Teaching

Teaching a course all wrong yet making it work (essay)

Teaching Today

While Michael Nelson may be doing everything wrong in his upper-level undergraduate course on the American presidency, he finds it somehow seems to work.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017
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Pulse podcast features interview about teaching in a digital age

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This month's episode of The Pulse podcast features an interview with A.W. (Tony) Bates, distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University and CEO of Tony Bates Associates.

A tenured professor asks: Are you scared of your students? (essay)

You might prefer not to think about this … but are your students a source of anxiety for you?

Like me, you've chosen your life's vocation largely because you care for students and their betterment; but if we're being really candid, isn't it true that you now feel somewhat wary of them on account of their power to inflict serious damage -- even sudden catastrophic injury -- to your career, with all the grim consequences that this would entail?

That you find yourself catering to them, or at least feeling tempted to do so, lest they suddenly turn against you and make your life miserable?

That you feel little confidence that the administrators at your institution will defend you zealously if you are unfairly criticized, and you think it inevitable that they will care less about guaranteeing fairness to you than about avoiding negative publicity, managing their personal images before the vocal constituencies whose ideological self-identifications and simplistic moral certitudes enable them to issue instant and unerring judgments, and otherwise successfully covering their backsides?

Have you already recognized that, in the current cultural climate, if a single disgruntled student were to issue an entirely phony accusation against you -- maybe sexually harassing words or acts in a private meeting that did or did not ever occur -- you could be effectively defenseless?

That, even for an incident that exists only in one student's fevered or diabolical imagination, you would be immediately relieved of your teaching duties and subjected to an investigation by people who might have their own axes to grind, or lack the humility to recognize the narrow compass of their knowledge, or simply not like you or your views or what they now start characterizing as your “weirdness” or “questionable judgment”?

And that, after all the massive undeserved stress that would ensue, the outcome would very likely be that your academic prerogatives and position would be seriously compromised or even terminated?

Maybe you have never have been troubled by such a seemingly far-fetched scenario, but do you find yourself squirming when you see the fervor with which some students, and the activists with whom they identify, call out and demand "justice" (i.e., harsh punishments) for what they regard as racist, sexist, cissexist and other "microaggressions"?

Do you worry that you must watch your words extremely carefully around students, and even then an entirely innocent and defensible utterance might still earn for itself, and for you, irreversible public condemnation and institutional penalties -- penalties against which you are powerless because of your already insecure adjunct or untenured status, or even against which your tenure would provide no great protection?

Are you fearful because you can't find any protective clear lines that distinguish the intellectually challenging from the culpably "offensive," that distinguish the mere reference to a bigoted claim or term from the embracing assertion or use of it, that distinguish a willingness to inquire about the strengths and weaknesses of a broadly despised position from advocacy for that position?

Have you felt pressure, when hoping to engage with students on a topic that is important to their lives or to society, simply to “not go there” in order to avoid risking an intellectual interaction that is later described as an assault, insult or “invalidation” of a student's perspective? Are you in any danger of becoming, in the words of Mill's On Liberty, one of those "timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral"?

When you read calls for making the classroom a "safe space" for students, do you ever wonder whether it has become an unsafe space for faculty?

Do you sometimes pull your punches when giving feedback on demonstrated weaknesses in students' course work submissions, classroom performance or intellectual character, due to apprehension that frank, direct criticisms, corrections and suggestions might be characterized later as having been "unprofessionally" hostile, demeaning or disrespectful?

Or do you perhaps refrain from giving students appropriately constructive but deeply critical advice due to the more prosaic fear of receiving poor teaching evaluations, given their potential adverse consequences for your pay, promotion and freedom to teach what and as you choose? Do you suspect that unfavorable recommendations are sometimes the results of personal dislike or distaste on students' parts, and accordingly compromise your own standards for dress, humor and other aspects of personal style and presentation in order to avoid striking your students as odd or unattractive?

When you provoke an unjustified hostile comment on a student evaluation form, do you immediately think of showing it to your colleagues to share the amusing absurdity of it, only to back away from this later, as you're not quite sure you entirely trust them to react sensibly?

Do you agree that if you were to submit an essay like this for publication, you, too, would insist upon anonymity, for fear that if your students were to get wind of it, it might give some of them ideas? Does it occur to you occasionally how lucky it is that the vast majority of your students are unaware of the power they have to injure you at will -- and do you find yourself wondering just how long this tenuous situation can hold?

Have you spent any time contemplating other lines of work, or early retirement, or emergency backup plans in the event that you were to be suspended or fired?

If you have answered some of these questions in the affirmative, have you taken any steps at all to ameliorate your predicament?

