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Essay on the rhetoric about Yik Yak and college students

Yik Yak accesses posts within a 10-mile radius. From where I live at the southern point of Fayette County, I am in luck. I live eight miles from the center of the University of Kentucky campus. This banal point means that I can continue to follow Yik Yak conversations even when I am away from the physical space of academic life. I can feel close to the students we work with even as I prefer to live away from them.

If I open Yik Yak at my children’s school – which is closer to campus – I am blocked from using the service by the app’s geofencing. Yik Yak, and the content it shares, is not for kids. Yik Yak, a free social media app that allows users to leave anonymous posts, has sparked discussion within the last year regarding its content.

In 2015, a high school student pleaded guilty to posting on Yik Yak a threat to his New Jersey high school. In December 2014, the president of the University of Kentucky sent an email to all faculty and students condemning student Yik Yak responses to a campus die-in protest as “hate filled slurs” and “narrow-mindedness.” A January 2015 Huffington Post story traced a number of Yik Yak incidents in which racist posts followed a variety of campus events across the country at different universities and colleges. Such events sometimes lead to calls for banning Yik Yak. Yik Yak, this narrative argues, is a hate speech forum.

To my knowledge, Yik Yak is not banned anywhere on any college campus in Kentucky. On a given day, I open Yik Yak on my iPhone and am exposed to college conversations. The conversations vary: Sexual exploits. Bathroom antics. Grade anxiety. Moments of getting high. Reflections on Netflix. Loneliness. Support for the basketball team. Comments on classes. So little of what I see is hate-based. When I ask the students in the course I teach about Facebook how many of them are actually on Facebook, no one raises a hand. But many of them do use Yik Yak. In addition to Yik Yak, I am on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Google+. I am not sure how many of my colleagues are on Yik Yak. I know of one colleague who is. He’s the one who introduced me to the app.

Some yaks (posts) I read as I wrote this are:

“Y’all motherfuckers remember mood rings back in the day?”

“I’m a decent looking girl, but I can’t get a guy to text me or like me or shit.”

“Do only girls work at fazolis in palomar.”

Despite the public attention on hate or racist speech, many college student yaks are banal: nostalgia, anxiety, questions about local fast food chains. Like other social media bursts of expression, yaks reflect of the moment thinking. A thought or idea pops into one’s head; the urge to write that feeling down in a public space follows. In that sense, yaks are no different than any other moment of written expression – from the invention of the essay to the popularity of the blog post.

Some other yaks I’ve recently read:

“I love Kentucky sunsets!”

“How old is too old to join a fraternity?”

“Curse you Mad Men marathon, curse you.”

Yik Yak is about proximity. A user of Yik Yak either assumes proximity (those near me will read this) or creates proximity (we are not physically near one another, but you are now close to what I am thinking). The media theorist Marshall McLuhan proclaimed proximity as a central tenet of new media logics. Information brushes against information, he wrote. Out of that proximity, ideas are formed. Italian theorist Michel Maffesoli framed the network need for proximity as a question of secrecy: we are never really sure why items interact or why we create proximity across networks. What’s our motivation? What do we hope to gain?

In the university, we encourage proximity. We ask faculty to develop relationships with students. We ask students to feel a relationship with the university (for retention purposes; so as alumni they will become donors; for networking purposes as each graduating class seeks employment). When we engage with social media, however, proximity sparks fear. Now we are too close. Now we know too much. As soon as we know what others are thinking, we get scared. Or offended. Or outraged.

“Yik Yak Opens Window to College Students’ World,” an Orlando Sentinel headline reads. The student world is a mystery to most faculty. Students are so close to us in the classroom, yet so far away emotionally, intellectually, or otherwise. How do they study? How do they choose their courses? Why do they major in one subject as opposed to another? How do I get them to take my course? How can we get them to answer their email? Why are they failing? How can we help them?

