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Colleges must explain the value of diversity and holistic review in admissions processes (essay)

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear legal arguments concerning Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin for the second time. This week also marks the end of a challenging semester with student demonstrations about the racial climate happening on campuses across the country. These two developments remind us of the importance of diversity and inclusion on campus -- and the need for colleges and universities to recommit to the hard but essential work of getting it right.

Diversity and inclusion conversations often start with admissions for two reasons. The first is simple: the question of who gets admitted to various colleges and universities is always in the public eye, thanks to the annual crop of anxious, eager applicants and their families. (More than 40 years of Supreme Court cases doesn’t hurt, either.) The second is a bit more subtle: institutions cannot achieve the educational benefits of a diverse student body without an appropriate population of students, and institutions cannot enroll that population of students without a well-designed admissions process.

But colleges and universities have not always been able to explain their admissions processes in a clear, compelling way, particularly for the broader public. Most people outside the admissions fold do not fully understand why certain students are admitted while others are not and how different factors can affect that process at various institutions. Fisher II presents one opportunity to shed new light on the practices that colleges and universities use to select their classes.

Explaining various aspects of the admissions process is challenging because there is no precise calculus for arranging a class of students that meets a host of distinct institutional interests, contains only those students who are able to succeed academically and has the strong potential to introduce all students to others from a host of backgrounds and perspectives. As a result, most selective colleges and universities rely on the professional judgment and expertise of their enrollment and admissions professionals to assemble a class using "holistic review" -- a process that emphasizes the student as a whole person.

As competition has grown in selective admissions, this kind of human judgment has become essential so that institutions don’t miss out on students who could be overlooked through mechanical processes that rely only on one or two academic factors. Holistic review helps an institution assess applicants as individuals and create an overall class of students through which it can achieve its mission.

But, like much in higher education admissions, the concept is often misunderstood among the public and policy makers. Part of the problem may be because holistic review is a bit like Thanksgiving dinner: everyone has the same basic purpose and ingredients in mind, but no one puts it together in exactly the same way. In fact, most holistic review models are home grown by the institution's own admissions office and adjusted over time as institutional goals and priorities evolve. Dozens of academic and personal factors play an important role, and some institutions emphasize some characteristics more than others, particularly in the assembly of the class. For example, a public land-grant institution seeks students from across its state; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looks for special talent in math and science; the University of Notre Dame aims for a significant number of its students to be Catholic.

The holistic review process is structured in a variety of ways, too. Some institutions use committee review, others pair admissions officers to review each application, others use internal and external application reviewers, and many use some combination of these approaches. Institutions also use a variety of software applications and evaluation methods to assess and record admissions decisions.

This variability among institutions, however, also feeds the public perception that selective admissions is a "black box." Students, parents, guidance counselors and others only see the inputs of the process and the end results. And because those end results do not always align with their conception of fairness or merit -- particularly on the small scale of who from a particular high school was and was not admitted -- many believe that holistic review is merely a cover for colleges and universities to judge certain students differently than others. The role that race and ethnicity play in the decision-making process is of special concern.

Institutions may never be able to win a debate with a disgruntled parent about whether a particular applicant should or should not have gotten in, but they can be more transparent about how the admission process works and why they value a variety student backgrounds, experiences and interests -- including but not limited to race and ethnicity.

My own work with many institutions has shown me that the opacity of the admissions process does not mean that they are actively skirting legal requirements. In fact, I've seen several examples of institutions being more cautious about the use of race in admissions decision than the Supreme Court needs them to be. I have found that colleges and universities share a few common principles regarding holistic review. For example, institutions using holistic review assess applicants individually to understand the distinctive abilities, experiences and perspectives that each can bring to campus. To enhance applications and get to know each student better, admissions offices actively encourage students to tell their personal stories. It is impossible to predict exactly what makes any single applicant unique, so institutions must allow themselves to take all facets of a student's background, perspectives and interests into account.

Among the constellation of potential factors, race or ethnicity may enhance how an applicant represents himself or how she explains her perspective on the world. Moreover, race -- like income, geography or parents' education levels -- may also help admissions officers understand the context in which a student has grown up. As a result, for many institutions, holistic review without the option to consider race is not really holistic review.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights recently evaluated Princeton University's holistic review process, providing a good example of what this looks like in practice. As the department observed in its findings letter:

“Here, OCR found that during the university’s admissions process, an applicant’s race and national origin -- if he or she offered that information -- may or may not be considered, depending upon whether that information provides further context about an individual applicant. For example, an admissions officer might consider how race may have figured in the context of where a person was born, where a person grew up and where he or she had gone to school. Race and national origin may also be considered if an applicant brings up those subjects in his or her essay. However, OCR found no evidence of the university giving an automatic 'plus' for identifying as a particular race or national origin; nor did OCR find evidence of applicants given an automatic 'minus' for belonging to a particular race or national origin. OCR also found no evidence of the university using a fixed formula to weigh an applicant’s race or national origin.”

