Black Lives Matter, equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

The Disconnect

On Friday I attended a demonstration organized by WCSU students in response to the murder of George Floyd.  Beginning in silence as our leaders let 8 minutes and 46 seconds pass, I had ample time to understand everything. Already reeling from the video, already horrified by the unequal application of the law to communities of color, already committed to decriminalization of non-violent crime, I still missed the most important message of all: there was plenty of time to change course, but it did not happen. I wept.

As my students began to speak, they told me important things. They told me that our African-American student clubs are treated unfairly. They told me that our “conversations” about social issues are not enough.  They called out the lack of courses in African-American, Latin-American, and Native-American histories and cultures.  They reminded me that faculty and staff do not reflect the diversity of our student population. And, yes, they wondered why it took a nation-wide protest for us to heed the calls to change our mascot.  I listened.

I have no defense for any of it.  I have observed some of these same things over the years.  I have seen that our “conversations” are never followed up with action.  I have noticed the imbalance in our staffing and have not found a good path to change it.  I have seen the disparities in the catalog and on the schedule, without effectively balancing it.  I have allowed policies to stand that disproportionately impact students who come from under-resourced K-12 school districts, and yes, that means disproportionately students of color. And, though I have always flinched at our mascot, I did not see the mascot as something I should take the lead on.  I am sorry.

It might be nice to offer myself an out.  I have, in fact, worked to right some of these wrongs over the years.  I could list those efforts, but I will not because the simple truth is, they have not worked. I have not managed to communicate the urgency of the situation.  I have only made marginal reforms. I have been deferential to the labyrinth of university processes that frequently end in tiny adjustments, rather than systemic change. It has taken me too long, but I get it now. It is time to change course.

Where to begin? The list is long, but I will start with two places where there is a disconnect between my (our) intentions and what my (our) students see.

Disconnect 1: Curriculum

While we may feel that our curriculum is inclusive, some of our students see it differently. As I looked through our catalog last week, I noted that gap.  Let me be clear, we do have courses that address African-American, Latin-American, Native-American, and Women’s histories and literatures but the number is very small compared to the whole of our catalog. We do weave in a diversity of perspectives and readings within some of our courses, but our students cannot see that when they choose to enroll because our course descriptions do not reveal a commitment to well-rounded narratives. We do have lovely courses that help us see our systems and cultures through the lens of non-US cultures, but our path to those courses (our introductions to disciplines) are failing to engage and excite our students, so those courses frequently struggle for enrollments. Then I have to cancel them because low-enrolled courses are not financially sustainable.

There are lots of steps to take to fix this disconnect between our intentions and what actually happens.  We can start with revising course descriptions to draw attention to our concern for equity. We can revise our reading lists to achieve a broader representation of voices and expertise in every discipline.  We can re-consider the point of an undergraduate degree and prioritize our requirements to address issues of equity.  We can re-imagine those first level courses, not as standard introductions to disciplines, but places to develop the basic tools of inquiry necessary for students to truly engage equity and diversity as they progress through their education.

These might be good places to start, but right now I think I will start by listening to what our students see, because talking among ourselves is getting is nowhere.

Disconnect 2: Prioritizing Student Success

We like to think of our campus as student-centered.  In many ways we are. Lots of faculty and staff take the time to reach out to students who are struggling, provide opportunities for students to excel, and go above and beyond to help students get to the finish line.  I know this to be true.  I have seen wonderful things happen time and time again.

Nevertheless, we are slow to act on information that tells us how we might do better. Consider retention, for example. For several years I have known that the students we are most likely to lose in the first year are students who had below a B average (84% or lower) in high school.  This was a big aha for me. I had been sorting our data by lots of demographic factors, but nothing was as predictive as this one variable. Great. Now what?

Well, I have tried to address it for two years, but I am getting nowhere.  I have initiated processes that have stalled, allowing these students to continue to arrive at the university and receive less than adequate support. The structure of our organization has made it next to impossible for me to achieve the focused intervention necessary for student success.

