Too Scared to Speak?

Last spring, I was awarded tenure at my university.  I found myself with mixed feelings of relief, affirmation and doubt.  Why would I doubt such a wonderful affirmation of my scholarship and teaching?  Well . . . for two reasons.  First, I’m not sure that I feel completely OK about the hierarchy that tenure and promotion represent at most universities.  But that point is for a different blog post.  Second, and most important to this blog post, is that having tenure puts me in a position that gives me clearer access to academic freedom than my colleagues who do not have tenure.

Let me be clear — I do not speak for my university.  And this is critically important — having academic freedom means that I can talk about controversial topics in my classroom as long as they are relevant.  It means that I can rant about topics that I find important in publications that I produce (or blog posts that I write), and that I should not be relieved of my employment for those rantings.  But I cannot “represent my university” in those rants or discussions.  One might ask if my discussion of controversial topics or my public rants have changed substantially with tenure — and I would say, no.  Not really.  But they COULD.  And that is truly an important feeling.

I saw a communication piece recently that really bothered me, though.  For those of you outside of California, you may be unfamiliar with a certain proposition on the ballot this November that increases tax revenue for the state.  If we don’t pass the measure (Prop 30) the state has issued all kinds of threats about what further reductions in services and public education funding might have to happen to keep the state solvent.  To me — it seems relevant to my students’ education since they attend a public university.  I’ve talked about it in my classes and encouraged my students to vote.  But organized efforts to facilitate those discussions by others have been discouraged!!  I witnessed a memo warning faculty that because my university system was not allowed to take a stance on political issues, that they should not discuss those issues in their classes unless done without bias.  But how can I not be biased about this?  How can I refrain from telling my students that unless we pass Prop 30, their access to education will be devastated?  And how does censoring my bias affect my own academic freedom — that concept that many believe is so important to learning in higher education?

While I have no plans to halt my own discussions, I think others might be scared.  Scared to discuss the issues that so directly affect them and their students — even though they might speak without representing the university for which they work.  Tenure does help me to feel safe in these discussions — but most of the folks in my department do not have tenure — and I fear that their voices are softer than they might wish.

Why are we so scared to speak?  Even outside of the academy, are you holding your tongue because you worry that others may judge you harshly for it? That it might decrease your own social and economic security if you are heard?  There are certainly plenty of fearless speakers out there, but many of us are holding back.  The folks at “This Sh*t Matters” aren’t holding back, though.  Their recent “get out the vote” ad is edgy, angry, convincing and inspiring — in part because it uses harsh language and highlights controversy in a way that we don’t see in most communication about politics.  I’ve heard some criticism of their ad‘s language use — even a call for a censored version of the ad — and I wonder if part of those criticisms and calls are because we’re scared to just put it out there.

I hope that as we move closer toward the election that we both continue to educate ourselves and that we continue and encourage each other to TALK ABOUT IT.  There is no reason that we need to be making such incredibly important decisions without the aid of talking them through.  And while we do this, we could also try to make clear that we all are representing our own biases — that’s the point!  But in listening to each other, we can also learn more and feel better informed about the decisions we make.  Maybe these discussions are scary in part because they are so important.  But have those discussions.  Please!  Don’t be too scared to speak . . .


Teaching to the Test versus Teaching to our Future

I was very glad to have been directed to this talk, by Professor Eric Mazur, about pedagogy and learning.  As he dispels the myth that testing of rote memorization is in any way a measure of learning, my favorite quote came when he stated that “lecture as a process is one in which the lecture notes of the instructor are passed to the notebooks of the student without passing through the brains of either.”  My enjoyment of such a quote was perhaps selfish because it reinforced my strong distaste for lecturing, but his logic is well-founded.

Although it is long (a bit over an hour), it is entertaining and worthwhile.  Please enjoy!!

Going Back to Kindergarten

It’s teacher appreciation week, and I’ve got something to appreciate about teachers and teaching.  Some of the most meaningful conversations I have had recently about teaching in higher education have specifically not been with college educators or administrators.  In fact, over the past year, I have made major curricular changes that stem from some incredibly thoughtful conversations with my kids’ teachers.  And just to give you some perspective . . . my kids are 6 and 3.