OCR also noted with approval that Princeton's enrollment leaders and legal counsel annually train the admissions staff on the appropriate use of race in the decision-making process and annually review whether the use of race continues to be necessary to meet Princeton's educational goals. And they have been vocal about the importance that a diverse student body plays in the success of the overall institution and the students it serves. Other institutions should emulate such practices.

In its landmark decision on gay marriage in June, the Supreme Court recognized that “liberties extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs.” It is not too much of a stretch to connect this idea with what happens in the admissions process. After all, human identity is made up of constellation of factors; considering all of them enables an admissions decision that is both educationally sound and consistent with federal law. An application process that does not allow for consideration of the full constellation would reduce its respect for the dignity of at least some students who apply.

As the court considers Fisher again, understanding the details of the admissions process and its role in helping institutions achieve their missions will be essential. Of course, the specifics of the admissions process at the University of Texas matter, but it will also be important to show the value of holistic review and how it varies considerably among institutions. More than a hundred colleges, universities and national organizations participated in amicus briefs (available here) to the Supreme Court in this round of Fisher to explain this process in detail, both as a general concept and in its specific application in different institutional contexts.

More broadly, colleges must do a better job of explaining to their key constituencies and the public what holistic review is and how it works, how diversity relates to their mission, and many other fundamental concepts. As part of that, institutional leaders should consider the following questions:

  • Does the institution define "diversity" clearly and broadly? Does that definition include all student backgrounds, perspectives and interests that it values?
  • Is the definition clearly reflected in a mission statement, diversity policy statement or other high-level document? Has it been approved by the institution's leadership and faculty?
  • Does the institution's holistic review process clearly reflect and support that broad definition?
  • Is that link between the review process and the institution’s diversity policy present in admissions manuals, training materials and communications efforts, both internal and external?
  • Does the institution work to open the "black box" of holistic review for students, parents and others to the extent feasible?
  • Do institutional and enrollment leaders speak about admissions successes in terms of meeting diversity goals -- not only average test scores and GPAs?
  • Do students, faculty, parents, alumni, donors and other constituents understand that their institution's excellence relies in part on the rich diversity that students bring to campus?
  • Does the institution actively evaluate its success on diversity goals in admissions and on the campus?
  • How do these efforts inform institutional resource allocation and decision making?
  • How is the admissions office's deep knowledge of admitted students shared with student and academic affairs offices to help them better serve enrolled students?

Answering these questions will require leaders to look beyond the admissions process. After all, admitting and enrolling a strong, diverse class is only the first step toward the actual achievement of an institution's diversity and inclusion goals. Learning from difference does not happen magically, and it’s not enough for students simply to see difference represented among their peers. Students must have meaningful opportunities to interact and learn from each other in the classroom and beyond.

Such learning experiences can be difficult, and the benefits of a changed perspective and opened mind may take years to be realized. But those benefits -- as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor observed when the court considered the matter of race in admissions in 2003's Grutter v. Bollinger -- are “substantial” and “real.” In October, a national Purdue-Gallup study found that students who had interacted regularly with diverse peers in college were 2.2 times more likely to believe that their degree was worth the cost after graduation.

Indeed, from the beginning, UT has claimed achieving the educational benefits of diversity as its "compelling interest" that justifies its limited use of race in admissions -- just as the University of Michigan Law School argued successfully in Grutter. To assess whether those goals were being met, UT looked at various indicators, including not only enrollment trends but also evidence of racial isolation and campus climate (including faculty and student feedback), and other data including how the educational benefits of diversity were experienced in the classroom.

Three red flags emerged: 1) a lack of socioeconomic diversity within racial minority groups, 2) an absence of racial minority students in smaller, discussion-oriented classrooms and 3) a drop in minority enrollment (especially among African-American students), which led to increased racial isolation for those groups. These suggested that UT had not yet reached its diversity goals and that its limited use of race in admissions continued to be justified.

In the second round of the Fisher case, the Supreme Court will again be asked to consider those indicators, given a change in Abigail Fisher's litigation strategy, particularly in her characterization of UT’s process and underlying goals. In the coming round of litigation, Fisher herself argues that the three indicators were UT's overarching goals, not simply indicators by which UT considered whether its broader goal of achieving the educational benefits of diversity for all students was being met.

In other words, she argues that UT was not seeking the educational benefits of diversity through its race-conscious admissions policy but rather the more narrow interests of "diversity within diversity," classroom diversity and reducing racial isolation. And, to the plaintiff, none of these interests rises to the level of necessity that the court demands. This line of argument did not appear in Abigail Fisher's arguments in Fisher I back in 2012-13, and it will be interesting to see how the court untangles the facts and legal arguments that the two sides are presenting.

We won't have a resolution of Fisher until the decision comes down sometime in the first half of 2016. In the meantime, however, colleges and universities should not simply sit on their hands and wait for the court’s instructions. Institutions should carefully consider their admissions processes and how they communicate them. Addressing the questions previously raised in pursuit of a more dynamic, diverse and inclusive campus environment can be a positive step forward for all institutions, regardless of how the court decides Fisher.

