“Students will be seated one fallen statue of a historical figure apart. As statues are the only way we learn history, this will also remove the need for students to buy books.”

College classroom 3

McSweeney’s strikes again! Check out Bethany Keenan’s “Discipline-Specific Guidelines For Classroom Social Distancing.” Here are a few:

History

Students will be seated one fallen statue of a historical figure apart. As statues are the only way we learn history, this will also remove the need for students to buy books.

Political Science

Students will explore the intersection of personal sentiment and American political life by spending the semester ten paces apart and in the same positions taken during the Hamilton-Burr duel.

Religion

Have students map out the genealogical trees of the Old Testament until they are all stationed fifteen begots apart.

Read the others here.

College Teaching and the Planting of “Intellectual and Moral Seeds”

Boyer Hall

David Brooks offers some advice to the college class of 2020:

The biggest way most colleges fail is this: They don’t plant the intellectual and moral seeds students are going to need later, when they get hit by the vicissitudes of life. If you didn’t study Jane Austen while you were here, you probably lack the capacity to think clearly about making a marriage decision. If you didn’t read George Eliot, then you missed a master class on how to judge people’s character. If you didn’t read Nietzsche, you are probably unprepared to handle the complexities of atheism—and if you didn’t read Augustine and Kierkegaard, you’re probably unprepared to handle the complexities of faith.

The list goes on. If you didn’t read de Tocqueville, you probably don’t understand your own country. If you didn’t study Gibbon, you probably lack the vocabulary to describe the rise and fall of cultures and nations.

The wisdom of the ages is your inheritance; it can make your life easier. These resources often fail to get shared because universities are too careerist, or because faculty members are more interested in their academic specialties or politics than in teaching undergraduates, or because of a host of other reasons. But to get through life, you’re going to want to draw on that accumulated wisdom. Today is a good day to figure out where your college left gaps, and to start filling them.

Read the entire piece at The Atlantic.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. I am glad to work at a college that takes Brooks’s call seriously. This semester, as many of you know, I taught Dorothy Sayers, St. Augustine, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker, Plato, John Henry Newman, J.R.R. Tolkien, James Weldon Johnson, Desmond Tutu, Albert Schweitzer, and the Old and New Testament.
  2. I also teach at a college that will be going through a general education review soon.
  3. We can bring great texts to students, but we can’t make them read and digest in the way Brooks suggests.  Fewer students want to take up Brooks’s call.

How Will Coronavirus Redefine College?

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The following piece is by University of Georgia history professor Stephen Mihm. Warning: What you are about to read is not pretty.  A taste:

Imagine, for a moment, if August rolls around and the pandemic has abated but colleges and universities remain shuttered. This doesn’t mean, though, that they can’t operate: After all, professors across the country have spent the past few weeks putting classes online, teaching via Zoom, and otherwise adapting to the new normal. In theory, the nation’s institutions of higher education can simply do the same come fall. And therein lies a problem.

When students shell out $50,000 a year to attend a school that admits a majority of applicants, they’re paying for a lot more than professors. They’re paying for the experience of college: dating, dorm life, fraternities and sororities, Frisbee on the quad — all the stuff that has come to define college for the past century or so. This is one reason, perhaps, that colleges and universities have spent so much money on amenities and extracurricular diversions, rather than actual education, in recent years.

But when education moves online, all of that disappears. Instead, you’re left with a haggard-looking professor on Zoom. That’s worth something, sure, but it isn’t worth paying anything close to full freight. Parents who confront this reality come fall semester are going to quickly conclude that their children will need to settle for something more practical, like some online courses offered by a local branch of the state university.

This may be true even if schools reopen. As parents of high-school-age children recover from the pandemic and the job losses that have attended it, the logical choice for many — perhaps the only choice, given their financial circumstances — will be to hold off on the pricey residential college experience until things return to normal.

Brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, though, can’t wait. They’ve got fixed costs: buildings and laboratories to maintain; faculty and staff to pay; debts to service; and many other expenses. Yes, some have endowments, but outside a handful of elite universities, these are rarely large, and they have already sustained significant damage over the past month. This will leave the hundreds of schools who have bet their futures on residential education in a serious bind.

Unlike so much of the workforce today, employees at these colleges and universities often spend their entire lives working for the same institution. They are the living embodiment of these institutions, participating fully in all the rituals that make college an experience. Get rid of them, and you have effectively destroyed investments in human capital built up over many decades.

Read the entire piece at Bloomberg.

Out of the Zoo: The Hedgehog and the Fox

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Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college.  In this dispatch, Annie reflects on Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”. –JF

I did a lot of reading this semester. Being a history major, though, I suppose it comes with the territory. Instead of spending hours in the pottery studio like the art majors, or agonizing over lab like STEM students, history majors write and read—a lot. I read John Santrock in Educational Psychology, lots of Sam Wineburg for Teaching History and Social Studies, and many words from the pen of Alexander Hamilton for my Age of Hamilton class. Since the beginning of September I’ve been exposed to a number of different voices, some clear and others confusing, some of which I agree with and others that I don’t. Nonetheless, the challenge of hearing each one out is a task that has surely made me a better writer, student, and novice historian.