Have you attempted to get your Faculty Senate to address the threats facing you and your colleagues? Have you given a careful read to your institution's regulations governing complaints and disciplinary proceedings against faculty? If you have, have you sought to have their shortcomings repaired, or even merely pointed out the flaws to the appropriate parties? Have you, at the very least, complained to colleagues about the perilous situation you all face?

Or are you afraid of your colleagues, too, and judge it likely that raising these issues will only mark you for suspicion, and maybe make you even less likely to receive a sympathetic and open-minded hearing if some student(s) should ever turn on you?

What is to be done?

Anonymous is a tenured philosophy professor on the East Coast.

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How to teach gender studies classes that encourage more straight males to enroll (essay)

Teaching Today

Most gender and women’s studies programs preach to the converted and lack courses that would appeal to men -- or, for that matter, women who don’t have particular political leanings, argues Hallie Lieberman.

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Friday, March 3, 2017
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One university's approach to online faculty development: a radio show

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After several iterations, a college at the University of Cincinnati develops an old-time concept -- a radio show -- to teach professors new techniques.

People on campuses should welcome political views other than their own (essay)

In the immediate aftermath of a highly charged 2016 presidential election, a number of college and university presidents issued public statements expressing their concerns over the unexpected result and vowing to protect students from a national resurgence of racism, sexism, xenophobia and misogyny that they believe to be implicit in Donald Trump’s victory.

Rather than helping to reduce tensions and assuage fears, these expressions of alarm, concern and support may have done more to create campus unrest than forestall it by reinforcing the notion that the academic community must erect barricades to protect its members -- instead of exploring what happened in the election and why.

In my dealings as a university president with donors, alumni, legislators, staff members, faculty members and students, I hear views that are every class of right, left and center. To most of those with whom I speak (and to most people in general), their views appear to them to be self-evident truth.

This normal human tendency is exacerbated by what pioneering online organizer Eli Pariser calls the “filter bubble,” in which the modern proliferation of news media allows us -- and, in fact, encourages us -- to surround ourselves only with views that match our own. That phenomenon is a problem not only intellectually and politically but also ethically.

To think within such bubbles is to put the person who is outside one’s bubble into a limiting category in which we believe we understand everything we need to know about that person. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught, this subjection of the other person to one’s own categories is precisely the definition of violence. Levinas, most of whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust, goes so far as to find in this limited categorization of “the other” an important source of the Nazis’ violence against Jews.

Presidential elections regularly practice this kind of violent categorization (think “lying Hillary” and “racist Trump”), though it was more extreme than usual in this one. Such hyperbolic characterizations of another’s position are themselves examples of the violence implicit in racism and the imposition of untruth. In that sense, violence knows no party, and neither violence nor its cure can be laid at the feet of the democratic process, since any person’s vote can be a gesture of violence or peace. I would go so far as to suggest that our either/or two-party system of national elections, in addition to our post-Enlightenment prioritization of the individual over the group, tends to promote -- or, at least, in no way combat -- the violence of categorization and exclusion of the other.

How do we get out of this violent cycle? As an alumnus said to me recently, those who are upset by the election results need to ask themselves, “Why did my views lose?” Donald Trump’s victory was not a coup but a free election in a democracy. That cannot be labeled populism gone awry, because he will very likely be chosen by the very system, the Electoral College, that was established in part to counter unbridled populism, and it is now pretty clear that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Barring any major surprises (which virtually no one anticipates) in the various recounts now occurring, he is our president-elect, because we elected him. There is no “they” to blame here -- not even Russia.

The hacking of internal Democratic National Committee and other emails during the campaign, for which the CIA blames Russia, is a serious national security concern. However, to equate it to a foreign manipulation of the election is an illogical inference, even if that was their intent, and as much as it might fit into the bubble of a Cold War narrative. Russian operatives didn’t stuff ballot boxes, coerce voters or even spread fake news. If the CIA is correct, they simply released presumably authentic emails that DNC staff did not want released. (Of all people, given Clinton’s own email woes, those staffers should have known better than to write self-incriminating emails.)

The hacking itself may be evil, but that doesn’t translate into an evil effect on the election. If people’s votes were changed, they were freely changed on the basis of new information. Our own government’s reopening of the Clinton email case probably did as much to dissuade people from voting for Clinton as any action by a foreign power.

Apocalyptic hand-wringing, especially by those of us in the business of educating the electorate, is really not helpful. (Plenty of college-educated people voted for Trump, so it’s disingenuous to pin his victory on the poorly educated.) Even President Obama, whose personal and political legacy has more to lose than most in this election, said, as noted in David Remnick’s recent New Yorker piece, “This is not the apocalypse.”