And colleges and universities must also take other steps beyond just admitting a diverse class. As the events on multiple campuses over the past several weeks have demonstrated, students are demanding that administrators take concrete actions to improve campus life for all students, particularly those who are underrepresented. They are asking institutions not only to consider the positive benefits of diversity, but also the harms that can come from a lack of diversity and inclusion -- including “tokenism,” racial isolation and fewer opportunities to combat stereotypes. Changing the institutional culture and environment is admittedly very hard work for institutions and students alike, but that work is worth doing for the benefits that can result for students while they are on the campus and after they graduate.

Such efforts will show the seriousness of purpose behind an institution’s diversity goals -- and that the achievement of these goals depends not only on the consideration of race in the admissions process but also much more. Even more important, they will show students, faculty, leaders and the broader community that all students matter and are valued -- and that excellence in higher education depends on the challenges and lessons that flow from diversity and learning to appreciate our differences.

Terri Taylor is a policy and legal advisor with EducationCounsel LLC. She co-authored the amicus brief submitted by the College Board, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, Law School Admissions Council and National Association for College Admissions Counseling to the Supreme Court in Fisher II and helps lead the College Board's Access and Diversity Collaborative.

Asking questions to help your job search (essay)

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By helping you network and practice your pitch, among other things, they can be crucial to an effective job search, says Joseph Barber.

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How to pursue a successful work-home life balance after gaining tenure (essay)

Even after gaining tenure, Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra warn, you may well face a relentless and often invisible set of career demands that can confuse and frustrate family members.

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U of All People strives to become a research university (essay)

At this September’s address to the minions at U of All People, the provost announced a new initiative: to become a Research I institution within the next 10 years (though the head of the Faculty Senate stage-whispered that this particular term is outdated). The next day came a correction: U of All People will become a doctoral/research-extensive or -intensive university -- or at least feature one doctoral program that’s not just in the planning stage, for chrissake (this from the Faculty Senate head, who has since been replaced by a marble bust of Sophocles).

But the idea is gaining currency here. Research schools get more money, enjoy more prestige and are eligible for reduced faculty teaching loads, so hey, why not?

First off, it’s obvious that we need a better library or information resource center or whatever they’re calling it nowadays. The Crabbe Memorial Library, built in 1955, looks its age. Never mind the decaying infrastructure or the mold problem, which a good dose of bleach could probably fix.

The collections are haphazard, depending on the discipline of the library liaison faculty member in any given year -- 67 volumes about trains, for example, from a history professor writing a book on 19th-century transportation -- and periodicals oddly slanted toward the psychology department. We have more microfilm readers than computer terminals, and you can count our databases on the fingers of one maimed hand. Though we have access to the Academics ’R’ Us search service, it barely yields results for anything beyond the last three years. Of course, we could subscribe to something like Lexis/Nexis/Protexis, but that costs. Maybe we can share expenses with the high school library in Francis, the next town over.

Second, we’d like a lower course load so that people can teach less and research more, “a chimerical idea” (comment by the provost) that the Faculty Senate has been pushing for 40 years. Our current 4/4 load doesn’t include the mandatory faculty tutoring for students at risk, implemented back in 2000, or the service requirement that involves a weekly fund-raising activity (last week, sitting in the Bean a Prof carnival booth for five bucks a shot).

More to the point: it’s difficult to pursue a research agenda when you have a stack of ungraded essays as high as an administrator’s desk. It’s been suggested that doctoral programs will allow us to recruit graduate students for slave labor teaching. It’s also been suggested, if we pursue that path, that we closely examine the Bolshevik Revolution for precedents.

Third, we need better funding for research. Ha-ha! Ah, ha-ha … cgha ghh [indecipherable coughing sound]. The Office of Research at U of All People consists of a converted janitorial closet that now houses a laptop and a guy named Dale, when he’s around. Grants are broadcast the month after their deadlines, and the last time this school saw an NEH proposal supported was back in 2006, when something accidentally got forwarded from the vice provost’s Outlook Express account.

The Summer Support Program at U of All People has been downgraded to Research Weekend. The annual grants proposal workshop, which once provided free coffee and pretzels, is now an online Q & A session with the biology department’s Professor Theodore Winkler, who once got a fellowship for something and is happy to share what little he knows.

Fourth, a Research I -- make that an expensive research institution -- should offer a full range of baccalaureate programs, at least according to the Carnegie Foundation, which should spend a day walking in our shoes. In fact, it might be nice to expand our range or update what we already offer, like the home economics program remastered as food services and management, or bring back the philosophy degree, abandoned after a survey showed that none of our three philosophy majors ever donated a dime to our coffers after graduation. We sort of envy U Too, the all-digital university that offers every online degree imaginable and some unimaginable.

