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.

 

Dialogue, Free Speech, Higher Education

No Time for Silence

It is Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.  We are awash in the news of pipe bombs and massacres, apparently motivated by old hatreds – anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-liberal media.  We are once again stunned that this is occurring in the United States.  Last night, I attended a political campaign event that began with a moment of silence to honor the victims at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.  As I bowed my head, I could not help but think, this is no time for silence.

As Provost of a public university, I am keenly aware of the diversity of beliefs among my students and faculty. Despite the popular notion that education is full of left-leaning liberal elites, WCSU is a clear reflection of its community, with a broad range of ideas and ideals. Our students and faculty are democrat, republican, independent and unaffiliated; we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Atheist; we are pro- and anti-union, we are environmentalists, inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs.   In every classroom, at every meeting, in every club, there is the potential for differences of opinion.

I work to celebrate and honor these differences every day, working hard to try to understand the perspectives of people with whom I disagree. It is an important part of my role as Provost and it is who I am. Yet, I am not certain that as a university, we are adequately cultivating the tools for discussion that this diversity requires. We list dialogue as one of our central values, boldly stating that, “We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.” But how are we bringing this to life?

I know we are cultivating dialogue in some courses and at occasional events.  Much of our curriculum is devoted to the development of good arguments, but are we digging in and addressing the foundations of conflicting positions? Are we examining alternative hypotheses and helping our students understand that one counter finding does not necessarily undermine the underlying theory (except when it does)? Are we asking ourselves to consider the possibility that our arguments are based on faulty assumptions, often rooted in deeply held cultural biases? Are we able to take on tough questions in our classrooms with honesty, integrity, and respect, making room for the most controversial opinions to be heard and addressed fairly? Are we willing to be wrong?

I fear that the answer to all of these questions is simply, not often enough.

As we move through the week ahead, I am asking myself, How can we do more to foster that dialogue? Is there more room in our curriculum? Can we make that room? How can we make dialogue a habitual behavior, instead of something addressed in special events and then left at the doorway of that event, not to be revisited the next day, or the day after that? What can we do to make students, faculty, and staff all feel comfortable in our diversity of opinions and experiences, so that we don’t hide dissent in social media, but bring it to light for all to see and discuss? How do we create a culture that does not marginalize dissent, but views it as important next questions to be considered?

I don’t know what the next steps should be.  I do know that silence is not the answer.