On a given campus like ours, 30,000 people congregate daily. Some come to campus to live and study; others to just study. Thirty thousand people is a small town. And like all small towns where people are in immediate proximity to one another, gossip, hate, fear, prejudice, and insensitivity exist, often for reasons that are not clear. McLuhan’s main point about the global village, the space where media brings information and people into proximity, was that it is not a nice place. The global village, whether enacted on Yik Yak or in a dormitory, can be a pretty difficult place to live in. That difficulty can exist in anonymous posts (aggressive, racist, sexist) or in faculty attitudes toward those with whom they work closely (attitudes expressed publicly in conversation and not in confined platforms like Yik Yak).

Why do we fear, though, talk – albeit digital talk? The hallways on the floor of our campus building are traditionally quiet. There is so little talk. Behind each office door, I assume, a faculty member works, answers email, grades, reads, drinks coffee, daydreams. Some are exasperated with their students. Some are exasperated with their colleagues. Some are exasperated with me, the interim chair of the department.

Our offices, after all, are in proximity to one another. We work closely together. What would a faculty Yik Yak look like on our office floor if all of my colleagues, behind their closed office doors, were typing their thoughts into the platform several times a day? Probably not that much different from what students write.

Faculty typically become outraged at college expression, particularly that which embraces sexuality, alcohol, or disgust with college. Such expression, we are told, is indicative of a morality problem. “How do you solve a problem like Yik Yak?” The Washington Post asked in 2014. “The theoretical appeal of Yik Yak is in two things: total anonymity and close proximity,” the Post’s Caitlin Dewey notes. She follows that observation with the caveat: “People thumbtacking a notice in a public space are still obligated to follow certain social norms.”  

While I have only cited the banal on Yik Yak, I have encountered yaks that supposedly fall outside of social norms as well:

“Is 9:30 too early to get drunk by yourself at home on a Thursday night?”

“Ladies. How old are you and how old a guy would you bang on a date?”

“Poop.”

“What’s your favorite type of porn to get off to?”

“I like to cover myself in Vaseline and slide around on the floor pretending like I’m a slug.”

Yik Yak is admission that there is no private without the public. Social media have always been a space that – because of the sense of proximity – feels private, but is, in fact, public. Whether we are discussing Anthony Weiner’s embarrassing bathroom selfies, Lucas Oil’s Charlotte Lucas’ racist tweet, or Cee Lo Green’s insensitive tweets about rape, we recognize how quickly private thought is made public. Even former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s private phone conversation becomes a public moment as the recorded discussion is duplicated and circulated to news outlets, blogs, and other sites.

College students are hardly the only people thinking the uncomfortable or the offensive. All around us uncomfortable thought exists. Eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds are not the only people who make private thought public on a whim. We all do. My Facebook feed is proof. The majority of my Facebook friends are, after all, academics. They seldom hold back on their thoughts.

I am a Yik Yak lurker. Between meetings, walking to class, or heading to the parking garage, I might open Yik Yak and follow a string of yaks. I don’t upvote or downvote the yaks, but I pay attention to those yaks that earn many votes.

When I lead department meetings as interim chair, I doubt my colleagues are on Yik Yak, but some are posting to Facebook. Some are complaining that the meeting is going on too long. Some are changing their profile pictures. Some are discussing what they will have for lunch. Some are mocking other colleagues at other universities. Those private acts are quickly made public if we are Facebook friends.

At some point, my newsfeed will show me the post. Each post is time-stamped. Because the post is proximate, I will know that the very important point I was making about an upcoming assessment seminar no one will attend likely went unheard. Nobody, though, fears being discovered for posting during a meeting. Among academics, in fact, it is almost expected to complain about department meetings in a public space or a social media platform. Among academics, it is expected that we complain all the time in public spaces. Whether we do so on Yik Yak, Facebook, or Twitter is not important.

Maybe the reason I don’t post to Yik Yak is that I fear the potential, public fallout if I do post a yak: “Professor caught on Yik Yak complaining about colleagues’ eating habits and preference for fast food,” a headline in our local paper might read. We don’t expect faculty, that is, to post to Yik Yak because the discursive norm on Yik Yak is assumed to be abnormal behavior. Facebook, for the adults, is an accepted space for academic complaining. Yik Yak, because of popular discussions that exaggerate its utterances, is not.