Fifth, we need to award a lot of doctoral degrees, but that’s difficult when we don’t even have doctoral programs. Maybe offer a doctoral program in doctorology? All we have is a baby M.A. program in a few departments that shunt their students off to God knows where after they graduate. Perhaps other research institutions should be granting -- wonderful verb -- fewer Ph.D.s. That’s not our problem. We can’t award any degrees till we get the programs, we can’t feature the programs till we get support and we won’t get any support until we figure a way out of this catch-22.

But who knows? Maybe one day, U of All People will decide to give real research a shot and somehow buck the odds, up the standards and make the grade -- in which case, there’ll probably be some professors nostalgic for the old days, when all you had to do was sit in place in a carnival booth and get beaned by a host of resentful undergraduates.

David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is Kanji Poems.

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What does student academic freedom entail? (essay)

The concept of academic freedom for faculty has been more or less clearly defined over the years. Its three components -- freedom in the classroom, freedom in research and publication, and freedom of expression as a citizen -- are widely acknowledged. They have been clearly articulated in both the Association of University Professors 1915 Declaration on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure and the 1940 Joint Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure (co-authored with the Association of American Colleges).

Recent events at the University of Missouri, Yale University and elsewhere, however, raise anew the question of student academic freedom. The 1915 Declaration recognized that “academic freedom has traditionally had two applications: to the freedom of the teacher and to that of the student, Lehrfreiheit [to teach] and Lernfreiheit [to learn].” According to Ralph Fuchs, a former general secretary of the AAUP, “Student freedom is a traditional accompaniment to faculty freedom as an element of academic freedom in the larger sense.”

But what, concretely, does student academic freedom entail? May students, like faculty, claim some version of academic freedom beyond their own legal rights under the First Amendment? And, if so, what kind of academic freedom is most appropriate for students?

The question was addressed nearly 50 years ago in the wake of the civil rights movement in the South, the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley and burgeoning student movement against the Vietnam War. The AAUP and several other associations drafted the 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students. The proclaimed aim of that Joint Statement -- a kind of Magna Carta for student rights -- was “to enumerate the essential provisions for student freedom to learn.”

It's worth looking back at that seminal document in light of contemporary concerns.

The joint statement protects not only the free expression rights of students generally but also speaks specifically to student academic freedom in the classroom. It requires “the professor … [to] encourage free discussion, inquiry and expression, [and to evaluate students] solely on an academic basis, not on opinions or conduct in matters unrelated to academic standards.”

The statement also addresses students’ rights outside the classroom. “Students bring to the campus a variety of interests previously acquired and develop many new interests as members of the academic community,” it declares. “They should be free to organize and join associations to promote their common interests.” The statement adds, “Students and student organizations should be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them, and to express opinions publicly and privately. They should always be free to support causes by orderly means which do not disrupt the regular and essential operation of the institution.”

Of no small importance is the statement's recognition of the right of students to participate in institutional governance: “As constituents of the academic community, students should be free, individually and collectively, to express their views on issues of institutional policy and on matters of general interest to the student body. The student body should have clearly defined means to participate in the formulation and application of institutional policy affecting academic and student affairs.”

The extent of such participation was left unclear, however. Nonetheless, in 1970 AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance and its council did issue a Draft Statement on Student Participation in College and University Governance. Perhaps reflecting then-current student demands for black and ethnic studies, that statement proposed that “Students should be consulted in decisions regarding the development of already-existing programs and the establishment of new programs.” It added as well that “Student opinion should also be consulted, where feasible, in the selection of presidents, chief academic and nonacademic administrative officers including the dean of students, and faculty.”

The 1967 Joint Statement considers students’ freedom off campus, noting that “students are both citizens and members of the academic community’ and as citizens “should enjoy the same freedom of speech, peaceful assembly and right of petition that other citizens enjoy.” Moreover, the statement adds this important caution: “Faculty members and administrative officials should insure that institutional powers are not employed to inhibit such intellectual and personal development of students as is often promoted by their exercise of the rights of citizenship both on and off campus.”

The detailed provisions of the 1967 Statement, I would argue, suggest a more systematic and reasoned view of the current wave of student unrest than the kinds of near-hysterical reactions -- The Wall Street Journal, for instance, called Yale protesters “little Robespierres” -- that seem to characterize much recent commentary. It is certainly true that the rights defined by this statement surely would include the right of students to upset other students, perhaps by wearing offensive costumes on Halloween. But, in many ways, more important is the right of the offended students to express their distaste as forcefully as they can without undue disruption of the institution's mission. As Geoffrey Stone, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, recently put it, “Toleration does not imply acceptance or agreement. The freedom to speak does not give one the right not to be condemned and despised for one's speech.”

In this light, despite all the hubbub, it is difficult to identify even a handful of instances where recent student protests have actually violated the rights and freedoms of anyone, including faculty members and other students. Moreover, as Stone also suggests, protesting students are well within their rights even to demand that the institution take disciplinary action against other students, faculty or administrators who engage in odious behavior.

