When I became an associate dean for undergraduate programs not quite four years ago, I did not know the term “helicopter parent,” even though I’d sent my only child off to college not long before. By the time I’d had the job for a year, the label was so ubiquitously present that I knew exactly why a PowerPoint conference presentation that began with a swooping helicopter, complete with soundtrack, brought down the house.
But there’s something disturbing about the easy laughter we all shared in that conference session. The term “helicopter parent,” like many catch phrases that get a lot of attention for a time, masks issues at least as much as it exposes them. The label was coined to describe the behavior alternatively referred to as “overparenting” or “death-grip parenting,” when parents are thought to be intrusive and overinvolved in their college children’s lives. To be sure, the term “helicopter parent” — or its more dire “Black Hawk parent” — occasionally may be useful as a shorthand reference for the kind of parent my mother would have called a “buttinski,” and I hasten to acknowledge that these parents exist.
I’ve had parents insist that I create in two weeks a tailored study abroad program; demand that a class in music be allowed to substitute for one in sociology; and argue that I should change a course grade because an exam covered material from a book the student had failed to obtain. The parent of a student whose report back home omitted crucial details began a letter to me with “Well, I’m not impressed.” I get as frustrated as the next administrator with these parents, and every bit as tempted to apply a sweeping — or swooping — label that appears to explain them.
More often than it fosters enlightenment, however, I think the “helicopter” label hinders understanding. This act of labeling imposes a simplistic model of parenting that often conceals helpful parental behavior. A different version of what is called “helicopter parent” would prove useful rather than detrimental to the work of college and university administrators charged with nurturing the lives of thousands of students. As administrators, we need to be less willing to dismiss parents with an all-encompassing label and be more attuned to the subtleties of student lives that these parents might help us identify.
As with so many of the issues I deal with as an associate dean for undergraduate programs, my perspective on helicopter parents began with my own experience as a mother. My only child had recently begun college when he surprised his father and me — and himself — with an emotional and psychological meltdown during his first months as a college student. In retrospect, the tone of our son’s voice in the late night of his first day in the dorm should have been enough to signal that there was already something much more amiss than a computer glitch. We all interpreted it as the anticipatory homesickness we had known to expect. I still can’t hear the opening strains of the Mozart ring-tone that signaled his incoming call without a tightened stomach and caught breath, somatic memories of the beginning of a very difficult, often frightening, period of time.
Nothing before then had pointed to trouble. For 18 years, things had sailed by with enviable smoothness. My son had been serious and organized, hardworking and ambitious, creatively gifted, loving, and academically successful. In this first phone call from his new college home, I heard in his voice “I miss you,” I heard “I’m scared,” I heard “what if I need you?” I did not hear, “something is desperately wrong and already I can tell.” Most certainly I did not hear inklings of what eventually would be identified as a mood disorder. It wasn’t long before I made an emergency plane trip to withdraw our child from college, clear out a dorm room, and begin learning how to face the subsequent uncertainty, diagnosis, and recovery. I’m still a little afraid to be blithely optimistic about what the future holds, although for some time all has been well. It took three years to reach the point of sleeping soundly and functioning normally, and these seem like sufficient gifts for now.
What I learned from these experiences informs my job almost every day. As I became increasingly concerned about my child, I was the parent who called the dean, who e-mailed counseling center personnel, and who alerted an adviser. Although I sought only safety and security for my child at a critical time, I know that some administrator might have written me off as a helicopter parent. My most obnoxious self might have been viewed as thwarting a college’s attempts to foster my son’s maturation, to use another common argument against helicopter parenting.
What I know from my personal experience as a mother and from my professional experience as a dean listening to students and parents over the last few years, however, is a cautionary message for administrators: Don’t be too hasty in applying a label that might make you miss the signals of a student in need of extra support. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some interference may have helped save the lives of certain students, my own included.
Practically speaking, how does one distinguish the overbearing, interfering “helicopter parent” of legend from the concerned parent who might help administrators successfully intervene on behalf of a troubled student? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Consider carefully the issues at hand. Is it about a parking permit or violation? An unavailable course? An unresponsive faculty member? These topics may hint at a parent with a tendency to be too involved in the daily challenges of a student’s life. But even these issues require careful listening for the undercurrents beneath surface rhetoric. The parent worried about parking may have a student with a physical disability, for example, and that’s far different from the parent whose child would prefer to walk less than a block but is quite capable of doing so.
2. Develop questions and a communication style that help elicit useful information. One problem with a too-easy label is that it can keep us from hearing subtle messages. Beginning a conversation with “How can I help?” or “Why don’t you tell me about the problem you’re having?” rather than “Here’s how I see your situation” will invite more revealing narratives and keep defensive postures at bay. The micromanaging parent will just want you to do his or her bidding. The concerned parent will welcome your effort to help solve a problem.
3. Do your homework. Often there will be something in a student’s record that provides a helpful context. There may be a recurring history of a certain kind of trouble, a casual mention of an event that could help explain subsequent reactions, or a pattern of behavior that sheds light on current problems. Check the written record and confer with others who may have experience with the same student. (I am not a fan of consulting social networking sites, but that is another topic for another time.)
4. Be willing to decide that the parent really does need to let go. Sometimes a helicopter parent is a helicopter parent. When this is the case, part of an administrator’s job is to help the parents trust that you are acting in their child’s best interest, and help the students trust themselves to be confident in their own decisions.
Discerning the line between the overinvested “helicopter parent” and the concerned parent is more art than science, of course, and it requires being attuned to the subtleties of both parents’ and students’ language and manners. It probably takes more time than most of us think we have. But it also just might be the difference between losing a student and alienating parents, who already may wonder what it is that colleges and universities actually do with their tuition, and guiding the student and parents toward the independent decision-making that is part of a college educational. Call it a teachable moment.
Pamela R. Matthews
Pamela R. Matthews is an associate dean and professor of English at Texas A&M University.
The legal and practical implications of colleges standing in loco parentis (latin for “in the place of the parent”) have waxed and waned over the history of higher education.
Colleges traditionally had the same rights and responsibilities as parents; the power to discipline the student as a parent could, but also the liability for harm that befell the student. Both the rights and responsibilities of in loco parentis began to recede as the Woodstock generation declared its independence. As the boomers asserted their freedoms at colleges and universities across the nation, in loco parentis fell away, and with it came a legal regime that treated colleges and universities as bystanders, rarely responsible for harms that befell students. And yet those same boomers, hovering over their children like “helicopters,” now insist that colleges take responsibility for the actions of their millennial children due to the “special relationship” that they believe forms upon enrollment.
As Inside Higher Edreported, Security on Campus (SOC), a campus safety advocacy group, has interpreted a recent letter of findings by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) regarding an incident involving a Hofstra University student, to impose a new responsibility on colleges and universities -- “the same obligation to respond to sexual harassment in cyberspace that they have when the harassment occurs in the classroom.”
If what SOC is saying is that they read this findings letter to require campuses to take on the in loco parentis responsibility of protecting students from activities that occur outside of the campus environment, that is not an accurate reading of the OCR decision. Rather, the letter found insufficient evidence of any wrongdoing by the campus inasmuch as the parent of the complainant did not provide sufficient information to the campus.
Contrary to the SOC press release, the letter of findings did not reach the merits of the case. The language cited by SOC as creating a “first of its kind” standard is simply the boilerplate language describing the law and jurisdiction standards that OCR includes in its letters. One sentence of boilerplate that should be noted, however, states “[l]etters of findings are not formal statements of OCR policy and should not be relied upon, cited, or construed as such.”
Juicy Campus and its ilk are a result of some uniquely millennial math. The rise of Facebook, Myspace and other social networking sites allowed first young people (and increasingly many older folks, too) to transform their anonymous selves into mini-celebrities, sending out tiny bursts of “press release” on their minute-by-minute activities, opinions on sports, politics and celebrities, and relationship status. The ideal for some was to acquire as many "friends" as possible and send them as many press-release “updates” and “tweets” as time and patience would allow. Concurrently, celebrity blogs like Perez Hilton and Pop Sugar would casually insult traditional celebrities, instantaneously sharing even the glitterati’s most mundane private secrets, while thousands of anonymous comments spewed forth all manner of vitriol. It was not long before the two forces would meet with anonymous students summoning up their e-courage to cyber-slime their mini-celebrity friends and classmates.
What resulted were anonymous gossip sites that targeted ordinary individual students. Juicy Campus was the best known of these sites. Started by a recent Georgetown University graduate in 2007 ostensibly to discuss important campus issues, the site facilitated anyone to post essentially any statement about any topic or any person, true or otherwise. While some topics on these sites are mild, much is lewd, insulting and often times horrifying.
