What would it take for the overwhelming majority of eligible U.S. college students to register, vote, and get actively involved in the November elections -- and in subsequent elections? For years, educators have bemoaned the political detachment of students -- the separation of so many from public issues that profoundly affect their lives. Too often, students have said their actions didn’t matter, or argued that the electoral sphere is so inevitably corrupt that it makes no sense to participate.
This election feels different, though. Young voters and volunteers are surging into the campaigns in numbers we haven't seen in decades. They're interested and concerned, and they want to make a difference. The question is whether we'll give them the tools they need to participate fully in a watershed election, as volunteers and voters. That means helping them register to vote, giving them opportunities to learn and exchange ideas about the issues, encouraging them to volunteer with one or more campaigns or with nonpartisan voter mobilization drives, and helping ensure that they turn out at the polls.
Young voters have been becoming more interested in electoral politics for a while. Between 2000 and 2004, turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds jumped 11 points, from 36 percent to 47 percent, and among the larger pool of 18- to 29-year olds, it rose from 40 percent to 49 percent. In 2006, youth turnout rose by another 3 percent, more than any other segment of the electorate, and young voters made the key difference in half the Senate seats that changed hands.
This election promises to involve our students far more, with even greater potential impact. When citizens start voting and volunteering at a young age, these habits tend to stick. So if we build on their newfound passion and concern, we could set them on a path of civic engagement for the rest of their lives. This includes finding policy solutions to the issues they address through their volunteer work -- which means, among other things, voting for candidates whose positions on these issues they approve.
A variety of organizations are working to support college student involvement in the election on a nonpartisan basis. Campus Compact -- a nonprofit higher education association that supports all forms of civic engagement on campus -- has established a nonpartisan initiative to boost voter registration and education among college students. As part of this effort, the organization has created a comprehensive website that brings together key resources, tools, and models from around the country, www.compact.org/vote. Another key site, www.YourVoteYourVoice.org, offers additional resources. And the student PIRGs have created a superb online registration tool, available at www.studentvote.org, which colleges can customize and post on their own Web sites.
Registration is the first challenge, of course, although in most states the cut-offs just hit. Students often don't realize they need to register until the peak of the fall campaign season, when in most states it's too late. And when they can't vote, we have to work harder to get them participating in other ways, like volunteering or talking about election issues with others.
For future rounds, we can remedy this situation most easily by registering students to vote when they register for fall classes or as part of orientation. Springfield College in Massachusetts registered students as they moved into the dorms and has set a goal of registering all eligible students on campus. Ohio’s John Carroll University has created a designated election Web page, set up locations to register students throughout campus, organized debate-watch parties, and established an election-related discussion series covering issues such as the importance of youth voting and civic engagement, the economy, abortion, immigration, and social justice.
If your state’s registration deadline has yet to hit, or if you have same-day registration, many more options are still open. Faculty can hand out registration forms in their classes. Student groups can set up tables at high-traffic areas like the student union. A residential campus could invite student government and student organizations to register people in the dorms -- the University of California Santa Barbara used this approach and registered 2,400 voters in a single night. Financial aid offices can distribute registration information in conjunction with student loan and work-study disbursements. Our technology departments can pass the word through voice mails, text messages, and e-mail reminders -- something they can also do for absentee ballot deadlines and for getting students out to vote on election day. The more we can recruit both students and faculty to register students in whatever creative ways they can, the more likely we’ll engage the vast bulk of our college students.
However many students we’ve helped register, our challenge now is to help them think critically about the choices they'll now be eligible to make. Given major issues that affect students -- from global climate change to the Iraq war, from the financial bailout and an uncertain economy to the escalating costs of higher education -- students need to understand where the candidates stand so they can decide who best reflects their own beliefs. Campuses can encourage professors to weave election-related themes into their courses throughout the fall, by scheduling discussions and debates (including on local races and initiatives) both in larger campus venues and within classes, and by working to get all students to recognize how profoundly this election could impact their individual and common futures. We need to do everything we can so that every student in our classes and on our campuses feels welcomed and feels their political beliefs are respected. That may even mean bending over backwards to encourage the voices of students whose views we disagree with. But so long as we do that, and make sure the materials we present do justice to the realities, we have a responsibility to use our classrooms to explore the difficult issues of our time.