The real question is whether and how to act on such demands. As Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, has written, “Leadership matters -- not just on the substance of legislation, hiring or executive orders, but leadership in the face of emotionally evocative symbolic and narrative disputes.” Let’s take the incident at Yale that has aroused so much heat, in which a faculty residence adviser sent an email to a restricted list of students criticizing a message sent earlier by minority affairs counselors advising against offensive Halloween costumes. The adviser’s email spurred an angry response from minority students, some of whom demanded the adviser’s dismissal. This, I would argue, was well within those students’ rights. But were the Yale administration to accede to such a demand, it would be a different matter.

Indeed, as I’ve written elsewhere, the issue at Yale, Missouri and other institutions is largely not one of free expression but of communication, environment and values. Shapiro puts it well: “At a time of unprecedented economic inequality, students of color, immigrants and students from low-income backgrounds -- at rich, elite universities and state schools alike -- are painfully aware that the experiences they bring to campus are ill appreciated by many classmates, teachers and administrators, who come overwhelmingly from a culture of middle-class safety nets and an economy that rewards those who already have. That’s the issue.”

Here it's necessary to credit the students for their courage and determination in addressing the sometimes unconscious but nonetheless real and persistent racism that infects our society and our campuses. In doing so, they have made and will again make mistakes. They will offend others even as they respond to deeper offenses against their own dignity. They may demonstrate indifference to the rights of others, as protesters everywhere always have. But, in doing so, they will learn. And that, it seems to me, is the essential point. Student academic freedom, in the final analysis, is about the freedom to learn. And learning is impossible without error.

What is therefore most remarkable about today’s student movements is not their alleged intolerance or immaturity. It is not their intemperance or supposed oversensitivity to insult and indifference. It is that they have begun to grapple with issues that their elders have resisted tackling for far too long. Stone is right that “a university can legitimately educate students about the harms caused by the use of offensive, insulting, degrading and hurtful language and behavior and encourage them to express their views, however offensive or hurtful they might be, in ways that are not unnecessarily disrespectful or uncivil.”

But the university, and especially its faculty, must also be willing to learn from students. Faculty members should welcome the challenges the protesting students have posed. Student movements offer countless opportunities for students -- as well as their teachers -- to learn. To approach them in this way, in the spirit of the student academic freedom proclaimed and defined by the AAUP and its collaborators back in 1967, is therefore simply to fulfill our responsibility as educators.

Henry Reichman is first vice president of the American Association of University Professors and chair of the association’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

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Students need a physical space on campus to debate controversial issues (essay)

Many people have argued that the recent student protests at colleges and universities across the country primarily involve free speech issues. For their part, the protesters disagree, arguing that the issues they seek to address are racism, exclusivity and bigotry in all its forms -- from fecal swastikas smeared on bathroom walls to racial slurs and microaggressions.

Whatever your position is on this dispute, the one thing that has become clear is that this is an opportunity to improve the way college students debate complicated issues. The conflicts highlight that something is missing on college campuses: a designated physical space for planned discussions, led by students, about controversial topics -- those that spark heated disagreement and possibly even revulsion.

I am a minority student at Williams College, and I recently had to deal with such a controversial issue, when Uncomfortable Learning, a student group of which I am co-president, tried to bring Suzanne Venker, an antifeminist social critic, to the college. Consequently, I received a torrent of ad hominem attacks. Among other things, peers called me a misogynist and men’s rights activist who was endorsing hate speech. In the end, we had to cancel the event for fear that it might get out of control and perhaps even endanger the speaker.

Yet confronting ideas that we oppose -- whether from a speaker who is brought to the campus, a senior administrator or a classmate -- is what higher education should be all about. There is a difference between Suzanne Venker and, to take an extreme example, Adolf Hitler, and to pretend otherwise undermines the principles this country was founded on. It is vitally important to create a separate area for free debate so that students who are interested can respectfully and constructively work through their understanding of sensitive issues and how to deal with them -- without being called aimless hate mongers.

Such a space is rarely available now on American campuses. Most classes in the humanities and social sciences are either lectures, seminars or a combination of the two. In each case, teachers create the course syllabi and generally set the agenda. Outside of the classroom, in dining halls, dorms and other places on a campus, students talk about various subjects. But the dining hall is a place for eating, just as a dorm is a place for living. Neither location is intended for planned discussions, for students to explore and discuss the ideas they hold.

This space I envision would serve several important purposes:

  • It would give students a forum in which to clarify the issues that challenge them the most and why.
  • Students could discuss the content of competing arguments on heated issues like gun rights, abortion, immigration and affirmative action.
  • Students could discuss how best to respond to unwelcome ideas and offensive speech, even hate speech. After all, one person’s offensive idea is another person’s viewpoint.

In those respects, creating a separate space for planned discussion of controversial issues is both a way for students to engage with each other about uncomfortable ideas and to prepare each other to have conversations about any number of sensitive issues outside of that designated space.

