equity, Higher Education, Inclusion, Innovative Pedagogies

Cognitive Dissonance and Equity

It’s been a tough couple of years for higher education, and I’m not talking about funding or enrollment. Whether we point to the pulling down of Confederate statues, to heated discussions about racism in our academic organizations, to photoshopped recruiting materials that exaggerate campus diversity, it is clear that things are not going as we had hoped. We have reached a point of cognitive dissonance, with our sense of ourselves as fair and equitable routinely contradicted in academic and main stream media. And that cognitive dissonance is making us very uncomfortable.

Good. We should be uncomfortable.  We should be questioning our ability to support inclusive educational experiences that grapple with hard questions and take honest looks at discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about diversity (or the lack thereof) in our curricula.  I argued that we should get started with looking at our syllabi, course offerings, and majors with eyes toward greater inclusivity.  The importance of this task cannot be overstated.  Regular exposure to that diversity has the potential to weaken pervasive stereotypes or what Banaji and Greenwald call “mindbugs.” (Their book, Blind Spot (2013), by the way, would be an excellent text for a psychology course addressing our biased social constructs around race, gender, and age.) When we are not intentional about creating curricula that draw on excellence from all groups, we are supporting discriminatory narratives and inequitable social structures.  There is no time to waste on this project.  It is time-consuming, but it is the easiest of all the tasks associated with creating an inclusive learning environment because it is entirely within our control.

But there is more to do. Our next step is to work harder at supporting dialogues that address systemic inequity.  This is much harder than updating our curriculum. Let’s face it, leading those conversations is fraught with risks. There is a chance we may get the words wrong and inadvertently offend someone.  There is a chance that our students will not wish to participate.  There is fear that administrators like me will not understand the complexity of the situation when a conflict does emerge in a class.  These are all valid concerns, but we do no good avoiding difficult subjects. So, what do we do?

I have one suggestion to get us started.  Let’s see how far we can get by adopting a debate across the curriculum model.  We can identify classes in every major that will include structured debate.  It is important that we don’t default to debate in general education and ignore all of the other areas where these arguments should take place.  Students need to see the value of this investigative strategy in all disciplines. It would be great to lay foundations in general education and then follow up in majors so that the form of inquiry supported by this pedagogy becomes a habit. I’ve selected courses from nearly every discipline at WCSU where I’d love to see debate included:

  • ED 206 Introduction to Education
  • NUR 301 Nursing Leadership in Health Care Organizations
  • HPX 200 Introduction to Community Health and Organizations
  • SW 210 Social Welfare as an Institution
  • ACC 340 Business Law I
  • FIN 370 Financial Institutions
  • JLA 100 Introduction to Criminal Justice I
  • MGT 251 Human Resources Management
  • MIS 307 Social Media in Business
  • MKT 200 Principles of Marketing
  • AS The American Dream: Visions & Revisions
  • ANT/SOC 204 Culture and Personality
  • AST/ENV 134 Extraterrestrial Environments and Intelligence
  • BIO 200 Ecology
  • CHE 102 Everyday Chemistry I
  • COM 190 Introduction to Mass Communication
  • CS 110 Website Production
  • DIMA 200 Storytelling for Digital and Interactive Media
  • ECO 211 Principles of Macroeconomics
  • ENG 108 Introduction to Literature
  • HIS 148 American History: To 1877
  • HUM 110 Moral Issues in Modern Society
  • MAT 110 Great Ideas in Mathematics
  • MTR 240 Climatology
  • PHI 100 Introduction Philosophy
  • NWC/HIS 115 Latin American and Caribbean Civilization
  • PSY 202 Abnormal Psychology
  • SS 201 Researching Social Issues
  • SOC 100 Introduction to Sociology
  • WS 200 Introduction to Women’s Studies
  • WRT 171W Craft of Writing I: Conversations with Predecessors
  • ART 101 History and Appreciation of Western Art: Renaissance to the Present
  • MUS 100 History & Appreciation of Music
  • THR 180 Introduction to Theater Arts
  • All introductory language courses

In some cases, the debate should be, “why is this a category?” (Non-Western Cultures and  Women’s Studies come to mind).  In all cases, the debate topic should include some question of equity and students should be required to find evidence for their arguments from a body of literature that represents a diverse group of contributors.  This will require us to consider evidence from marginalized voices and people who do not have access to the traditional scholarly outlets associated with higher education, but I think we can do that.