One of the first pieces I read this semester was for my Historical Methods class, an essay by Isaiah Berlin titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” I distinctly remember reading it within a few days of arriving on campus, sitting at one of the picnic tables outside Murray Library when it was still warm enough to do so. Pulling from the Greek poet Archilochus who once wrote “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” Berlin thinks that this statement, taken figuratively, describes a great difference that splits writers and thinkers. Some are hedgehogs, Berlin writes, who “relate everything to a single central vision,” who like to simplify their findings and organize them into a neat and concise conclusion. And then there are others, the foxes, who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory,” who dwell in nuances and complexity, who run in the many different directions that their thinking, writing, or researching takes them. 

In my methods class we talked about how, as historians, we think and write and research somewhere between these two sects. For while we may start a project with a central topic, theme or idea in mind, as we do research we are stretched in many different directions. No matter how much we desire to organize all our findings into a thesis statement that’s orderly and decisive, we sometimes must face the reality that the past is often far too complex to do so to our satisfaction. We have the spines of hedgehogs and the fluffy tails of foxes, or so it seems. 

As I wrap up my final papers for the semester (which I have already written about here and here) I am continuing to realize the truth of this assertion. I’ve spent the whole semester knee deep in research–seeking out sources, following leads, falling down rabbit holes–all in an attempt to answer the questions I set out to answer.  But after all my research, I’m realizing that the questions I asked months ago are not so easily answered. I’m realizing that there will always be paths that remain unexplored, questions that go unanswered; yet with due dates fast approaching I must bring my research to some sort of end.

Thus, it is here that I will remain. In the tension between the one and the many, the simple and the complex, I attempt to bring my months of research together into a cohesive whole. I try to bring my outstretched hands together and weave the fringes of my research into some kind of tapestry. I can only hope that my tapestry will be a beautiful one.

What Kind of Technology Do Undergraduates Want?

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Messiah College participated in this survey

According to the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, undergraduates:

  • want mostly face-to-face learning environments.
  • want lectures, student presentations, question and answer sessions, and class discussions to take place in a face-to-face learning environment , as opposed to homework, exams, and quizzes.
  • really like degree audits and degree planning tools.
  • want Wi-Fi in the library and classrooms.
  • think that their professors do a good job in using technology to enhance their learning.
  • who have disabilities are not happy with, or upset with, their access to technology on campus.

Dig deeper here.

Episode 54: Why College?

PodcastIncreasingly, college campuses have transformed from places of rigorous scholarly pursuits into glorified centers for job training. But is this what college is really for? Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling sit down and discuss the need for aspirational hope in an increasingly pessimistic world. They are joined by Dr. Johann Neem (@JohannNeem), author of the recent book, What’s the Point of College?

Duke University Rejects Young Life

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Universities like Duke claim to be bastions of free speech, inclusion, and pluralism, but they tend to define these commitments very narrowly.   For example, the student government at Duke recently rejected Young Life‘s official status on campus because the Christian ministry supports traditional views on marriage and sexuality.

Here is an article from the Duke student newspaper:

The Duke Student Government Senate unanimously declined to recognize Young Life as an official Duke student group at its Wednesday meeting. 

Young Life is a national Christian organization that has branches serving middle and high school students in Durham and Chapel Hill. The group had requested official recognition to recruit and support a greater number of students, as it already has a following on campus. But Young Life was rebuffed over concerns about the national organization’s policies concerning LGBTQ+ leaders. 

At last week’s DSG meeting, senators noted that the national organization’s rule barring LGBTQ+ individuals from leadership positions violates the Student Organization Finance Committee’s guideline that every Duke student group include a nondiscrimination statement in its constitution. 

The Senate then tabled the vote to give Young Life members the chance to speak to senators at this week’s meeting. 

Young Life’s sexual misconduct policy states that “we do not in any way wish to exclude persons who engage in sexual misconduct or who practice a homosexual lifestyle from being recipients of ministry of God’s grace and mercy as expressed in Jesus Christ. We do, however, believe that such persons are not to serve as staff or volunteers in the mission and work of Young Life.” 

Senator Tommy Hessel, a junior, suggested that the Duke Young Life chapter amend its rules to comply with Duke’s nondiscrimination policy. However, Jeff Bennett, a master’s candidate at the Duke Divinity School and current Young Life member, argued that the Duke chapter could not break with national standards. 

“We cannot go outside the bounds of national policies,” Bennett said. 

Senior Rachel Baber, another Young Life member, also spoke in front of the Senate in a push for recognition, pointing out that Duke community members involved in the organization currently have to drive to Chapel Hill for official meetings. 

Read the rest here.

At least once a week someone–usually a reporter–asks me why so many evangelical Christians support Donald Trump.  Stories like this are part of the answer.