We can do even more than helping students vote and vote thoughtfully. We can also encourage them to volunteer with the national or local candidates they choose to support, whatever their party affiliations, and with nonprofit civic groups that seek to involve the community. In 2004, for instance, two small leadership classes, at Ohio's Baldwin-Wallace College, registered 700 eligible inmates in the Cleveland jails. This year, the professor is assigning her students to volunteer in the local McCain or Obama campaigns, in local or state races, or in nonprofit registration efforts -- and then to write a paper analyzing their experiences. North Carolina Central University is encouraging students to help with major off-campus registration drives in the adjacent communities. Given sufficient institutional support, these kinds of efforts can make a tremendous difference.
How many of our students would volunteer, for instance, if we distributed information on the local McCain and Obama campaigns, or gave out the Web sites, or found ways for them to get involved even if they live in states where the outcomes of the presidential or senatorial races are pretty certain. We could, for instance, encourage them to participate in the voter calling programs that both of the national campaigns are running, where people in states without close national races use their extra cell minutes to call those in states where every vote can matter. So long as we make clear that who the students choose to volunteer with is their choice, not ours, we can encourage all this while still remaining meticulously nonpartisan.
Imagine if we worked through our service-learning networks to get a significant percentage of our students knocking on doors, making phone calls, having conversations that offer their fellow citizens an opportunity to engage with critical issues beyond 30-second attack ads and 1-minute TV sound bites. Once students begin to volunteer in these election-related efforts, they are far more likely to keep doing so throughout their lives. It's also a way to amplify the impact of their voices, as they reach out to others, both on campus and off.
Campuses can integrate these kinds of activities into existing service-learning and civic engagement programs. After the students go out and work with the campaigns of their choice, they could then return to their classrooms, reflect on what they learned, and share their experiences with their peers, including students volunteering for opposing candidates. These kinds of involvement could also connect them with role models of engaged community members. There's nothing like working side-by-side with an 83-year-old volunteer to teach a 21-year-old about keeping on for the long haul.
If we promote these efforts enough, they can shift the electoral landscape. Several elections ago, a Wesleyan University student registered 300 voters on her 3,000-person campus, and educated them on the candidates' respective stands on the environment and access to education. The lawmaker she supported ended up winning by 27 votes. This young woman almost didn't act "because I didn't think of myself as a political person." But the issues impelled her to risk. Had she not gotten involved, the district would have elected a different representative. Whatever we think of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, we can learn from the approach of the college he founded, Liberty University, to offer buses to take students to the polls and even cancel classes on the day of the election.
Once we register our students, we can encourage them to vote through voting pledges, e-mail, text messages, posters and fliers, student-to-student phone banks, and coordinating transportation to off-campus voting sites. In some states, colleges also need to let students know what they need to do to satisfy restrictive ID laws and provide them with whatever will meet the requirements -- for instance, through a university ID or a zero-balance utility bill for students living in the dorms. We also need a parallel process to help students who will vote absentee (www.longdistancevoter.org offers lots of the necessary tools). And, one way or another, we need to give them a sense that their votes could make the difference.
Considering the impact of this election on the future our students will inherit, we owe it to them to do everything we can to encourage them to participate, while respecting the wide variety of political views and experiences on campus. Given recent trends, they're likely to respond, if we offer them the relevant opportunities. Again, we wouldn't be prescribing the support of any particular candidates. The students would make those choices on their own. But we'd be giving them a powerful opportunity to make their voices matter, and possibly take the first steps toward becoming engaged citizens for the rest of their lives. If we believe that civic education and engagement are part of our mission, this seems a powerful historic moment to rise to that challenge.
Paul Loeb, Maureen F. Curley and Sherry Morreale
Paul Loeb is author Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Maureen F. Curley is president of Campus Compact, a national higher education association dedicated to educating students for social responsibility. Sherry Morreale is director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
A novelist named Nick Mamatas has just published an essay in the Drexel University magazine The Smart Set confessing to what he calls the “terrible secret” of his career – that much of his income once came from ghostwriting term papers for students. Some clients, he says, were bright enough. They had fallen behind on their workload during the semester, or were just having trouble in a particular course; and there were immigrant students (some of them with advanced degrees from other countries) who did not feel confident enough in their English to venture an analysis of gothic imagery in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.”
But overextended overachievers were not, presumably, the norm. The agency for which Mamatas worked flagged some orders with the code “DC,” which meant “Dumb Client,” so that the ghostwriter knew better than to use polysyllables. The professors wouldn’t be fooled, while the DCs themselves would be perplexed, and require an explanation of what they had “written.”
Efficiency was important to the whole racket, as Mamatas describes it. He would accept an assignment and quickly skim the material it was supposed to cover. He knew – as the students, generally, did not – what the professor meant by such terms as “thesis sentence” and “argument.” The main challenge was to harvest a few good quotations from the assigned reading, then laying in a few pages of plausible filling to connect them. In a service economy, this was a marketable skill, and the consumer could pay for it by credit card.