Unlike the “bathroom wall” of old, here professors, potential employers and grandmothers could log onto a Web site and read the gossip. Juicy Campus closed its doors in February of this year, although other, less-well-known sites such as College Anonymous Confession Board (ACB) and Campus Gossip continue on. Juicy Campus may be gone, but the genre is not. Like the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids, the site was universally denounced, but a popular read on campuses. It took the Internet to turn public slander into a private, anonymous weapon which, once created, will never fully recede.
When Juicy Campus arrived on a particular campus, the first instinct of student affairs professionals was one of pure in loco parentis protectionism; they sought to block network access to the site. Two campuses did so. Yet blocking is inadvisable for several reasons.
First, these sites are not hosted on campuses so the college has no more jurisdiction than it does over the bathroom wall of a local bar. Blocking such sites is as effective as telling students they cannot drink at said bar; it will only pique a prurient interest. Second, now that the Blackberry, iPhone and other Internet-capable smartphones have become almost ubiquitous on campus, students are not limited to accessing the Web over a college broadband network; if students cannot access content on their college network, they will access it on their phone, at the local Starbucks, or while at an off-campus apartment.
Blocking may even discourage students from accessing the Web through the campus network, sending them to the more expensive, but less regulated, Internet services offered by cable, telephone and cellular companies. Finally, when a college blocks one offensive site, it had better be prepared to block all offensive sites. It is hard to justify blocking Juicy Campus (or its progeny) but not blocking Neo-nazi sites, antisemitic, racist or homophobic sites, or, in traveling down the slippery slope, political and media sites that include language offensive to some students. Free speech is so central to the experience at most colleges that a process of blocking offensive sites would quickly lead college administrators down the garden path.
The costs to students of anonymous cyber-sliming are not small. Self-harming thoughts and activities, cutting, and suicidal ideation were reported among students who were victimized on these sites. Unfortunately, when the danger and harm to students comes from outside (especially digital) sources such as anonymous gossip Web sites, there is little that a college can do. Holding colleges responsible, as Security on Campus argues, for “stop[ping] the harassment of ... students on gossip sites in cyberspace” sets up an impossible standard for colleges to meet. Even more extreme, the idea that somehow an “effective response” by a college might entail “schools shut[ting] down these sites altogether” is beyond the pale.
Colleges have no such power over Internet sites. The days of Web site operators receiving cease and desist letters from colleges and quickly deleting the content while begging for mercy are long over (to the extent they ever existed). Today's Web site operators have a healthy skepticism for legal notices, may have their own lawyers, or take the legal stance that Juicy Campus took -- Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act protects the site from liability for content created by individual users. Juicy Campus declared on its Web site that with the exception of lawful subpoenas and certain violent threats, it would not take down most posts even when contacted by college presidents.
Also discomforting is a logical extension of SOC’s expansive argument, that if a student complains about harassment on a Web site and the campus does not make heroic efforts to silence the slander, the campus would take on liability for later harm against the student, whether inflicted by another or by the student him or herself. Contrary to the widely-read SOC press release, such revolutionary change in college responsibility is best left to courts and legislatures, not to a controversial reading of an OCR letter that found no liability.
Yet courts are not likely to make such a leap. For public policy reasons, courts will often assign responsibility to the party able to prevent harm in the most efficient way. Here, colleges have no real power to prevent such harm, and assigning such responsibility would not efficiently empower colleges to protect future student victims. While, in some cases, colleges may appropriately act when threats or insults are hurled on campus by members of the college community (including when community members identifiably use cyberspace to defame other community members); colleges can do little with truly anonymous speech in cyberspace.
With the digital age in full swing, colleges must reconceptualize what it means to act in loco parentis, and how, to the extent they can do anything, they can best serve their students. The answer is not to read into OCR investigations a new era of control and responsibility. Disaggregated problems require disaggregated solutions. Colleges cannot wrap their students in bubble wrap whenever they venture outside of their comfortable residence halls, and even bubble wrap does not protect against digital slander. Rather than reasserting rights and responsibilities under in loco parentis and seeking to envelope students in a protective aura, colleges should return to their core mission and educate students on how to interact within, and protect themselves from, the dangers posed by the digital world.
Through extracurricular education, colleges can empower students to turn the tables on challenges within the digital environment and use the tools presented by the Web to their benefit. In another generation, lessons on how to balance a checkbook would help students better navigate their world. Today technology services and student affairs staff can join their professorial colleagues in educating students, concentrating on imparting lessons that help students navigate the churn and froth of the digital environment (a good example of such education is Tracy Mitrano's “Thoughts on Facebook”).
Whether it is through orientation sessions, programs and speakers spread throughout the academic year, e-mails and advice letters, or other means, colleges are in a strong position to provide a robust education on practical lessons students must learn outside of the classroom. In so doing, colleges can best empower young people to defend and protect themselves in the digital environment, both as students and later as alumni. Holding colleges responsible for policing cyberspace won't protect our students or serve their educational needs.
In part two of this series, Benjamin Bleiberg and I will lay out the framework for a set of disaggregated resources and strategies students can use when confronted by digital defamation.
Joseph Storch is a lawyer in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel. In addition to campus representation, he concentrates his practice on the legal issues surrounding emerging technologies. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the State University of New York.
Part I of this two-part series argued that it was inappropriate for colleges and universities to assume responsibility under in loco parentis for protecting college students from anonymous digital defamation, and that institutions should instead empower students by educating them on available strategies and resources.
In this essay, we discuss a disaggregated solution for addressing digital defamation and the resulting disaggregated harms it causes. By establishing a database-driven Web-based litigation system, we can empower students and level the playing field so that interested students can defend themselves, and hopefully deter future digital defamation.
The Digital Defamation Problem
Juicy Campus, the anonymous gossip site that closed its doors in 2009, and its replacements, such as College ACB and Campus Gossip, allow anyone with an Internet connection to post almost any content about a student, true or otherwise. The sites themselves do not necessarily target students. Instead, these sites become a clearinghouse for disaggregated, defamatory statements that cause emotional distress. The sites structure themselves by college and then by topic or victim, making it likely that the poster lives within a few miles of the victim.
Gossip may be posted freely and anonymously across these gossip sites, but it has actual victims and real costs. After reading degrading statements about themselves, victims often feel helpless, and some engage in, or consider engaging in, self-harming activities. Victims of cyber-sliming can fight back -- but for hundreds or thousands of dollars a month. Those with financial ability can hire Web services such as Reputation Defender (a service that, for a fee, minimizes the search ranking of negative postings about the client while boosting the search ranking of positive information) or specialist attorneys (who, for a fee, will investigate and file the necessary lawsuits to clear one’s reputation).
Lawsuits can be effective. Two years ago, two Yale students saw some success in identifying and pursuing those who smeared them on the Web site AutoAdmit. If they had not been represented by lawyers without charge, their partially successful pursuit would have come at significant cost. Recently, a model, represented by counsel, successfully sued Google in New York state court to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who called her a “skank” on a Google-hosted blog. With the blogger’s identity revealed, the model dropped her suit.
Yet many college students who fall victim to such anonymous defamation cannot afford high-priced reputation-clearing services or legal representation, and can fall victim to these brutal attacks with few options for fighting back. While the weapons for anonymously hurling invective across cyberspace have decreased in cost to where they are almost free, the solutions for, and protections from, defamation remain costly. To that end, we envision a system that allows victims of defamation to fight back, at a lower cost, with the hope that the market further lowers the costs of such protection to a level that deters anonymous cyber-sliming.
A Disaggregated Solution
Due to the disaggregated nature of anonymous defamatory attacks against students, even colleges who would welcome their role in loco parentis cannot take on these Web sites or their anonymous posters. Due to mirror sites and easy off-campus Internet access, blocking access to such sites is ineffective in the long term. Rather, the most effective and practical method is for colleges to educate students on how to protect themselves against digital defamation.
To that end, we propose a disaggregated digital solution to this disaggregated digital problem: a database-driven, Web-based litigation system that would allow students to file suit using fill-in-the-blank legal forms. When student affairs staff members are approached by student victims, in addition to offering counseling, they can direct the student to a system where the student can engage in self-help.
Establishing such a system will come at significant cost – a cost that can only be borne by a large organization possessing the funds to develop and host the site and the staff to keep it updated as laws and standards change, to provide technical support to student victims, and to ensure that it does not violate state rules against improper practice of law.
Possible candidates include the Anti-Defamation League, national student advocacy groups and national student affairs professionals groups. Other candidates include law school clinics whose students could design such a site and assist student victims in reclaiming their reputations. Likewise, for-profit private sector entrepreneurs may find an opportunity here.
The system’s goal is to educate students about the general laws of defamation, and guide them through the process of bringing a lawsuit in the proper court. While most lawsuits would be for false and libelous defamation, even true statements can sometimes be so vile that they qualify under certain state laws governing intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress (I.I.E.D.).The beauty of a database-driven system is that it could equally provide for an I.I.E.D. claim in those states where such a claim is allowed.