For a different understanding of free speech, inclusion, and pluralism I would encourage you to read John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving  Through Deep Difference.

Moving Into the Dorms, Circa 1785

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My youngest daughter went to her first college class yesterday morning (Spanish I).  She moved into the dorms last week and has managed to survive four full days of new student orientation.  I think I will send her J.L. Bell’s recent piece at Boston 1775 on Charles Adams’s move into the Harvard dorms in 1785.

Here is a taste:

Fifteen-year-old Charles Adams started at Harvard College that year. His parents, Abigail and John, were across the Atlantic in London, so he was under the wing of relatives on his mother’s side. 

Charles had been studying for the entrance exam with the Rev. John Shaw of Haverhill, an uncle by marriage. On 9 May Charles wrote to his cousin William Cranch: “we study in the bedroom as usual two young fellows from Bradford being added to our number, One of whom will be my chum if we get in and who I should be very glad to introduce to you.”

By “chum,” Charles meant a college roommate. That prospect was Samuel Walker (1768–1846). When Charles’s older brother John Quincy Adams visited that summer, he immediately assured their mother that Samuel was “a youth, whose thirst for knowledge is insatiable.” 

Read the rest here.

Identity Politics on Steroids at Amherst College

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The Office of Diversity & Inclusion at Amherst College in Massachusetts recently posted its “Common Language Guide,” a forty-page glossary of terms that calls for “a need to come to a common and shared understanding of language…around identity, privilege, oppression and inclusion.”

Over at the left-leaning Catholic magazine Commonweal, Rand Richards Cooper, an Amherts graduate, offers his critique:

Some entries are almost comically tendentious. Here is the guide’s definition of “heterosexuality,” for instance: “A term developed as diagnosis of the hyper-infatuation with a different sex, first used by sexologist Karl-Maria Kertbeny in 1868…. [It] is used today to denote the normalized dominant sexual identity.” And while the guide’s definition of “equality” begins straightforwardly enough—“treating everyone exactly the same”—it quickly takes a sharp left turn, observing that “an equality emphasis often ignores historical and structural factors that benefit some social groups/communities and harm other social groups/communities.” Does that mean that emphasizing equality is not a good thing?

Anything resembling traditional, received notions of gender (and anyone embracing them) receives a bruising definitional wallop from Amherst’s team of language mavens. We learn that “femininity” is “a set of attributes, behaviors, and roles associated with girls and women,” and further that “performing femininity in a culturally established way is expected of people assigned female at birth.” The definition all but dismisses femininity as fraudulent—unless it is the femininity of the marginalized. Thus we encounter “hard femme,” defined as “an identity term for queer women… [who] remind us that femininity and strength can be synonymous.” “Hard femmes,” the entry continues, “are feminists.” But…wait! Can’t straight women remind us that femininity and strength can be synonymous? Can’t they be feminists? Not exactly; at least, not straight white women—since “white feminism,” as we learn, is “a form of feminism that centers the experiences of white (also: cisgender, straight, and upper-class) women…[and] is predicated upon the erasure of women of color and the ways in which racism and sexism converge and compound one another.”

Reading the guide is like stumbling into a trade-journal article, where specialized language demarcates territory and warns off intruders. Bristling with acronyms and niche designations, it elaborates a system of identity via a profusion of phyla: Latinx/o/a/e, QTPOC, AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth), FTM, MX, XTX (“a response by trans folks who reject the terms ‘FTM’ and ‘MTF’”). We wander into internal gender-politics squabbles, as when we learn that “Boi”—“a term describing masculine-presenting queer black women whose gender presentation can be more fluid and/or androgynous than completely masculine”—was “purposely coined to be different from ‘stud’/’AG’ [‘Aggressive Girl’] because of the rigid conformity to masculinity in those communities.” Meanwhile, TERF—Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist—denotes feminists who reject trans women because they were once boys; while this view has been rejected “by most queer and trans communities,” the guide notes that “TERF ideology still does infiltrate many women’s spaces.”

Apparently Amherst’s president was not happy about the guide.  Here is Cooper:

The Common Language Guide wasn’t on the Amherst website for long. Soon after it appeared, president Carolyn Martin, surely recognizing the potential for calamitous PR, took it down, then hastily called a faculty meeting to express her displeasure at such a document having been made public without her approval. Of course, nothing really disappears from the internet, and it didn’t take long for gloating reactionaries to seize on the guide and indulge their favorite sport of gleefully savaging liberal elitism.

Liberals will dislike being forced into strange bedfellow-ship with rightwing cultural critics. But a document like Amherst’s Common Guide may leave them no choice. Despite the sentiment expressed in its introduction, such a document will not serve to encourage discussion, but to stifle it; the goal is not intellectual diversity, but conformity. A professor friend of mine at another college notes ruefully that colleagues who oppose the ideas and language put forth in the Amherst document don’t dare say so publicly. “They’d be ostracized and shamed,” he told me. “You just can’t disagree with this kind of thing.” So much for the idea of tenure as a shield against censorship.