The way forward is to find common ground, oppose violence and work toward the good -- as even Senator Bernie Sanders is doing in engaging Trump on a shared concern for the plight of the working class. Trump also has a distinctive opportunity, despite his own campaign rhetoric, to separate conservatism from bigotry by disavowing the openly racist “alt-right” groups that have stepped out of the shadows (where they were arguably more dangerous) since the election.

As institutions of higher education, we need to provide a diverse and inclusive environment that challenges students both to get out of their filter bubbles and to recognize the violence implicit in living inside a bubble. That requires us to protect them when necessary, including from the violence of others who would define them by race, gender, political beliefs or national origin.

But we also need to prepare them to live and work in a messy democracy in which, following Levinas, peace is achieved not through the voter’s assertion of the priority of individual choice, but rather by acknowledging the infinity of the other person -- someone who has an existence we should respect beyond the categories we are tempted to impose. I hope that can be an important part of our focus as citizens and educators going forward.

David P. Haney is president of Centenary University.

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Advice for faculty members about overcoming resistance to teaching online (essay)

As a teacher, you may prefer traditional classrooms full of residential students, but virtual education is here to stay and offers significant benefits, writes Robert Ubell.

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How various disciplines can shed light on the election (essay)

Maybe there are years when professors can plod through their syllabi untouched by current events. We lack the luxury of living in such a year.

American politics are now at the forefront of students’ consciousness. Many feel it acutely and personally. In my normally nonpolitical course on negotiation and conflict resolution at the City University of New York, I have seen passion and uncertainty on students’ faces all year. President-elect Donald Trump generates a wide range of deep emotions, from cutting anxiety to genuine optimism.

As professors finish out this semester and prepare for the next, how can we reckon with the election of Trump? How can we discuss his election without silencing or alienating some students? And, at the outset, is it appropriate for courses beyond pure political science to discuss politics at all?

With such heightened student engagement, it would be pedagogical malpractice not to harness those emotions into informed discussion within our disciplines. “Informed discussion” means more than having students express how they feel about the election -- although that, too, can be valuable -- but structurally integrating this election into syllabi this winter and spring. Fortunately, politics is an inherently multidisciplinary field with many entry points. Dozens of academic disciplines can offer meaningful insight into our current political landscape, even disciplines that seem less obvious on first blush. I offer my own approach here for consideration (or critique).

Teaching With Trump: The Example of Negotiation

I am a full-time attorney and teach an evening course each semester. My CUNY students are undergraduates, generally majoring in business or communications. Many are first-generation college students, immigrants and/or students for whom English is a second language. While the course focuses on business conflict -- the negotiation, mediation, arbitration and litigation of commercial disputes -- we also consider conflict resolution in other areas of life, such as handling a noisy neighbor or writing a separation agreement with a spouse.

Much of Trump's appeal throughout the campaign has been his professed ability to “negotiate good deals.” He has written and spoken about negotiation for decades, most famously in his 1987 book (co-written with Tony Schwartz), The Art of the Deal. This makes our president-elect particularly relevant for those currently teaching or taking courses in negotiation. Throughout the campaign, I have used Trump’s approach to negotiation specifically, and conflict more broadly, as an occasional bridge between current events and my syllabus.

With that in mind, I try to frame discussion topics as objectively as possible in furtherance of the course’s goals and match those topics to scholarly readings. Here are some topics that my class has discussed so far this election cycle.

Can you negotiate with someone whose values are inconsistent with yours? During the campaign, Trump called Washington a “swamp.” He accused Democratic leaders of being stupid and ineffective and Republican leaders of being weak and mendacious. Both Democratic and Republican leaders, at various times, accused Trump of being intellectually and ethically unfit for office. Some went farther, suggesting that Trump rejects core American values. How can these political actors now sit across the bargaining table from one another? Is it possible to negotiate legislation, budgets and other business with someone whom you believe is wrongheaded or immoral?

The students read excerpts of Bargaining With the Devil by Robert Mnookin of Harvard Law School, which offers advice for negotiating with someone whom you feel you cannot trust or who holds opposing values. In class, we discuss situations when negotiation is appropriate, as well as situations when negotiation creates untenable ethical challenges.

Is it a smart negotiation strategy to take an exaggerated initial position? Trump has proposed building a southern border wall, which would cost billions of dollars, and said that Mexico would foot the bill. Mexico’s president has flatly countered that his country will never do this. Putting aside the merits of constructing such a wall, is it an effective strategy for Trump to begin this negotiation by staking out a position that Mexico views as inherently unreasonable? Would it have been any more effective for Trump to begin the discussion by suggesting that each country pay 50 percent? Or propose a different form of border control? Or solicit Mexico’s views before offering an initial proposal?

