teachinglearning

Responding in the classroom to a racial incident on the campus (essay)

Last month, a Snapchat image circulated on the campus of Quinnipiac University of a white female freshman student in a dorm wearing a dark exfoliating beauty mask. Captioning the image in a collage made by another student were the words “Black Lives Matter.” In the days that followed, members of the university community received a number of emails from the administration, culminating with one that informed everyone that, as a result of an administrative investigation, “the student who took the photo, added the remark and posted it is no longer a member of the university community.”

In the midst of it all, my students and I decided to take time in our English 101 class to discuss both the images and the responses that we’d seen, read and heard up to that point. In our discussions, my students -- all first-semester freshmen -- offered a range of thoughtful and considered perspectives.

A theme of our discussions was the way in which the offending image mocked and trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement -- and, more broadly, concerns about racism, social justice and the calls for a more equitable America. My students pointed out that the words, phrases and images that were hardly offensive in themselves -- that is, the image of a white woman wearing an exfoliating mask as well as the words “Black Lives Matter” generated a problematic message when placed together in a collage. Some students pointed to the impact such images have on students of color struggling to learn, fit in and feel safe at the university.

One thing that didn’t come up for the students was the connection to the history of blackface minstrelsy, another key reason why the Snapchat image was such a problem. It not only mocked and trivialized other people’s misery and criticisms today, but it also did so by referencing and repeating -- unwittingly or otherwise -- a long history of it. As someone first trained in cultural studies, I offered some words about the subject and pointed the students to a few relevant resources.

But much of what piqued my students’ interest was the administration’s response. They quickly raised questions concerning money, liability, potential student recruitment and alumni giving -- all key elements of the conversation, to be sure. One thing we didn’t talk about, however, was genre: the fact that we were dealing with a kind of writing that, while being offered in response to a specific incident here at Quinnipiac, is governed by some rules, reader expectations and history.

Last spring I attended a faculty workshop concerning antiracism led by David Shih, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. In that workshop, Shih drew our attention to the ways that such articulations of “community” are increasingly a part of the administrative playbook for dealing with racism on campuses. And, in fact, the response we saw at our university was pretty generic -- although, as we never tire of arguing in English departments, genres do some pretty serious work. Often it seems as if administrative responses to racism sound a lot like the conventional way it gets talked about in the wider world: as something episodic, immediately identifiable and always perpetuated by someone from outside the community. Or, more specifically at work at my institution because of the manner in which the offender was quickly “no longer part of the community,” the implication was that the person was not really part of the community to begin with. Thanks to the administration’s intervention, the “community” could now get back to its normal business of operating in the absence of racism. Case closed.

My students, of course, had not attended David Shih’s workshop, but they raised some strikingly similar points in our discussion. Several also said that racist remarks in the form of jokes, asides and the like happen “all the time” on the campus. The problem, in this case, was that someone got caught. “There’s a big deal about it right now,” one of my students suggested, but what about all the other times these things happen, and they go unchecked?

For the students, the major difference was that it was a public act on social media. And what’s different about social media, they pointed out, is that it opens incidents to the outside world. A number of students were nervous or upset at having to answer to family, friends and others about the image, and some discussed how it had hurt our campus community not only directly but also by damaging the university’s public image. In short, the students seemed to say that the key difference between a “private” utterance and a more “public” image or “speech act” like the one that I’ve been describing is best understood as a degree of risk. “It’s just stupid,” several students agreed. But when pressed, it was clear that, by “stupid,” they meant “really risky.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, our discussions turned into a kind of reading of the administration’s style of risk management. When I asked what they thought should have been done, student suggestions ran the gauntlet from hiding the story from outside news media to expelling the students involved to insisting that this is not a “big deal” in the first place.

But many expressed frustration that the administration’s response was never fully explained in any understandable or transparent way. Almost everyone seemed to agree that something had to be done to take the incident seriously not only because of its hurtful nature but also because it was public. I asked what the campus would be like if the administration intervened every time a racist act of any sort occurred. One of my students immediately answered, with a raised eyebrow, “Things would get pretty out hand around here.”

Whether or not things getting “out of hand” on a campus sounds like a good thing or a bad one probably depends on a number of factors, and certainly this brief essay can’t settle such a question. But I raise this because much of what was at stake for my students -- at least in our initial classroom conversation -- was a response in large part framed and limited by the same terms as the administration’s emails, language and directives.