If I did post to Yik Yak, I am sure that I would express my distaste regarding faculty preference for Chick-fil-A or that someone keeps dumping coffee in the men’s urinal on my office floor or that I hate Pink Floyd. But for now, I have Facebook for such posts. Facebook is the accepted norm for a discourse of complaint. And on Facebook, the private has always been public.

 

Jeff Rice is professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of Kentucky.

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Looking Into Competency-Based Education

A growing number of colleges are offering competency-based degrees, and the emerging form of higher education has caught the attention of state and federal policy makers. Yet few researchers have taken an in-depth look at the range of competency-based programs. A new paper from the American Enterprise Institute's Center on Higher Education Reform tries to change this. The paper by Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of education at Seton Hall University, is the first in a series that will seek to "explore the uncharted landscape." Kelchen concludes that competency-based education has the potential to "streamline the path to a college degree for a significant number of students." Yet many questions remain about who is currently enrolled in these programs, he wrote, or how the degree tracks are priced.

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AAC&U sessions focus on integrative learning

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Association of American Colleges and Universities highlights integrative liberal learning at annual meeting. But what is it?

Essay on the 10 commandments of a professor for his students

1. Thou shalt have no other object of attention in the classroom. No devices — phones, gadgets, computers, guns — or distractions; I am a jealous and wrathful instructor.

2. Thou shalt honor thy fellow students. They are also struggling, growing, with opinions always changing, and with perspectives always in transition. Be kind and patient with them, and yourself. In discussion, be sensitive to the feelings of others, slow to be offended and quick to not offend, though do not censor yourself. Try to use “I” statements, speaking from your own experience, and speak your mind knowing that all controversial arguments can be made with tact, humility, and sensitivity to others.

3. Thou shalt assume the best intentions of the instructor and fellow students. Take what is said in the classroom with interpretative charity — assuming all speak in earnest and in good faith — though treat what is said with a critical eye. We are all in this together and we all want to “do the right thing” by each other.

4. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s work. But feel free to consult with them on notes and materials, share feedback, look at each other’s drafts, and so forth. Attend to the customs and rules of proper citation. Put things in your own words, and if you use the words of others, honor them by citing them.

5. Honor the work of the authors. You do so by reading the assigned materials and appreciating their arguments, but also by raising objections, comments, and questions. On class days you shall participate; outside of class, you shall labor by reading.

6. Thou shalt ask questions for the benefit of the good and welfare of the class. Ask away about issues or substance of the class — no question is dumb. On procedural matters, consult the syllabus first and the professor when appropriate.

7. When all else fails, follow directions. Consult the syllabus, the assignment specifics, and other missives sent by the instructor. See Commandment #6.

8. If thou speaks too much, step back. If thou speaks too little, step up! Be mindful of your own contribution balanced with the needs of your fellow students. Don’t dominate the conversation, but don’t hesitate to contribute. Assume that if you have a question on the material, others are thinking of it as well, so do them a favor and ask!

9. Thou shalt figure out a goodly system to take notes. The classroom is not a passive arena — all discussions, videos, lectures, and chalkboard notes are important grist for the mill of our common learning. If you want, record the lectures and take notes. After each session, ask yourself what you learned.

10. Thou shalt be an active agent in your own learning. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own learning. Be resourceful — if the classroom experience is difficult or not useful, or if the experience is not working for you, consult with the instructor who wants to help (see Commandment #3). Approach the instructor with your concerns, issues, and questions sooner than later.

What commandment would you add?

Elliot Ratzman is assistant professor of religion at Temple University.

 

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Data show steady growth in humanities and liberal arts education at community colleges

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While advocates for the humanities and some social sciences worry about enrollment patterns at many colleges, they may have missed good news from two-year institutions.

New Coalition for Adaptive Science Courses

A group of 24 colleges and universities have teamed up to develop and share online courses that are designed to help students complete general-science education courses. Arizona State University and Smart Sparrow, an "adaptive" learning company, helped create the group, which is dubbed the Inspark Science Network. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed a $4.5-million grant to Smart Sparrow for the project.

Adaptive courseware, loosely defined, responds to individual students' abilities and progress. Ariel Anbar, a chemistry and biochemistry professor at Arizona State, collaborated with Smart Sparrow to create an adaptive online course about the search for extraterrestrial life.