In negotiation, there is a concept known as anchoring -- starting a negotiation at a very high number that you know you will never achieve. There are potential benefits to this as well as potential risks. Here, I have the students read work by legal negotiation scholars like Nancy Welsh (Penn State Law School) on fairness, Chris Guthrie (Vanderbilt University Law School) on anchoring and Jennifer Reynolds (University of Oregon Law School) on strategy. When Senator Bernie Sanders was running, we also discussed these concepts in connection with his staunchly progressive proposals for single-payer health care and free college tuition.

How can tone shape a negotiation, and how can tone change online? Trump has used ad hominem attacks, particularly over the internet, to hurt opponents and gain sizable media coverage. When you negotiate with an adversary, what is the value of publicly criticizing that person compared to criticizing them privately? What effects might ad hominem attacks have on bargaining? And how are emotions conveyed differently when communicating online?

The students read a book on party-centered dispute resolution by Lela P. Love (Cardozo Law School) and an article on negotiating over email by Noam Ebner (Creighton University School of Law). We also discuss excerpts of a book by Linda Babcock (Carnegie Mellon University) to consider gender’s important role on tone and substance of this election.

What rhetorical devices has Trump used effectively? As a lawyer, I am always attuned to logical fallacies -- rhetorical constructions that leave the listener with a particular framing of an issue. Politicians (and attorneys) of all partisan persuasions use such devices, which are not inherently good or bad. Trump is fond of several. For example, he sometimes begins an assertion by stating, “Many people have said …” or “Believe me” or cites unnamed people in authority -- a device that allows him to suggest expertise (argumentum ab auctoritate). He also blamed President Barack Obama’s administration for the creation of certain terrorist groups, because those groups emerged after President Obama came into office (post hoc, ergo propter hoc).

Every semester, my students must learn a set of common logical fallacies. But this past semester, I also had them watch the second presidential debate and record each candidate’s logical fallacies. In the next class, they split up into small groups, and whichever group found the highest number (combining both candidates’ statements) “won.” Importantly, the goal was not to find flaws in the candidates’ policies but in their persuasive logic, thus fitting within the course’s goals without the perception of partisanship.

The Value of Political Discussion

There are no right answers to these discussion questions. They do not frame a conversation that inevitably supports or opposes Trump himself or his policies; those judgments are left to the students after putting the course materials into conversation with current events. My hope is that by interrogating such issues, students will be more attuned to a legal argument containing a fallacy meant to obfuscate, or consider the effect of publicity on their future business negotiations. If this election makes those concepts memorable, or helps them to contextualize the news, the integration is well worthwhile.

Not all professors believe this is the right approach. Some argue that this is a moment for faculty across disciplines to take a strong political position, one of unguarded advocacy in their teaching and scholarship. These voices assert that faculty simply cannot be “objective” about a politician like Trump, discussing him like a theoretical doctrine, literary character or far-off historical figure. Doing so, they argue, risks “normalizing” Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies.

But such advocacy in the classroom can create an uncomfortable dynamic that mutes productive disagreement among students -- the most fruitful type of disagreement. Few undergraduates will take a “side” opposed by the teacher, especially if they immediately see what “side” that teacher supports. (This calculus shifts in graduate courses, where students have greater context and may feel more comfortable engaging the professor in debate.)

Another reason to leave your politics at the door: if you think you already know your students’ opinions, you may be gravely mistaken. An off-color joke about a politician could easily create discomfort and, again, chill the very dialogue we hope to enliven. I teach in New York City, which overwhelmingly supported the Democratic Party. But I have seen genuinely thoughtful class participation from supporters of Trump (as well as Senator Sanders and third-party candidates).

Rather than making assumptions about our students’ politics, or advocating our own, teachers should methodically create apolitical discussion topics and allow students to come to their own conclusions or disagreements. This is the pedagogy perfected by America’s small liberal arts colleges like Vassar and Williams; students learn as much from the perspectives of their peers as from their professors. Whether you teach history, politics, communications, law, economics, biology, gender studies or almost any other subject, let’s meet this moment by using our disciplines to provide critical context. There are surely angles we can explore, and scholars whose voices shed light on current events. To prepare for next semester, we may all need to do some syllabus surgery over the holidays.

I cannot pretend to have all the answers on how to effectively teach this election or its complex, indefinite aftermath. But I will try.

Brian Farkas is a business litigator in New York. He is an adjunct professor at the City University of New York and Brooklyn Law School, teaching courses on negotiation, mediation and arbitration.

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Q&A with author on book strategies for teaching new majority students

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New book explores different classroom strategies for teaching first-generation, underrepresented students.

The benefits of stepping outside the regular habits of the classroom (essay)

Teaching Today

When we as professors step outside the regular habits of the classroom, we can make a difference in how students see themselves and approach their own learning, writes Esteban Loustaunau.

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