The value of this approach is that it allows us to guide challenging conversations without taking a position on the topic.  This is important because our positions frequently leave our students feeling like they can’t disagree. Instead, we can focus on teaching about asking good questions, finding follow-up lines of inquiry, discovering contradictions, and evaluating evidence. Our students will take the lead in the debates, learning about the contributors to their position and anticipating the arguments of those who disagree. It’s a great approach for developing knowledge of a discipline and the structure of argument. It also helps us all become better listeners.

As students and faculty dive into this curriculum, we will be cultivating a habit of listening. We will be hearing points of view we have never considered.  We will be considering diverse bodies of evidence that we may not have encountered before.  And we will be discussing questions of equity as a regular practice, not as an add-on to our courses.

Learning with our students, about all of things we forgot to consider as we shaped our understandings of our disciplines and of education more generally, seems to me to be the best path to reconciling the gap between who we thought we were and who we want to be.  This step toward resolving our cognitive dissonance will be imperfect and require further review, but it is does offer a way forward and I’m ready for the first step.

Banaji, M. and Greenwald, A. (2013). Blind Spot. U.S.: Delacorte Press.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Inclusion

From Tolerance to Understanding

It’s Christmas Eve and all is quiet on the WCSU campus.  Grades have been entered for the fall semester, students and faculty have departed to celebrate and relax with family and friends. A few of us remain to address any last-minute questions, problems, or queries, but we will join our families later today.  Whatever we celebrate, we have reached an ending and a pause. It is a blessing to have our lives organized around these moments of closure.  It makes way for reflection and reinvention.

As I think about some of the themes emerging in this blog, I realize that I have been wrestling with education’s role in supporting a diverse society.  I am struggling to find ways to support the conversations that can help develop our understandings of diverse perspectives.  I am reaching for opportunities to build foundations that will support collaborative responses to the problems our graduates will face in the years to come.  At this intersection of religious and cultural holidays from all corners of the world, I am pausing to wonder, are we doing enough to foster dialogue about faith?

This is probably a surprising question coming from a person who was raised without religion and who champions the first amendment argument for government to just stay out of it.  Working at a public university, I am committed to secular education, leaving faith to the personal lives or all who work and study here.  That is a position I have always embraced.  But I think it is a position that may be leaving important gaps in a well-rounded education that prepares students for a diverse society.

When I was growing up, the language used to urge openness to different cultural, religious, and political values was “tolerance.”  In its moment, that word was progressive.  It was urging us not to dismiss the views of others, but to try to co-exist in peaceful ways. In the path from ethnocentricity to an understanding that not everyone sees or experiences the world in the same way, it was a good start.

But here we are in a post-911 world that has shaken our commitement to tolerance.  There is a pronounced fear of “others,” a fear that sometimes progresses to hatred and violence.  This fear and hostility is easily tapped into via the stereotypes in the mainstream media and the open bigotry that is so often promoted online. The tactics that have undermined tolerance are easily mapped to the strategies of persuasion described by the “father of public relations,” Edward Bernays, and even more hauntingly, the propaganda techniques outlined by Jacques Ellul. Our tolerance is no match for fear mongering.

So what does this reveal? Tolerance is not enough.  Tolerance allows us to stay in our separate corners without truly probing underlying beliefs.  We “accept” that others organize their cultures differently from us, but tolerance doesn’t urge us to develop an understanding of those differences. Indeed, it inadvertently gives us permission to disengage and adopt a live and let live attitude.  But disengagement leaves all kinds of room for us to slide back into hard categories of “other” that are the breeding ground for racism and intolerance.