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Essay on meaning broader concerns raised by cheating scandals

Students have lost their honor! The recent revelation that 64 Dartmouth College students were charged with cheating this past fall was followed by the predictable comments on a larger social malaise. We learned that some students allegedly ditched classes, providing their handheld electronic “clickers” to other students who attended and then answered questions on their behalf. There were also students who reportedly passed clickers to their classroom neighbors to answer questions for them. 

To make matters worse, this happened in an ethics class. The students have been decried for their self-centeredness and lack of scruples; some wonder how they could be allowed to remain at Dartmouth. What better evidence of the decline of honor in a society where, in the instructor’s words, “it’s not surprising that students would want to trade the nebulous notion of honor with what they perceive as some sort of advantage in professional advancement.”

The instructor may be right, but the decline in honor in this instance cannot be separated from another problem: How we define student learning, and how learning is relevant to the advancement of democracy. Were those cheating Dartmouth students wanting in honor? Yes, and they should be held accountable for their poor judgment. But their lack of honesty lies at the surface of a larger issue: How do they find value in the subject matter presented to them?

If the subject matter of ethics or any field of study is presented as a body of fixed truths that students get or don’t get (clicking correctly or incorrectly), then how does it have meaning in their experience? The answer, of course, is obvious – subject matter matters as students’ ability to prove that they know what those in authority know, avoiding the painful consequences of failing to do so. When subject matter is ready-made information to just “learn,” then the fields they study have been depleted of their creative oxygen.

The issue of “honor” is then reduced to whether or not students honestly reproduce what has been transmitted to them. The American philosopher John Dewey saw that there is no a better prescription for developing a misguided sense of the world as closed, with the meanings of things already settled, as opposed to in flux, open to interpretation, change.

What should society desire from higher education in the long term? The value of higher education is under intense scrutiny today. Should colleges be rated against set criteria, will this or that type of degree yield employment; how does the so-called value proposition drive the publics’ view of higher education? The question I am posing here concerns how higher education can contribute to democratic citizenship.

We need higher education to excite students with the prospect of their participation in the advancement of knowledge and solutions to social problems. This is how education can serve the development of an imagination, as well as of the capacity for and motivation toward making sense of and improving the world with others. Do we want our students to have honor? Let’s help them to see and experience their own potential to make a real difference through their learning, and not just by getting a grade or earning a degree.

Learning can mean cramming in information as “subject matter” and being done with it. It can also mean embracing the power of academic fields to open mysteries, to anchor present and future living in intellectual and creative pursuit and discovery.  In order for education to reach its transformative potential, what the educational theorist Maxine Greene called the “lure of incompleteness” should frame our conception of subject matter and the activities it incites. Education can be an opening for the building of sensitivity to an environment in flux, where meanings are not settled, fixed, and where anticipation of and solutions to problems are possible.

 

James Ostrow is vice president for academic affairs at Lasell College.

 

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Saint Mary's College of Calif. students 'Disconnect, Power Off and Unplug' in interim term course

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Saint Mary's College of California challenges students to a technology fast during an interim term course on the benefits of disconnecting from social media.

Feds move ahead with experimental sites for competency-based education

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The Education Department will loosen financial-aid rules for 40-plus colleges as they experiment with competency-based education and prior learning assessment.

Essay on the problems with philosophy in academe

In 1917 John Dewey published “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy.” The essay consists of a reflection on the role of philosophy in early 20th century American life, expressing Dewey’s concern that philosophy had become antiquated, “sidetracked from the main currents of contemporary life,” too much the domain of professionals and adepts. While taking pains to note that the classic questions of philosophy make contributions to culture both past and present, Dewey felt that the topics being raised by professional philosophers were too often “discussed mainly because they have been discussed rather than because contemporary conditions of life suggest them.”

Dewey soon traveled to China, where he delivered nearly 200 lectures on education and democracy to large crowds across a two-year stay. Back in America Dewey commented on the public questions of the day, a role that he inhabited until his death in 1952. Since then, however, professional philosophers have followed W.V.O. Quine’s path in treating philosophy as a technical exercise of no particular interest to the layman:

Think of organic chemistry; I recognize its importance, but I am not curious about it, nor do I see why the layman should care about much of what concerns me in philosophy.