The only other depiction of the life of a “term-paper artist” that I have come across was the character Dave, as portrayed by Will Farrell a few years ago on the short-lived program "Undeclared." When asked by students how he can churn out reports on The Brothers Karamazov or the origins of the Great Depression overnight, Dave says that he reads eight or nine books a week. “I also take a lot of speed,” he says. “A lot of speed.”
Farrell's character was a freelance – unlike Mamatas, who worked for a company selling what it euphemistically called “model” term papers to its customers. Either way, it was a business. The late David Foster Wallace may have been the rare case of a term-paper artist who was in it for – well, the art. Or so goes a story that has made the rounds.
Aside from writing two senior honors theses at Amherst College in the mid-1980s (one, in philosophy, on modal logic; the other, in English, his first novel), it is said that Wallace may have written the theses of several other students as well. It was “one of those open-secret kind of things,” an editor who worked with Wallace told The New York Observerlast month. “The thing you have to understand about David is that he was the most facile -- and I don’t mean that in a bad sense -- the most facile writer since, I don’t know, Dickens.... It might be apocryphal, but I don’t think so. David could have knocked off the average undergraduate A paper on anything in a half an hour.”
My own brief, inglorious career in that corner of the black market was characterized neither by big bucks nor flashes of genius. Whether or not there is a statute of limitations on one’s callow youth, I will go ahead and confess that 20 years ago I wrote four or five papers, bringing in a total of well under a thousand dollars. It is tempting to blame the whole thing on the Zeitgeist of the 1980s -- which was, actually, one of my rationalizations at the time. It involved a willful effort to be cynical – to care about “the price of everything and the value of nothing,” more or less.
But the rationalizations were an afterthought. First there was the cash. And in my case, it was as simple as being broke despite working a number of jobs. One such was a very sporadic gig at a tutoring agency that served the very dim children of the lower upper middle class.
Nearly all of our clients were attending college with a major in getting drunk. By the standards of really rich people, they were not really rich. But they thought they were, and behaved with an arrogance that became all the more astounding after a session. For many of them were just functionally literate, and some in only the strictest sense. When even grade inflation could not get them a C, we tutors were available to help, for a price – one they (or their parents rather) could well afford.
It was honest work, but irregular. Every tutor was sooner or later presented with the opportunity to make a little something extra. A few of us took it. This was (we joked) a matter of redistributing a little wealth. There was also the pleasure of being paid for writing.
And finally, as if such rationalizations were not enough, there was Diderot. At the time, I was reading everything I could by and about the philosopher, if not actually wearing a “What Would Diderot Do?” bracelet. In his 20s, he, too, went through a long spell of rather precarious living. One way be got by was to crank out sermons for lazy priests. (Enjoyable work for an atheist, no doubt.) I don’t know whether professors assigned term papers at the Sorbonne in the 1730s. But if they did, Diderot seemed a likely candidate to have ghostwritten them, too.
But after a while, it became clear that I had a serious disqualification for this line of work: the lack of speed. (Speed of production, that is; amphetamines were never part of the process.) In his article, Mamatas reports that he could turn out a term paper in 20 minutes. I spent longer than that just on the outline. By black-market standards, this was highly unprofessional.
It was a matter of time before I left the business. And then my conscience started playing catch-up.
A few months after hacking out a final paper for some kid with more cash than brains, I met a woman who was working on her dissertation. Its topic was something I knew just enough about to be able to ask some questions. For a guy with no good moves, this was a good move. Word from our mutual friends was that the interest was reciprocal. But it soon turned out that the grapevine was only doing me just so many favors.
She mentioned having suspicions about the work being handed in by some of her students. And -- she continued -- the word was that I had first-hand information about the market for ghost-written papers. Could I tell her more about that, at some point? (This in a tone more curious than overtly disapproving; but still....)
Now, cheating my customers out of an education had never seemed a cause for concern. They were doing a pretty thorough job of that on their own. But suddenly I could picture things from the vantage point of an earnest, hard-working instructor who would no more have gamed the system than she would have held up a bank.
All the rationalizations fell away in a second; the embarrassment, so long evaded, now finally hit home. The experience was mortifying. Twenty years later, I still feel it. Regret always comes too late to do anyone much good, but better late than never.