In a statement disavowing the guide, Martin commented that it “runs counter to the core academic values of freedom of thought and expression…[and] cuts against our efforts to foster open exchange and independent thinking.” A few days later, in a second, longer statement, Martin—presumably having taken heat from her faculty—partly walked back her initial criticism, praising “the intentions of those who created the document” and asserting that “they believed creating it would help us come to terms with the experiences and perspectives of marginalized groups and create an environment in which understanding and a sense of community could grow.”

Read the entire piece here.

“Don’t find yourself, find your vocation”

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History major Jonathan Fuller holding his towel

When Messiah College students cross the platform during their graduation ceremony they receive a small white towel.  The towel symbolizes service.  As Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, so we hope our graduates will think about their lives in terms of service to others.  I thought about this Messiah College tradition when I read Tom Perrin’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “One Way to Make College Meaningful.”  I especially like the subtitle: “Don’t find yourself; find a vocation.”

Here is a taste of his piece:

Why vocation, though, rather than the old model of learning for learning’s sake? Why not, as the religious studies professor Ron Srigley has recently argued, return to the old, “beautiful goal” of the university, “to discover and then to tell the truth,” disentangled from the mercenary arms of the offices of careers and student life? My answer would be that universities have always been hybrid creatures, serving many masters at once: social norms, the market, churches and the exacting standards of disciplinary research, to name four. But the fantasy of the university as a disinterested sphere of pure knowledge is just that. This is not so much to attack the liberal arts as it is to point out that to link them purposefully with life and career goals is not at all to alter the way they have long functioned.

Read the entire piece here.

What is Going on at the University of Iowa?

The University of Iowa Campus looking west from Old Capitol and the Pentacrest.

The administration of the University of Iowa does not want a Christian student group called Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC) on campus because they do not permit LGBT students to hold leadership positions.  After de-registering BLinC as an official student group, a federal judge temporarily re-instated the group.

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Eboo Patel writes:

BLinC pointed out that lots of student groups are based around particular identities and affinities, and such associations generally reserve certain privileges for people who share those identities and affinities, thereby excluding people who do not. If the University was going to deregister BLinC, what was it going to do about the Imam Mahdi group, which wants its leaders to be Shia Muslim students? Or the Korean American Student Association? Students For Life? The Feminist Union? Would they all be required to have governing documents that complied with the University of Iowa’s human rights policy?

It turns out that, out of 513 student organizations at the University of Iowa, just 157 were in compliance with the University’s human rights policy. That means a whopping 356 were out of line.

A federal judge, in ordering that BLinC be temporarily restated as an official student organization, wondered why the University had applied its policy so unevenly.

I find this case extremely important and not at all easy.

Patel invokes the work of John Inazu in Confident Pluralism: Surviging and Thriving Through Deep Difference to help make sense of what is happening at the University of Iowa.

Here is a taste:

I belong to a religious community that excludes my wife. I am an Ismaili Muslim and my wife is a Sunni Muslim. Ismailis are defined by their belief in the Imam (a figure broadly similar to the Pope in Catholicism and the Dalai Lama in Tibetan Buddhism) who is held by Ismailis to be their leader and spiritual guide, the rightful interpreter of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition.

Only those who have declared formal belief in the Imam are allowed to take part in Ismaili spiritual ceremonies, or to enter certain Ismaili religious spaces. Ismailis are especially sensitive about these matters because we are minorities within the broader Muslim community who have experienced no small amount of life-threatening discrimination, and frankly still do.

This means that when I take our two children for prayers, my wife cannot come. When Prince Karim Aga Khan, the current Imam, made a special spiritual visit to the United States last year to celebrate being in office for 60 years, my wife was left out in the hall as the rest of our family went inside to be in the Imam’s sacred presence.

As you can imagine, I don’t like this very much. My wife likes it even less.

It’s also not something I have a vote in. There are no elections in the Ismaili interpretation of Islam. The Imam of the time is appointed by the previous Imam, has full authority to shape the rituals and practices of the faith, and then appoints representatives (both a priestly class of sorts and administrators) who are empowered to lead the community.

This Ismaili practice is distinctive in its particulars but not so strange in its general approach. Many religious communities have boundaries that include some and exclude others. If you are not Muslim, you cannot go to Mecca. If you are not Catholic, you cannot take communion. If you are not male, you cannot become part of the priesthood in either the Catholic or LDS churches.

Generally, there are not enough Ismailis at a college to form an official Ismaili Students Association. If there were, and if such groups needed to have some kind of recognition from an official Ismaili administrative body, it would surely say that at least the leaders of the group needed to be Ismaili. How could it be any different? How could the leaders of a religiously-oriented group be unable to enter the prayer hall of that group?

