Thinking Chair

What one university is doing to promote critical thinking. Hint: It involves a chair, a really expensive one.

September 16, 2014
Rochester Institute of Technology
Clarence "Chip" Burton Sheffield Jr.

Some 30 years ago, Eugene Fram, then a professor of marketing at Rochester Institute of Technology, returned a complex assignment to a graduate student with a large “C” at the top. The paper – which asked students to respond to a provocative statement about marketing with background information and citations – had been turned in late and was poorly written. Fram knew the student was only taking his course to fulfill a requirement for his finance program, but he expected more and told him as much: “I thought you would do better.”

Fast forward nearly four decades, and that student is a successful Silicon Valley executive who attributes some of his success to the lessons he learned from Fram: work hard and think critically. The latter point has become so important to the alumnus over the years that he’s donated $3 million to RIT to create an endowed chair in Fram’s name – in applied critical thinking. The university says the chair is likely the first of its kind, anywhere.

It sounds like higher education lore, but the story is real. Two years ago, with help from the anonymous donor, Rochester selected its first Eugene H. Fram Chair in Applied Critical Thinking and gave him a lofty task: spread the gospel of critical thinking across the university, from engineering to the technical arts to the humanities. But don’t be preachy about it, and skip the gimmicks. Aim for real change.

At least that’s how Clarence “Chip” Burton Sheffield Jr., a professor of art history in RIT's College of Imaging Arts and Sciences, interpreted the assignment. To begin, Sheffield began reading and rereading everything he could find about critical thinking, from John Dewey to Plato to pedagogical content produced by the Foundation for Critical Thinking. He said critical thinking is a “big business” in higher education of late, with many players claiming to have developed “the” way to define and teach it. But that’s a red flag, Sheffield said, since claiming to have the definitive take on something as complex as critical thinking probably signals a lack of, well, critical thinking.

Still, Sheffield had to develop an effective way of communicating the notion to students, faculty and administrators (and reporters). Here’s one quick definition: “Thinking about thinking.” Sheffield admits the phrase is wanting, but said that it hints at metacognition, the holy grail for any serious pedagogue. (For a more complete definition, Sheffield referred to one by Peter Facione, a Los Angeles-based education research consultant: “Critical thinking is skeptical without being cynical. It is open-minded without being wishy-washy. It is analytical without being nitpicky. Critical thinking can be decisive without being stubborn, evaluative without being judgmental, and forceful without being opinionated.")

Metacognition is the point at which students begin to think not just about facts and ideas, but about how they think about those facts and ideas. Metacognition has always underpinned a liberal arts education, but just how to teach it has proved elusive. Hence the cottage industry around critical thinking – even in an era when employers and politicians are calling for more skills-based training, competency and “outcomes.”

Despite that apparent tension, Sheffield and others at RIT involved in the Fram Chair agenda said critical thinking and so-called "job-ready" skills go hand-in-hand; several involved said the anonymous donor reported seeing a lack of critical thinking skills in smart, well-trained new hires and middle managers at his technology firm. It’s a gap he’d like to help address through the endowment. The donor isn't alone in his observation, according to a 2013 report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Nearly all (93 percent) of the business and nonprofit leaders who participated in that national survey said “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a job candidate’s] undergraduate major.” About as many respondents said they prioritize hiring college graduates with skills to foster innovation in the workplace, and 75 percent said they want colleges to focus more on several key areas, including critical thinking.

Beyond professional success, critical thinking skills make students more resilient, Sheffield said, helping to set them up for a life of “contentment.” They’re more able to cope when their world views are challenged and to question authority, he said. College isn’t the only way to develop such skills, but it is a valuable one, he added.

In the past two years, Sheffield has worked full-time to promote critical thinking across campus by working individually and in workshops and other groups with faculty members. He’s guest-lectured to students in individual classes whenever possible. Topics vary from those within his scholarly expertise -- Viking art or Scandinavian modernism, for example -- to those explicitly focused on critical thinking. Whatever the topic, art history tends to loom large, he said; a favorite reference is to the artist Marcel Duchamp, a critical thinker who was at once deeply intellectual and "enigmatic and extremely playful."

Sheffield also initiated the annual Eugene H. Fram lecture. Last year’s speaker was Richard Arum, the New York University professor of sociology who co-wrote Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and its recent follow-up, Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates. Critical thinking – and a lack thereof among college students – is a theme in both books.

Via email, Arum said he didn’t think developing an endowed chair to promote critical thinking was the only way to do it. But he said it was “exciting” to see RIT’s process, particularly as Sheffield works closely with the faculty: “Initiatives of this character can make a difference, because faculty are often looking for mechanisms to come together around and to advance their shared interest in addressing these issues. In other words, there is generally widespread faculty interest in improving student learning outcomes, but often not institutional vehicles capable of facilitating collaboration necessary to achieve those ends.”