As I write this, I continue to hear in my mind the phrase “everything I ever needed to know, I learned in kindergarten,” and it doesn’t surprise me to agree a little bit.  Of course, I value higher education incredibly, but lately I am intrigued by the myriad ways my children’s teachers promote their love of learning!  At both of my kids’ schools, the teachers create their own curriculum and construct it to meet the needs of their unique classrooms.  Neither of these schools promote rote memorization, and they both engage students in multiple learning channels throughout a single project.  I really wish I could repeat kindergarten!!

One major way these people have influenced my teaching this year is through a focus on teams and collaboration.  I’ve asked my students to participate in group projects for many years now, but it has just been in this past year that I’ve really started to focus with the students on what it means to collaborate, contribute, and be collegial.  We don’t always get what we want, and sometimes we need to share (toys) tasks, recognition, and responsibility.  And, frankly, this is sometimes just as difficult for college students as it is for pre-schoolers.  I’m not trying to infantilize my students, but many of those same concerns of fairness, jealousy, and frustration continue to impair collaboration for our 20-something students as they do for our 3 year olds.  My child’s teachers have reminded me that a focus on those emotions, on the sense of justice and working through the feelings surrounding that are in many ways just as important as the product that group produces.

Next, my children’s teachers have reminded me that learning should be fun!  It is so easy for college professors to rely on expectations of responsibility and academic rigor, that it is easy to disengage from promoting a love of a subject — even when that subject is math.  My 1st grader is often assigned homework that sounds like “play the game number battle with one of your family members — write down your scores in your homework book.”  What?  play a game?  My son was sent home this year with a “math tool kit” that included several differently sided dice, a deck of cards, some laminated game pieces and other awesome things that I never got to play with in elementary school!  But even better were the conversations that I got to have with his teachers about the philosophy behind this way of teaching.  A conversation with his school’s lead administrator is what prompted me to create games in my research methods course, and another with his first grade teacher reminded me that learning isn’t all about our intelligence and interest.  When she said “children are geniuses — unfortunately in this society, we tend to ‘teach’ that out of them,” I went back in time to think about the ways that my own students had been prepared.  Expecting them to engage in project-based learning when they had never done anything like that before was an oversight on my part.  I believe that my students need to learn how to love and value the subject matter I teach as much as I do (OK maybe not *that* much).  And this term it meant that we revisited *why* we were in that classroom every couple of weeks; we reviewed and evaluated their progress to help them see what amazing knowledge and skills they were developing, and they got to have a choice about the ways that they engaged the final evaluation.

My reflections of the term were influenced this past weekend when I attended a workshop put on by my kid’s preschool teachers about imagination.  They were focused on children from 0-6, but I couldn’t stop taking notes on ideas that I had for my own teaching.  Remembering how important it is to address fear in the classroom, to help students engage in mindful learning practice, and to think about learning as a constructivist process (even when you’re learning the scientific method!).  All of these concepts have entered my own teaching journals and were incredibly enlightening for me.

In the last week of classes, I still am unable to reflect holistically about this semester, but my sense is that the three courses I taught are filled with students who learned more than in any classes I have taught in prior semesters.  Not everyone is a super star, but I have been blown away in some cases, which is a wonderful feeling.  I have more work to do for sure — and this afternoon as I was picking up my first grader, I was chatting with his teacher from last year and the teacher he will have next year — only to, again, feel utterly educated by my kids’ teachers!  As I was chatting about the different ideas I had for engaging students online, these two women just started creatively brainstorming about alternative feedback mechanisms, student engagement and were just overall excited to talk about learning!  I can’t wait to move forward with some of the ideas these fabulous folks have given me.

In many ways, going back to kindergarten (or preschool!) has influenced me incredibly.  I’m reminded that as we grow up, we cannot lose our capacity for creativity, fun, imagination and engagement.  I am inspired by the amazing and challenging work the teachers in my children’s lives are doing — and I am grateful for the refreshing perspective they are bringing to this old professor’s teaching.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!!