As a college president, I see the world through the lens of education, and I can’t help thinking there’s a lesson or two to be learned from our current financial woes. A quick review: For a number of years we all watched housing prices rise seemingly without end only to be surprised when revelation of the extent and toxicity of sub-prime mortgage lending caused the credit markets to seize up, bursting the bubble with a bang and bringing some very large financial institutions to their knees. Just like someone surveying the morning-after remains of one helluva party, we are now asking our collective hung-over selves: What were we thinking? Why didn’t we see this coming, and why didn’t the very smart and well-educated folks who head these institutions take steps to prevent this?
I’m not thinking about specific courses economics majors and future M.B.A.'s and bankers should have taken but didn’t. I’m thinking of deeper patterns of rewards and expectations taken for granted for so long that we don’t reckon with their impact at all. Much of what lies behind our current economic train-wreck stems from short-sightedness -- focus on short-term goals and gains -- and near-sightedness -- seeking to maximize one vector without regard for context in which that vector has value to begin with. So we have had big players making millions, nay billions, in ways that ultimately blew up the very system that made such gain and growth possible. I think there’s a proverb about a goose and golden eggs that applies.
Most of the players had earned at least a bachelor’s degree along the way, many of them at pretty selective colleges and universities. Virtually all had learned to compete and succeed in a grading system that rewards students for mastering — and in the worst cases just regurgitating — discrete packages of information. How much is retained after each exam and each course varies by student, and of course many do integrate what they have learned into larger ensembles. But not every course of study insists on integrative learning, and colleges and universities may inadvertently set themselves up to promote a certain type of achievement by measuring their own worth as many rating systems do: by the SAT scores and rank in class of their incoming students.
This system of values is not lost on prospective college students and their parents, who, if they can afford it, have their kids coached to excel at standardized tests and tutored to a fare-thee-well. Students experience terrible levels of performance anxiety and stress, all the more if they come to believe that education is a steeplechase that one “wins” by jumping hurdles, one at a time, ever higher, ever faster. In rewarding the most successful grade and score hounds, aren’t we, even if inadvertently, promoting the pursuit of short-term gains?
It’s not likely students forget this lesson upon leaving school and entering a world only too happy to prize short-term gain. Get the best result now and don’t worry about the day after tomorrow. Maximize stock value at the end of the quarter. That way you’ll get the biggest bonus package this year. Is there a way to take advantage of market movements and make a killing tomorrow, in the next hour, in the next 10 minutes?
It goes on. Get as many folks signed up for mortgages at the low introductory interest rate and don’t worry about what happens when the rate resets. Home buyers: Get that introductory rate. Don’t worry about resets or the possibility the economy may sour. Back to brokers and local banks: Take the commissions and sell the mortgages now. Bigger banks: Bundle those mortgages and take the profits by selling them. Get the risk off your books. Put it elsewhere. Don’t worry what happens once you resell the mortgage. Just jump that next hurdle.
The system we use to grade students doesn’t just mirror this scale of values. It blesses and promotes it. Even as the admissions officers of our most prestigious colleges and universities claim to seek “well-rounded students,” they are choosing among students who have already learned to play the high-score-and-grades game in high school. Most colleges and universities do not question what students and their parents want of them: Enough seats in the “right” majors so they can get their passport to a professional school. How? By wracking up the same string of A’s during their undergraduate years as they did before. Little time for experimentation, for taking risks -- where the only “loss” might be a less than perfect transcript. If they don’t get into the right graduate or professional program they might not get the credential that is the ticket to a job where they can reap larger profits more quickly than those who went before them, in the same fields. Because, the assumption is, those fields will always be profitable.
Is there an alternative to the short-term, shortsighted thinking the pursuit of grades has encouraged our students to internalize? A handful of colleges, Hampshire among them, have long been tweaked for maintaining narrative evaluations in place of letter grades. Hampshire, the example I know best, confronts its students with detailed and nuanced performance evaluations. Some might equate escape from the tyranny of A, B, C, D, F to an invitation to slack off; the few students who enter Hampshire with that very fantasy soon discover its hollowness. Success at Hampshire and comparable colleges — and for the best students, in my view, everywhere — involves each student owning his or her learning and understanding the context and significance of that learning. Just the other day I overheard a proud Hampshire student (who didn’t know I was within earshot) tell a group of visiting high school seniors: “I knew how to get A’s on quizzes and examinations and for courses in high school. As soon as the course was over, I forgot most of the stuff that got me the A. I like Hampshire because I hold on to what I learn, because I know why I’m learning it and make it my own.”
This philosophy undergirds Hampshire’s whole system of education. Instead of choosing among pre-set majors -- predetermined fields with established questions -- each student crafts a unique educational plan of work that must be approved by two professors. Each student submits a portfolio to show that she or he has achieved the agreed-upon goals, and faculty evaluate the totality of each student’s accomplishments. Our students come to know that the first step in learning is defining the question and setting it in context. Even more: To take responsibility for deciding which questions to ask, quite often of a status quo that seems unassailable, and then by means of study, research, interrogation, and creative reflection, to reframe the question in light of changing circumstances.
