underway, we are preparing our virtual commencement messages (to be followed up with a live event in the fall) and the rush to declare classes pass/fail is over.  Believe it or not, we are at the finish line for spring 2020 disrupted.  Discussions about fall have begun, but before we get to that, it is time to acknowledge what we have learned from this pandemic so far.  In reverse order, here are my top three lessons learned.

Lesson 3: We were not prepared for this.  

Well, “how could we be,” you say?  “This is new for everyone.” Yes, but we could have done better if we were not in the habit of thinking short-term.

We consider emergency scenarios all the time. From devastating storms to campus lockdowns to fast moving illnesses, all of higher education has worked hard to prepare for the worst.  And we have been through many of these things at WCSU.  Since I arrived at WCSU in 2012, there have been two major October storms that made campus largely uninhabitable for a week.  We had to pause.  We had a tornado (a micro-burst) that did much the same.  There have been water main breaks and heavy snow seasons and so on, and each time, well things mostly just stopped.

That is not preparation–that is closing Yet, we had the technology available for continuity of instruction all along. In this new normal, where the possibility of closing could recur multiple times in the next year (I’m sorry, but that seems likely given the spikes associated with reopening), we should be truly prepared for moving online.

Taking the opportunity to learn about online instruction must become a regular part of the life of a faculty member. Unless one’s career is fully devoted to research, with no expectation of teaching, this is as important as keeping up with new developments in one’s discipline. We don’t all have to be experts, but every university must establish basic guidelines on course design that are the minimum, and every faculty member should know how to meet that minimum. Every course should be developed to meet those minimum standards as a routine practice.

In other words, when we write a syllabus, develop schedule, and select course materials, we should then put it all in whatever learning management system the university uses, as routinely as we used to make copies to hand out in class.  It cannot be acceptable to just stop instruction whenever it snows or rains or any flu rages.  Unless the power goes out, we should be ready to teach. That is prepared.

Lesson 2: We have an equity issue.

Prior to COVID-19, we were content to let our neediest students depend on our computer labs and libraries to fully participate in their education.  What a ridiculous state of affairs that was.  Those same students are the most likely to have work schedules that keep them from being available when those spaces are open.  This is just a “duh” moment folks.  One cannot fully participate in higher education without a laptop and access to the internet.

When we all became tech crazed, private colleges and universities did things like give all first year students a laptop.  It was really a publicity stunt for them, because most of their students can afford to bring their own. We never thought it was within our means to do this in public higher ed.  Guess what, this must be a minimum standard for all of our students.  It is not just about moving to online in an emergency: it is about full access to one’s education and all students deserve it.  It is time to right this wrong and provide those minimum tools to all students.

Lesson 1: Online Education Sucks!

We have known it all along, of course, but this experience confirms it. There is just nothing like the immediacy of face-to-face learning in a shared space. Online learning is ok for graduate programs that serve working adults. It is okay for the odd undergraduate class as an alternative learning experience, and because, well, it gives some schedule flexibility.  We push it for returning adult learners because they are usually juggling other things. Do you see the theme here? Online education makes room for education for those who are trying to fit it in with other things.  It is not an opportunity to immerse oneself in education that a more traditional approach allows.

I want to be clear, there can be wonderful online learning experiences. Good course design and a passionate instructor can truly engage students and help them grow.  In fact, I have taught online and felt fully connected to my students. The kind of organizing required to do good online teaching actually improved my on-ground teaching as well, because if forced me to be a much more careful planner and to really think developmentally. So, online has its place and preparing for online teaching is a good practice.

I also think that the use of hybrid instruction can very much benefit all students.  It gives students multiple ways of encountering the course material, which is central principle of universal design. Shy students often shine online, and many students develop skills as independent learners in this environment. There are even good opportunities for collaboration online that are sometimes difficult for students to achieve face-to-face. Using online to enhance an on-ground class can help faculty dispense with a review of readings by quizzing students online before class (among other things), freeing up time for more discussion. When combined with online instruction, class time can be a true opportunity to explore further or apply knowledge. I am a big fan of that.

But without the face-to-face experience we lose something, and that something turns out to be irreplaceable.  This forced experiment with a totally online campus has all of us aching to return for good reason. There are a million little things that happen when we are all in the same room.  An idea is discovered, a shaky voice becomes braver, the direction of the discussion shifts totally unanticipated ways.  There are hallway conversations that praise or condemn what happened in class, which makes the learning seem more real.  In the real world there is spontaneity.