Under all-comers policies, a college would have to de-register an Ismaili Students Association. That would obviously negatively impact Ismaili students, who would lose access to college facilities and also lose the ability to advertise widely. It would also negatively impact the wider campus community. Ismailis love running social events and organizing service projects, and those are open to everyone. An organized Ismaili group would likely be involved in broader awareness campaigns around humanitarian issues in Central and South Asia, where a lot of Ismaili-run development projects take place. They would also simply be part of the diverse civil society of the campus, and by their presence educate people about the range of religious and cultural groups on the planet.

Doesn’t a college campus have a stake in the flourishing of identity groups like a hypothetical Ismaili Students Association? Doesn’t a diverse civic fabric require strong individual threads, including religious ones? 

Read the entire piece here.

 

An Undergraduate History Club Goes to the AHA Annual Meeting

Humboldt State

AHA Today has posted a great piece on the Humboldt State University History Club’s experience at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

Here is a taste of Blanca Drapeau’s article:

There we were. A small group of Californian undergrads, winter layers piled over our business casual attire, perusing the AHA 2017 annual meeting program over coffee and pastries. We discussed panels that piqued our interests, excitedly pointing out historians we’d read for our courses and asking each other about unfamiliar terms. Last year was my senior year at Humboldt State University and the second year I attended the AHA annual meeting with our History Club. I was president of our club and the only student attending who had gone to another annual meeting. A semester of planning and fundraising efforts all came down to one incredible short week in Denver.

Humboldt State has a well-established tradition of history majors attending AHA annual meetings. The History Club, which organizes the trip, is open to all students, but a vast majority of its members are in the history program. The club meets once a week to discuss historical topics and provide academic support. Our elevator pitch to new members always includes the opportunity to attend the annual meeting. (Last year, it was simply, “we’re taking a trip to Denver this year for a history conference.”) As soon as the fall semester begins, members who wish to attend the annual meeting start fundraising for the trip.

We generally take a multi-pronged approach to fundraising. Last year, for four days a week, we organized a snack table in our department’s building. HSU (Humboldt State University) also stands for Hills, Stairs, & Umbrellas—most days walking to and from Founders Hall to any other snack shop between classes is an undertaking—and the ease of access served our snack table well. In our experience, the table has proved to be a reliable form of funding for our group. We also applied for grants through our school’s clubs office, successfully receiving the maximum amount of funds granted each year. Additionally, we held rummage/book sales—our professors were amazing and donated boxes of books!

Read the rest here.

A College Professor Reflects on the College Advice She Wish She’d Taken

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Susan Shapiro, a writing professor at The New School, offers some advice to undergraduates:

  1. A’s are cool and come with perks
  2. Show up and speak up
  3. Class connections can launch your career
  4. Professors are people too
  5. Find your professors on social media
  6. You can socialize better sober
  7. You’re not stuck

Click here to see how Shapiro develops these points in her recent piece at The New York Times.

Liberty University Cancels Classes After Football Win Over Baylor

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So much for those carefully planned syllabi.  Jerry Falwell Jr. just canceled classes Monday so students could celebrate Liberty University’s football victory over Baylor.

Here is Steven Ruiz’s story at USA Today:

The Howard Bison pulled off the biggest betting upset in college football history by beating 45-point favorite UNLV, but it wasn’t the most surprising result on Saturday. That was Liberty’s shocking win over Baylor.

Liberty students will have plenty of time to celebrate the 48-45 win over the Big XII school. School president Jerry Falwell Jr. announced after the game that classes on Monday would be cancelled.

Students were understandably excited when they heard the news…

Think For Yourself

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Fifteen Ivy League scholars have published a letter encouraging young people from the class of 2021 to think for themselves.  The letter appears on the website of Princeton University James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Signers include Yale historian Carlos Eire, Princeton political scientist Robert George, Princeton humanities professor Joshua Katz, and Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon.

Here it is:

We are scholars and teachers at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale who have some thoughts to share and advice to offer students who are headed off to colleges around the country. Our advice can be distilled to three words:

Think for yourself.

Now, that might sound easy. But you will find—as you may have discovered already in high school—that thinking for yourself can be a challenge. It always demands self-discipline and these days can require courage.

In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student—or faculty member—faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink.

At many colleges and universities what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of public opinion” does more than merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views on moral, political, and other types of questions. It leads them to suppose that dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them.

Since no one wants to be, or be thought of as, a bigot or a crank, the easy, lazy way to proceed is simply by falling into line with campus orthodoxies.

Don’t do that. Think for yourself.

Thinking for yourself means questioning dominant ideas even when others insist on their being treated as unquestionable. It means deciding what one believes not by conforming to fashionable opinions, but by taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.

The love of truth and the desire to attain it should motivate you to think for yourself. The central point of a college education is to seek truth and to learn the skills and acquire the virtues necessary to be a lifelong truth-seeker. Open-mindedness, critical thinking, and debate are essential to discovering the truth. Moreover, they are our best antidotes to bigotry. 

Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word “bigot” is a person “who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices.” The only people who need fear open-minded inquiry and robust debate are the actual bigots, including those on campuses or in the broader society who seek to protect the hegemony of their opinions by claiming that to question those opinions is itself bigotry.

So don’t be tyrannized by public opinion. Don’t get trapped in an echo chamber. Whether you in the end reject or embrace a view, make sure you decide where you stand by critically assessing the arguments for the competing positions.

Think for yourself.

Conor Friedersdorf has some context at The Atlantic.

Taking Notes: By Hand or By Laptop?

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Students who take notes by hand tend to understand the material better than those who take notes via a laptop.  I have been saying this for a long time, so I am glad that we now have a study to back up my theory.

Here is a taste of an NPR story on a study testing how note-taking by hand and computer note-taking effects learning in the college classroom:

For their first study, they took university students (the standard guinea pig of psychology) and showed them TED talks about various topics. Afterward, they found that the students who used laptops typed significantly more words than those who took notes by hand. When testing how well the students remembered information, the researchers found a key point of divergence in the type of question. For questions that asked students to simply remember facts, like dates, both groups did equally well. But for “conceptual-application” questions, such as, “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?” the laptop users did “significantly worse.”

The same thing happened in the second study, even when they specifically told students using laptops to try to avoid writing things down verbatim. “Even when we told people they shouldn’t be taking these verbatim notes, they were not able to overcome that instinct,” Mueller says. The more words the students copied verbatim, the worse they performed on recall tests.

Read the entire piece here.

What An Academic Job Search Is Really Like

BerlinerJacques Berlinerblau‘s piece “Better College, Better Scholars, Right? Not So Much” is currently behind the paywall at The Chronicle of Higher Education, but I hope it sees the light of day soon. The piece comes from his new book Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students.  I am looking forward to reading it.

First, Berlinerblau rightly argues that “professorial prestige…is an awfully arbitrary thing.”

A taste:

Amanda and Irene were best friends in grad school. Both studied theoretical linguistics. They received the same training. They worked under the same doctoral adviser. They possess nearly identical publication records — two articles apiece in respected field journals. They even both somehow showed up at the party celebrating their successful doctoral defenses in the same distressed high-rise, skinny jeans from Madewell! Yet Amanda teaches part time at a community college and supplements her income doing data entry for an HMO. Irene has a tenure-track job at a top research university. Their relationship has grown strained.

The rest of the essay probably says more about Berlinerblau and his academic life at Georgetown University than it does about the academic lives of most college professors.

Another taste:

Among professors, where one works is a marker of status. Thus, the assistant professor employed by an Ivy League college accrues greater glory than her counterpart at a midsize regional university. The latter, in turn, is more esteemed than an assistant professor laboring at some far-flung small liberal-arts college. The same hierarchies prevail, I guess, among high-school seniors comparing their college-acceptance letters as they hotbox their parents’ Toyota Priuses.

The juveniles and, distressingly, the professors are just following the logic of popular college-ranking systems. They are assuming that the greater the renown of an institution as measured by U.S. News & World Report, the greater will be the quantity and quality of research produced by scholars in its employ. Is this assumption accurate?

If it were, it would follow that an assistant professor in anthropology at Princeton University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 1) publishes more and better work than her exact counterpart at the University of Southern California (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 23). The USC savant, in turn, outperforms the identically ranked anthropologist at Clark University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 75). The Clark ethnographer has a heftier CV than a comparable scholar employed at Oklahoma State University (U.S. News 2016 rank No. 149). The better the institution, the better the research its tenure-line professors produce. Right?

I appreciate what my friend Berlinerblau has to say here, but after fifteen years at a “far-flung small liberal arts college” located in what most cosmopolitan academics would call a “doleful place” (a school and a place where, I might add, I deliberately chose to work), his parsing of the differences between Princeton, Southern California, Clark, and Oklahoma State make him sound like he lives on another planet.

Yet, the planet Berlinerblau describes does exist.  Some of the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home–many of them are my friends–have found themselves living on it.   Other readers do not live on this planet, but they are working hard in the hopes of moving there.

Which brings me to Berlinerblau’s hilarious description of how academic job searches take place at institutions on his planet.

Here is a taste:

Besieged by a surfeit of credentials, the typical harried evaluator will focus on two vital metrics: 1) where a scholar received the doctorate, and 2) what the scholar has published. That takes about 90 seconds. In the remaining 90 seconds, assuming the applicant has not been consigned to the thickening reject pile, the reviewer glances at what courses the applicant can teach. So much for pinpointing precise merits and demerits! And it goes without saying that no psychological evaluations are ever administered.

The search is kicking into high gear. Timeless irregularities of academic culture begin to infest the deliberations. For starters, scholars tend to hire tribally, preferring people with similar intellectual interests. Politics and ideology also rear their scowling heads. The radical Left is notorious for commandeering search committees. That’s why some film departments are staffed solely by Deleuzian Maoists or vegan Derridians. Sometimes professors look exclusively for people who attended their own graduate schools. How many departments have I seen with a forensically suspect cluster of hires who received their doctorates from the same place, under the same thesis advisers?