This can no longer stand.  I will act on the data and invest in the supports that have the best chance of improving the outcomes for those who did not thrive in high school.  Ignoring this leaves more students with a bill for an education they were unable to fully access. I have the time to change course, and I will not wait to do so.

There is much more to do, but I am guessing that as I move this conversation forward, including the voices that must be included, I will find the list to be longer than I have imagined.  I also anticipate that better ideas for solutions will come from those conversations, so I will continue to listen.

But I will not continue to wait for things to evolve over time. Higher education has time to change course, but that time is not infinite; that time is now.

Change, equity, Higher Education

Catalog as Equity Indicator

Well, it was a tough week last week.  As Americans took to the streets to express their fully justified rage at the persistent biases in policing that are visited upon communities of color, Western Connecticut State University struggled to respond.  We had a few missteps, but the near term result is that we have agreed to change our mascot and there will be a demonstration, organized by our students, this week.  But what about the long-term?

Last week, in response to students who wrote to me, I asked my faculty to reconsider the fall schedule.  Already struggling to figure out what we will look like in response to COVID-19, I added representation to the mix.  As students were grappling with the murder of George Floyd, they asked me why there were not more courses that represented the diversity of their backgrounds and experiences in our curriculum. Good question.

Of course, there is not a simple answer. When I reached out to faculty, and some of the departments that I thought had the most to contribute, two responses emerged.

Response 1: We address issues of race, gender, and equity in many of our classes.  It is woven in.

I wish that were true.  I took a few hours to read through our catalog and a few of the associated course outlines.  Except for Social Work majors, where these issues are truly  woven throughout the curriculum, discussions about equity (and therefore, race and gender) are not in the course descriptions. Here is a sample of what I found:

  • Justice and Law Administration mentions race in one course description, has a gender focused class (women, of course), and one course about civil rights.
  • The business degrees limit this conversation to the Marketing courses, with an emphasis on persuasion, and equal employment rules in management.
  • Sociology has a Social Problems class, which gets at some of what we need to be talking about, and then a few on race and equity, and the issues facing Latin-Americans in particular.
  • Anthropology always focuses on concepts that help us have good discussions about the constructs of race and culture, but their contexts are other countries, thus obscuring the relevance to our students’ lives.
  • The health professions acknowledge that culture and community play a role in health care, so I guess that’s a win.
  • There are a smattering of courses (Women’s Studies, Non-Western Cultures), with titles that tell the tale, but they are a small part of our offerings.
  • The histories of music, literature, and art are mostly Euro-centric with a few exceptions sprinkled in, and most (not all) of our American History courses focus on slavery when they address diversity and equity at all.

Nope, we do not substantively address race, gender, and equity in our curriculum. If we do, it is communicated at such an abstraction that our students cannot find it.  We need to rethink this woven-in strategy.

Response 2: When we choose to focus on particular groups – Women’s History, African-American History, LatinX History, and so on – we run the risk of reinforcing a marginalized status. 

Yes, I agree. I hate the way we have to name these groups to make them visible. I wish that we were at a point in our curriculum development that it would be absurd to do this. In a world where our teachings fully represented the contributions and experiences of all groups in the arts, sciences, politics, and the rest, we would not feel the need to create these courses. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

When students ask where the courses about their histories and experiences are, they are telling us that they do not see that representation.  They are hungering for acknowledgement of their value.  If their stories are not part of everything, and they are not, then they need the focused courses.  Before we push away their request with the marginalization response, let us consider the balance of our offerings. Here are some examples of what I mean.

English has thirteen courses that are focused on literatures that skew white and European and four that obviously do not. I am being generous in this. I suspect the genre courses also skew white and European, but I do not know for sure. Throwing in one book by an author from an under-represented group does not count.

History has approximately twenty-five courses focused on histories that are distinctly white, European, and male.  There are a cluster of Non-Western Culture courses, and a few courses that focus on civil rights and women’s histories, but proportionately they are small compared to the overwhelming number of traditional approaches to history.

