Friday, January 22, 2016

Diversity's role

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Diversity in higher education is not an issue of an enhanced education for the white kids, but an issue of access and opportunity for qualified minorities.  Diversity is first about fairness.  If we make it about diversity as educational enhancement, we are missing the point and just perpetuating the entitlement of white students.     

Jedidah Isler, New York Times, December 17, 2015 writes:
 “Black students’ responsibility in the classroom is not to serve as ‘seasoning’ to the academic soup. They do not function primarily to enrich the learning experience of white students. Black students come to the physics classroom for the same reason white students do; they love physics and want to know more. Do we require that white students justify their presence in the classroom? Do we need them to bring something other than their interest?”

In 36 years of teaching I never thought of my black or Latino students as providing some service to the Caucasian ones.  I figured they were there to learn, and for the most point thankful for the opportunity, like the white students (there are always the non-motivated or just plain scared and “in-over-their-heads” students in all ethnicities.)  Yes, as a secondary benefit they did help an appreciation of diversity, especially since I require lots of collaboration.   But the white kids provide diversity to the black and Latino ones, too, by forced collaborative assignments, because we all tend to group with those who look like us (sorry, it’s just the truth--not to judge, it's just what we do). 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Spirituality and Being an Academic


Addendum:  I revisited this post on July 28, 2016, edited it, appalled by the number of typos.

Sometimes I wonder if having an academic career is detrimental to being a Spirit-led disciple of Jesus Christ.  I present, as an academic would (especially one who was a debate coach for several years), the arguments.
1.     In a career in academia, we must be merit mongers.  In order to achieve tenure and promotion, the only two big monetary awards outside of the move to administration, or to be eligible for grants and awards, one’s accomplishments in all things teaching, service, research, and professional development must be documented, recorded, and broadcast.  Volunteerism for the institution is not valuable for it own sake, but for expanding the CV, or at least, one starts to feel that way.  One begins to question one’s motives.  Of course, one could leave things off the CV, but . . . their absence may mean the difference in a promotion or award.
2.     Academics teach, which usually involves some level of lecturing and talking; therefore, we talk a lot, even the introverts.  Of course, 21st century pedagogy warns against lecture as the primary method of teaching, but most of us have not eschewed lecture totally if at all.  Silence is not golden in this paradigm, but listening can’t happen when one is talking. 
3.     We are experts; we know a lot, more than others.  Knowledge puffs up.  So we can become prideful; we define critical thinking idiosyncratically and egotistically and therefore are capable of rejecting ideas out of hand.  It goes like this, "Someone who disagrees with us cannot possibly have been a critical thinker about the issue, because I am a critical thinker and I am right."
4.     Knowing can get in the way of caring. Does academia attract emotionally stunted people or make them that way?
5.     We can become very annoyed by conventional wisdom or misconceptions that fly in the face of what we know to be true of our discipline, and that can come across as impatience and lack of concern. 
6.     We live in a world of text, ideas, and data.  We spend time away from people while engaged with these things. 
7.     Depending on our disciplinary training, we see and do not see certain parts of the whole picture.  For example, I study politics and social trends and am more conscious of the trends than the individuals.  But as a Christian I cannot minister to social trends, only to individuals, one at a time.  I saw this in a recent reflective string on single mothers (see below). 
8.     We can become very stressed over incredibly insignificant things; we can convince ourselves we are doing what is best for students when it is really just best for ourselves; we can believe we are protecting our discipline when we are excluding learners. 

On the other hand . . . How can academia help?:
1.     We should be slow to pass judgment, having been trained in data collection and the knowledge that there is always more data and evidence to be gathered.
2.     In light of the exponential growth of knowledge, we should doubt our own opinions and hold them lightly rather than graspingly.
3.     We should see God in the details.
4.     We should be able to read Scripture deeply, fully, informedly, and contextually.
5.     If we are social scientists, or natural scientists, or textual critics, we should be able to bring our unique perspective to the discussion, but humbly.
6.     We should get out of our nests of colleagues and be friends with all kinds of people, even if they initially bore us.   We should listen to others and realize that, as hard as we worked to earn the doctorate, God’s world is wide.  We should appreciate different points of view.
7.      Rejection is part of the discipleship life.  We work hard to be accepted as part of this community called the academy, which might make us compromise.  Compromise for the sake of being accepted is not an option.