In accordance with these peculiar criteria, roughly 95 percent of the aspirants will soon be eliminated. The field has been narrowed to three or four outstanding individuals (though that decision is always contested and accompanied by a few resignations from the committee expressed in 10,000-word manifestoes). Once the shortlist is drawn up, rituals of backchanneling, influence peddling, and whoremongering ensue. On-campus interviews are booked. Rumors run rampant. Unexpected alliances crystallize around unexpected candidates.

Cross-cutting through this intrigue are other distractions. Scholars have the ill-advised tendency to fall in love with one another. Their passion gives rise to an “academic couple” — perhaps the most dreaded phrase in a search committee’s lexicon. No search, it seems, is complete without this ghastly spousal subplot. It comes out of nowhere — like the toothy maw of the monster from Jaws emerging from the sullen deep — and drags the entire process down into some dark, litigious murk.

Ought I mention inside candidates? The seamiest secret of the academic job search is that its outcome is often foreordained. A tenure-track line is a precious commodity. Is there any wonder that the desire to attain this treasure trumps our ethical impulses?

Often, the job description, the composition of the committee, the questions asked at the interview — all of these have been rigged to assure that one predetermined candidate (or trailing spouse) is hired. Need I point out that for the poor applicants, the entire ordeal is time-consuming and expensive? Rebecca Schuman, writing in Slate, has chronicled this well. She reminds us that a job seeker in academe actually has another job: applying for jobs. The ritual is needlessly degrading.

If you have access to The Chronicle of Higher Education you can read the entire piece here.  It is worth your time.

Note to the Students: Profs Work Late During Final Exam Week

KY Building

Some students will do just about anything to get an “A” on a final exam.

The Lexington Herald Leader is reporting that a University of Kentucky student climbed through ceiling ducts to a professor’s office to steal a statistics exam.  Unfortunately for the student, the professor was working late.  It was 1:30 a.m.

Here is a taste:

According to UK Police, UK statistics instructor John Cain had been working late in his third floor office in the Multidisciplinary Science Building on Rose Street on Tuesday night. About midnight, he left to get something to eat. When he returned about 1:30 a.m., he tried to unlock the door, but it was blocked by something.

“He yelled out that he was calling the police and then the door swung open and two young men ran down the hallway,” recounted UK spokesman Jay Blanton.

Shortly after police arrived, one of the students returned and confessed. Henry Lynch II, a 21-year-old junior majoring in biosystems engineering, gave police an earful, including that he’d climbed through the building’s air ducts to the ceiling above Cain’s office and dropped down into the room, then unlocked the door and let in his friend, sophomore Troy Kiphuth, 21, who was not in Cain’s class.

Lynch also told them he had already tried to steal the exam earlier that evening around 6 p.m., but couldn’t find it. And, he said, it wasn’t the first time: Earlier in the semester, he’d successfully stolen another exam from Cain’s office, but he assured officers that he had not shared the answers with other students.

Read more here

HT: Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed

Can Colleges Cut Their Way to Greatness?

Messiah Union

No, according to community college dean Matt Reed.

Reed’s post at his Inside Higher Ed blog “Confessions of a Community College Dean” should be taken seriously by all college administrators.

In places with declining enrollments and without generous external benefactors, it’s easy to fall into the trap of constant cutting. Each year is a fresh emergency, bringing another round of short-term patches and “temporary” workarounds that quickly become new baselines.

Over time, though, the cuts do damage that starts to show up in enrollments. Too many classes cancelled or calls unreturned lead to attrition, which leads to calls for still more cuts. Cut an off-campus location to save money, and whoops, you lose its enrollments, leading to a need for more cutting. Add an inexorably rising underlying cost — say, just hypothetically, health insurance — and you have the makings of a death spiral.

What makes the spiral so insidious is that each individual decision that constitutes it, taken individually, makes sense. It’s the cumulative effect that proves fatal. 

Interrupting the death spiral is much harder than it looks, though.

At a really basic level, it takes recognition of what’s happening. That means getting beyond the short-term panic of a scary looking balance sheet to look several years into the future. And it means getting past the simpleminded assumption that the only barrier to draconian cuts is a lack of guts.

So that means a combination of vision and emotional self-control. Already, that’s a tallish order.

Read the entire post here.

 

Cornel West and Ross Douthat Together at the University of St. Thomas

 

StThomas(MN)_Header

I have been concerned lately about the lack of open debate and public conversation on college campuses.

All colleges and universities invite guest speakers to campus.  At my college we do a fair job of inviting a range of voices. Some speakers come from within the Christian tradition and some come from outside of it. Some are liberal and some are conservative.