Most people agreed that such an incident needed serious and swift attention, and I agree with that sentiment. But the implication quickly became, “So if you do this type of thing, we don’t want to see it -- in other words, don’t get caught.” Because the risk is so high for everyone involved, that’s what makes it a problem: visibility and exposure to risk. My students really understand that posting such an image on social media is a risky move and could lead to issues at the institution in one way or another. But just why and in what ways such a racist speech act was a problem was tougher for them to articulate. Rather, the explanation for what the image meant and why it mattered was what we had to learn about in class -- not something the students could glean from the administration’s electronic missives.

Let me be clear: the fact that the administration did not discuss issues of racism or the history of minstrelsy is not why I invited my students to think about such topics in class. But it is striking to me that here, in a moment of crisis, some pretty clear lines between administrators and educators get redrawn. One way that happens is how the administration so directly articulates itself in such emails as something different and other than an agent of education and learning.

In the last administrative email on the subject, directly following the sentences informing us that the student was “no longer a part of the university community,” we were directed to “learn from this experience” and “encouraged” to participate in campus programs that “support our values of diversity and inclusion.” But just what we were supposed to learn here and what kinds of opportunities are available for us to do so was left intentionally unsaid. We were informed about the “existence” of a “racially offensive” image but not invited to ponder why it was offensive or racist, or what, for that matter, we should do about it. Likewise, we were told to seek out related programming and activities, but the fact that a previously scheduled and long-planned teach-in concerning Black Lives Matter was to be held on campus the following week was left out.

The following week, when the administration finally did publicize the teach-in (and with less than 24 hours before it was to start), we were “encouraged” to attend and “welcome to stop by,” but no connection to the Snapchat image was drawn. In other words, the administration seemed to be making a decision to leave the matter of education up to others at the university. Its role, if we judge by such emails, was to conduct investigations and render discipline.

And as a teacher, I would certainly prefer that what counts as education be left up to faculty members and students. Don’t get me wrong: I’m upset about the incident at our institution and wish it had not happened. But let me be clear about something else: as a teacher, I welcome the chance to turn such moments of difficulty into moments of consideration and reflection in my classroom -- all in the service, of course, of equipping my students with skills to make more informed and more thoughtful decisions in the future.

In fact, I’ve found that doing so is a pretty good way to teach writing and might even be thought of as a kind of “educational outcome” of higher education, regardless of discipline. In my English class, all of a sudden, some seemingly abstract questions got really real. It felt as if we were all doing what we ought to do in college: asking tough questions and taking the answers, and their implications, seriously.

My students did not come to consensus. But judging from some follow-up conversations with a number of them, I don’t get the sense that anyone felt that their views were not voiced and explored for what they were: attempts to come to terms with something important happening in their world and to use our class as a chance to hone skills they could apply both now and in their future.

I learned a phrase in walking picket lines alongside the union of clerical workers at the University of Minnesota that I’ve always liked: “The University Works Because We Do.” Since then, I’ve heard this phrase foreground the importance of a wide range of labor unrest that happens on college campuses from many people -- janitors, IT techs, food service workers and others. The phrase, when spoken by those who do a kind of work that the administration does not recognize and value as essential to the university’s mission, attempts to reframe the issue at hand and offer a sight line from a less common, but no less significant, perspective. And probably because, over the last few decades, the focus has been on the struggles of noninstructional university staff for recognition, better wages and respect, I have heard that phrase less often evoked when describing teachers and students.

So here, I’ll take a risk of my own: last month at Quinnipiac, all around the campus, the university was working because we did: that is, because teachers and students stopped their normal, planned activities and discussed racism -- and the administration’s response to it -- in a serious way.

Part of the problem is that what appears to be the administration’s desired outcome -- that what happened would be a short-lived but impactful moment that would quickly go away -- turns out to be not so unlike the way that Snapchat works. Images appear for a short time and then disappear, (hopefully) without a trace. What throws a wrench in the machinery is someone calling attention to it, someone who says, “Wait, this is important. This means something.” And thanks to a Quinnipiac student who reposted the image on Facebook with an impassioned critique concerning the connection between feeling safe on campus and being empowered to learn, we’ve had the chance to do so.

I don’t know who that student is, but I think I could learn something from her or him. And of course, this person wasn’t mentioned in the administration’s emails, either. In fact, I only learned about through my students in our class discussion. Last month, I went to teach class but I got schooled. To me, that’s also an important way that a university works -- and something we should all fight for.

John Conley teaches courses in academic writing, cultural studies and literature at Quinnipiac University and Trinity College.

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Report Proposes Alternate Form of Accreditation

The Center for American Progress today released a report that proposes a "complementary competitor" to the current system of accreditation.

The report describes three primary components for an outcomes-focused, alternative system, which, like current accreditors, would serve as a gatekeeper to federal financial aid.