Defamation suits must be brought in state court except in rare, complicated cases. Which state’s court is appropriate depends on several factors. Since most of these claims will result from postings in forums dedicated to the college or university that the victim attends, that state’s courts will likely assert jurisdiction over the matter.
Gossip sites like Juicy Campus or College ACB “do business” in any state in which they establish a forum for gossip at a college located there. Further, the publication would occur in that state (among others) while the victim, and most likely the harasser, live in the same state. Like all lawsuits, these suits will not succeed every time, and some courts may decline jurisdiction. But, for many students, the system will take them down a path toward discovering the identity of their harassers and pursuing legal remedies against them.
The System for Fighting Back
The first step a student must take after viewing a cruel gossip post is to analyze the content of the post -- honestly. Although something is hurtful, it might not qualify as defamation. Truth is not defamation. Additionally, laws typically require that the poster had to know, or reasonably should have known, that the post was false when he or she posted it. Further, the post must be a factual statement; opinions are usually fair game. The student must differentiate between “John Jones is a drug addict” (claim of fact) and “John Jones acts like a stoner” (opinion).
Admittedly, this is a difficult line to draw for Constitutional scholars, and it will not be easy for college students without assistance. A well-designed system could include a “wiki”-style guidance document where those who bring successful cases or bring significant knowledge of defamation law can help students determine if a statement meets the definition. As cases progress, sharper definitions of defamatory statements may emerge. If the student concludes that the comments are really opinions, but they are “extreme and outrageous” enough to cause severe distress, the student might still have a claim against the poster for I.I.E.D.
The second step for a student is to see if they can determine who the poster is. If so, the path is easier. If not, the system would present them with a fill-in-the-blank “John Doe” lawsuit and subpoena for the gossip site hosting the comments. Using a database, the system can offer different forms and filing options depending on the state. Some states allow electronic filing while others require printing and mailing.
Once the victim sends the subpoena to the gossip site, the third step for a student is to provide some notice to the poster. One way is to post the subpoena in the same forum used for the defamatory post. If the site cooperates and releases the Internet Protocol (I.P.) address for the offending poster, the next step is to use the Internet “Who Is” database to determine the poster’s Internet Service Provider (I.S.P.), and subpoena that I.S.P. for the poster’s identity. If the I.S.P. cooperates and identifies the poster, the victim can amend the suit’s defendant to name the poster.
Some Reasonable Criticisms
It should be noted that this system is neither perfect nor free from criticism. For every success, there will be failures: paperwork lost, I.P. addresses destroyed or not captured, deadlines missed, and sites and I.S.P.’s uncooperative. It may be that few cases go to trial. Many will die on the vine due to technical or substantive problems. The successful cases, however, may result in large judgments, especially in the cases of the most malicious and untrue gossip. These cases, even if rare, may provide a deterrent against future libel. The examples of a few bright students who declare bankruptcy, cannot buy a home or have their wages garnished to pay a defamation judgment may dissuade future harassers.
A prime criticism to this system is the position that the Internet is a bastion of free speech and nothing should stand in the way of unabashed free speech. Yet, defamation and speech intended to inflict severe emotional distress is not First Amendment protected speech. States can and do regulate this type of speech. We are not seeking a new regime that silences free speech on the Internet; rather we hope to apply the same standards to the Web that govern in the real world.
Another criticism is that this system will only work to the extent that Web sites capture I.P. addresses and submit to jurisdiction. Further, some posters will use anonymizing software or post from locations that do not capture I.P. addresses. This criticism is valid, and admittedly, the system will not work entirely for every student.
However, while some sites may choose not to capture I.P. addresses, sites may begin to receive so many of these subpoenas that they comply for the sake of cost-saving efficiency. Alternatively, Congress or trial judges may begin to find bad faith in quickly deleting I.P. addresses simply to shield malicious posters from the legal system, and the legal and legislative marketplace may, thus, correct that difficulty.
Additionally, this system will not necessarily work for non-student defamation victims. The system is aimed at college students, because these sites construct forums for individual schools. Thus, it is likely that the poster and victim live in the same state (if not the same residence hall). It will not necessarily work for those targeted from other states or countries and may not help victims of attacks on personal blogs.
Further, contrary to the successful cases discussed above, courts in some states have declined to force anonymous posters to reveal themselves. Concurrently, the system will not protect against statements that do not meet the technical legal definitions of defamation or I.I.E.D., but nevertheless impose significant harm on victims. Of course, even if the system works and some victims win massive judgments, these suits may induce no more deterrence among students than did the music industry’s lawsuits.
Such a system also presupposes that a victim is willing to go on the record in suing the poster. The requirement to file openly may discourage some victims. The Second and Ninth Circuits of the federal court system, as well as many state courts, allow anonymous filing of lawsuits when, among other things, the matter is very sensitive or personal, there is a possibility of retaliation for filing suit, the prejudice to the defendant is less than the harm of identification, and when the public interest is served by such anonymity. Such a standard could be used in these cases, even recognizing the irony of filing an anonymous suit to expose an anonymous poster. At the same time, courts must be vigilant at the dismissal stage, to protect against those who seek to use the system as a weapon by filing false claims.
Establishing such a system will be expensive and difficult. It cannot be accomplished without the support of a large organization and volunteer attorneys or law students. Defamation cases are complicated and based on differing state laws. The same could be said about the thousands of pages of federal and state tax codes. Yet, companies like TurboTax and H&R Block offer database-driven Web services that allow most taxpayers to quickly and accurately file federal and state returns without ever opening the tax code.
Reclaiming a Reputation
We recognize that establishing such a system will not be an easy sell. Even considering the above, and other valid criticism, we believe that our system will empower the many student victims who have no method of fighting back against anonymous posters. It will not be perfect, yet we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Colleges and universities can educate students on ways to employ this and other disaggregated solutions; encouraging the development of this system and educating students on its use can be part of that mission.
The attractiveness of such a system is that it would help student victims help themselves. The individualistic nature of the Internet, where amateur journalists pen millions of blogs while Wikipedia entries outnumber traditional encyclopedia articles many-fold, is not well-served by a super-regulator censoring content to protect defamation victims.
Colleges cannot protect students from all of the dangers imposed by the Internet. Rather, student victims need an inexpensive, user-friendly tool to level the playing field. Developing and marketing such a system will grant victims a much-needed gift: the opportunity to take back their reputations and return to living their lives.
Benjamin Bleiberg and Joseph Storch
Benjamin Bleiberg is a judicial clerk in the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Joseph Storch is an attorney in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel. In addition to campus representation, he concentrates his practice on the legal issues surrounding emerging technologies. The views expressed here are their own and do not represent the views of the State University of New York or the federal court system.
This past week, Morehouse College, a historically black, all-male college, instituted a dress code, which details what students should wear to various college functions and activities and what they should not. The items that are not allowed include: caps, do-rags, and hoods in the classrooms, cafeteria and indoors; sun glasses and grillz; clothing with lewd comments; sagging pants and pajamas in public; and women’s clothing and accessories.
Morehouse students have had mixed reactions to the new policies. Some students feel that these rules hinder their freedom of speech and expression – as adults, they should be able to wear what they want when they want. Other students think the policy is long overdue. When you are admitted to Morehouse, they feel, you become a Morehouse man and follow in a long tradition of great African American men such as civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Julian Bond or national health leaders Louis W. Sullivan and David Satcher. This kind of legacy requires dressing and carrying oneself in a professional way.
Last year, my colleague Shaun Harper and I wrote an article published in the Journal of Negro Education entitled “The Consequences of Conservatism at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.” Ironically, much of the article focused on campus dress codes at black colleges. As part of our research, we reviewed the dress codes at all of the black colleges in the United States. We found similar dress codes to the one instituted at Morehouse and we called these codes into question as scholars typically do. We wondered what kind of impact conservative dress codes would have on the individual autonomy of students and argued that these often puritanical codes are part of a long history of black colleges compensating for negative views by white society of black people.
However, as I think about the new Morehouse dress code, I am reminded that much of America (read: white America) does not see African Americans as individuals. If a young white male dresses in pajamas or saggy pants, and a lewd t-shirt on a predominantly white campus, he is seen neither as a representative of his race nor his campus. And let’s be honest, anyone who visits campuses these days, including some of the most prestigious in the country, will see many white male students displaying more of their underwear than most of us want to see, wearing caps inside, and displaying crude T-shirts. But when a young black male wears saggy pants, pajamas, or a do-rag, many Americans see him as a representative of all black America (and in this case, Morehouse College). The stakes are higher for black men because of American racism. The stakes are higher for Morehouse College as well.
