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Q&A with authors of new book on balancing home and work life as an academic scientist

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New book about balancing work and home life as an academic scientist warns that failure to address the challenge will cost institutions and science as a whole.

Salem State reopens exhibit closed due to criticism of art about KKK, with drapes around the piece

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Salem State reopens exhibit that was shuttered based on student criticisms but places most controversial piece behind drapes. Maryland Institute College of Art involves students in displaying piece on the KKK.

Why students should write leaner, meaner dissertation proposals (essay)

Students should be encouraged to think in terms of hypotheses rather than theses, and research questions or problems rather than their putative solutions when it comes to dissertation proposals, argues Heather Dubrow.

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Sanctuary campuses won't provide real sanctuary for immigrant students (essay)

I do not live in a bubble, and one of the ways I work things out is to write. So I have put this piece together as a means of expiating my own grief over the results of the recent presidential election.

At first, I wanted to keep my mourning private, especially as my current role as a college president requires me to tread carefully and not give an institutional patina to my personal thoughts. I have also not wanted to invite the various trolls who consider my views like catnip. But I have come to the view that silence will probably cause greater harm to our country's immigrant students, particularly those "DREAMers" -- the hundreds of thousands of students in the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, who were brought to this country as children and have been allowed to attend college. The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe allowed them to stay in school, while DACA gave them employment authorization, lawful presence and Social Security numbers. It is by no means legalization, but it has been a transformative program while Congress has fiddled over immigration reform.

Indeed, I have dedicated my entire life to many ideals, but the ones that matter the most were repudiated on election night. Since then, I have arranged over a dozen conference calls with DREAMers, immigration lawyers, college presidents and reporters. Many know I helped write the Texas statutes that give many of the DREAMers resident Texas tuition and financial aid. Inasmuch as I have taught higher education law and also immigration law for 35 years, these are my fields. I have won many more contests in this terrain than I have lost, but this one hurts, and I feel as if we all let down my students, a dereliction of duty that I feel deeply. I fear for the DACA students, many of them in my own institution, who placed their lives and hopes in higher education and the polity. I urged them to trust we would do the right thing if they took responsibility for their own lives by studying and coming forward. They have done so, but now we have not held up our part of the bargain.

In the wake of the election, a number of colleges and universities are declaring themselves "sanctuary campuses," saying they will limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. However, the various proposals for carving out sanctuary campuses have occasioned even more vexation for me, and this viral-fed option is what finally moved me to write this article.

These well-intentioned efforts to establish a sanctuary use the term in its root ecclesiastic meanings, such as providing safe harbor. But from whom?

"Sanctuary" is also a contronym -- an example of a single word that has opposite meanings. ("Sanction" is another.) To many folks, the term depicts a defiance of law and serves as a trope for unauthorized immigration and liberal pieties. That it has become tinged with racist and anti-Mexican sentiment renders the term even more poisonous. One person's safe harbor is another person's harboring, in the dueling metaphors, if not the actual immigration law.

My view on these proposals is that they provide a chimerical outlet for people who are frustrated and have no other pathways to ameliorate the situation. But the term "sanctuary" is a term that is too fraught with restrictionist meanings or misunderstandings about the difference between "defying the law" or choosing not to implement discretionary practices, for policy, efficacy or other reasons. Worse, it has no legal meaning and the admonitions are vague and impossible to implement, which will only frustrate people more.

I have urged all those people who have called me to be very cautious in suggesting that a legal cocoon is possible or even needed for students -- who, after all, are not lawbreakers. Of course, institutions should provide support and services, as they would for all their students, especially vulnerable ones. But exacting pledges that cannot be kept will do no one any good.

And there are longstanding rules of engagement, or, in this context, nonengagement in higher education, such as the current Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy on such enforcement. As it notes, schools and colleges are exceedingly low priorities, and forms of this policy have been in place for many years. Virtually no campus has ever been raided for students in unauthorized status or undocumented campus workers, and they are unlikely to be.

But just as I cannot tell you how to react to any rollbacks of the Affordable Care Act, I cannot tell people what could happen and what the alternatives are. I know it will not be good, if for no other reason than it has already exposed vulnerable populations -- who are not "criminal," and who actually may be lawfully present (such as DACA holders) or in legal status (such as F-1 students from Muslim countries).

And I cannot promise these students that positive results will come of all this. I have urged them to be careful in expressing themselves in ways that might give rise to thermodynamic reactions, as have begun to surface. Getting arrested and convicted of any transgressions would give real rise to possibilities of deportation. And they should be careful about using social media in a way that might expose their parents to possible harm. I will not urge them to march into the valley of death or to put themselves at risk, although I will agree that the peaceful marchas galvanized public attention in 2006. American citizens who urge this option for DREAMers should examine their consciences and not encourage these students to put themselves in harm's way. At the very least, we should do no harm.