In the rest of the arts and humanities disciplines, where these topics should flourish, the proportions do not improve. What we are doing is marginalizing the histories, literatures, arts, and philosophies of women, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, LatinX Americans, LGBTQIA, and so on, by limiting them to the precious few courses.  In other words, if there were not so few of them, they would not be marginal. If we want equity in our curriculum, we should have many more classes that focus on particular histories and experiences. Then they would not be the exception, but instead, they would be the basis of a strong liberal arts education.

The most egregious example of the absence of serious diversity in our curriculum is the case of African-American Studies.  This is a topic that you can find in our catalog. It contains exactly one dedicated course, The Black Experience in America. The rest of the courses are anthropology courses about Africa. There is a course in African-American Literature in the English department, but it is not listed here. Wow. Worse yet, The Black Experience in America has no home. It is scheduled by the History Department, but they claim no ownership of the material. It is taught by a long-time adjunct faculty member. Nope, no buy-in here at all. I am ashamed.

Now, I know some readers will find flaws in my logic here.  If we weave it in, do we need the special courses? Yes. Am I contradicting myself? Probably, but sometimes contradictory things can both be true. We need to weave equity into all that we do. We also need to be interested in the many histories and experiences that make up our communities.

We have a lot of work to do, and now that we are through the first level of our defense mechanisms, I would like to get on with it.  I do not want to get mired in identifying problems associated with transitioning to curriculum that better reflects the diversity of human experiences. I want proposals that dig into every discipline (yes, STEM, you too) and make the changes we need to build an anti-racist university*.

*More on this topic next week. For now, I highly recommend Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to be an Anti-Racist.

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.

 

Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The COVID-19 Toolkit: Critical Thinking

A few years ago, my university adopted a new general education curriculum.  We moved from a distribution model that featured exposure to ideas in different categories (humanities, social sciences, sciences) to a model with defined learning outcomes for ten general education categories (scientific inquiry, mathematical reasoning, oral communication, etc.).  We named this a competency model, which was definitely a mistake, but the change did help us focus on the notion that our students should develop particular skills and habits of mind as part of the general education experience.

Among those “competencies” was critical thinking.  We had a lot of conversation around this one.  As it turns out, every discipline wants to claim that they teach critical thinking. The agreed upon definition, which describes the evaluation of arguments, was twisted to fit into every possible version of critique. The word “argument” was stretched to include every aesthetic choice and there was a general claim that you cannot teach anything without doing critical thinking.  Would that this were so.

In the face of this pandemic, it has become exceedingly clear that as a culture we have failed to teach critical thinking in any meaningful way.  From the misunderstanding of the use of masks to the over-generalization of preliminary scientific investigations to the mistaken notion that this quarantine is designed to stop COVID-19 completely, we are awash in evidence that we do not know what evidence is. And don’t get me started on the idea of trusted sources. We have clearly lost our collective minds on that one. Higher education must remedy this immediately.

Here is where I think we went wrong.  We do teach the basics of critical thinking, but we do not always connect those basics in humanities classes, to the hypothesis testing in science classes, or to the structure of probabilities in statistics. We also seem to be satisfied with the starting principles (often black and white/true or false constructs), and less committed to the complications of the gray areas.*

For example, most of our students have had an experience of science that involves hypothesis testing. This is good because hypothesis testing is the primary mechanism for moving knowledge forward in the sciences.  It is an important method because it can yield both positive and negative results. To put it plainly, if there is no option to find your hypothesis wanting, you do not really have a hypothesis.

The trouble is  our basic understanding of hypothesis testing often leads to the faulty idea that hypotheses yield true or false conclusions. This is rarely the case.  They lead to conclusions that are more likely to be true or more likely to be false.  A good research protocol continues to build on those likelihoods until there is enough evidence to propose an action or at least a reasonable working assumption.  That leaves a lot of gray area, yes gray area is science.