  • High standards for student outcomes and financial health;
  • Standards set by private third parties;
  • Data definition, collection and verification, as well as enforcement of standards by the federal government.

"If implemented, this new system would provide a pathway to address America’s completion and quality challenges through desperately needed innovation," the report said. "And it would do so while establishing strong requirements to ensure that students and taxpayers get their money’s worth."

Furman U guarantees internships, research opportunities and mentors for each student

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Furman University seeks to set itself apart by focusing on students' career and research experience, and the liberal arts university will create a team of mentors for each student, often including faculty members.

Identifying and understanding classroom incivility (essay)

Understanding what constitutes classroom incivility can help faculty members minimize its dangers while maximizing the teaching and learning opportunities it presents, advises Courtney N. Wright.

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Grad school professors should be held to higher teaching standards (essay)

High standards of accountability for teachers, which both the public and government called for, led to teaching standards for K-12 schools through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As a result, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1990 and 2013 the dropout rate for white students decreased from 9 percent to 5 percent, for black students from 13 percent to 7 percent, and for Hispanic students, from 32 percent to 12 percent. Clearly, those standards appear to have made a difference.

But dropouts are not only a K-12 problem. Data from the Ph.D. Completion Project conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools show that graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields have a graduation rate of only 55 to 64 percent after 10 years. In fact, the graduation rate for humanities this past decade is not quite 50 percent. Given the significant number of dropouts, greater accountability seems a logical solution in the way it is has helped K-12 schools. Yet higher education has not turned to similar standards in order to increase retention and improve teaching.

Higher Education Critique

Most university retention efforts focus on problems of graduate students rather than quality control of professors’ teaching. For example, Ellucian, one of the largest education consulting groups in America, has said that “early academic achievement is a predictor of future success” for retention and student success in higher education. Nevertheless, improving teaching is never a part of the formula to improve academic performance. The only time professors are mentioned by Ellucian relates to advising rather than actual instruction.

Thus far a major criticism from the students who have left graduate school is the lack of support they received from their professors -- namely, the dearth of help with understanding class content. Students typically are left to tutors, classmates or other peers if they get lost in classes. Many students have wasted time and resources by not having relevant, helpful feedback. That lack of guidance leads many students to change advisers -- to those who seem to know what is going on. Even more just drop out.

Universities do claim to evaluate teacher quality, although not through standards such as those initiated by No Child Left Behind. Instead, most institutions use student evaluations, course syllabi, course examinations and peer reviews. But professional peers -- such as graduate students in psychology, science or history -- are seldom trained to recognize effectiveness in teaching skills. For that reason, only education professors’ teaching may be compared to a list of specific skills and classroom management techniques.

Implications for Graduate School Practices

Successful academic achievement in graduate school has been shown as a key factor for students’ low attrition rates. David Litalien and Frederic Guay, scholars at, respectively, the Australian Catholic University and Laval University in Quebec, have demonstrated that a student’s perceived competence is the strongest indicator of who completes their dissertation. Moreover, the other two significant factors -- quality of the student-adviser relationship and interactions with other faculty members -- indicate that more support and less isolation students have, the more likely they are to come to the final examination with a defensible paper. That means, of course, lower attrition and better graduation rates.

Having specific criteria for a graduate student’s preparation for the defense of their thesis is one way to increase perceived competence. Currently, students are told that the prospectus, exams and defense are a test of what they have learned. Yet that is often not the case. One student, for instance, was told by a professor on his dissertation committee that he needed to add feminist theory when his architectural design proposal was introduced. Because his vision was inclusive and not necessarily masculine or feminine, he failed his prospectus meeting. Another student had to retake the general exams due to her committee getting off topic about government in education, which had no relation to her research in morality. Many similar situations occur in academe when the objectives and goals of the program are not clearly conveyed.

In addition, professors believe that graduate students should be able to write for their academic discipline or field as they produce a thesis or dissertation. However, they often provide no criteria for the field as distinct from other fields. Instead of teaching that, many professors suggest books on academic writing or the writing-center tutors. They often just direct students to work with the “dissertation librarians” and figure it out. If professors taught students how to write a field thesis or dissertation, then students could understand the aims of research. As is, doctoral students are often left traveling without a map.