Prophecies of Humility

Last term, I gave a talk to a Introduction to Graduate Study course about my research and some of the courses that I offer.  I always enjoy meeting the new cohort of graduate students and learning about the questions they have and the topics they wish to explore.  And it just so happens that I am teaching a graduate course this coming spring, so my talk was particularly relevant for them in their upcoming registration.  As I described my spring research course, I became more excited about it — I really like teaching this course because there is so much to learn about understanding statistics and research and investigation that I believe it is a transformative experience in many ways.

“Well, I probably won’t take that course because I’m not really good at math.”  Uh, ok?  I want to say that I don’t understand that comment, but I do.  I want to say, “This class isn’t about math,”  but it is.  I want to say, “you just need to dive in and learn about it in the right context,” but that’s not entirely true.  And let’s be totally honest here . . . I hear this comment multiple times a week, every week.  It saddens me — what experiences did you have with math that make you think this way?  It infuriates me — why do you think you can criticize or evaluate statistical research if you don’t learn how it’s done?

But mostly, it scares me.  Especially because the response to this comment from the rest of the audience was familiarity, acceptance, those knowing looks that suggest that of course you aren’t good at math . . . and that it’s not concerning.    But this is an epidemic . . . and especially for women (and 3 women out of the group of 20 men and women spoke out about their lack of ability in math during this talk).  We do math every day, all the time.  We talk about it quite a bit lately — our struggling economy, our distribution of wealth, election polls, tuition increases, time management, and the list goes on.  But somehow it became OK in our society to be “not good at math.”

The conversation looks familiar also if you replace the word “math” with “science.”  Some have reported that the challenge and hard work that math and science require keep students from pursuing it.  And the California governor seems to feel like science might be more than our graduating high schoolers need as he proposed to decrease the requirement from 2 years of science to only one.  And here, I’m still struggling . . . because it is true that it is challenging to work with math and science, but it is also true that writing, history, music, art, and humanities is challenging too — because, frankly, to do anything well, you need to challenge yourself.  My fear is that since some subject matter doesn’t have *correct* answers like math and science, that we might be letting shoddy work pass through and people might believe incorrectly that these subjects require less time and challenge to do well.

This term, I have advised countless students who continue to tell me that they aren’t good at math.  Some of them seem actually frightened at the prospect of doing math.  And our social acceptance of the statements “I’m not good at math,” or “I’m not good at science,” doesn’t do anything to stem this tide.  I worry about the people passing through our educational system each year who might continue to believe such statements and yet, who will continue to read news that uses math and science, who will make decisions in the voting booth about issues based in math and science.  I don’t believe that most of these people are “not good at math.”  I believe that most of them have not been exposed in a way that helps them appreciate it, and that they have given up on that challenge.   And that makes me sad.

Practicing what we preach

It’s nearing the end of the term and my students are getting antsy.  They’ve started bargaining with me — pleading for extra credit opportunities, extensions, drastic changes in my grading criteria . . . you name it, they’ve asked for it.  They are actually doing quite well in both of my classes, but the term’s end has an anxiety provoking effect.

Probably the thing they were most concerned about, though, was my refusal to give them a “final exam review sheet.”  They’re flabbergasted.  “Aren’t you going to at least tell us what the test is on?”  It’s difficult for me to not chuckle when that question is asked.  And difficult for me to not respond in a snarky way “What do you think we’ve been doing this entire semester?”  I mentioned this to a colleague of mine recently who was also a little disturbed at my unwillingness to offer the review guide (going so far as to offer to give me one!).  I felt a little defensive at this point — I literally re-prep my classes every term in order to address pressing social justice issues in my classes (part of my University’s mission) and thus, completely re-write my final exam to reflect these changes.  It’s not my inability to write a review sheet OR my lack of motivation to prepare one that keeps me from giving one out.  Much more importantly, I believe it is a pedagogical practice that has done our students a grave disservice over many generations of higher education.

I recognize that this is a provocative statement to say the least, but let’s get real about the state of our higher education system.  The New York Times reported last week that “Until the early 1970s, less than 11 percent of the adult population graduated from college, and most of them could get a decent job. Today nearly a third have college degrees, and a higher percentage of them graduated from nonelite schools. A bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability.” It’s not just the state of our economy and higher tuition costs that suggest the lessening value of higher education, however, it’s also about what students are leaving the University with (or not).  I encounter daily the disturbing reality that is our consumer culture in the education system.  Students are paying more for their education, and they feel entitled to a degree because of it.