There are those who argue that when one gains admission to a college, one signs up for the rules of that college – to be a Morehouse man in this case. There are others who claim that more learning takes place when we take decisions about clothing and fashion out of students’ hands. For me, the most convincing argument is made by those who want to change the nation’s perceptions of young black men and it seems that Morehouse College is making this argument. The institution’s president wants the students to dress like professional men because he wants them to become professional men.
When I first saw the dress code, I immediately forwarded it to a good friend who graduated from Morehouse about 20 years ago. He was happy to see the code and responded that with regard to Morehouse, “Many are called but few are chosen” – reminding me that Morehouse was a standard setter, not a trend follower.
Yet, it does seem like there could be a middle ground. Perhaps when attending school functions and classes, these young men could be expected to dress professionally but in their personal time, they could be free to express their individuality – seems like that is what most adults do once they are in the “real world.” But then again, the stakes are higher for the young, black men at Morehouse, aren’t they?
One of the most controversial aspects of the dress code is the banning of women’s clothing and garb. Even though the Morehouse administration consulted the college’s gay students group and the majority of these students voted in favor of the rules, including the ban on women’s garb, this rule may give some pause. I am not an expert on this topic, but I do wonder what will happen if a Morehouse man wants to become a Morehouse woman? What happens to the transgender Morehouse man? Does he go to another college or stay at Morehouse? I don’t have the answer, but I think the Morehouse dress code raises some important questions about race, sexuality, and masculinity that we in higher education should tackle head on and hesitate to avoid. As my friend said, Morehouse College is a standard setter and has the opportunity to be out in front on discussing these issues.
By raising issues about cross-dressing and dress and appearance generally, Morehouse is forcing discussions and more thought about the way society views black men. And Morehouse is making sure that its black men – who already defy stereotypes with their ambition and intelligence – will do so with their attire as well.
Our associate provost recently organized a workshop to talk about how (or perhaps whether) we teach presentation and speaking skills in our courses.
I was glad to see the workshop come together. I think it's a really important issue.
I worry a lot about many of our students in this respect. While they're here their writing may improve, their skills in using various academic disciplines may deepen, their knowledge of a particular subject or field may grow very impressively. But many students who grow in those ways do not necessarily become better at speaking or at presenting themselves effectively, not even in the controlled environment of classroom discussion.
To be honest, I think some of our students become worse at self-presentation and speaking skills in their time here. Some adapt too strongly to the narrow particularity of academic conversation. Other students get too used to political or social engagement with a community that politely indulges most of their demands or arguments or has a fairly strong consensus culture, never really experiencing serious disagreement or plurality of opinion. I've occasionally suggested, semi-seriously, that I feel like we train some students as the speaking and presentation equivalents of baby seals on the ice, waiting to get clubbed.
I think this is a generic problem at a lot of colleges and universities, mind you. The only distinctive aspect of it I see at Swarthmore is the intense value that students and faculty put on being mutually supportive and not seeming to want to show up other students with showy or critical comments. (This is not to say that we completely lack students who are flamboyantly talkative, but I feel as if there's a bit more reluctance here to stand apart.) In a lot of ways, this is a good part of the culture of the college, but it hobbles students a bit when the time comes closer to graduation, when they have to present themselves as confident, capable individuals whom someone should fund, admit or hire.
In general, this is why setting out to teach self-presentation is a tricky business. It's genuinely difficult to assess or grade self-presentation or speaking. The major pedagogy you need is more akin to the pedagogy employed in performance or studio art, where the professor needs to react in the moment, and where some of the feedback needs to be as public and shared as the speaking itself was. That can get very sticky or emotionally fraught for many students. If you're in a performance class, you expect that kind of judgment. If you're in a small discussion class focused on an academic subject, you might not be so willing to go through that gauntlet.
More importantly, effective presentation of self is really not reducible to "public speaking" in the old way that this subject was once taught. When schools like Swarthmore tout the virtues of critical thinking and a liberal arts education for the long-term job prospects of our graduates, we tend to stress the value of flexibility and adaptability, that the liberal arts graduate can change as circumstances change. I think that's basically correct.
Effective self-presentation is a big part of that adaptability, however. If you can't do that, it doesn't really matter whether you can think well. Arguably, you can't think well unless you can speak and present well.
Presenting knowledge or arguments effectively involves putting together a lot of different sub-skills on the fly. You have to understand the context in which you're presenting, you have to be able to very quickly read the organizational sociology of that context. You need to be able to quickly pick up cues about the psychology and habitus of your audience and adjust when it's not what you planned for. You have to know when what you're arguing for is impossible or implausible, and whether there's something else to ask for, when you're setting the stage for a long-term objective or just making a temporary response to a situation that won't repeat itself, when to yield and when to hold firm.
This is all very difficult to teach, not just because it can be delicate to give real-time feedback to students, but because it involves some interpersonal, emotional and psychological skills that are not commonly made explicit or discussed as skills. You can't just teach about those skills in a classroom setting, either. Students have to do other things to learn them fully: get involved in organizations, work in a group, play on a team, take responsibility for a decision.
On those rare occasions where ideas like "emotional intelligence" receive pedagogically explicit attention, they tend to be constrained to painfully bland normative managerial discourses, to be entirely about how we should get along well with others, play nice with other children, be good citizens, and so on. This is deadly. It's better not to talk about this stuff at all than talk about it in these terms.
If you teach skills in an academic environment, you've got to be prepared to make those skills intellectually lively, contentious, open to interpretation and argument. When I teach writing or reading, I'm not just teaching how to write or read, I'm asking whether and when to do those things, studying why we read or write, discussing what the limits to writing or reading might be. Skills have to be as open to the question, "So what?" as any other subject matter, and you have to teach with a willingness to accept a wide variety of answers to that question.
If we're going to teach something like "emotional intelligence" as a part of skillful presentation of self, one explicit premise from the outset needs to be that we are not teaching how to be a good person or play nice in the sandbox. There are people who are highly skilled at purposeful self-presentation who present as eccentric or as gadflies or as disciplinarians. Effectiveness as a speaker or a presenter is not a function of how nice or respectful or caring you are.
In his working life as an attorney, my father was extremely skilled at reading situations and "dialing in" the self-presentation that would most effectively push for the outcomes he was professionally committed to seeking: he could be just another guy with the guys, he could be the bullfighter jabbing and inciting an opponent, he could be light and funny or volcanic and volatile.
Like more than a few highly effective professionals, he didn't have the same nimbleness and flexibility when he was outside the focused environment of his workplace. The key point as far as higher education goes is: that's your problem, your life, work it out yourself.
What we're concerned with is the competencies you have as a thinking, educated person. Personality can be an issue in learning skillful self-presentation: a narcissist or neurotic by their nature has a hard time with critical parts of the skill set, such as being able to imagine how you sound to other people or how you're coming off in the context you're in. But personality shouldn't inhibit most people from a baseline competence in self-presentation. Shy or bold, introvert or extrovert, quiet or talkative, nice or asshole: those are not limit conditions.
Timothy Burke is a professor of history at Swarthmore College.
Your “frill” is not my “frill. “ My frill, in fact, is an essential component of the work I do, which is an equally essential aspect of our institution’s mission. Maybe you say the same about yours.
And therein lies the heart of the difficulty in discussing what has recently become a phrase bandied about in the world of higher education. “No-frills education” has been touted by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, the president of Southern New Hampshire University in recent attention-getting interviews, and pundits commenting on the out-of-control costs of college. If we can just strip the college experience down to its most basic form, the argument goes, we can restore sanity to the price structure and access to those who need it.
But the first challenge comes when we begin to discuss, and decide on, what constitutes a “frill.” Unfortunately, the contentious and fractured nature of higher education, long a hotbed of competing priorities, makes that a difficult conversation.
Shopping for a college education is not like buying a new car, and building an effective institution to provide that education is not like building one. If one of us goes into a car dealership with a plan to buy the most stripped-down vehicle on the lot, and we stick to that plan, we have a pretty good idea of what we will drive away owning: a car without many of the nifty features now available. No GPS, no satellite radio. We will have a smaller engine, which we understand will leave our simple little car a bit underpowered on the highway.
But we know too that we will have a car equipped with the basic safety features required by law -- seatbelts and airbags -- and that it will have the components necessary to drive off the lot: four wheels supporting a frame, powered by an engine.
But what is it about a college education that is truly essential? And how do we arrive at that conclusion? We can start with the curriculum, but if there is an institution out there that has not suffered through lengthy debates about the components of that curriculum, neither of us knows where it is. The only thing constant about the “essential” components of a curriculum has been the regular change each institution imposes on it.