Then there are the informal logic classes.  These focus on the structure of arguments, and the incredibly important tool of the syllogism.  You all remember a variation of this one:

  • All human beings are mortal.
  • Socrates is a human being.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

It is such a simple and elegant tool.  I remember when I first encountered it.  It was as if I suddenly had the tools to defend myself from arguments that I had felt bullied into accepting.  I went on to learn about manipulations of syllogisms, which abound in the world of politics and advertising, and the abuses of language that can mislead (weasel words), and I was properly empowered.

The trouble is most of our knowledge is not as simple as this construct allows. True and false are rarely the conclusions of an argument. More true and less true are the much more common realities. As much as I love the syllogism, it has a way of suggesting certainty where none exists.

Then there are our statistics classes. We have determined that statistics is foundational for many research programs (business, psychology, communication, and so on), because it is how ideas move forward in these disciplines. Basic understandings of T-Tests or Chi-Squares or ANOVAs are important tools for many career paths, and students who pay attention in these classes will develop their ability to use these tools. This is to the good. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be succeeding with the other important part of statistics–decoding and interpreting probabilities.

The person not tasked with doing statistics must still be able to interpret them. In all cases, what we are interpreting is the strength of the findings–the probability that we could get the same result with another, similar sample. Understanding how to determine the strength of a finding is so important to our lives, that I would call it an essential learning outcome. As we consider the barrage of “information” about COVID-19, essential learning becomes a matter of life and death.

Take the question of the effectiveness of face masks. Masks are a containment measure, but not an absolute one. They contain the spray we emit from our mouths and noses when talking, coughing, sneezing, etc. The argument for wearing them is to protect others from you in case you are an unknowing carrier of COVID-19. The argument is not that the masks will prevent all spread of COVID-19, but early studies suggest that it is a good tool in the effort to reduce the spread of this virus.

But wearing masks is not enough. We must use masks properly (cover nose and mouth).  We must remember not to touch our faces, even if we are wearing a mask, because we may encounter droplets spread by someone else.  We should probably stay 6 feet apart even with masks on (although, I think this argument is conflated with the typical spray range of 6 feet, and may be nullified by the wearing of masks), because that will remind us not to touch each other.  If we are in a high risk category, we should probably continue to stay home.

In other words, it is not as simple as

  • Wearing a mask will stop people from spreading COVID-19.
  • Everyone is wearing a mask.
  • Therefore, we will stop the spread of COVID-19.

The truth is more like

  • Wearing a mask will help to limit the spread of COVID-19.
  • Most people will wear a mask (I hope).
  • Therefore, we will limit the spread of COVID-19.

What the second syllogism needs to help us all feel a little better is some well-supported testing results that yield some probabilities that we can be comfortable with.  We are also going to need some points of comparison to help us live with results that are less than 100% perfect, because 100% effective is never a result of anything. We are going to need reminders of the things we already do that are not 100% safe and those statistics need to be calibrated to reasonableness (please do not give us car accidents).

We need to understand the connection between probabilities and hypotheses and/or syllogisms, and the realities of the vast gray areas in which we live. That is the only way we will be able to move out of our quarantined world. Critical thinking is the best tool we have for navigating the gray areas in which we live.  Higher education must address this habit of mind directly and often because our lives are at stake. To ignore this urgent need would be a dereliction of duty.

*Apologies for the simplification of logic, hypothesis testing, and probabilities. This is an essay. We all need to full courses.

Higher Education, Quality

COVID-19 Lessons Learned, Part II

Last week, I wrote about some of the lessons I have learned from experiencing the mass migration to online learning that was required in the face of COVID-19. These lessons included a lack of preparation, concerns about equity, and finally some real skepticism about delivering education online.  This week, I would like to talk about how we might be prepared for the fall, address some issues of equity, and do a good job of blended learning environments. Here we go.

Be Prepared

Preparing for fall 2020 is preparing for a great deal of uncertainty.  While some campuses are boldly stating that they will be fully on-ground, and others are declaring that most things will be online, for many of us, the plan is shaping up to be some combination of those things, or what we have been calling a hybrid campus.  After a first round of conversations with faculty and staff, and while we are waiting for system and state-level guidance, WCSU is working on a plan that reflects a campus prepared for a changeable reality.