While I know first-hand how Hampshire fosters a distinctive brand of self-reliance and critique among our students, I believe that there are ways comparable qualities can be promoted in more traditional systems. You cannot imagine doing away with grades? Faculty can still ask students to assess their own achievement and meet with them to share perceptions. There are distribution requirements and specific courses patterns in each major? Students could write a narrative that explains how the courses they chose to fulfill their distribution requirement contributed to their intellectual formation. The point would be to have students see how what they learned fits into a larger pattern, and could lead them toward a sense of personal ownership of their education. They would write another narrative on the eve of graduation in which they would evaluate the disciplinary mastery the courses with which they fulfilled their major led them to. And where the gaps in their mastery of the discipline remained, and what the limits of the discipline were. This would not only deepen their own ownership of the learning they had acquired but bring them face-to-face with the defining limitations of every field, of every perspective.
Wouldn’t it have been helpful if we had more corporate executives and board members who’d had such training in their college years and were primed to question the fundamental assumptions of the industries in which they were engaged? Who didn’t assume that if they got a big bonus at year’s end, they must be doing everything right?
Instead, we are left with an economy in near-ruin by the collective action of individuals who, I’m quite sure, got good grades, who knew how to ace the examinations on which they’d been coached, and whose long-term vision stretched no further than the end of the term. That view is great while it lasts, but, like that shiny “A” one crams for on the quiz, the substance is gone before the ink is dry.
Ralph Hexter is president of Hampshire College. This essay is also being published on his new blog.
As a graduating senior, I’ve thought about what I would like to hear while sitting under the Southern California sun waiting to receive my diploma, and have debated some pros and cons with my friends. Though we each have our own ideas, most agree there is a certain structure to an excellent commencement speech, which conforms to the following guidelines.
1. Know where you are and how to pronounce the college’s name.
A firm knowledge of the institution shows respect for everyone you are addressing. At my brother’s graduation from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., the graduation speaker consistently mispronounced the college’s name (it’s Will-am-ett, not Will-a-met-ee) even after grumbles and giggles from the audience and several corrections from students.
2. Engage your audience in a story.
Every grown-up child still loves a good story. Keep it relevant to the message you are trying to convey and make sure it doesn’t put us to sleep.
3. Make that story memorable.
Speeches are remembered for three reasons: the speaker who gave it, how they gave it, and what they said. While all three are important, you can make up for not having the first two by making what you say interesting and engaging.
4. Know your audience.
Keep in mind the people in front of you: graduating seniors, their families and friends, trustees, faculty, and staff. That is a pretty diverse group to cater to, but it is important to consider their probable responses if you decide to tackle sensitive subjects.
5. Make it applicable to every graduate.
Not everyone may get as excited as you do about government health policies or backpacking through Uganda. Scripps College’s commencement speaker for 2008 was a screenwriter and poet (Legally Blonde’s Kirstin Smith); instead of droning on about how fulfilling writing is, she focused on the graduating seniors, portraying their current place in life as it would appear in a movie, on the edge of the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2. She nailed it!
6. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh!
We are freaked out enough about finding a job given the current economy and dreading that six-word question and likely three-word response (“What are you doing after graduation?”… “I don’t know”). We don’t need to be reminded of any impending world war, swine flu, or bank failure. Keep it light, keep it funny, keep it honest.
1. Plug your book, movie, re-election, or art exhibition.
While we are happy that you are so successful, we already know what you’ve done in life -- that’s why we invited you. This is the time to celebrate our success, not yours.
2. Force feed us propaganda on hot, touchy, or potentially politically incorrect topics.
While it is good to bring up questions that need to be addressed and challenge the status quo, please do so in a way that opens the topic for discussion and doesn’t enforce a specific agenda.
3. Use overused themes or clichés.
Avoid familiar quotes, phrases, sayings, advice, movies, songs or pop-culture themes at all cost. We already know that today is the first day or the rest of our lives and we are the future, so please don’t bring up that horrid Green Day song, refrain from quoting Gandhi or Churchill, and give your own advice in your own words.
4. Forget to have fun. This is a magnificent day. Enjoy it with us!
Whitney Eriksen graduated Sunday from Scripps College, in Claremont, Calif., where she majored in psychology with a minor in biology. She will begin Act 2 working in a neuropsychology lab at the University of California at Los Angeles.
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.