Liberal factions on college campuses bring in speakers who will attract liberal faculty and students.  The speakers tell the audience what they want to hear and basically confirm the audience’s already held convictions.  Everyone oohs and ahhs for 45 minutes.  Then, when the applause is over,  they loft “softball” questions that the speaker can easily hit out of the park.  After the lecture they talk about the speaker for days, hoping that the college as a whole will take note of what he or she said and start to enact meaningful change along the lines that the speaker has proposed.

And then the next week a conservative speaker comes to campus and the same thing happens all over again.  Very few of the faculty and students who were present for the liberal lecture show up for this lecture.  The speaker expounds upon her or his conservative values and everyone leaves feeling pretty good about themselves.  Then comes the usual post-lecture swoon.

Rarely is there a conservative response at the liberal lecture or a liberal response at a conservative lecture.  I imagine that sometimes people worry about this kind of intellectual exchange becoming too contentious.  (This is certainly an issue at my college where Christian peace and the absence of conflict stem from the school’s Anabaptist heritage).  Yet such arguments, when conducted civilly, contribute to the educational and intellectual culture of our campuses.  Rarely do our students see two intellectuals with different ideas engaged in conversation over things that matter.

Last week I was up in Wenham, Massachusetts to deliver the Gordon College Franz Lecture.  My topic was “Why Study History?,” so I used my time to talk a little bit about the ongoing problems that I see with American democracy.  (Readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home or Why Study History? have heard or read this before).

Here is a small part of my talk:

And what is happening to the state of democratic conversation? Public argument and debate over the critical issues of the day too often takes place in 30-second sound bites between talking heads on cable news. This sound-bite culture makes it difficult to fully engage with and even understand the viewpoints of those neighbors with whom we disagree. Cable news encourages a kind of passive approach to public life. Rather than engaging in civil conversation, we sit on our couches or in front of our screens and merely consume it all. This is not citizenship.

As the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch has written:

“The attempt to bring others around to our point of view carries the risk, of course, that we may adopt their point of view instead. We have to enter imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them, and we may end up being persuaded by those we sought to persuade. Argument is risky and unpredictable, therefore educational. Most of us tend to think of it….as a clash of dogmas, a shouting match in which neither side gives any ground. But arguments are not won by shouting down opponents. They are won by changing opponents minds—something that can only happen if we give opposing arguments a respectful hearing and still persuade their advocates that there is something wrong with those arguments. In the course of this activity, we may well decide that there is something wrong with our own.”

I was thus encouraged when I recently read about a week of lectures and conversations at the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota.

The highlight of the week was a session featuring Cornel West and Ross Douthat.  The topic was “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.”

Here is a taste of University of St. Thomas theologian Michael Hollerich‘s description of the event at the website of Commonweal

Then on Friday, St. Thomas’s Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy hosted a conversation between Cornel West and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on “Christianity and Politics in the U.S. Today.” A cynic might have derided this as a celebrity event. It was much better than that, and the planners deserve warm congratulations for pulling off a remarkable success. The Murphy Institute is named for the late Msgr. Terrence Murphy (d. 2004), for over thirty-five years the university’s president and chancellor, and sometimes referred to as St. Thomas’s Fr. Hesburgh. The institute is jointly administered by the university’s Center for Catholic Studies and the law school. Apart from its legal-education programs, for much of its twenty-year history the institute stuck to topics and speakers from the conservative end of the Catholic spectrum. The last few years it has been braver about going outside the usual suspects. A good example is the seminar led by German sociologist Hans Joas on his 2013 book The Sacredness of the Person, which draws on American pragmatism and German historicism for a new genealogy of human rights.

Cornel West was a reach well beyond that. I am not privy to whatever dealing brought him and Ross Douthat, a very public Catholic conservative, to our campus. It turned out to be an inspired match. Anyone who expected Crossfire-style vituperation would have been disappointed. West, who looks like an aging Frederick Douglass in cufflinks, was funny, powerful, and lightning quick on his feet, with a daunting expressive range and a limitless supply of intellectual and cultural allusions. He played his audience like a maestro conducting an orchestra. Douthat was the real surprise. His journalism didn’t prepare me for his self-deprecating humor and charm. There wasn’t a trace of the sometimes-churlish voice of the columnist. West’s booming greeting to “Brother Ross” set the tone. Douthat also showed impressive self-possession in not being bowled over by West’s bombast. He seemed mostly willing to play the straight man to West’s shtick (did he have a choice?), while slipping in his own sly cracks. The humor and the moral and intellectual passion were infectious. Who expected a spirited detour on John Dewey (Douthat called him an aggressive secularizer and a defender of amoral instrumental reason; West said his love of democracy was mystical and almost religious)? Or Cornel West invoking “Gilbert Keith Chesterton”? It helped that they shared a common contempt for Donald Trump (and possibly Hillary Clinton as well). On Trump, Douthat was unsparing—when I referred above to Trump’s “racialized politics,” I was borrowing Douthat’s phrase.

Read the rest here.  We need more events like this on our campuses for the purpose of modeling conversation and intellectual exchange about important matters.