Openly discussing controversial topics and unpleasant ideas is important because doing so can help students gain a deeper understanding of views with which they vehemently disagree. Take for example, the use of the n-word. Many African-Americans consider it decided beyond any reasonable doubt that the n-word should never be used by white people. From that perspective, white people debating the 1991 Central Michigan University case presented in Randall L. Kennedy’s article “Who Can Say ‘Nigger’? … And Other Considerations” would be seen as abusive and denigrating and thus of no intellectual value.

While I am sympathetic to that point of view, I disagree with it. While some people interpret controversial comments to be attacking or devaluing of them personally, in fact many of those instances, like the use of the n-word, merit hearing opinions from all sides. Too often, certain unpleasant ideas are understood as having already been debated and conclusively decided upon. The space that I’ve described would give students who are interested an opportunity to have these kinds of discussions.

In particular, this space would be created by students who are enthusiastic about the idea of critically engaging with each other about the urgent issues of our time, even if they hold conflicting opinions. While they would be encouraged to defend any position they support, the discussion would ideally be driven by the participants’ shared desire to gain a deeper understanding of complicated issues.

Ground Rules

To create this space, students should work with their administration to designate a place on campus where such planned discussions can occur. Once a group of students takes it upon themselves to lead this effort, they should establish important ground rules for the discussions, perhaps with the guidance of a professor or other neutral party. Ground rules are necessary to prevent ad hominem attacks and baseless claims from detracting from constructive dialogue. For example, it should be stipulated that, in the designated space, no student is allowed to attack the character of another for putting forth a controversial or even noxious argument. While there is no way of ensuring that these discussions do not engender fear of threats of physical violence, a ground rule must be established that explicitly prohibits such threats. In the extreme event that a student threatens or exercises physical violence, the administration should be notified immediately.

If some students become uncomfortable or offended by other people’s opinions, they should disagree respectfully. And if they feel motivated to do so, they should try to dismantle the argument they find problematic by challenging its fundamental assumptions and exposing its flaws. “Disagreeing respectfully” does not preclude raising one’s voice. Rather, disagreeing respectfully means that, in contention, students must refrain from making ad hominem attacks.

Colleges should encourage this kind of critical engagement because defending one’s position, identifying flaws in arguments we disagree with and effectively communicating differences of opinion are critical life skills. Many careers in business, politics, education and public service involve discussion of complicated issues that often result in heated disagreement. To contribute to such discussions and potentially shape climates of opinion, it is important for students to learn how to have productive conversations about sensitive topics.

Part of the reason for creating this separate area for free debate is so that it is easier for students to have uncomfortable discussions and contentious disagreements respectfully -- without causing emotional harm to others or incurring harassment or intimidation. By making this kind of forum available to students, we provide an opportunity for them to gain experience with sustained argumentation, in which students face the challenge of defending their most sacrosanct ideas against unpleasant, even deeply troubling, opposition and dealing with meaningful yet intense disagreement. While some students may leave these discussions feeling some resentment, sustained, unequivocal dissent and harsh sentiments surround the most pressing issues of our time. To debate these issues, students have to learn how to deal with the feelings that may accompany them.

These discussions are not meant to be formal debates in which opposing sides compete to win. The structure I envision is one that allows conversation to flow freely. Discussion groups, ideally, should be small enough so that students don’t have to raise their hands and wait to be called on to speak. If it happens that 30 people want to be a part of the same discussion, then they can break up into small groups so that everyone has an opportunity to be fully engaged. If a situation occurs in which nine people end up disagreeing with one person, that one person should defend their ideas and debate energetically.

To ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute equally to the conversation, it might be helpful for each group to select a discussion leader. But the conversations could be most productive if those involved determined the structure for them. In that way, students would have the opportunity to play a role in shaping, framing and changing the kinds of conversations they have about controversial topics that interest them. And while all colleges should consider the idea of creating and promoting a space devoted to free debate, how that space looks in practice on individual campuses should be open to development and revision based on the experiences and suggestions of the students who are engaged in it.

Administrators and faculty members at every institution of higher learning should encourage students to see the value of free and open debate, even on issues that some people may think are already settled. Identifying an area for such debate on college campuses will help students learn how to have meaningful and productive conversations about sensitive issues, articulate and defend their opinions effectively, and learn from those with whom they vehemently disagree.

Zachary R. Wood is a sophomore at Williams College majoring in political science and philosophy.

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Debate over essay question and role of Brazil's admissions exam

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A controversial question is both praised and criticized, drawing attention to the powerful role of a single test.

A new academic book analyzes fans' reactions to Mad Men (essay)

Mad Men Unzipped: Fans on Sex, Love, and the Sixties on TV, from the University of Iowa Press, is not the first academic book devoted to the AMC series about hard-drinking, chain-smoking, decidedly nonmonogamous advertising executives in Manhattan in the 1960s. Not by a large margin: of the 14 titles on the program listed in the Library of Congress Catalog, 10 are from scholarly presses or otherwise manifestly professorial.