But is philosophy really analogous to chemistry, a domain of expertise populated by specialists? Or are philosophical questions part and parcel of everyone’s life, as far from a specialist’s tasks as anything can be?

Nearly 100 years after Dewey’s essay, it’s time for another reconstruction of philosophy.

I.

While it is possible to point to philosophers who work with (rather than merely talk about) the concerns of non-philosophers, among the mass of philosophers societal irrelevance is often treated as a sign of intellectual seriousness.

This is a shame, since we are surrounded by phenomena crying out for philosophic reflection. Today we are constantly confronted by philosophic questions, in many cases created by advances in science and technology. Open your computer and you can find thoughtful exploration of issues as varied as the creation of autonomous killing machines, the loss of privacy in a digital age, the remaking of friendship via Facebook, and the refashioning of human nature via biotechnology. In this sense philosophy abounds. But professional philosophers have remained largely on the margins of this growing cultural conversation.

It needn’t be this way. Take the subject matter of metaphysics. Every philosophy department teaches courses in metaphysics. But how is the subject handled? As evidenced by a sample of university syllabuses posted online, metaphysics classes are overwhelmingly exercises in professional philosophy. Just as Dewey complained, classes begin from the concerns of philosophers rather than from contemporary problems. This can be seen in the leading textbooks. Consider as magisterial a source as the Oxford Handbook of Metaphysics, Loux and Zimmerman, eds. Their introduction begins so:

Its detractors often characterize analytical philosophy as anti-metaphysical. After all, we are told, it was born at the hands of Moore and Russell, who were reacting against the metaphysical systems of idealists like Bosanquet and Bradley…

The discussion is entirely framed in terms of the disciplinary concerns of philosophy – and only 20th century analytic philosophy at that. We find no reference to people’s actual lives, to the metaphysical issues tied to the births and transformations and deaths that we all endure, no acknowledgement that questions of metaphysics involve some of the most intimate and transcendent questions of our lives. Instead, metaphysics is a tale told in terms of professionals: Moore and Russell, Bosanquet and Bradley, Quine and Lewis.

We are not claiming that the matters addressed by such essays are insignificant. But it takes one adept in philosophy to extract the nut of existential meaning from the disciplinary shell. No wonder even the best students walk away.

Why do philosophers begin with insider topics when issues laden with metaphysics are in the news every day? The May 25, 2014 issue of The Washington Post describes a patient taking heart pills that include ingestible chips: the chips link up with her computer so that she and her doctor can see that she has taken her medicine. The story also describes soon-to-be marketed nanosensors that live in the bloodstream and will be able to spot the signs of a heart attack before it occurs. These are issues that could fall under “Existence and Identity,” one of the sections of the Oxford Handbook: at stake here are metaphysical questions about the nature of self and the boundary between organism and machine.

This needs to change, for the health of our culture, and for the health of philosophy itself. Unless professional philosophy embraces and institutionalizes an engaged approach to philosophizing, working alongside other disciplines and abroad in the world at large, it will become a casualty of history.

II.

In our opinion, the single greatest impediment to philosophy’s greater relevance is the institutional situation of philosophy. The early 20th century research university disciplined philosophers, placing them in departments, where they wrote for and were judged by their disciplinary peers. Oddly, this change was unremarked upon, or was treated as simply the professionalization of another academic field of research. It continues to be passed over in silence today. Like Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentleman, who did not know that he had been speaking prose, philosophers seem innocent of the fact that they have been doing disciplinary philosophy, or that one might have reasons to object to this fact. And so even when their subject matter consists of something of real significance to the wider world, philosophers typically discuss the topic in a way that precludes the active interest of and involvement by non-philosophers.

Philosophers view themselves as critical thinkers par excellence who have been trained to question everything; but they have overlooked the institutional arrangements that govern their lives. The department is seen as a neutral space from which thought germinates, not itself the object of reflection. One finds no exploration of the effects that disciplining might have had on philosophical theorizing, or of where else philosophers could be housed, or of how philosophers, by being located elsewhere, might have developed alternative accounts of the world or have come up with new ways of philosophizing. In fact, the epistemic implications of the current institutional housing of philosophy are profound.