Foreign languages, for example, have been a mainstay of a liberal arts education. But as demand has lessened and resources have dwindled, a number of institutions have reduced or eliminated this requirement. Skill in writing has long been one hallmark of a college education, but at many large research institutions, students can graduate having written fewer than a dozen substantive papers, many of those having been graded and returned with few comments and corrections. Colleges and universities have added, and then removed, requirements for courses addressing diversity, gender issues, global concerns.
What was essential in one decade is seen as frivolous in another. At the furthest extreme is an institution as esteemed as Brown University, which has no required courses among its thousands of offerings.
Is academic support a “frill”? If one agrees that writing is indeed an essential component, then is a writing center that provides intensive tutoring in this skill also an essential component? That’s a fairly easy argument to make. And yet, in a time of budget cuts, we have seen writing centers forced to reduce their hours and staff. At what point does this essential component become so limited that an institution’s mission is threatened?
To return to the car-buying analogy, we know that tastes and needs have an impact on standard equipment in a car, and that over time, we adjust our expectations of that equipment upward. One would be hard-pressed, for example, to find a car without a radio today. It doesn’t mean the radio hasn’t added to the cost of the car, just that we are in agreement that we will accept the cost as part of the price of the car.
But easy acceptance has never been part of academic culture. We can, and do, argue over everything from the lack of vegetarian options in the dining halls to class schedules, from the awarding of tenure to a less-than-stellar instructor to the political correctness of a mascot. Debate is, one could argue, an essential component of our mission (though we have to admit there are days when we wish it were a frill that we might be willing to do away with). The risk for our institutions is not in the content of this debate, but in the oft-reflexive assumptions we bring to the debate, which can then degenerate into a harsh and morale-sapping exchange between groups of colleagues.
“No-frills education” discussions have their common fodder: gleaming recreation centers, posh residence halls with concierge desks, heavily-funded student activities events, athletics and all its attendant costs. These are among the items that proponents of “no-frills” education seek to eliminate. The “no-frills” education offered by Southern New Hampshire University, for example, is a commuter-based approach to garnering credits; many classes are taught by the same faculty who teach at the university’s “heavily frilled” other campus. But are those students getting the same education as their peers down the road? Perhaps they don’t need a recreation center, but is there any doubt that students learn valuable skills from activities outside the classroom?
Over the past 20 years, service learning as a component of the curriculum has become increasingly common as faculty and students alike, supported by data, acknowledge the deep level of learning that takes place when students must put their classroom skills to good use in the community. What about learning to develop a budget for an organization, motivating volunteers, evaluating the success of an effort? And practically speaking, how does a no-frills education impact a student’s relationship with the institution? Will these students be loyal alums 10 or 20 years after graduation?
It’s equally critical that we remember that very few frills are either/or propositions. Most exist on a continuum of cost and usefulness. Perhaps a climbing wall (a “frill” often cited as an example of an unnecessary expenditure) isn’t a good use of campus dollars. But is a fitness center with basic cardio equipment that gives students, as well as faculty and staff, a convenient way to relieve stress and stay healthy in that same category? Similarly, a residence hall with a spectacular view of Boston’s skyline, such as the luxury accommodations recently opened by Boston University, can hardly be discussed in the same conversation as the standard double-room, shared-bath residence halls still operating on most campuses.
These debates about “amenities” versus “necessities,” about what our students need versus what they want, rage on, as they should. It is our responsibility as the keepers of our institution’s educational integrity to own these debates and decisions. If we abrogate our responsibility to do this, someone else, like a state legislator or policy maker or a popular magazine that makes a bundle on its “rankings” issue, will step in.
Who should get to decide that a particular outside-the-classroom activity is a frill? Living on campus is a “frill” in the minds of some higher education policy makers, and certainly the community college system in American has shown for a century that students can receive a good education without experiencing dorm life. But who would argue that learning to live with others isn’t a valuable skill? It’s certainly one we hope our neighbors have learned before they move into the townhouse next door.
Is residence life essential? No. Is it a frill? No. Is it somewhere in the middle? Most likely. So who on any given campus is best positioned to determine whether it stays or goes as part of a move toward “no-frills” education?
An athletics program is similarly difficult to gauge. At one of our institutions, a small, professionally focused college, athletics was eliminated without much of a fight, and the college hasn’t missed a step.
At the other of our institutions, a small, selective liberal arts college, a quarter of the students participate in an intercollegiate sport. The budget to support these efforts, while modest compared to larger schools, is not insubstantial at a time when every dollar is scrutinized. There are on this campus, as we’re sure there are on every campus, those who would characterize athletics as a “frill.”
But if we eliminated the entire program, or even a few sports, enrollment would suffer greatly as those student-athletes sought other opportunities to continue their athletic pursuits, and we would have a hard time keeping our doors open for the rest of our students. It’s also worth pointing out that on this campus, as is the case on many small college campuses, our athletes are retained at a higher rate, and receive less financial aid, than the student body in general.
Some of the “no-frill” efforts being proposed are closely aligned with a view of higher education that is more vocational in nature, more targeted at providing students with skills essential to building an effective and pliable work force to rebuild the American, and global, economy. Setting aside the enormous question of whether this should be the true purpose of a college education, we nonetheless need to consider the role of career services in this equation.
Does a “no-frills” institution help its students find jobs after education? Perhaps, but how? Does it help students identify possible internships with employers? That would be a good idea. Does it invite recruiters to campus to interview students? That makes sense. Does there need to be an employee whose responsibility it is to arrange these internships and visits? That is helpful. Should someone work to prepare these students for these interviews? Review their resumes? Help them determine which recruiters might be of interest to them? Offer a workshop on interviewing skills? Those services make sense if the institution is truly committed to helping students move successfully into the workforce. So now perhaps this institution needs a career services office to provide these opportunities, replete with staff, a small resource library, some career-oriented software supplied on office-located computers.
Frills? Yes, no, and somewhere in between, depending on the vantage point from which you approach the matter.
The point of these examples is not to lead us down a path of endless debate about residence halls, athletics, career services, student activities, or any of the “frills” that proponents of “no-frills” would like to eliminate. It’s to point out that we have, at this point, no agreed-upon framework with which to discuss and define “essential” versus “frill.”
Will these “no-frills” campuses take a pass on academic support services? How about orientation or a campus conduct system? Will faculty at these no-frills institutions be any more comfortable dealing with students in serious academic or emotional distress than our faculty colleagues are now, most of whom appear grateful to have a counseling center (which some might consider a “frill”) to refer these students? Will students with learning and physical disabilities still be able to get the assistance they need, or will anything beyond the bare minimum required by the federal government be considered a “frill” and cast aside along with the climbing wall, spring concert, turf field and whatever else is the frill-of-the-day as portrayed in the media?
We can’t, and won’t, answer yes or no to these, though we each have our opinions. We just want to propose that each institution should own its discussion about these matters. Casting aspersions on the work of others, on the contributions of that work to students and to an institution’s core mission, is not productive. What is productive is an ongoing, civil conversation about those students and that core mission, and an effort to first build a framework for that conversation that educates each of us in the work of one another.
Every institution must have its own conversation, and no two institutions will reach identical conclusions. One institution’s frill is another institution’s essential service: ours to decide, and ours to defend. Leaving the definition of “frill” to others puts us at grave risk of losing control over our very purpose. We must look inward for the anchor points of this conversation. Who are our students, and what do we owe them? What do they need from us (rather than want from us) to ensure they have the best chance of succeeding at whatever it is we have crafted as our institution’s goals? And then we must measure what we offer against those goals, rather than against the college down the road that is awash in apparent frills (which, perhaps, they don’t define that way, and that is, of course, their prerogative).
What each one of us believes is essential may not be what another believes is essential, but we do share, at our best, a deep commitment to this work of educating college students, and we each deserve a voice in the conversation.
Lee Burdette Williams and Elizabeth A. Beaulieu
Lee Burdette Williams is vice president and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, and Elizabeth A. Beaulieu is dean of the core division at Champlain College.
"Students today are so industrious!" My colleague blurted this after learning students had replaced labels on their water bottles with exact replicas — but with the test answers typed in the ingredients section.
However, another colleague disagreed with any positive attribute for today’s students. She recently summoned a failing Comp 101 student to inquire about his surprisingly excellent final paper. After he repeatedly claimed to have written "every word," she replied, "Then I have just one final question. Young man, exactly when did you have your abortion?" She concluded, "Students today are lazy. For 40 years I’ve caught students copying papers — but at least they had read them first!"
The academy at-large is also divided over this generation’s profile. We tend to classify today’s students as either lazy (putting our country’s future in peril) or industrious and creative (offering national hope). It appears that we have a “Janus Generation;” researchers continually picture its students with contrasting faces, like the two-headed Roman god, Janus.