In terms of reflection as a learning tool, I did this recently about single mothers.  I was getting annoyed by the “I am a single mother” routine that students use, as if it were the instructor’s fault or as if it meant they should get special treatment.  I realized how judgmental I was being, judging them for immorality, for doing something I didn’t, for using it as an excuse, for not putting their children first in going to school, and for symbolizing a societal problem.  All of these are off-base; some are divorced and dumped by husbands and some regret their pasts; but for the grace of God go most of us; well, maybe they do act like martyrs but some of that is from fear; they are trying to create a better world for their children (although a good father would probably help more); and they are individuals, not social problems.  Being an academic should make me have a big picture view and thus more understanding.

Three views on the future of higher education

I have neglected this blog for four months, and a recent trip to a higher education leadership conference got me writing again.  This is a repost of the other blog; I hope to do better here.  

After reading Chancellor Dirks view http://news.berkeley.edu/2014/01/29/the-true-value-of-higher-ed/ and trying to listen to Liz Coleman’s Ted Talk http://www.ted.com/talks/liz_coleman_s_call_to_reinvent_liberal_arts_education and attending a conference on higher educational leadership, I have been reflecting, or cogitating as I used to call it, on higher education’s purpose, problems, and future.  Actually, I was doing so before the last few days, but I find some time to write about it with a long weekend.  I do live in a better-than-average place to comment on these questions, since I have a doctorate, have taught in college for 36 years, and work as a college administrator.

It seems that there are three basic views: 
1.     Higher education should be responsive to the free market and the needs of potential students to be economically upwardly mobile, and as such continue its slow evolution toward this goal, one it has either intentionally or unintentionally been pursuing for quite some time.  This means greater access, emphasis on return on investment, innovation to cut costs through alternative delivery systems.
2.     Higher education should keep its traditional goals of educating the capable young people for leadership through an emphasis on the traditional liberal arts and sciences but update approaches to these subjects; higher education should cast a wary eye toward too many calls for short-term adaptation just to deal with any short-term problems in higher education we seem to have.  A long-term view (backward and forward) will provide the best foundation for educating those who will approach societal problems.
3.     Higher education should totally transform itself to solve societal problems of climate change, poverty, diversity and exclusion, and war.

#1 is what I have been most exposed to in recent conferences about reimagining college because of (a) rising costs, (b) questions about the monetary value of college, and (c) pressure from governments, accreditors, new learning methodologies and technologies, and the business world.  I recognize the value in it but find it short-sighted.

#2 is what I read in Chancellor Dirks’ essay, or at least my interpretation of it. As someone in the liberal arts, I lean toward this one, except it doesn’t seem to take into account economic realities of the huge sector of the population who want to pursue higher education to improve themselves economically and socially.  He at least gives space to the idea that faith, religion, and spirituality have “skin in the game” here.

(In the ‘70s, when cults were becoming more prevalent at least in the public perception, someone said that the appeal of these groups was partly due to the failure of parents to raise their children with strong spiritual foundations of their own, ones based in the long-held traditions of their faith.  There is also the view that the rise of “fundamentalism” of the radical kind may be due to secularization.  Elites can dismiss faith-based institutions, but to me that only shows their own egocentric arrogance, as seen in the last view).

#3 is essentially leftist utopianism.  The mandate to higher education is to redefine the curriculum so that students will be ready to address social problems—and I think this is important—in a way that we elites say they should be addressed.  In this case, then, any talk of critical thinking and creative problem-solving is moot, because the goal is to achieve that vision of government or state-run healthcare, education, and economic efforts, but not to find another vision. 

Needless to say, I found the Bennington President’s message abstract, somewhat incomprehensible, and to the extent I did grasp it, untenable.  Lots of commenters on the Ted Talk posted how overcome with emotion they were by the talk, which got me to thinking about my own propensity to be impressed with something an intellectual says before truly digging through it. 

Perhaps the value of higher education is its institutional diversity, even if that is largely stratified into the Carnegie classification system.  Bryan College is accredited by the same organization that accredits the University of Georgia, but they have little in common in any way, except that they are “post secondary,” “higher education” and as such the students can get Pell Grants and loans to study at both.