At a secular public university, we might have a few conversations about history and cultural traditions, but we mostly avoid faith traditions.  There are comparative religion courses in our philosophy departments, but we don’t generally require students to take them.  We don’t want to be seen as promoting any particular religious view, so we avoid all of them.  Yet, so many of our cultural traditions and distinctions arise from our connections to religion.  The avoidance of the topic leaves a gaping hole in our narratives.

So, today I am reflecting on this gap in our expectations for public higher education.  At WCSU, our general education curriculum includes something we are calling “intercultural competency.” Courses that count for this competency are those that address learning a language other than English, history courses that do not focus on European and American histories, and a couple of applied courses in nursing and social work.  These are good options, but if we are to truly consider our graduates capable of seeing the world through multiple cultural lenses, I think we need to do more.  Instead of avoiding the religion question, perhaps we need to face it directly, and include it in the intercultural repertoire as a requirement.

Maybe it is at the secular university that we have the greatest opportunity to look directly at the different understandings of our purposes and obligations as human beings. Without the need to serve a particular religion, we might be well-equipped to truly compare and discuss the differences in the many faith traditions on our campuses. Perhaps we can start in the classroom and then move to the student organizations. Instead of separating into Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, and Atheist groups, we might create a place for real interfaith dialogue.

It’s complicated, to be sure, mostly because it is hard for any one person to represent the perspective of multiple faiths fairly.  But, I think we are failing our students by not engaging the conversation.  We have to go beyond simple symbols and festivals, and explore the deeply held convictions about what is true.  We need to deal with the complexity of our faith traditions.  Only then will we have the tools to develop understanding, instead of mere tolerance. Only then will we be preparing our graduates for the possibilities that a diverse society might bring.  And only then will we have any chance of preparing them to resist the appeals of the insensitive and often hateful stereotypes that keep us from seeing each other as connected human beings.

Peace to you all.

 

 

 

Dialogue, Higher Education, Inclusion

Diversity by the Numbers

C.J. Cregg changed my life.  For those of you who don’t know, Cregg (played by Allison Janney) was the press secretary on The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant political drama that ran from 1999-2006.  I’ve always been a sucker for a good political drama, but the inclusion of a powerful woman, keeping up with and sometimes outwitting the men around her, was both inspirational and life affirming.  I finally had that fictional role model I never knew I missed.

And there it was.  I understood in an instant the importance of providing that affirmation of the value and strength of all groups in our media and in the education we provide. All of the arguments about literary canons, affirmative action, and political correctness disappeared.  In this one case the answer is clear:  We must deliberately review all that we offer to ensure that we are representing the cultures of all of our students and faculty in a truly life affirming way.  Unlike all other attempts to build an inclusive society, we can take immediate and decisive action to achieve this end.

Here is the path as I see it. In the last U.S. Census the following gender and racial/ethnic distributions were reported:

  • Women:  50.8 % of the US population
  • Black or African American: 13.4% of the US population
  • American Indian and Alaska Native: 1.3% of the US population
  • Asian: 5.8% of the US population
  • Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander: 0.2% of the US population
  • Hispanic or Latino: 18.1% of the US population
  • Two or more races:  2.7% of the US population
  • White, not Hispanic or Latino: 60.7% of the US population

(https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/RHI525217)

Let’s just try to achieve these proportions in everything we do.

Start at the course level.  Can we achieve this proportion of voices in the readings we assign? Let’s examine the founders of our disciplines and then look a little further to see who else was there and try to include them.  In most great discoveries, there are other players, usual mentioned in footnotes, that represent a great diversity of contributors to the field.  Feature them. And let’s look at our other course materials (slides, videos, special guests, etc.) and deliberately revise them to reflect the proportions above.

Next,  we should meet with our colleagues and look at the design of our majors.  Are there gaps in the offerings that may have the cumulative effect of ignoring significant contributions to the discipline from the many cultures our country represents?  It isn’t just literature, folks. There are scientists in India, economists in China, philosophers in Brazil.  Let’s dig in and work together to fill that gap.