Philosophers once recognized that there is something problematic about treating philosophy as simply one discipline alongside the others. It was once understood that in addition to fine-grained analyses philosophy offered perspectives that undergirded, capped off, or synthesized the work of other disciplines such as physics or biology, and then connected those insights to our larger concerns. Such work lost favor in the 20th century – dismissed as Weltanschauung philosophy by analytic philosophers, and as foundationalism by continental philosophers. But reopen this perspective and questions abound: if philosophy is not, or not exclusively a regional ontology, why are philosophers housed within one region of the university?

Why is peer-reviewed scholarship the sole standard for judging philosophic work, rather than also the effects that such work has on the larger world? And why is there only one social role for those with Ph.D.s in philosophy – namely, to talk to other Ph.D.s in philosophy?

III.

Philosophers may have ignored their institutional placement, but for other disciplines critical reflection on the structures of knowledge production has become par for the course. Perhaps the most important site for such analysis is the interdisciplinary field of science, technology, and society studies (STS). One influential book in STS – Gibbons et al.’s 1994 The New Production of Knowledge – chronicles the shift in late 20th century science from “Mode 1” to “Mode 2” knowledge production. Mode 1 is academic, investigator-initiated, and discipline-based. By contrast, Mode 2 knowledge production is context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary. This framework is a good rough sketch of our basic point: we are tracing and promoting the 21st century development of Mode 2 philosophy.

But make no mistake. We are pluralists on this point. We believe Mode 1 or disciplinary scholarship should continue to have a central place in philosophy. But Mode 1 thinking needs to be counter-balanced by an equal focus within the philosophical community on conducting work that is socially engaged. In part this is simply recognizing a new reality: increasingly society is demanding that academics demonstrate their broader relevance. This demand has so far largely skipped over philosophy and the humanities, but this is unlikely to remain the case for much longer. Philosophy needs to demonstrate its bona fides by showing how it can make timely and effective contributions to contemporary debates. We believe that this is best done in a way that also shows that Mode 2 philosophizing is enriched by the insights of Mode 1 or traditional philosophy. 

While Mode 1 philosophy is still the reigning orthodoxy, there is a growing heterodoxy within the ranks of philosophers, sometimes lumped under the title of “public philosophy.” We call our own version of Mode 2 work “field philosophy.” There are a number of similar approaches in areas such as environmental justice, critical race theory, feminism, and bioethics that we recognize as allies. We celebrate these diverse approaches to Mode 2 philosophizing, whether they go by the name of ‘public’, ‘applied’, or by some other title. But we believe that the lack of thought given to the institutional dimensions of philosophizing has limited the effectiveness of this work. A new philosophical practice, where philosophers work in real time with a variety of audiences and stakeholders, will lead to new theoretical forms of philosophy – once we break the stranglehold that disciplinary norms have upon the profession.

It will take a community to institutionalize Mode 2 practices. As it stands now, heterodox practitioners (however they self-identify) exist on the margins and lead professional lives that run against the grain. As the feminist public philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff notes, many Mode 2 philosophers try to “walk a fine line between responsiveness to community needs and employment survival, pushing the boundaries of academic respectability even while trying to establish their credentials in conventional ways." It is these “conventional ways” that must change. We have to invent a philosophy where responsiveness to community needs (not just disciplinary interests and imperatives) is an integral part of one’s employment and is viewed as academically respectable.

In practice, this will require many changes, from revised promotion and tenure criteria to alternative metrics for excellence and impact. As these changes are implemented, it will be important to consider at what point the chasm has been reduced to a suitable-sized gap. After all, we don’t want to eliminate the space between philosophy and society altogether. Socrates was engaged, but still an outsider. He certainly was no pundit looking to score the most outrageous sound bite and rack up the most “likes” on Facebook. We need a people’s philosophy that reserves every right to be unpopular.

 

Robert Frodeman is a professor of philosophy and religion studies at North Texas and director of its Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity. Adam Briggle is an associate professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas.

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