Unzipped is the ninth such title. Its senior author, Karen E. Dill-Shackleford, is a professor of psychology at Fielding Graduate University -- an accredited distance-learning program described on its website as offering graduate degrees in “the fields of clinical and media psychology, educational leadership, human development, and organizational development” -- and the other three authors also have some connection to Fielding. (For particulars, see the book's Facebook page.) Identifying themselves as “a team of media psychologists” who are also “members of the Mad Men audience,” they have “followed the show and the fans’ reactions to better understand both fandom generally and the Mad Men fan phenomenon particularly.”

Previous monographs treated Mad Men in its political, historical and philosophical dimensions, and there is already at least one effort to psychoanalyze the characters. With Unzipped, Dill-Shackleford et al focus on, in their own words, “the way people make sense of fictional stories and use what they learn to think about life” and “how the interactive world of social media allows us to contribute to the conversation.”

The authors announce their work as “cutting-edge psychological research on how fans make meaning from fictional drama.” The claim is too hyperbolic for its own good, considering that the study of fandom largely got underway with Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992) and now has its own publication of record, the Journal of Fandom Studies, launched in 2013. On the first page of Mad Men Unzipped, the authors stress that they reject “the misguided stereotype of the geeky fan who has had a mental break with reality.” Fair enough, but that simply repeats the inaugural gesture of fandom research, which involved responding to William Shatner’s satirical dig at Trekkers with, “That’s not funny!” (to paraphrase very loosely).

Then again, distancing their attitude from “the misguided stereotype of the geeky fan” makes sense if we assume that the book is meant for an audience of psychology undergrads and Mad Men aficionados, rather than of initiates in fandom-studies research. In that respect, Unzipped is a good conversation starter about the relatively unproblematic condition of “being a fan” in the everyday, typical sense: someone who enjoys watching, thinking and talking about a program, whether or not he or she goes on to attend or host a theme party, write fiction based on the show’s characters, or the like.

Granted, the more ardent expressions of devotion do sometimes lead to strange and interesting subcultures. But it’s casual fans who are more common and, perhaps, more teachable -- that is, able to benefit from turning their enthusiasm for a particular show into an occasion to reflect on how and why it means something to them.

“In our digital era,” the authors of Unzipped write, “stories live in what are known as ‘transmedia spaces.’ Transmedia means that the story crosses from one medium to another (TV, blog, fan video, theater, app), playing itself out in different spaces.” That certainly has implications for media-psychology research itself -- creating “a new era of social science in action” now that “dragging college sophomores into a lab and forcing answers out of them” is no longer necessary. Fandom, even casual fandom, documents itself. The authors can survey the range of reactions to Mad Men’s characters (Pete Campbell: Man or boy?) or depictions of changing gender roles (Joan Holloway: Second-wave feminist avant la lettre?) with an abundance of blog posts, tweets and other digital records, often put out into public space before an episode ended.

The responses themselves are seldom very surprising, at least to anyone who has had a chance to discuss with another viewer the pleasures, frustrations and ambivalences of following the show’s arcs of character development and depictions of social change (not to mention their likely post-1970 fallout). There are occasional exceptions, such as the authors’ observation that “the fans had precious little to say about alcohol addiction that went beyond ‘that’s how it was in those days,’” although they did want to talk about sex addiction. Another quoted commenter pointed out, “While the writers show great complexity in their development of working women at a turning point, they do not seem to know what to do about motherhood.”

And interviews with viewers working in the advertising industry at various points over the past 50 years tended to evaluate Mad Men as an extremely accurate depiction of life in a major agency -- except for those who dismissed it as unrecognizable and soap opera-like. As with judgments of Don Draper’s character or Bert Cooper’s sanity, questions of historical realism here are in the eye of the viewer. The very nature of the evidence, and of the jury, is that no binding judgment can be made.

Media psychologists can show us that audiences bring diverse and complex emotions and presuppositions with them that imaginary characters and dramatic situations can then evoke. My belief that Sally Draper went on to join the Symbionese Liberation Army tells you something about her or about me -- possibly both. Our meaning-making capacities can and do respond to works of fictional narrative in ways that media psychologists can show and analyze.

The more interesting thing is that some narratives invite or even demand such an engagement from the public and get it. Others don’t; some don’t even try. What sets them apart from one another is a question with historical and aesthetic aspects, but it also has a component that it seems as if psychologists would want to take up.

And as a spin-off study, someone ought to do research into another matter. There are Mad Men Barbie dolls and tarot cards and many other such items -- including the Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook: Inside the Kitchens, Bars, and Restaurants of Mad Men. Why, for every such fan-oriented title, are there two aimed at an academic audience? With more to come, no doubt about it.

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How to help doctoral students complete their dissertations (essay)

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The one thing that will actually lead to a completed dissertation, writes Kerry Ann Rockquemore, is the hardest thing for doctoral students to do.

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The terrorist attacks in Paris and American academe (essay)

The wrenching dramas that descended on Paris with the German occupation in World War II, the plastic explosives of Algérie Française 20 years later, the uprisings of 1968 and now the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacres have elicited extraordinary waves of empathy in this country. Certainly no other country that does not share a common language with the United States seems so close to this nation’s sympathies, and none has been an ally for longer -- as many people observed in the days following the slaughter of Nov. 13.