Feel-good actions and solidarity are fine and have an important place in the civil-rights narrative. But I do not hold out hope that the sanctuary proposals will make any genuine change or provide actual sanctuary -- whatever that empty vessel means to anyone on either side of the issue. And so I prefer more meaningful actions, such as working with student groups and their supporters: advocacy groups, bar associations, social service agencies, philanthropies and the usual support infrastructures for colleges and communities. The University of Houston Law Center, where I have spent most of my professional life, has stepped up, and my colleagues and law students are providing technical assistance and advice, as have many of my immigration law professor colleagues.

We will know more closer to the change of administrations, and all of us should keep perspective so as not to frighten or to give false hope to these students, who have kept their part of the bargain. And we should work to support those who do this over the long haul, such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Immigration Law Center, which have posted useful FAQs.

I ride with my students in the university's elevators every day, and it always is a life-affirming experience, as so many are first-generation students, immigrants and students of color. When they recognize me, they relate their experiences and their triumphs and concerns. In the last two weeks, they have actually cheered me up -- not for the first time. I have dedicated my entire life to them, and they have reciprocated. One of them sensed my own dread and said to me, "Llegamos tan cerca (We came very close)."

What can we do? We still have more than 20 states in this country that provide resident tuition for the undocumented. But the students' trajectory would clearly be altered if DACA were abolished or allowed to expire. It would be a foolish and tragic policy to demonize and deport these DREAMers, even as their parents have been criminalized in the narrative. We need these students, and they surely need us now. Can't we all agree that comprehensive immigration reform is overdue 30 years since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986? If we want to do something constructive, such advocacy has never been more necessary.

That will be a tremendous fight, under the circumstances. But these students in whom we have invested should be at the front of that line, when Congress recognizes its responsibilities. That is where we should all focus our efforts.

Many community groups work to assist immigrants; two of them are directed by formers students of mine, and two others employ former students. All are 501(c)3 organizations, and donations to them are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Michael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center and is serving as acting president of UH Downtown. These remarks are his own.

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Teaching students how to write with soul (essay)

Teaching Today

Irina Eremia Bragin describes why and how she encourages student to write essays that entertain, engage and elevate.

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Heterodox Academy, PEN America Condemn Professor Watchlist

The executive committee of Heterodox Academy, a group of scholars dedicated to viewpoint diversity, is taking a stand against Professor Watchlist. The watch list, which seeks to “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” could chill free speech, the committee said in a statement. The list poses problems similar to those posed by campus bias response teams, which investigate various report of bias, and which have been heavily criticized by those on the political right and free speech purists.

“Whether the reporting is done to a campus authority, setting in motion weeks of time-draining bureaucratic procedure that is often far removed from common sense, or whether the reporting is done to the internet at large, triggering public shaming campaigns and a cascade of threatening tweets and emails, such reporting systems encourage everyone to walk on eggshells,” the committee said. “This kind of fearful climate deprives everyone of the vigorous debate and disagreement that is essential for learning and scholarship.”

Rather than seeking to discourage certain voices on campus, it said, “we think the better approach is to encourage a variety of voices -- heterodox voices -- so that bad arguments can be answered with good ones and scholarly ideas can be tested by the strongest minds on both sides.” This is the committee’s first public statement. Heterodox Academy is a group of scholars who advocate for a more intellectually diverse professoriate and who reject various orthodoxies that “forestall scholarly inquiry.”

PEN America, which works to advance literature and free expression, on Monday also criticized Professor Watchlist.

"While no credible university administrator will take seriously a website so clearly intended to bait and sow divisions on college campuses," Suzanne Nossel, the group's executive director, said in a statement, "PEN America condemns the so-called Professor Watchlist. While claiming to stand up against bias, this list is a noxious purveyor of precisely what it claims to deride: the intimidation and ostracization of those who express controversial views on campus."

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Roadblocks to better critical-thinking skills are embedded in the college experience (essay)

Educators and employers agree that critical thinking is one of the essential skills required for postgraduation success. Unfortunately, multiple surveys indicate that employers believe that recent grads do not have the critical-thinking skills those employers expect, although recent grads (surprise!) have a sunnier view of their capabilities.

Whether recent grads are up to standard or not, there’s evidence that the college experience does not do enough to improve those skills, and not a lot of evidence that it does. In “Higher Ed’s Biggest Gamble,” John Schlueter takes this case even further, questioning whether the college experience can even in principle build those skills.

I’m more optimistic. In contexts ranging from higher education to corporate training to test preparation, I’ve helped thousands of learners improve their skills and found nothing unique about that process. While aptitude for critical thinking is clearly not distributed equally in the population, no one is an expert critical thinker from birth. Even the best of us had to learn it somewhere.

