Here’s a little conversation I had with our CELT director, Dr. Adam Brewer, for all those who will be teaching online starting Monday. Here’s a link to it on the Academic Affairs Facebook Page.
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!
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.
For the past three years, in addition to my role as Provost at WCSU, I have served on the Board of Education for my town. This experience has been enlightening. The district is small (under 300), with students entering in either pre-school or Kindergarten and attending through 8th grade. After 8th grade students choose to attend one of several local high schools because we are just too small to sustain one of our own. Like many parts of Connecticut and the Northeastern US, we have seen a drop in students (enrollments 10 years ago were around 520), and we’ve had to make adjustments in staffing and planning in the face of that new reality. These adjustments are informative for my work in higher education.
First, let’s state the obvious, staffing in my district is smaller than it used to be. We simply don’t have enough students for multiple sections of classes. But drops in staffing are not a simple thing. We can’t simply eliminate a teacher every time we have a drop in enrollment, because we would lose variation in approaches, expertise, and ideas. This would not serve our students well. So, some clever re-groupings and innovative practices are taking place. One such change is that we now have a faculty member in the lower grades focused on STEM. This was not something we did before we had to re-imagine education with a smaller population. We did used to just think about classes and numbers of students, not content. As the curriculum for the STEM position grows and changes, it has the potential to bring unique and exciting experiences to our students.
So, what is the connection to higher education? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about the decline in students enrolled in humanities majors. While it might be ok for some reduction in staffing, we don’t want to lose the expertise and diversity of perspectives brought by a robust humanities faculty. I wonder of the elementary school STEM innovation can serve as inspiration, asking us to think beyond course offerings and recombine expertise? The important piece about that STEM idea was that the teacher in the role started in a humanities discipline, but at the elementary school level this means a lot of generalist skills too, so he was able to bring in his math and science training and grow his expertise. The STEM experience is being enhanced by experiential approaches (labs) and real world questions, with ideas of discovery that are as humanities based as they are scientific. Can we do something that re-connects students to humanities disciplines by connecting disciplines?
For example, literature has always been an important mirror for our culture. In some cases, literature is arranged around topics like immigration or gender or cultural groups, rather the eras or genres. Can we take it one step further and connect immigrant focused literature to immigration policy? If we could connect a topics course to a series of policies that directly effect people’s lives, might we end up with a few more students in the literature major? Unlike K-12, the expertise is deeper and we would need to develop a linked course structure (literature and sociology in this case), with faculty co-planning and occasionally bringing the two classes together, but think of how exciting that could be. Instead of shrinking indiscriminately, we reimagine what we are teaching, particularly in the foundational courses, and potentially grow after all.
Another lesson I’ve learned from K-12 is that math is just always a problem. No matter what school district you’re in, math education is under constant review and scrutiny because we never seem to meet our targets. This is as true in my district as it is in large urban districts and as it is in higher education, where too much of my budget is spent on getting students to college level math. I recently had an “aha” moment around math as we discussed the curriculum at the Board of Ed. The problem, as I see it, is that math is a course, not a habitual practice. Math is quite legitimately compared to a second language. We know that to truly master that second language, you need to practice all the time. We’re going to need to put math in all sorts of places, not just math class, to improve our outcomes.
In higher ed we like to blame K-12 for not sending the students to us prepared for college math, but it isn’t that they aren’t working hard on this, it is the structure that has to change. And so does ours. We, too, communicate the message that math is an isolated thing that you have to get through, rather than use. Only STEM, and to a degree business majors, get any real message about the importance of achieving a level of mathematical fluency.
In K-12, I suggest weaving in math problems in all sorts of classes, so they are encountered nearly every class period, just like reading. This is a little scary for those teachers who opted for non-math disciplines, but it doesn’t have to be high level math, just a little arithmetic in the early years, and more applied math around social issues in the middle years. It will take some curriculum design, but I suspect it would be worth the effort.
And what about higher ed? We need to do the same thing. There needs to be a lot more engagement with all kinds of numerical data in non-STEM classes. Instead of just algebra or statistics classes, we need to routinely weave in the kind of analytic thinking that these courses support, so that students don’t forget this critical language. Sometimes, this could occur through partnerships like the one proposed between sociology and literature, or perhaps in wonderful collaborations between art and science (3-D printing comes to mind). Other times faculty can develop some evidence requirements in their assignments that include some quantitative reasoning to reinforce the usefulness of the language of math. These would be at a basic and integrated level, leaving the advanced work for those who’ve specialized in quantitative reasoning more in-depth. I know many of my colleagues won’t believe this, but our students actually want this. They don’t like they way they feel about numerical information.