This discussion of student profiles is hot press — the recent Boston Globe articles on “My Lazy American Students” garnered around 800 blog responses and discussion on this Web site as well. The combined Google entries for any of the topic’s name holders (e.g., Net Generation or Millennials) surpass 200 million. Likewise, the Digital Natives project has drawn a diverse community of collaborators from Harvard University and the University of St. Gallen. Don Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital (1997) and Grown Up Digital (2008) continue to draw considerable attention — though he presents a rather positive view of the same collegians derided elsewhere as "lazy Americans." Michael Wesch’s "A Vision of Students Today" is approaching four million YouTube views and now exceeds 10,000 blog responses; helping to earn him the 2008 Carnegie/CASE Professor of the Year Award — and many others.
During several conference and campus presentations this year, I've found audiences generally negative about student performance, much like responses Wesch notes among his respondents and narrated in "Lazy Americans." However, I also present sharply divided research to frame the discussion. A chart of the leading resources on today’s students helps to categorize negative and positive conclusions.
Student characteristics that appear as "laziness" to some are categorized as "technologically preoccupied" to others. "Entertainment" for one professor is labeled "sophistication" by another. Like Abelard’s Sic et Non, participants are asked to draw their conclusions — but with a utilitarian goal of improving student learning and enhancing student success efforts. Nearly all audiences are struck by studies like that by the University of New Hampshire -- showing no correlation between social networking and grades (n=1,127 UNH students from campus-wide sample).
And some scholars have rather positive perceptions of this much maligned generation, e.g., Marc Prensky (progenitor of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants") and Neil Howe and William Strauss (authors of various millennial studies).
If we consider the Janus Generation as a gathering of neologisms for students born from 1977 through 2001, we can talk generally about those students whose educational experiences overlapped with the modern technological revolution. A few major terms used to describe aspects of these overlapping groups include: Net Generation, Digital Generation, Millennials (b. 1982), Digital Natives (though qualified), Generation Me, Y (and now iY), Screenagers, and Mosaics. The watershed of 9/11 recognizes new socio-religio-politico realities, and Strauss and Howe have already started calling those born after this time "The New Silent Generation" while others prefer "Generation Z" and "iGeneration."
The Janus Generation faced another reality, the coming and going of troops. The two faces of the god Janus had appeared on opposite sides of Rome’s War Gates (or, the Gates of Janus, the god of doorways and beginnings, the namesake of January). Emperors bragged if these gates were shut (time of peace) and not open (time of sending to battle as Janus watched in both directions).
This last connection with Janus struck me while watching Wesch’s video for the first time during an engagement in Ireland. Though this international audience of educators could identify with what Wesch himself observed as "a disheartening portrayal of disengagement," we could also sense the students’ intensity about the human condition.
Painting a Negative Face on the Janus Generation
Kara Miller’s provocative Boston Globearticles remind me of David French’s National Review Online entries "Low Graduation Rates and the Total Lack of Student Effort" and its sequel. These also drew a wave of comments, including one from a high school teacher in Phoenix: “One bright light, ironically enough, is reading (trying to read!) Heart of Darkness with my seniors. Even though they do not "get it" and the majority do not actually read it (Sparknotes!), when we get to the section about "the flabby weak-eyed devil" of laziness, they sit up and take notice. That passage usually generates an interesting discussion about how lazy they actually are."
The bulk of the comments on Miller’s op-ed are likewise empathetic with her "lazy" generational attribute, and some laud heroic status on her for such a candid appraisal. However, others note the gaping holes in her logic, or at least the lack of scientific evidence for assertions and comparisons with international students. Miller seems to assume that at some point anecdotes become data sets and data sets reflect anecdotes — but leaves both sides of the equation to researchers.
And she’s correct — researchers abound. A wave of books concur with the essence of her anecdotal reflections. Mark Bauerlein’s title alone stigmatizes our students: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). Jean Twinge’s books do the same: Generation Me: Why American Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable than Ever Before and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Mel Levine highlights students’ lack of preparedness in Ready or Not, Here Life Comes (urging secondary schools to focus on life prep instead of college prep — admissions tests). And for a rather bold stereotype, see Morley Safer’s “The Millennials are Coming” (60 Minutes, parts 1-2, and the various responses by Twixters).
In 1993, Alfie Kohn had tried to warn of these forthcoming college performance ills in his “controversial” Punished by Rewards, a book more likely considered prophetic today. Many think the same about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985).
Painting a Positive Face on the Janus Generation
Judy Woodruff’s national interviews bring to life the depth of many of today’s students, i.e., Generation Next: Speak Up and Be Heard – PBS videos (2007). Don Tapscott and Marc Prensky can easily be aligned with this positive group. And Strauss and Howe’s "Seven Characteristics of Millennials" dominate the Web searches – including hundreds of presentations by others.
These Millennial characteristics include: Special, Sheltered, Confident, Team-oriented, Achieving, Pressured and Conventional. About the only noticeable negative in their study is students’ aversion to taking risks. Similar to the critiques of Twinge’s Me Generation, various reviewers challenge Strauss and Howe’s research for being too narrow and not indicative of national norms.
Kali H. Trzesniewski and her colleagues may not be as overtly positive, but defend this generation against Twinge’s works in Do Today's Young People Really Think They Are So Extraordinary? An Examination of Secular Trends in Narcissism and Self-Enhancement. Based on their research (n=25,000 high school seniors) they concluded that “Today’s youth seem to be no more narcissistic and self-aggrandizing than previous generations.” Courtney E. Martin gives a helpful assessment of this revision of Twinge in “Misunderstanding ‘Generation Me’ ” (2008). She surmises that the true picture is likely somewhere in between the two studies, though Trzesniewski’s has a much bigger sample and was from California, "the home of the self-esteem education movement."
Various other studies see the Janus Generation as simply unique, and suggest ways to move forward: The Millennium Matrix (Jossey-Bass, 2004), Serving the Millennial Generation: New Directions for Student Services (Jossey-Bass, 2004), Connecting to the Net Generation: What Higher Education Professionals Need to Know About Today’s College Students (NASPA, 2007), A Brief Guide for Teaching Millennial Learners (Triangle, 2007), Love Is the Killer App. (Crown, 2002).
Doorways and New Beginnings
Janus was also known as the god of doorways and beginnings, and our students need these. From Kohn’s 1993 warning through Jossey-Bass’s recent release, Helping Sophomores Succeed, the key is helping them to find their life calling and sense of purpose. Whether we see the face of laziness or sophistication, nearly all major studies show a student core interested in spirituality and purpose. I have come to conclude that "the dream needs to be stronger than the struggle," and when students commit to causes they deem worthy they are more likely to succeed. The Purpose-Guided Student is my effort to operationalize this in a textbook, and Habitudes, On Course and The Explorer’s Guide are other notable approaches; Strengths Quest (Gallup) accents these efforts, and researchers like Ed St. John (University of Michigan) and Christian Smith (Notre Dame) have contributed valuable research. St. John led the Indiana Project on Academic Success that tracked the purpose-guided approach with 1,700 students and found all positive odds ratios — and 20 percent graduation rate increases over six years.
The profiles of the Janus Generations help to frame and present the questions, and discovering a sense of purpose opens an important doorway.
Jerry Pattengale is assistant provost for scholarship and public engagement at Indiana Wesleyan University.
The New York Times last month reported a story about several politically active students who crossed the line from what the Times called “high jinks” to allegedly committing a federal felony (by breaking into the office of Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana to learn whether the Senator’s office was deliberately not answering phone calls). While this criminal activity is nothing short of outrageous, I assume it is an aberration. It is, however, connected to a bigger problem.
These students are part of an organized group of conservative students whose tactics are already well-known on many college campuses: selling cookies at reduced rates to women and students-of-color in protest of affirmative action; sneaking video cameras into classrooms and campus forums and posting out-of-context excerpts, often anonymously, as evidence of liberal indoctrination on campus; hosting a gun raffle; researching and publicizing campaign contributions of faculty members and staff. High jinks? Really? Check the campusreform.org Web site, which advises, “Why take action? Because it will shock your opposition.” Is that why activism matters, to shock and discourage others? Are faculty members and other students “the opposition?”
We need to be clear about what these acts are: attention-seeking tactics that intimidate faculty, students, and guest speakers, distort facts, reduce public issues to simplistic sound-bites, and inhibit the thoughtful exchange of ideas and deliberation, both in and out of the classroom. The students named in the Times are not trying to offset liberal bias – they are trying to prevent learning and chill, if not stop, civil discourse.
Recently, everyday citizens, columnists (including Tom Friedman, also in the Times), newspaper editors, and President Obama have amplified their call for the end of partisan gamesmanship and tactics that promote vitriol, conflict, and stalemates at the national level. It’s time that colleges and universities demand the same of their students.