That said, it isn’t easy. We can improve critical-thinking skills, in college or elsewhere, but doing so requires a commitment, an understanding of the nature of the task and deep learning experiences.

What makes teaching and improving critical-thinking skills so difficult? Here are a few factors:

  • Definitions. There’s no general agreement on what critical thinking is. Whereas people don’t often debate the properties of exponents or the components of a complete sentence, we’re less aligned when it comes to critical thinking. It often gets confused with creative thinking, reflective thinking or other skills.
  • Complexity. Critical-thinking tasks tend to be much more difficult than others in part because critical thinking needs to be built on a foundation of language and comprehension. Also, some of the issues involved when analyzing statements and arguments are quite subtle. Moreover, many people resist the notion that anything could be wrong with their thinking process, and those with the weakest skills tend to be the most resistant.
  • Abstraction. Critical thinking is not a list of facts to memorize. It’s a process, a general way of approaching problems. That means learners have to connect the general lessons they’ve learned to totally new situations. Common patterns emerge, but learners have to recognize them in order to leverage critical-thinking training.
  • Contrast. Modern education too often focuses on memorization, compliance and endurance rather than critical thought. Educational experiences based on “drill and kill” reward people who follow instructions and punish people who are more critical. Of course, people who succeeded in college by doing as they were told often have trouble solving real-world problems that are new and different. Critical thinkers do well in the long run, but they often have to survive a culture that teaches them not to be critical.
  • Training. We ask a lot of our instructors. They need to know their subject matter, of course, but they also need to know about education itself while developing the communication skills to connect with a diverse group of learners. Most faculty members haven’t been trained in critical thinking, and while they can pick it up, they’ll need consistent and sophisticated support to do so.
  • Measurement. Writing is hard. Writing assessments is very hard. Writing critical-thinking assessments is extremely hard. While some maintain that critical thinking cannot be measured at all, or can only be measured by complex items such as essays, it is possible to create valid measures of critical-thinking skills such as identifying assumptions, analyzing arguments and making inferences. But even assessment writers have a hard time writing those questions.

Why What We’re Doing Isn’t Working

By now, it should be clear that improving critical-thinking skills in college or anywhere else is a tall order under the best of circumstances. But what we have now is far from the best of circumstances, and that is not an accident. We can lament our failure to improve critical-thinking skills, but the truth is that this failure is not really a bug in the system. It’s a feature that flows from the structure of the current college experience.

Critical thinking, like other higher-order skills, gets crowded out in college courses that try to cover as much of the subject matter as possible. In the large introductory courses, with the largest number of students per class, students devote instructional time to a wide range of topics because no one wants to leave anything out. That forces the students into a breakneck pace that leaves little time for anything more than learning the vocabulary of the discipline -- vocabulary that mostly gets forgotten just after the final exam. If critical thinking is addressed at all, it tends to be tacked onto the core content in a manner that everyone can tell is contrived. Students might be invited to reflect on potentially interesting topics, but few will do so without meaningful feedback and some kind of credit toward a good grade.

Too many classes are this way, but the bigger problem is that they tend to stay this way. Faculty members who have their class structure set tend to be reluctant to radically change anything, especially when the change would require them to develop new expertise, as is often the case with critical thinking. Moreover, introducing critical thinking into an already-stuffed course tends to lower grades, as critical-thinking questions tend to be difficult and different from what students are accustomed to.

Also, it can be hard to convince faculty members to make a change that would likely hurt their evaluations -- and possibly their employment -- and often those evaluations depend on the grades that students receive. That’s why when critical thinking is included in courses, it sometimes gets covered in a way that poses no threat to anyone’s grades. What should be a rigorous analysis of evidence and conclusion instead becomes a glorified opinion poll. Students say whatever they want about the subject, and then … nothing.

What Would Be Better?

The path to improving critical-thinking skills starts with awareness. We must recognize that the world has changed and that possessing information and being able to execute rote procedures is not enough. Anyone who merely follows instructions is at risk of being replaced by someone cheaper or a machine.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that actively analyzing decisions leads to better outcomes, and the people who can do that will drive innovation and organizational success, no matter where they wind up. We need instructors and students to recognize the importance of critical thinking and be inspired with its potential to improve the world. It also requires a commitment to do justice to critical-thinking and other higher-order skills. It means accepting that courses won’t cover as many subjects, but they’ll do a better job with the ones they do cover.

Along the way, we should encourage learners who have been raised on a diet of compliance and social control to take a critical mind-set. But that doesn’t mean that we should teach them that all arguments are equally valid and that the truth is whatever you decide it is at that moment. Just as we learn to raise our standards when analyzing the claims of others, we also need to apply high standards to our own thinking. That’s why critical thinking can be an important part of self-improvement. It can help you get what you want, but it can also help you decide what you want to want.