In both of these examples, the critical shift was moving from single disciplinary perspectives to an integrated curriculum. Weaving our planning together might help us see how to weather the storm of demographic shifts in ways that could make us more effective and more exciting. That reinvention might also help us articulate our value, once again. But we’ll have to leave our departments to do so. Imagine that.
Today’s Inside Higher Ed and Chronicle of Higher Ed are reporting on a study that explored the impact of “nudges” to encourage low-income, high ability students to apply to competitive colleges. This comes on the heels of last year’s report on chronic undermatching of these students with more prestigious opportunities. The results were, in my view, predictable. The nudges did not help.
So, to the predictable part… nudges with little cultural or financial framework are simply ads that we need to delete. While the College Board waived application fees so that low-income students didn’t have to bear the cost of applying to schools, this is just a small part of the ways that those more competitive (elite) schools might not seem inviting. Let’s face it, we’re all talking about college costs and how to contain them. Students looking at colleges, low-income or middle-class, are really worried about debt. Tuition prices are more or less knowable, but the availability of financial aid awards is largely hidden and difficult to pin down. So, why go through all of that work to understand the complex formulas under the costs of education, and potentially be disappointed, especially when an apparently reasonably priced alternative exists?
Culturally, there is more. Students need to have a vision of themselves at a school to want to be there. If everyone looks affluent, well, it just doesn’t look welcoming to a low-income student. I’m not even getting into all of the issues of diversity that face these competitive/elite schools. If we just focus on the dollars, there is plenty to scare a student away. The solidly middle-class tend not to notice the extra-curriculars they can afford, the internships they can afford to not be paid for, the volunteer time they can afford to give, and the many little add-ons (trips to museums, spring break events, concerts) that keep the less affluent from full participation in this version of higher education.
Then, of course, there’s the rest of it. Students may leverage local universities so they can avoid housing costs. They may wish to not go too far from home so that they know they have a support system within driving distance. Some may choose a school that seems to have students that have had experiences of the world like theirs so that the unfamiliar world of higher education is made more familiar by virtue of peer groups.
All of this is the “duh” component of these findings. It was a well-intentioned effort, but really reduced the complexity of college choice and access in un-nuanced ways. But I am much more troubled by they very notion of undermatching. You see, I’m not sure what’s wrong with my less competitive school. Our admissions standards are lower than the competitive schools in the College Board study, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that my school is not a great option for students from all backgrounds.
Here’s the thing: it is true that a public school like mine does not have as much money to invest in special programs for first-generation and low-income students as an elite school. That means we have to be much more thoughtful about our investments. Working with faculty and other support staff, I find that we talk through the needs of our students with a broader view than the special population. We ask questions about how to improve tutoring overall, how to demystify college expectations for all students, how to best deploy peer mentors for all students. We don’t focus on niche, because we can’t, but the result is a sustained effort to help all students succeed.
It is true that my retention and graduation rates are and will continue to be lower than a more competitive school, but the experience of education will not be lesser. We have all the same accreditations for business, nursing, education, chemistry, social work, and all of our arts programs, as the elite schools have. This means our curriculum meets a standard of excellence that one should expect from higher education. Our graduates win Fulbright scholarships (our 6th this year) and Goldwater scholarships (our first since I’ve been here) and our winners are frequently the first in their families to attend college. They get jobs, start businesses, go to medical and veterinary schools, become teachers and nurses, and performing artists. In other words, their education positions them for success.
While they are enrolled at WCSU, our students encounter many people who look like them and many who do not (we are a wonderfully diverse campus). They work on projects with students who are first in the family to go to college, or second or third generation WCSU. They co-author research with faculty, volunteer when possible, and intern when available, usually while juggling at least one job. The pervasiveness of that juggling allows them to feel it is normal to have to make decisions not to volunteer or take on an extra opportunity if their circumstances don’t allow. Lots of our students are trying hard to make ends meet without taking out a lot of student loans, and they know how to prioritize.
In other words, low income students are set up to thrive here. We are a public university, with strong academic programs that meet the needs of our community. Our outcomes are not as strong as we’d like, but in terms of economic equity we are awesome. We know that not all of our students are ready to go through in four years in a row. We help them exit and re-enter as they work through their own educational and life decisions. That is our commitment to them.
We are not often the first choice for families that aspire to more status-conscious schools, but we are often where they finish their journeys when they realize the quality of all that we do. The support of Connecticut citizens helps us to be relatively affordable, and we hope that the support continues so we can be a university that nurtures learning for all, not just the lucky few. That is the value of what we do, and we do so with pride and aspiration for all of our students.
So, really, I reject the very notion of undermatching. It’s a classist argument and the study that ensued was based on all of those classist assumptions. Instead, I’m going to keep supporting the students we have, working toward support for the many, and improving our success rates one student at a time.