Look at the overall catalog of our offerings.  If we imagine our students specifically looking for courses that might celebrate their varied cultural histories, would they easily find them? If we know things are in the syllabi, but not in course titles and descriptions, then we should fix that. These options must be visible. If courses don’t exist at all, we must find ways to add them.

Now look at the guests invited to campus.  What does that tell us about who is celebrated?  If it isn’t balanced, we should be more intentional about it.  Perhaps we need a committee to review the schedule of performances, speakers, and events, to insure some balance. If we do, let’s make it so.

Finally, we must look at the images we chose  to represent our universities.  Do they reflect the proportions listed in the census?  If not, let’s fix it.

I am sure some of you are now thinking that I’ve reduced complex arguments about curriculum to a simplistic quota system.  You are correct, I have.  Here’s why. The people we habitually select in our curricula and events may be tremendously talented, but they are still reflections of social inequities and access to power.  We need a systematic plan to disrupt these habits.  Establishing new habits generally takes a deliberate set of steps that can be easily followed and measured.  This method provides those easily followed steps.

In every discipline there are the others who were in the labs, on the battlefields, creating art and music and theater, and negotiating peace treaties.  They were the “hidden figures,” eclipsed by our bias toward those in power.  These people are ready to be  layered into our habitual go-to examples.  Their routine inclusion will bring them to the forefront.  Regularly including the many contributors to our stories and discoveries will help us avoid the tokenism of the single example (generally perceived as an exception), in favor of the routine recognition of the greatness that lives in all groups.

This is not a small job, but is entirely achievable.  As I think  back to that moment when I met C.J. Cregg, I recall my excitement, and shockingly to me, the tears I shed as I felt a hole in my list of role models suddenly fill.  Hollywood has been moving  forward in its efforts toward inclusion (slowly, but surely),  but I fear education is not keeping up.  (Check out John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons for a particularly insightful example of why this matters.) We get bogged down in debates over how to be inclusive, and they are important debates.  But, some things are just obvious.  Examples exist, so let’s use them. We can help fill the gaps in the narratives that our students are experiencing.  They may not even know they are missing these examples, but I suspect their inclusion will be life-affirming to all of us.

 

 

 

 

Dialogue, Higher Education

Either/Or Thinking

Election day has come and gone, and as we continue to imagine the impact of the results, I am struck by the problem of the red vs. blue frame.  Last Tuesday, and every day since, numerous media outlets presented red and blue maps to represent broad swaths of voting patterns, ostensibly characterizing the attitudes of an entire state.  We know this red or blue frame isn’t quite right. The lived experience of our attitudes is far more complex than this simple either red or blue suggests.

General Semantics calls this either/or thinking a two-valued orientation.  Two-valued orientations focus on the extremes of arguments, leaving little room for dialogue because they specifically exclude all the ambiguities in the middle. Two-valued orientation is great for dramatic effect and defining clear battle lines, but it isn’t very helpful when trying to solve real problems. If education is meant to help us solve real problems, and I think it is, then we need to move past the this two-valued stalemate.

One way to get beyond or between the poles of an argument is with another general semantics concept called an abstraction ladder.  Abstraction ladders allow us to move to higher and lower levels of specificity revealing inclusion and exclusion of ideas at each level. For example:

  • Education (most abstract)
  • Higher Education
  • Public Higher Education
  • WCSU (least abstract).

Large statements about education are useful when we want to discuss a broadly educated citizenry, but less so when we want to focus on access to affordable post-secondary degrees.  Defining levels of abstraction can help us clarify the topic under discussion and refine our arguments.  It can also help undermine our either/or tendencies by illuminating the larger and smaller categories of our concepts and how they may be intertwined.

Our political information environments frequently force us into two-valued thinking. In an effort to predict (or drive) voter behavior, the salient issues of a particular election cycle are lumped into red and blue.