We also have to arrive at a reasonable and workable definition of critical thinking and its related concepts. I’m not recommending that we create some semisecret code language to exclude “nonexperts” from the conversation. Education has enough of that already. However, we should come to a common understanding of terms such as assumption, relevance, argument and critical thinking itself.

The dictionary is a fine starting point, and we should add to ordinary definitions only when the interests of clarity call for it. For example, here’s the definition of critical thinking we use at my company:

Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate the connection between evidence and potential conclusions. It is the ability to make logically sound judgments, identify assumptions and alternatives, ask relevant questions, and to be fair and open-minded when evaluating the strength of arguments.

That covers the essential elements of the concept without requiring a doctoral dissertation. Others are of course free to disagree, to add, to subtract or to alter, but any meaningful definition of critical thinking is likely to include those core elements. This definition, or something like it, can be part of a shared and inclusive vocabulary that will help us identify the point at issue, the terms of the argument and the standards by which we make decisions.

With a clear and flexible structure, we make great progress, but it also helps to spot patterns of reasoning that appear across academic disciplines and real-world environments. While every situation could be different, being able to spot analogous situations can help us apply lessons we learned from our previous experience. No matter where we go, we should watch out for causation issues, representativeness and the difference between necessity and sufficiency. We should identify scope shifts, alternative explanations and ambiguous terms. Critical thinking will never be a mechanical application of procedures, but it still helps to have a sense of the usual suspects when it comes to logic.

While critical thinking is, by its nature, abstract, it also should be an applied field. For that reason, part of the process of improving one’s critical-thinking skills is to solve problems in real-world contexts and to practice drawing connections between the abstract concepts of critical thinking and the facts on the ground. Let’s not underestimate the value of practice, either. Critical thinking is like other skills in that it gets better with practice, but it has to be the right kind of practice. Pure repetition won’t help, but careful analysis will. That’s why we need to evaluate the claims we hear in everyday life, examine critiques of arguments to see if they have represented their subject fairly and construct our own persuasive arguments -- holding ourselves to the same standards we apply to others.

To illustrate the results of this process, consider this true story of critical-thinking success. On his first day at his new publishing job, an editor got bad news: samples from a new print job had come in, and they had a huge flaw that made all the books unusable. He was asked if he wanted to trash the entire print run. He would not have been blamed if he had, but instead he asked if they were sure that all of the books had that flaw. As it turned out, they didn’t. It was only some of them, and so he saved thousands of books from going to the landfill for no good reason.

For this to happen, he needed to be aware that he needed to apply his critical-thinking skills, he needed a structure to analyze the situation, he needed to recognize a familiar pattern of reasoning (in this case, representative samples) and he needed to apply what he knew from the publishing context. In this case, he knew that print samples sometimes come from only one round of printing and may not represent the entire print job. It was an insightful decision, but it wasn’t magic. Decisions like this are the natural product of sophisticated learning processes reinforced with experience.

But Can Critical Thinking Truly Be Improved?

It isn’t easy, and aptitude varies, but critical-thinking skills are not fixed at birth. We know that some people have strong skills, and they had to get them from somewhere. People still debate the extent to which critical thinking is a general skill that can be transferred whole into any context as opposed to being a context-dependent skill. The truth could be somewhat in between. There are certain structures, patterns and techniques that can be learned in general and applied elsewhere.

That is what I did while creating preparation courses for exams such as the LSAT and GMAT. We never knew exactly what the subject matter of the questions would be, but that didn’t matter as long as the patterns of reasoning were the same. That being said, context still matters, and applying one’s general skills is not equally easy everywhere.

My friend who made the inspired call about the print job had strong thinking skills but also needed to know something about publishing in order to find that solution. So there’s something to the notion that we ought to integrate critical thinking into our courses of study and not teach it as an entirely separate discipline. That’s another debate.

For now, I hope to have advanced the case that everyone can get better at critical thinking, but only if we make it a priority. The fact that we haven’t made great progress is evidence that we haven’t tried more than it is evidence that we can’t.

Ben Paris has more than 20 years of experience in educational assessment and learning design. He is the vice president of learning architecture for ansrsource, where he develops learning solutions for academic and professional environments.

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Two Jewish professors on different campuses are harassed with anti-Semitic threats

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Two Jewish professors on different campuses are harassed with anti-Semitic threats -- at a time when swastikas have appeared at a number of institutions.

New analysis shows high debt levels for some humanities Ph.D.s and no debt for others

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Some doctorate earners emerge with high levels of debt, while a growing number have none. For a plurality, teaching assistantships are top source of revenue, but that's not the case for most other disciplines.

Determining the proper amount of activism you should demonstrate in your work (essay)

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How and when you express yourself and your beliefs in the workplace is as personal as the beliefs themselves, writes Stephanie K. Eberle, and you should be intentional about it.

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