We know what we should do:
Create spaces on campuses for better political discourse. When children act out, as my grandmother used to say, it’s because they haven’t been given constructive opportunities to “get the starch out.” Campus venues for public deliberation don’t need to be free-for-alls, like some (not all) of the health care town hall meetings in the fall. They can be structured learning opportunities in classrooms and beyond where students are expected to study an issue and engage in a process of open-minded and reasoned dialogue, respectful communication across differences, and collaborative problem solving. These should be venues where members of the campus community can “call for” dialogue on hot-button public issues. They are also venues where “high jinks” have no place.
Teach the arts of democracy: It’s no wonder the state of public discourse is so pathetic. Some of the structures that once were places where individuals learned how to behave as citizens in a democracy have broken down (families, neighborhoods, places of worship, newspapers, civics classes). Facilitating, establishing rules for engagement, active listening, issue framing, managing conflict, consensus building, and democratic decision making are skills most students simply don’t have. Campuses can offer certificate programs, weekend workshops and trainings, for-credit programs in intergroup relations and conflict resolution and leadership, and summer institutes. They can support faculty development in dialogue and deliberation as classroom pedagogy. The arts of democracy need to be taught. And they need to be practiced, to become habits on campuses.
Involve the broader community, not just enrolled students, in discussions about pressing issues. Doing so will increase the likelihood that students will be exposed to a diversity of perspectives. Getting to know, listening to, and learning alongside people with very different life experiences, including those with varied levels of social and political power and privilege, will help students keep an open mind and find solutions they hadn’t previously considered. At the same time, campuses can model a better way to do democracy, teach everyday citizens the arts of democracy, provide neutral venues for informed political deliberation, and serve as catalysts for reasoned, citizen-driven solutions to public problems.
Colleges and universities shy away from political discourse, partly because it is unpredictable and stirs up hornets, but that’s short-sighted and ill-advised. Some students are acting out as a result. And they don’t have to be so timid. Colleges and universities are not “the public square,” nor should they be. They are learning environments, and shocking and intimidating “high jinks” (again, felonies aside) cross a line and disrupt the educational process.
Higher education need to be more intentional about creating places where free, open, reasoned, and respectful speech takes place and where people’s opinions, including thoughtful conservative perspectives, are heard. Perhaps a place to start is with the state of political discourse and activism, on campus and off.
Avatar harassment and sexual assault remain controversial issues because institutions hosting virtual worlds are not accustomed to dealing with — or even discussing — digital forms of these distressing behaviors.
Harassment and assault are frequent infractions in virtual environs, including those frequented by students and professors. London journalist Tim Guest, author of Second Lives: a Journey Through Virtual Worlds, estimated that "about 6.5 percent of logged-in residents" have filed one or more abuse reports in Second Life. By the end of 2006, he writes, Linden Lab, creator of Second Life, "was receiving close to 2,000 abuse reports a day."
Current statistics are unavailable. But you can monitor the types of offenses and where they occurred in Second Life by accessing its community incident report chronicling the 25 most recent infractions and resulting penalties. On Dec. 28, 2009, five of the 25 infractions concerned "indecency: broadly offensive content or conduct"; three, sexual harassment; and two, intolerance. Most penalties included warnings with four one-day suspensions and one three-day suspension. (In fairness, Linden Lab has tried to crack down on these community infractions, hosting guides such as this to inform users about abuse and how to file reports about repeat offenders.)
Educational institutions with a presence in or that introduced students to virtual worlds might want to analyze the phenomenon of avatar rape, which presents a unique challenge to traditional jurisprudence. Rape is assumed to be both physical and geographical, as in a crime scene. Both dimensions are missing on the Web. Nevertheless, avatars are symbols of the self. As such, it behooves us to investigate:
How avatar rape happens in virtual worlds.
What concepts and theories apply when the act is neither physical nor geographical.
Why the discussion is even necessary.
Before delving into avatar rape, I should note that such a discussion could have the unintended consequence of desensitizing the topic of real rape, whose ramifications, physical and psychological, are extreme. However, silence about virtual assault also has consequences in that many colleges and universities view virtual worlds as learning environments and may not know how to resolve issues when infractions occur.
Those unfamiliar with virtual worlds may wonder how avatar rape even happens. (You can access a short bibliography of online content devoted in part or in whole to issues involving virtual assault.) Typically, users encounter the act through three scenarios: You can lure others or be lured into it yourself. You can purchase or role-play it. You can “grief” it — a term that means to cause grief — or suffer it because of a griefer.
I became interested in avatar rape after I read an account in Gawker Media, titled “Second Life: Rape for Sale.” The post noted how users could indulge in rape fantasies (options: Rape victim, Get raped, or Hold victim) "for a trifling 220 Linden dollar things." Diana Allandale (not her real name) shared her experience with avatar rape in response to an online article, “How exactly does ‘virtual rape’ even occur in Second Life?” Her incident happened on a beach — a typical landscape as avatars interact with each other on "islands" — when another avatar invited her to go skinny-dipping.
"Being the newbie I was, I didn’t understand that the word ‘love’ hovering over the top meant ‘intercourse.’ "
When the rape began, she recalled, "my first thought was — ‘Hey! I didn’t consent to this!’ " Allandale rebuffed her attacker, dressed her avatar and left, "feeling ticked off that someone would take advantage of my newbie-ness, but having learned a little about human nature."
Allandale is no prude, by the way. She’s a high school teacher and author of erotic novels under the byline of Diana Hunter.
Then there are griefers who have haunted multiuser domains for years. In 1993, Julian Dibble published “A Rape in Cyberspace” in the Village Voice, narrating the deeds of one Mr. Bungle in the text-based virtual world, LambdaMOO:
They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies.
Like many in academe, all I knew about avatar rape was what I had read about it. Then I witnessed an online sexual assault — and had a witness, too.
Tom Beell, a journalism professor at Iowa State, asked me about Second Life, knowing I had researched and written about it. He had never heard of the virtual world, so I opted to show rather than explain it to him using my office desktop.
I logged on and teleported to a beach. Within the first few minutes, we observed one nude male avatar violently rape another clothed male avatar drinking a pixelated martini at a boardwalk bar.
"What’s going on?" Beell asked. He looked startled. Thankfully, he couldn’t read the chat in the text bar of my monitor. In 30 years in academe, I have encountered homophobia in an inappropriate joke or offhand remark about lesbians, gays or transsexuals. Now I was reading hate speech so vile that I cannot summarize it here.
The incident occurred in 2007. I was thankful that audio was not available on my desktop at the time. If a student or staff member walked into my office and heard what I read that day on the chat bar, that person would have been exposed to hate speech in addition to avatar rape.
In researching the phenomenon, I sought viewpoints from directors of information technology and women’s studies at Big XII and other peer institutions. My research assistant Sam Berbano and I spent two months working with our Institutional Review Board, seeking approval to post our survey online.
Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the IRB asked us to warn survey participants about possible harm to their reputations should their responses be published. To lessen risk, the IRB also required signed copies of consent to anyone responding to our survey. So we opted for a snail mail version with a disclaimer: “A risk of participation in this survey may arise if some may find your opinions in the free-response section at variance with their own.”
My research assistant wondered how a survey measuring opinion about avatar rape could have more potential for harm than participation in a virtual environment in which such a digital act could occur.
As it turned out, only one respondent out of 43 provided comments for this essay. Jean Van Delinder at the time was chair of the Faculty Council at Oklahoma State University, where she is an associate professor of sociology. Van Delinder believed discussions like this raise awareness. "Since as a sociologist I view rape as an act of dominance and power," she states, "virtual reality would be a setting conducive to this type of attack and students need to be made aware of it."
Van Delinder also believed that "assault, even virtual assault, has a psychological and emotional component. It is more than just physical because the victim or target continuously replays in the mind what has happened and, in a sense, experiences it over and over again."
One of the best articles citing material affirming that view is “Virtual Rape,” published by Richard MacKinnon in the March 1997 issue of Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. In one section, MacKinnon introduces a feminist definition of rape that involves damage to the self that may be physical, emotional, psychological or material. "In this way," he writes, "rape becomes an assault not against a persona, but against the person behind the persona."
Tim Guest, author of Second Lives, believes sexual assault in virtual worlds is real and imaginary. "As the saying goes, the thought is written in water, and the deed is written in stone. Events that take place in virtual worlds seem to lie somewhere in between, a kind of water with memory."
He compares rape in a virtual realm to flashing in a real one.
Second Life advocates often note that avatar assault is easily avoided; you can teleport away, they say. Linden Lab recommends muting voice during verbal assaults. "Click! Problem solved," it states.
Walking away from hate speech on campus doesn't mean damage was circumvented or an epithet excusable or that charges cannot be filed against a person making slurs. Why should virtual reality be different when users assume liability for what happens there?