It need not be this way. Calls for reform in K-12 education resulted in a prescriptive approach which led to higher retention and graduation rates. In higher education, we suggest that five basic skills are necessary for effective teaching, as outlined by Raoul Arreola, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; Michael Theall, faculty emeritus at Youngstown State University; and Lawrence M. Aleamoni, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona:

  • content expertise
  • instructional design skills
  • instructional delivery skills
  • instructional assessment skills
  • course management skills

Such skills must be broken down into specific observable activities that can be measured in a way similar to how they are measured when K-12 teachers are evaluated. That would allow university leaders to assess graduate school professors and make sure the best pedagogy is in place.

Professors can also participate in professional development about educational and teaching approaches that they can consistently apply in both individual and class instruction. For example, as we look at higher education reform in particular, students need quality teaching about dissertation writing, along with more time with dissertation committees for constructive feedback about expectations.

We are hesitant to apply a one-size-fits-all type of instruction as part of doctoral studies. But many doctoral students face confusion every day with the current hands-off method from professors who seem unclear themselves. Indeed, in identifying causes for grad student attrition, we found a number of instances when students perceived that their questions were not answered and needs were not met during the process of writing their dissertation. Future researchers must learn how to complete accurate, relevant and original work in their research field. In order to contribute in diverse academic fields, students also need mentoring in scholarly writing. By demonstrating the skills that are needed for research success, professors could provide students with the knowledge and tools that would lead to a higher graduation rate.

So we ask again, how do professors need to be evaluated? We argue that professors are teachers, and because K-12 retention rose after strict standards were imposed on teachers, higher education’s retention rates could also rise with specific standards for professors that ensure that both they and their students attain success.

Dana Ford is an emeritus director of studies in English as a foreign language, and Melissa Brevetti is director of accreditation for the School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Langston University.

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'Pulse' podcast features discussion with Randy Swearer of Autodesk

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This month's edition of Inside Higher Ed's technology podcast features an interview with Randy Swearer of Autodesk.

Study: Remedial Education Costs Students $1.3B

A new report from Generation Progress and the Center for American Progress finds remedial education can cost students approximately $1.3 billion annually.

The report details that students enrolled in these courses typically don't receive college credit and are less likely to graduate. In 30 states, the remediation rate for English, math or both is between 40 percent and 60 percent for first-year college students.

Other highlights from the report break down the cost and rate of remediation in each state. For example, Florida has the highest remediation rate in the country, at 93 percent for first-time students enrolled in courses in 2013. Nevada and Arizona have similar significant immigrant populations, but there is a wide variation in the percentage of students taking remedial courses -- 85 percent and 40 percent, respectively, according to the report.

"For many student loan borrowers, their struggle with student debt begins even before they enroll in college," said Maggie Thompson, executive director of Generation Progress, in a news release. "The United States' current K-12 system isn't preparing all students for success, especially low-income students and students of color."

The report recommends states maintain a commitment to rigorous academic standards at the K-12 level by retaining or adopting the Common Core State Standards and for K-12 and higher education institutions to mutually define remediation and placement.

Colleges start new programs

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Essay on flawed assumptions behind digital badging and alternative credentialing

Inside Higher Ed recently checked up on adoption of badges specifically, and alternative credentialing generally, with a look at early adopter Illinois State University’s rollout of a badge platform. The overarching goal of badging and alternative credentialing initiatives is very valuable: to better communicate the value and variety of people’s skills to employers so that it’s easier to connect with and improve job outcomes. Yet the focus on badges and alternative credentials is like trying to facilitate global trade by inventing Esperanto.

The conception, theory and adoption of badge-based alternative credentialing initiatives starts as far back as 2011, when Mozilla announced the launch of its Open Badge Initiative and HASTAC simultaneously made “Digital Badges for Lifelong Learning” the theme of its fourth Digital Meaning & Learning competition. In the five years since, much has been written and even more time spent developing the theory and practice of alternative credentialing via badges -- from Mozilla and its support by the MacArthur Foundation to Purdue University’s Passport, to BadgeOS and Badge Alliance. Lately, the Lumina Foundation has taken the lead promoting alternative credentialing, most recently participating in a $2.5 million investment in badge platform Credly and a $1.3 million initiative to help university registrars develop a “new transcript.”

The premise behind all of the badge and alternative credential projects is the same: that if only there were a new, unified way to quantify, describe and give evidence of student learning inside the classroom and out, employers would be able to appropriately value those skills and illuminate a path to job outcomes. These kinds of premises often lead to utopian, idealized solutions that imagine transforming society itself. From Lumina’s “Strategy 8” overview:

To maximize our collective potential as a society, we need a revamped system of postsecondary credentials -- a fully integrated system that is learning based, student centered, universally understood and specifically designed to ensure quality at every level.