Now let’s be honest here — when you’re buying a commodity, do you really want that commodity to challenge you?  We don’t pay for a GPS that doesn’t work because it gives us the opportunity to learn more about our surrounding environment.  We don’t pay for broken software so that we can be challenged to fix it.  And if you’re buying education as a commodity, you want the path of least resistance toward a degree.  Too many instructors are encouraged to “lay it out” for their students in a way that is easy to digest, easy to expect, and easy to learn.  And then, they are encouraged to test whether or not it’s been learned by administering a test (with accompanying review sheet).  And this is a really great way to develop and deliver a training seminar . . . but it doesn’t encourage development of problem solving and critical thinking skills, it doesn’t encourage individuals to challenge their thinking and it resides, typically, in the “left brain” which houses short term memory as opposed to encouraging creativity.  This may be why so many students joke that they forget what they learned after they finished the class.

The answers here are not as simple as promoting or revoking a final exam review sheet.  It’s more about our approach to education and pedagogy.  I teach at a University that strongly values social justice and access to students from diverse backgrounds.  Many times, they come out of a system that has enforced rote learning and memorization, and they find it difficult to imagine taking control of their own learning, much less creatively solve a problem.  My project-based classes intimidate them sometimes because they are asked to solve real world problems in creative ways.  If I were to give them a “review sheet” at the end of the term, I wouldn’t really be assessing their learning anyway — I’d be assessing their ability to read quickly and memorize information.  But you don’t need a class to read a book.  And if I were to assess my students by teaching OR reviewing to the test, wouldn’t I just be reinforcing the rote learning system that I already know does a disservice to all of our students from kindergarten on up?

Ideally, I want my classes to be opportunities for challenge.  I don’t want their learning to end on the final exam day — rather, I want the class to serve as a catalyst for future thought and creative problem solving.  And I think this is what higher education is supposed to be.  I think that working for a system that values access regardless of privilege means that we should allow access to a provocative and energizing environment for learning.  Our greatest disservice is done when we replace “provocative and energizing environment for learning” with “degree.”

The economic disaster that is our world, the disturbing media reports of the decreasing value of a college degree, and the need that I feel to help foster a healthy community mean that I vow to keep up the challenge of learning.  I shall refuse to take the easy route as a teacher for either me or my students.  And I won’t give review sheets — and frankly, my students won’t need them anyway.

The Threshold of Knowing

A student remarked to me a few weeks ago, “Why do they always interview the dumbest people during the protests?”  He was, of course, referring to the media coverage of the “Occupy” protests occurring all over the world.  I asked him to give me an example and he said “They interviewed this guy who said he didn’t even want to get a job — he said he liked protesting and didn’t want to work anymore.  That’s not what this movement is about!”

It made me think, then, what is the movement about?  I asked the question of the class and they recited what I recognized as tag lines out of national media coverage and blast messaging.  “Are any of you part of the protest?” I asked.  And I was greeted with silence.  So then the question that I had to pose next — which didn’t go over well — was “If none of you are protesting, and the guy who you called “dumb” is — then why do you know more about what the movement is about than he does?”

I thought that it was a perfectly appropriate question for a research methods class — this is about epistemology, right?  We’re trying to get at how we know things – how we gauge the accuracy, appropriateness and relevance of knowledge.  But instead of being presented with calm recitations of the understanding of aggregate information (not making hasty generalization), or discussing what it means to be representative of a group of people, or even discussing why personal narrative is or is not an illuminating way to learn about others’ experiences, I was greeted with expressions of incredulity.  It made zero sense to my class of research initiates that the headlines in the newspapers were anything other than truth (my hope is that as we approach the end of the semester that is no longer the case for them!).