Like the connections that Facebook and Instagram and all the other social media provide, we are thrilled to be able maintain the connections with students that online learning provides.  It is an excellent continuity of instruction system.  And everyone in higher education depends on the electronic access to resources all the time, and that is a true benefit to the digital revolution. But putting the whole thing online … that just isn’t the real deal.

So, let us have no more talk about the efficiencies of online education and the potential cost savings (which are never real).  Online education is a supplement, a means of making up for a disrupted schedule, but the classroom is still the best home for learning.

 

Affordability, equity, Inclusion, Quality, Regional Comprehensive, Return on Investment

COVID-19 & the Neighborhood University

Like all campuses grappling with re-opening in the fall, WCSU will triage the questions of lab sciences, clinical placements, online learning vs. hybrid learning, and the biggest question of all – do we reopen our dorms.  As usual, the press is obsessed with a model of higher education that looks like the movies – a beautiful location on a hillside, usually pictured in brightly colored autumnal hues, with all residential students.  In reality, that model serves a small percentage of undergraduates. Campuses like mine, with predominantly local student populations, are built to serve the majority, rather than the lucky few, and we have designed our curriculum and services accordingly.  In this crisis the strength of the accessible, affordable, local university comes into full view.

Let’s start with the obvious – for students and families stretching resources to attend college, not paying for living on campus is a substantial savings.  In the case of public universities, that decision will reduce the cost of education by about half. That means less debt and/or the ability to support more than one child in college.  For those with the greatest need, it means Pell might come close to covering expenses (not quite, but close).  For those who are more solidly middle class, it means the family can get a return on their tax investment in public higher education and allow their students to graduate with little to no debt. As we discover the true economic impact of this crisis, the affordable option is the best bet. We will be here for our traditional students. We will also be here for the folks who suddenly need to retool for a new career.

Then there is the value of the education itself.  Like most public comprehensive universities, WCSU offers a wide range of majors, enrichment opportunities, an honors program and educational access programs, and our resources have been invested in our educational facilities, not lazy rivers. Most of our graduates earn degrees and stay in Connecticut, working in various fields and frequently sending their children to us as well. Some of them come in with a need for academic support, so we provide it.  Others hit the ground running and go on for advanced degrees at prestigious universities (frequently with full-funding) and we have Fulbright Scholarship winners every few years. Sometimes the same ones who started out struggling end up in graduate programs. Our students have access to faculty producing research that is connected to our community and research that addresses large scale societal questions in all fields. Last year we had a Goldwater winner.  She’s heading off to John’s Hopkins next fall for a Ph.D., in no small part because of the research opportunities she had at WCSU.

These achievements occur because we are focused on supporting the needs of all of our students, not just the most talented. Whether an honors student or a student who needs academic support, education at WCSU is not organized to weed out the weaker students, but to support every student. We have to do this, not just because we think it is right, but because our neighbors are watching, and they talk.  To put it plainly, when a student flunks out of Yale, the public blames the student.  When a student flunks out of WCSU, the public blames us. We must always focus on the long-term relationship with our community and the success of the students they send to us.  If we do not, we will not survive.

All of this has always been true, of course, but what about the current moment makes it so important? Uncertainty about the fall and even spring next year makes it very likely that there will be some disruptions in the operations of traditional campuses.  As we track the spread of COVID-19, we are preparing to deliver our curriculum in online, hybrid, and on ground formats. We want to be sure that whatever happens, students will have a good educational experience.  This strategy will allow us to focus on the most important face-to-face experiences, and we will do our best to make those things happen in the fall.   But if the state and public health concerns determine that we cannot be here in person, education will continue online, and students will have faculty who will get to know them well.

At WCSU, we do not see online learning as a place to skimp on our student-centeredness or as something to contract out to other faculty.  We leveled up our online academic supports right away this spring and we will extend those throughout the next academic year.  That happened quickly because being student focused is the only way we can succeed as a university.  Most of our online classes are small, so faculty can give real feedback.  This is because we have always understood that our students have varied needs that require attention, so large classes are not a good strategy. We are now figuring out how to continue our research opportunities with limited face-to-face contact, and we are imagining ways to create enriched experiences for those most unlikely of online disciplines – performing arts. Why, because we have always experimented with new pedagogies as the expectations of students have changed over time. We are rising to the COVID-19 challenge with the most important thing in view–great educational experiences for all students.