  • Gun control 
  • Pro-business
  • Affordable Healthcare 
  • Strong military 
  • Pro-environment 

But none of these issues are red or blue. These categories reduce to nonsense much larger and complicated discussions about how to achieve safety and security for all people.  Shown under the safety and security heading, we might find a gun control advocate who hunts, a veteran for affordable healthcare, or an entrepreneur promoting environmentally responsible energy solutionsWe know this is true. It is the lived experience of talking with our neighbors every day.

Red and Blue are convenient tropes for storytelling, and they frequently make it appear that we have more divisions than common ground.  And when we add the power of selective exposure, made infinitely possible through both social media and streaming television programming, those tropes become nearly insurmountable.  They don’t shape dialogue, they stop it.

So, what can those of us who work in education do to help our students and ourselves resist the two-valued orientations of election cycles and embrace concepts like abstraction ladders as a tool to see connections between attitudes and ideas that are not so easily summarized as red or blue?

As Thomas Jefferson noted, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”  I will add that education must serve as an antidote to either/or thinking and foster the dialogue necessary for informed decisions about complex questions. It’s a challenge but here’s where I’d like to start.

  • Education should prepare people to make informed decisions about complex questions. (most abstract)
  • Higher education should focus on questioning assumptions and evidence in all disciplines.
  • Public higher education should include demonstrated ability to describe the structure of arguments as a core learning outcome.
  • Western Connecticut State University should include learning opportunities in all Critical Thinking classes that require students to grapple with more than two-sides to a story, question, or debate. (least abstract)

If we meet the challenge, then perhaps we can stop talking about red and blue maps and work to address real problems like water supplies, food production, or access to education for all.

Dialogue, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Election Connection

Last week, in the wake of the violence at the Tree of Life, I wondered if we were doing enough to engage our students in difficult conversations.  One of the challenges faculty face when trying to do so is that a large number of undergraduates feel alienated from politics.  Who can blame them? In a world that favors sound bites over discussion and agonistic tones over evidence, it is hard to feel called to participate. When every “fact” turns out to be at the very least a shaded truth, and sometimes just false, political engagement can seem futile.

I understand the alienation, but to leave it unaddressed would be a failing on the part of education.  We can’t just reveal problems: we must also reveal pathways to solutions. At WCSU, one such pathway to engagement, and perhaps solutions, is a fall course called Election Connection.  

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For almost a decade, Dr. JC Barone of our Communication and Media Arts department has been running a television production course focused on local and national elections.  Election Connection invites students to conversations about politics in a really interesting way.  Instead of starting with the issues, the students start with the logistics of producing a quality television show.  Some are tasked with promotional duties, others with casting, and others focus on the local angle of important political issues.  It is wildly popular, with robust enrollments, that include students from multiple disciplines.

The brilliance of this approach is threefold:

  • First, we live in a part of Connecticut that gets very little media coverage, so there is a true need for this show. This need gives it a level of importance that producing for the campus alone would not generate.  Our students run to campaign headquarters to watch the returns. Candidates welcome their presence, and have been known to call in to report results.
  • Second, the casting of the election night broadcast always includes anchors and guests from multiple political perspectives to insure robust dialogue among people who work and study together.  This tends to create some tension, as appropriate, without leading to incivility.  It is also important that the casting blends faculty and student panelists, tearing down some of the barriers that can emerge in the classroom, as students sometimes fear contradicting faculty.  In service to the show, all participants are equal.
  • Third, the production team must produce news packages on important political issues. Students who may not have had any real interest in politics or political processes, suddenly become engaged because they want their story to air.

It all works because, rather than telling students they should be engaged, the are busy pursuing excellence in studio production.  It is the kind of hands-on learning that benefits students by developing tools as media producers and gaining knowledge of the subject at hand.  Dr. Barone sets ground rules that promote inclusive dialogue, diversity of perspectives, and civility. Students rise to the challenge, no longer avoiding tough topics, but digging in for a better understanding of the challenges to consensus.

Today, I salute this innovative approach to teaching. Election Connection truly supports the goals we have for our students, both excellence in media production and a rich understanding of the cultural context for that work.

I look forward to seeing this year’s show.  Check it out at www.wcsu.edu/live or you can tune in at www.wxci.org.