This experience brought me back to a concept that I have been playing around with for more than 10 years — one that I call the “Threshold of Knowing.”  The concept is the answer to the question, at what point (threshold) do you *know* a thing?  How much exposure do you have to have to feel like you can talk about it?  And I think the answer is different for each of us.  And for each of us, I think the answer is different depending on context.  My go-to example to describe what I mean about the threshold of knowing is the person we meet at a cocktail party who finds him or herself the expert of all subjects — that person who always knows the answer or can always espouse some precious details that the rest of us were not privy to.  I think this person probably has a *low* threshold of knowing.  I think the Dalai Lama probably has a *high* threshold of knowing.  But, more importantly, why do people have such different thresholds?

I would love to be able to answer this question in this post — but after 10 years of pondering it, I still do not have the answer.  Perhaps it has to do with self-confidence, education level, anxiety, personality type, or a myriad of other options.  Perhaps it has to do with the actual amount of knowledge we have, but this is unlikely.  In the meantime, though, I think it is interesting to think about how and why we *know* things . . . especially as we discuss the experiences and personal issues of others.  How many of us has opinions about how taxes should be taken and spent, whether activism is appropriate or effective, or how citizens and leaders of other countries should operate?  I think there are many legitimate ways of knowing things — some of them come from experience, others from research, and still others through meditative thought.  But without mindful consideration of the ways in which we know (and then talk about) important issues in the world, we may do a disservice to those who are listening.

Am I there, god? It’s me . . .

It is always inspiring to hear about the wonders that our Nobel Peace Prize winners do.  The three women that were honored this year did not disappoint in that area . . . their integrity, bravery, and perseverance are qualities that are most definitely worthy for our world’s citizens to strive.  And yet, in the interviews of these winners, I was struck by a story that one of them told . . . it had little to do with bravery or perseverance.

Leymah Gbowee apparently heard about winning the prize just as her airplane landed.  After receiving a text from a friend while she was still on the plane, she apparently turned to the man sitting next to her, with whom she had not spoken for the entire 5 hour flight, and said “I just won the Nobel.” Upon this revelation, another plane passenger found a picture of her online and exclaimed “This is it!”  The passengers then began to congratulate her.  I love this story — I imagine this uplifted and collaborative community of passengers glowing in the presence of such an amazing woman.  But I am also struck by how this story starts, and why this story starts.

I’m not struck by Ms. Gbowee winning the Nobel.  I’m not struck by a supportive community of fellow passengers.  I’m struck by the motivation to announce to a stranger one of the most important accomplishments in one’s life.  And the reason that I’m struck is that I totally understand that motivation.  The other day, I found a really interesting statistical relationship in one of my data sets and I was so excited that I walked to the office next door to announce my findings, knowing that my colleagues next door had no idea what I was talking about!  Why did I need to say my findings out loud?  I think it’s because they weren’t really real until I did.

Sometimes, we have to say it outloud to make it real.  And when it’s inconvenient or inappropriate to say it outloud, we need to tweet it, or update our facebook status, or blog about it.  And all too often, we are not just making things real as we tweet, update and blog, but we are also constructing ourselves — making *us* real.  Perhaps the popularity of all of these personal communication outlets is that we have more opportunity and control to construct ourselves than we ever have had before, and we know that people are listening.

In my own limited and culturally constrained use of social networking, I experience many different types of identity constructions from my “friends” and “followers.”  How are people strategizing these constructions?  Or are they?  I toy with the idea often of “blocking” from view those constructions that I don’t care for, but then I wonder about what I’m missing and how I then construct my own social world.  If I block all of the people who tweet every tiny thought in their head so that they clog my feed, or the people who update their status with how amazingly accomplished they are, or the ones who just won’t stop complaining about everything (ok, you get my point!) then aren’t I just putting my head in the sand regarding the human nature of folks with whom I have personal relationships?  Isn’t that the same as only reading the news that I agree with?

The short of it is, we are in a situation now in which we have much more communication to consume, many more opportunities to contribute to the collective wisdom of this world, and a lot more choice about who we construct ourselves and our social worlds to be.  So as I play with the different identities that I present within multiple social media and compare those to the identities I present face-to-face in professional and social situations — I am reminded that it is in our nature to present ourselves, announce ourselves.  And that sometimes, when you’re presented with really great news, “you want to share it with someone.”