This accessible, affordable, public university has always been focused on student success, precisely because we are accessible and local. We live and die by what our community thinks of us and we want them to trust us with their students. When I finally get to go out and see my neighbors, I do not want to hear that students are at home teaching themselves.  I want to hear about the excellent support their student received in this brand new learning environment or the cool things their faculty tried out in their online course. That is how things work when you are the local option and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

 

 

 

equity, Inclusion, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Equity in the Co-Curricular

It is Martin Luther King Day, so of course I’m thinking about equity in higher education.  In the many years since King’s March on Washington, and the continuing efforts to achieve equity–Sheff v. O’Neill,  Title IX, the American with Disabilities Act, and Affirmative Action, to name a few–all areas of employment and education have improved. We have not reached equity yet, but we are moving in the right direction. These efforts, though, focus on the body (race, gender, ability).  Today, I’m thinking about the equally important role of socio-economic status in college success.

In recent years, higher education has turned its focus to the experiences of first-generation college students. These students have pushed us to consider the hidden rules that make moving from start to finish in a college environment somewhat mysterious.  Like many others, my university has added courses that are essentially extended orientations (FY) to help level the playing field for students of all backgrounds.  From the simple things (like the extremely baffling R means Thursday on one’s schedule), to how to find an academic advisor and what to expect when meeting with them, to making four year plans, reading transcripts, and getting academic or financial support, this course is meant to demystify the secret codes of the college environment. It is our acknowledgement that universities are complicated and if you have no prior experience of them, assistance is required.

The FY effort is important, to be sure, and we are seeing a positive impact on our graduation rates since implementing this course.  But there’s something else we are missing, and it is very hard to manage.  Simply put, our awards and recognitions (beyond those generated by GPA) are built on the premise that students have time to participate in all sorts of activities beyond the classroom. That time is a cost that many students cannot bear.

Consider honor societies, for example.  Almost all of them start with GPA as a minimum criterion for admission, but then they expect something else. That something else generally requires uncompensated hours to complete.  The same is true for most student government awards.  Awards for great clubs generally mean someone had to have time to organize activities for that club.  And of course, there is research.  Students who conduct research with faculty may or may not receive any compensation.  Those who do receive compensation, are unlikely to receive enough to cover the lost wages of a part-time job.

All co-curricular activities require a lot of time.  Time is a precious commodity for all of us, but even more so for students who are working to support themselves while in college. Time for participation is time away from work.  Factor in the time necessary to study for classes, and these hard working students are likely to opt out of clubs, honor societies, and research opportunities. This means they’ve opted out of a lot of opportunities to be recognized for excellence.  There goes that line on the resume.

For students who live on campus, it may be easier to engage in the many clubs and activities, while holding a part-time job.  They are likely to be around at the hours that events may occur or be able to dash into a lab for a research project, between classes. In the best scenario, they may even have an on-campus job to support them. This is great and I applaud their participation.  But for those students who commute, the cost of the time commitment is magnified by travel time and the cost of transportation.  Add to that the odd hours at which many clubs meet, and these students will frequently just give up on participating. Unfortunately, our focus on participation does not factor in these barriers, and some students may feel discouraged or devalued as a result.

Now, sometimes those are just the breaks.  We figure out how to juggle our workloads and resources and some of us are luckier than others in terms of our college finances. Barring big changes in how we fund public higher education, this is just the way things are. Students who cannot participate in the co-curricular still win by completing a degree and advancing their opportunities post-graduation. If we focus on funding for their tuition, and not on potential prizes, we’ll have done something to assist them and their futures will benefit from their education. But this something is not equity.

It nags at me that we have structured things in a way that rewards students who are already at an advantage.  Like admissions criteria that are stacked in favor of the lucky few, perhaps we should reimagine the other rewards and opportunities, that are systematically unavailable to the less fortunate.  Is it time to re-imagine how time and opportunities are structured at the university so more people can be included in the things outside of the classroom?  Is it time to figure out a way to recognize the efforts of students who are holding down jobs, caring for family members, and figuring out how to succeed in college with little to no family support? Is it time for yet another look at how we inadvertently build barriers to equity? Yes, yes, it is.

 

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!