Both the historic and recent events have resonated especially deeply with American academics of a certain generation (mine, it goes without saying).

Even Americans little exposed to French literature know something about expatriates like the James Baldwins who gravitated to Paris, and the Ezra Pounds and Ernest Hemingways who lived there for years. Doubtless George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (1928) helped enshrine the image (and in reincarnation, one still being celebrated on Broadway) of the American visitor beguiled by the city’s ineffable charms. When good Americans die, dixit Oscar Wilde (way back in 1890), they go to Paris. World War II also took many soldiers to and through Paris, which, thanks to the North American Treaty Organization, remained a major crossroads in the years following.

Paris seemed in that era to be the capital of everything: fashion, cinema, cuisine, literature and art. The war years had helped lift the rising major voices of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and others, and it was as if everyone, especially the young, had to visit Paris to find out what it meant to be “existential.” The lofty presence of Charles de Gaulle lent the country an international prominence that belied the humiliations of the wars. The theater rang with Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Gérard Philippe, Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, and the cinema effervesced with avant-garde of many stripes. The seemingly contagious influence of numerous maîtres à penser -- besides Sartre, think of Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Fernand Braudel, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan -- extended into many disciplines and around the world.

Whether we were studying literature, philosophy, history, art, sociology or anthropology, it was essential to expose oneself to these writers and then to the place where they were concentrated. For a while French was almost, as it had been two centuries earlier, the lingua franca of the intellectual, and Paris the intellectual center of (it seemed) the world.

So it is little wonder that a particular relationship came to exist between the French capital and many American academics and their students. The junior year abroad was practically invented for Paris. There still are many such programs, dating back to the 1920s with the University of Delaware (later Sweet Briar College) program. It was an incredible adventure to set foot in the awe-inspiring corridors and auditoriums of the Sorbonne (since fragmented into many universities), “Sciences Po” and the École Pratique des Hautes Études. After class one honed one’s mind on the sometimes ponderous columns of Le Monde.

There was so much, it seemed, to see, to hear. And to smell: most of America in those days was accustomed to Wonder Bread and had no idea what a bakery was like.

Nor was it just that particular historical moment -- the postwar decades -- that felt cozily ancient but was, below the surface, anything but immobile. The prewar minimalist auto, Citroën’s Deux Chevaux, by its persistence on French streets and roads a sort of symbol of postwar austerity, was rapidly replaced with the sleek, fast and low-slung DS. The ageless smoke-blackened façades of the city’s most venerable monuments were restored to their gleaming original glory by de Gaulle’s cultural affairs minister, André Malraux. The ungainly exclamation point that is Montparnasse Tower (1969-1973) ushered in a new skyscraper era (which Paris subsequently held to the perimeter). And an entirely different version of the emerging postmodern sprung up, where the old Halles had been, in the extravagant, inside-out box called the Centre Pompidou (1977). A renaissance of the technological image of France came with such highly visible innovations as the Concorde (built with Britain, 1976) and the TGV (1981), which was (and still is) light-years ahead of railway in the United States.

It is hard, of course, to say precisely in what way Paris is more enthralling than any other great city for scholars, as well as so many others. It helps that it kept its physical profile low (four or five stories maximum) and that it is relatively compact -- that is, if you limit yourself to the 20 arrondissements. As a consequence is an eminently walkable city. From the Arch of Triumph to the Place de la Concorde is only a kilometer, and you can go by foot, if you want, to Vincennes or even to Versailles. (Whole crowds did it in 1789.) The Seine, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the domes: so many landmarks are visible from anywhere that orientation is easy.

Ah, what it means to discover, to internalize the verb flâner! The life of a flâneur is all about shop windows, from the great boulevard department stores to sixth- or eighth-arrondissement haute couture to small neighborhood shops everywhere. With time, too, for sitting in the iron chairs of the Luxembourg garden or the wicker chairs at a sidewalk café, watching Parisian life go by, basking in the aromas of pâtisserie, roasting chestnuts or pralines (caramel-coated almonds).

If you look at an 18th-century map of Paris, it is much the same, thanks in large part to that retention of a low skyline. It was much smaller, of course, extending west hardly farther than the Tuileries or east much beyond the Bastille. In fact, its perimeters then are essentially what Baron Haussmann was to turn into the Grands Boulevards during the Second Empire. Ten centuries of buildings sit side by side and, at the same time, assimilate the modern world in ways that no New World city can imitate.

American historians of France have wrangled over the concept but not the experience of what is sometimes rightly or wrongly labeled “Frenchness.” I don’t quite believe in it. (The French are awfully like us.) But then what is it that keeps tugging at -- if you’ll pardon the sentimentality -- the heartstrings?

Philip Stewart is the Benjamin E. Powell Emeritus Professor of Romance Studies at Duke University.

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