Step one: Every course and all student support systems will be ready for online delivery. We hope to not need this measure, but it is easier to switch from online to on-ground than the other way around. This way, we will actually be prepared to continue education, uninterrupted in the fall.

Step two: We are mapping spaces and schedules to determine how much we can offer on-ground with reasonable social distancing measures in place.  We are puzzling through labs because they really are better face-to-face.  We are re-imagining studio courses. We are thinking about a safe number of people in a room, in the hall, in office areas to determine maximum occupancy. We are scrutinizing schedules for adequate time between classes to make room for people to be on campus without -literally-bumping into each other.

Step three: We are thinking developmentally. Instead of just prioritizing courses that really do not do well online, we are also thinking about the transition from high school to college and how we can help these students develop skills for navigating a hybrid learning experience. We already know that the drop in structured time from high school to college is a challenge; being partially online, makes this an even bigger concern

And there will be a million other logistical questions about managing a campus organized around social distance, but we have begun to plan, and it feels good.

Strive for Real Equity

Last week, I mentioned the issue of equity that we have long neglected in public higher education – reasonable access to electronic resources. As we made the mad dash home March, we were busy handing out laptops, ordering laptops, and securing access to the internet in some capacity.  Now, it is time to plan for that access from the start, and forever after.

Fortunately, the first level thinking about this is simple. We need to include technology and connectivity as part of our enrollment process. Unfortunately, it gets more complicated after that.  Setting minimum standards for laptops is one important question.  If we do not do so, all of the software we think we made available to our students will not actually be available. Then there are students in majors with specialized software that may require a higher standard.  This is a little bit complicated.

More complex, as always, is the question of funding. We are going to have to examine our fee structure, financial aid processes, and discretionary funding sources, to help us ensure that these tools are equitably deployed.  But this is a question we should have answered before COVID-19, so let’s get to it.

Online Learning

All right, all right.  I know I said online learning sucked. Nevertheless, we are going to have to leverage this important learning environment.  So, let me be more thoughtful in what “it sucks” might mean and how we can overcome it.

First, there are some basics. Every university chooses a learning management system (LMS) -Blackboard is ours.  LMS’s are varied in their capabilities and ease of usage, but no matter what, none of them meets everyone’s needs. This leads to rogue behavior in which faculty find other sites to use for their teaching environment.  I do not blame them. I understand that all officially sanctioned environments are less than perfect.

Unfortunately, this sucks for students. Having to hunt around for entry points is disconcerting at best and alienating at worst.  So, we are going to have to find a compromise that gives students an easy map to finding their courses, while allowing faculty to leverage appropriate tools.  It is not that hard to work this out, but it must be worked out.

Second, online teaching and learning is not the same as the face-to-face environment. It lacks immediacy and often undermines spontaneity.  There can be benefits to the lack of immediacy, particularly when students need time to think before responding, but if things are not structured well, what students feel is alone and what professors feel is overworked. It is also the case that some of our favorite pedagogies – like moving in and out of groups in the classroom, or fostering seminar discussions, or introducing topics and then watching students wrangle them– are just harder to achieve online. They are harder, but not impossible.

This sucks for faculty, at least initially.  Planning for classes will have to be much more prescriptive than some of us are used to doing.  Creating week-by-week schedules, assigning and reassigning groups, popping between “rooms” to mentor conversations, or fostering sustained dialogue over time, are all a lot of work.  Nevertheless, these teaching experiences can be rewarding, and sometimes, as we navigate moving between learning environments, better course design can occur.

There is so much more to say about creating a good, hybrid learning environment, and there are lots of developmental questions that must be considered. But here is what does not suck…expanding how we think about education.  This moment has presented an amazing opportunity to do just that, and it will be hard but exciting work.  So, I will not complain anymore about the negatives, because there is a new adventure in education ahead and that does not suck at all.