The problem for Lumina, Mozilla, Credly and the rest is that they’re proposing to replace a rich variety of credential “languages” with a universal one that’s not just unnecessary, but that’s modeled on fundamentally flawed analogies and observations.

I’ll start with the flaws of badges as a credentialing solution. Early on, digital badges often used Boy and Girl Scout badges as an analogy, but the more direct precursor of the current generation of badge solutions is video games. Indeed, attaining badges for completing certain tasks or reaching certain milestones is such a core feature of video game design and experience that the whole practice of rewarding behavior within software is referred to as “gamification.” This approach became widespread (with the launch of Foursquare, Gowalla, GetGlue and dozens more) in the years just preceding the launch of digital badges.

Yet video game badges -- and the badges employed by gamification companies -- are not truly credentials, but behaviorist reward systems designed to keep people on task. As credentials, their only useful meaning was within the systems in which they were earned, specifically within a given video game or bar-hopping app. Scout badges have a similar limitation: whatever their value in motivating attainment toward a worthy skill or outcome, the meaning of those badges is difficult to assess for nonscouts, or those not trained in the visual language of scouting badges.

Badge adherents aim to address the “value” and portability of badges by attaching proof of skills to the badges themselves. This is the same idea behind e-portfolios: that evidence of each skill is not just demonstrable, verifiable and universally understood, but useful to employers. Yet outside of specific fields, portfolios simply don’t matter to employers. As Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this year about the New Transcript portfolio, “Employers don’t want to take time to go through your portfolio -- they just don’t.” Where evidence of skills is important and useful, solutions already exist: GitHub for software developers; Behance for designers; transcripts, essays and recommendations for graduate school.

The idea of replacing university “dialects” with a new language of skills and outcomes is less metaphorical when think tanks and ed-tech companies talk about alternative credentials as a category. There, advocates propose an entirely new vocabulary: microcredentials, nanodegrees, stackable badges and more, all meant to convey (to employers primarily) the body of skills and knowledge that a student possesses. But they are redefining concepts that already exist, and that exist productively for the marketplace of students, educators and employers.

Consider the stackable badge, the idea that learning competencies should be assessed and verified in a progression that comprises and leads to a certified credential. But stackable credentials already exist in ways that everyone understands. In the undergraduate major, a student completes a series of related and escalating levels of mastery in a given subject area, assessed by experts in that field. Upon completion of those microcredentials -- i.e., classes -- the student is awarded a degree with a focus in that field and with an indication of attainment (honors). The same goes for hundreds of areas of expertise inside and outside higher education: in financial analysis (the extremely demanding and desirable CFA designation), entry-level and advanced manufacturing (the National Association of Manufacturers MSCS system), specific IT areas of focus like ISACA and (ISC)2, bar exams, medical boards, and more.

Credentials, in and of themselves, are a solved problem. I know this because my own company, Merit, launched the biggest, most comprehensive badge experiment that no one has heard of. Between 2011 and 2014 we tested a variation of the scout model -- a badge-based visual language of college milestones and credentials analogous to a military officer’s dress uniform -- that could be quickly read to convey a person’s skills, accomplishments and level of achievement. Nearly 500 colleges granted more than three million students almost 10 million badges that included academic honors, notable cocurriculars, experiential learning, internships and more. We tested interest by employers, educators and students (and continue to). What’s clear is this: it’s far, far more important to simply document existing credentials than to invent new ones, or a new language to describe them. Stakeholders in the high-school-to-college-to-career pipeline understand and value credentials as they exist now, and rarely need or want a new way to understand them. They just want to see them.

Connecting students’ skills and ambitions to the pathways to a career is a big deal, but it doesn’t require a new language that’s based on techno-solutionist fantasies. LinkedIn, the “economic graph” that many hold up as a model, needed more than $100 million of private capital for something as simple as convincing managers and a certain professional class to keep updated résumés online. Doing something similar for every single student is both more valuable and more difficult -- and doesn’t need to reinvent the entire language of credentials to complicate the effort.

My biggest frustration with badges and alternative credentials isn’t that they are an ivory tower solution to a real world problem. It’s that helping students succeed means more than figuring out a new language. Higher education is a demanding, high-stakes endeavor for the vast majority of students. Proposing that they -- and the institutions educating them and the employers who might hire them -- learn a new lingua franca for conveying the value of that learning, every year, over the very short time that they’re mastering the skills and knowledge that they need isn’t just impractical. It’s unfair.

Colin Mathews is founder and president of Merit, a technology company focused on creating and sharing stories about students’ successes.

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How to encourage foreign students to participate in class (essay)

Andy Molinsky offers four tips for encouraging foreign students to participate in class.

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