Timothy Engström, chair of Rochester’s philosophy department, has worked closely with Sheffield, and traveled with him this summer to an institute on integrative learning organized by the AAC&U. Engström said that Sheffield’s chair is symbolic of the value the university places on critical thinking -- something that isn’t lost on faculty and students. And Sheffield has been a strong performer, “articulating that conception of critical thinking very effectively,” he said.

It hasn’t all been easy; Engström said Sheffield has met with “all the predictable responses” from faculty members faced with something new, from enthusiasm to reluctance. But many professors have embraced the idea of changing the way they teach to change the way their students think, he said.

As with any new initiative, some quirks have emerged. Sheffield said some professors are struggling with how to teach the usual content, but to new depths. He said he’s talked with professors about how to make room in their syllabuses for probing certain issues. Sheffield said he can't tell or "dictate" what content other professors should cut, or if they should at all. But, he said, "I have tried to ask my colleagues to think about new paradigms in their respective disciplines, how assumptions have changed, perhaps since their own graduate school training, or whether there have been any new discoveries which have transformed our beliefs."

He added: "I've also asked them to consider whether there are any unsolved problems or 'big questions,' that remain."

Other professors, especially those without tenure, have expressed concern that negative teaching evaluations from students who perceive their classes to be too “hard” will cost them their bids.

As a possible solution, Sheffield and his colleagues from the summer institute are hoping to talk with administrators about a way to offer some “immunity or amnesty” for professors who are taking chances to make their curriculums more rigorous, but who fear negative student reactions.

As a chair who “belongs” to the university, not any particular college, Sheffield reports directly to the provost, Jeremy Haefner. The provost said he’s a fan of Sheffield’s work in the role so far; after two years he remains “at least as enthusiastic” about the Fram Chair as he was when it was created. Haefner said RIT wants students to not only approach critical thinking “with a solid foundation, but to see how it is applied in their disciplinary major.” The awareness Sheffield has spread about critical thinking and the bridges he’s built on campus so far contribute to that end, Haefner said.

Going forward, the provost said he hoped the Fram Chair-holder would eventually begin to do external advocacy work, as well, making RIT a “platform for dialogue and new ideas” about applied critical thinking. Haefner and others said they thought the chair idea was “exportable,” and one that would hold meaning even at an institution less dedicated to the sciences in particular.

This year, the last in Sheffield’s appointment (he'd be willing to stay on, he said, but another professor could be appointed to take over), he wants to work more with graduate students on applied critical thinking. And now that he’s built awareness of applied critical thinking and drummed up interest among particular faculty members, he wants to develop the idea across -- and integrate it into -- the curriculum. He’s fine-tuning a 30-odd-page plan that specifies goals and strategies for strengthening skills of undergraduates, somewhat similar to a plan Florida State University recently adopted to promote critical thinking among its undergraduates.

Sheffield's proposal says that undergraduates should satisfy critical thinking outcomes outlined for both their programs and general education, and be offered a chance to earn an internal RIT certificate in critical thinking to demonstrate competence. Faculty members should "overtly model" critical thinking in their pedagogy and list it as an outcome for most courses, the plan says, and faculty, students, alumni and employers should come to identify critical thinking as a key part of an RIT education. To achieve those goals, Sheffield says the university's writing and general education programs must focus on critical thinking, while individual academic programs should promote such skills through ongoing assessment and requirements such as senior "capstone" projects. Among additional strategies, Sheffield also proposes offering the Fram lecture once each semester, instead of annually, with additional lectures on topics such as thinking critically about beauty, justice or identity. Faculty workshops and support are central.

"RIT must do more than merely prepare our students for a job," the plan says. "We need to prepare them to become fully engaged global citizens, nimble and resilient thinkers who can respond and adapt to sudden change, uncertainly and paradox with grit, humility and verve. Ideally, our graduates should possess confidence and a secure beliefs in their own intellects; they should recognize the power of reason and logic, as well as an awareness of their own [human limitations]."

Critical thinking "is no easy task," the plan continues. "It entails a process of continual refinement that is never truly complete, which can be quite humbling. This should not deter us from the challenge, however, just as it should not preclude us from aspiring to become exceptional critical thinkers."

Out in California, not too far from Silicon Valley, Fram is now retired after 51 years at Rochester. He said he was “shocked” by the endowment and called its genesis a “cute human interest story.”

Fram thinks the chair is an important development in promoting critical thinking skills among students, which he says have declined over time. But teaching critical thinking, through his case-study method and other interactive teaching techniques, always came naturally to him, he said.

“Just giving students hot topics of interest without having them think about it is just not professional in my opinion,” he said. “It’s like in any other profession – you have those who will do the rudiments, and you have those who will go and do the extra work.”


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