Guest agrees. Verbal assaults are just that, no matter where they happen. "The only difference being again no threat of violent escalation. Being able to teleport away is of little relevance, just another way to say you can't be trapped or hurt."
In most cases, he is correct. Many assume that crossover violence from virtual to real environs is unlikely because operators of avatars are in different locales. That is not always the case when people on residential campuses meet on an island operated by their residential institution.
The Lantern, campus newspaper at the Ohio State University, reported in a 2008 crime summary that a staff member contacted police about harassing phone calls at work. The harasser purportedly "knew the staff member through the Web site Second Life, and was under the impression they had been corresponding through the site for six months. … The staff member told the caller to stop calling after the caller said she had a package for the staff member and knew her address."
Guest believes cases like this may constitute harassment and recommends that institutions transfer any existing policies in student handbooks to the virtual world. "The only danger," he warns, "is to over-legislate the territory of sexuality, which needs a kind of animalistic disregard for propriety in order to thrive.
"Universities are probably not the place for this in SL, however."
Some legal counsels have told me if institutions support or fund virtual worlds, they also have an obligation to inform learners through curriculums or workshops about virtual rape, harassment and other assaults on the psyche.
Diana Allendale aka Diana Hunter, who wrote about being lured into avatar rape, reminded me that online harassment happens daily to students in all manner of new media venues, not just virtual worlds. Text messages insult, she says. MySpace comments intimidate. Institutions not only need policies to deal with the fallout of these incidents, she says, but also have to educate students on how to handle them.
"It's not a case of ‘if you are attacked,’ " she adds, "but ‘when you are attacked.’ "
Unlike harassing text messages or intimidating chat on social networks, the concern here involves terms of service that transfer liability to users — yet another reason that educators need to raise awareness about avatar rape and other forms of harassment in virtual worlds used as learning environments.
Michael Bugeja is author of the Oxford University Press books Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age and Living Ethics across Media Platforms. He directs the journalism school at Iowa State University.
Walk the paths that wind through Hampshire College’s wooded campus and you will find offerings left behind: Prayer flags and God’s eyes hang from trees. Stacked stones mark certain paths, with students referring to one cairn-filled location as the Zen Garden. Poems, hopes, meditations, and prayers are left behind, stashed in plastic lockers. These items are continually shifting and replenishing.
No one organized this. It is a spontaneous outpouring of spirituality that is powerful, personal, creative, and unconventional — like our students themselves. Yet the world often seems to perceive mine as an institution hostile to religion and devoid of spirituality. The Princeton Review’s college guide includes Hampshire on its annual where-God-is-ignored-on-a-daily-basis list.
It is true that 40-year-old Hampshire did not have a chaplaincy program for its first 33 years. It is true that politics on campus are progressive, challenging, and fervent. It is true that Hampshire students, like college-age students elsewhere, examine, question, and possibly eschew ideas they were raised with. It is not true that these realities are mutually exclusive with a rich and deep spiritual life.
The stereotypes assume my campus does not have religious students. This could not be further from the truth. We have Ash Wednesday and Good Friday services. We have a weekly Bible study. We celebrate the High Holidays, Passover, and have a kosher kitchen and kosher mod (an apartment-style residential area). We have Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, Buddhist monks, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Roman Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Baha’i, Hindu, Muslims, Zoroastrians, and more. We also have mystics, atheists, and antagonists of organized religion who want to find meaning and purpose in their lives.
The hardest thing for more orthodox students is not so much practicing their faith, but dealing with others’ prejudices — traditional religious practice is sometimes assumed to be outdated at best and, at worst, oppressive and wrong. I am myself a graduate of Hampshire. As a student, I was part of the Hampshire Christian Fellowship, a group of students from a variety of denominations who meet weekly for support, prayer, Bible study, and dinner. Many students, staff, and faculty did not know we existed. They felt free to make statements inside and outside the classroom about "those Christians." When discussing great Christian leaders such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, faith was separated from work as if it were an aberration.
Like my friends in the other recognized religious group on campus at that time, the Jewish Student Union, we kept our spiritual practice to ourselves. Once someone got to know one of us as a reasonable, intelligent, caring human being, then if it happened to come up, we might reveal ourselves.
When — after working as a counselor, attending Yale Divinity School, and being ordained in the United Church of Christ — I returned to campus as director of spiritual life, I was surprised to find out that this was not just true for students. Through countless confessional conversations I discovered that there are far more individuals — students, staff, and faculty — seeking to deepen the spirituality in their lives than those who are derisive and dismissive.
Change began in 2003, when Hampshire contracted with chaplains at neighboring Mount Holyoke College to reach out to and serve religious students. That agreement opened a door for exploration of campus needs. In 2006, the college started its own independent spiritual life program, uniquely suited to Hampshire, and radically different from other college chaplaincy models.
We all seek meaning in our lives. We all have questions about how to live. What does it mean to be ethical? How do we find compassion when it is difficult? How do we communicate across difference? How do we understand the value of another being? What is our purpose? These are questions that we explore. They do not have to be answered by religion or faith. In fact, they do not have to be answered. But we allow space and support for the questions themselves.
Twice a month faculty, staff, and alumni relate their "spiritual journeys" over lunch. They share where they have sought meaning in their lives, how that has shifted and changed, and where they are now. It provides an opportunity to ponder these questions and share parts of ourselves that we usually keep separate. It illustrates how each of us answers those questions differently, how it is an evolving process over one’s lifetime, and how we may connect intimately with someone whose labels are not our own. Last semester we chose to celebrate an “atheist holiday” as a chance to explore these questions from that point of view. We had holiday foods (cake and pie) and celebratory decorations (balloons, etc.). We held a discussion about what it means to be an atheist and what it means to be both atheist and spiritual. Participating individuals shared information about their backgrounds, where they discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and what brings them through difficult times. Discussion focused on defining one’s self through the positive, or what one does believe and value, as opposed to the negative, or what one does not believe and value.
In a fast-paced world driven by achievement and consumerism, spiritual life provides balance. Where does one go to address one’s sense of well-being on a college campus? Our spiritual life program provides opportunities for students to focus on connections between mind, body, and spirit. We address wellness issues such as coping with death and loss, fragmentation and despair, and loneliness and isolation, seeking out complementary practices.
Our entire program is grounded in practice. We offer a wide variety of meditation, movement, and yoga every day. During spring break, we take a service trip. The past two years we have gone to New Orleans, and next year we plan to make a trip to Haiti. This annual trip provides more than service. It is an opportunity to practice compassion and ethics, to get outside of our minds and live our truths in our bodies.
In a world divided by ignorance or hatred of other religions and religious violence, we explore divisive issues, providing education and models of communication and community building across difference. We regularly host workshops and speakers around Israel/Palestine, religion and science, misperceptions of Islam, and queer spirituality, to name just a few, as well as participating in and leading intergroup dialogues. We strive to teach that true diversity that exists within every system of belief and every group of people. We seek to create a different kind of community on campus: a community that truly values and embraces its heterogeneous nature; a community that explores other belief systems; a community that communicates with compassion and nonviolence.
In short, we serve our entire community. Multi-faith is not enough of a definition. Religious pluralism is not enough of a definition. Meaning, ethics, well-being, systems of belief, death, and tragedy — they affect us all. Hampshire’s current spiritual life staff comes from four different faith traditions: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. But there is no requirement that our four chaplaincy positions must be filled by members of particular faiths. Instead, we focus on leadership in different areas, including contemplative life, intercultural community, religious life and political intersections, and wellness and ritual. In reality, a Christian chaplain may have a completely different faith belief and practice from a Christian student, yet there is no question that it is his or her job to advise the student. As spiritual advisers, though coming from particular faiths, we are chaplains to all. We do not have to have the same beliefs in order to understand and help another grow. We do have to have the ability to connect to those who are different and the drive to constantly educate ourselves about other ways of being.
We lead specific holiday services pertinent to our own traditions, such as High Holidays and Ash Wednesday, and weddings, memorial or baptismal services. Students also lead services on campus, with guidance from the staff, and these shift according to group needs. We currently have student-led Quaker and Shabbat services, and other student-led events that include elements of worship but are not services in the traditional sense.
In the last five years, student groups on campus of a spiritual, philosophical, or religious nature grew from 2 to 15. Programs run daily, with anywhere from 2 to 300 in attendance, and provide a place where students, staff, and faculty come together as one.
As a student, whenever I did share my spiritual practice and theological beliefs, I found students, staff, and faculty with beliefs of their own. I found many who understood themselves as deeply spiritual even though that might have nothing to do with religion. Almost everyone was seeking to live ethically in the world, to somehow make it a better place, and to seek a deeper purpose. That is spiritual life at Hampshire College.
Rev. Liza Neal
Rev. Liza Neal is director of spiritual life at Hampshire College.