Teaching

Teaching students how to write with soul (essay)

Teaching Today

Irina Eremia Bragin describes why and how she encourages student to write essays that entertain, engage and elevate.

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Roadblocks to better critical-thinking skills are embedded in the college experience (essay)

Educators and employers agree that critical thinking is one of the essential skills required for postgraduation success. Unfortunately, multiple surveys indicate that employers believe that recent grads do not have the critical-thinking skills those employers expect, although recent grads (surprise!) have a sunnier view of their capabilities.

Whether recent grads are up to standard or not, there’s evidence that the college experience does not do enough to improve those skills, and not a lot of evidence that it does. In “Higher Ed’s Biggest Gamble,” John Schlueter takes this case even further, questioning whether the college experience can even in principle build those skills.

I’m more optimistic. In contexts ranging from higher education to corporate training to test preparation, I’ve helped thousands of learners improve their skills and found nothing unique about that process. While aptitude for critical thinking is clearly not distributed equally in the population, no one is an expert critical thinker from birth. Even the best of us had to learn it somewhere.

That said, it isn’t easy. We can improve critical-thinking skills, in college or elsewhere, but doing so requires a commitment, an understanding of the nature of the task and deep learning experiences.

What makes teaching and improving critical-thinking skills so difficult? Here are a few factors:

  • Definitions. There’s no general agreement on what critical thinking is. Whereas people don’t often debate the properties of exponents or the components of a complete sentence, we’re less aligned when it comes to critical thinking. It often gets confused with creative thinking, reflective thinking or other skills.
  • Complexity. Critical-thinking tasks tend to be much more difficult than others in part because critical thinking needs to be built on a foundation of language and comprehension. Also, some of the issues involved when analyzing statements and arguments are quite subtle. Moreover, many people resist the notion that anything could be wrong with their thinking process, and those with the weakest skills tend to be the most resistant.
  • Abstraction. Critical thinking is not a list of facts to memorize. It’s a process, a general way of approaching problems. That means learners have to connect the general lessons they’ve learned to totally new situations. Common patterns emerge, but learners have to recognize them in order to leverage critical-thinking training.
  • Contrast. Modern education too often focuses on memorization, compliance and endurance rather than critical thought. Educational experiences based on “drill and kill” reward people who follow instructions and punish people who are more critical. Of course, people who succeeded in college by doing as they were told often have trouble solving real-world problems that are new and different. Critical thinkers do well in the long run, but they often have to survive a culture that teaches them not to be critical.
  • Training. We ask a lot of our instructors. They need to know their subject matter, of course, but they also need to know about education itself while developing the communication skills to connect with a diverse group of learners. Most faculty members haven’t been trained in critical thinking, and while they can pick it up, they’ll need consistent and sophisticated support to do so.
  • Measurement. Writing is hard. Writing assessments is very hard. Writing critical-thinking assessments is extremely hard. While some maintain that critical thinking cannot be measured at all, or can only be measured by complex items such as essays, it is possible to create valid measures of critical-thinking skills such as identifying assumptions, analyzing arguments and making inferences. But even assessment writers have a hard time writing those questions.

Why What We’re Doing Isn’t Working

By now, it should be clear that improving critical-thinking skills in college or anywhere else is a tall order under the best of circumstances. But what we have now is far from the best of circumstances, and that is not an accident. We can lament our failure to improve critical-thinking skills, but the truth is that this failure is not really a bug in the system. It’s a feature that flows from the structure of the current college experience.

Critical thinking, like other higher-order skills, gets crowded out in college courses that try to cover as much of the subject matter as possible. In the large introductory courses, with the largest number of students per class, students devote instructional time to a wide range of topics because no one wants to leave anything out. That forces the students into a breakneck pace that leaves little time for anything more than learning the vocabulary of the discipline -- vocabulary that mostly gets forgotten just after the final exam. If critical thinking is addressed at all, it tends to be tacked onto the core content in a manner that everyone can tell is contrived. Students might be invited to reflect on potentially interesting topics, but few will do so without meaningful feedback and some kind of credit toward a good grade.

Too many classes are this way, but the bigger problem is that they tend to stay this way. Faculty members who have their class structure set tend to be reluctant to radically change anything, especially when the change would require them to develop new expertise, as is often the case with critical thinking. Moreover, introducing critical thinking into an already-stuffed course tends to lower grades, as critical-thinking questions tend to be difficult and different from what students are accustomed to.

Also, it can be hard to convince faculty members to make a change that would likely hurt their evaluations -- and possibly their employment -- and often those evaluations depend on the grades that students receive. That’s why when critical thinking is included in courses, it sometimes gets covered in a way that poses no threat to anyone’s grades. What should be a rigorous analysis of evidence and conclusion instead becomes a glorified opinion poll. Students say whatever they want about the subject, and then … nothing.

What Would Be Better?

The path to improving critical-thinking skills starts with awareness. We must recognize that the world has changed and that possessing information and being able to execute rote procedures is not enough. Anyone who merely follows instructions is at risk of being replaced by someone cheaper or a machine.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that actively analyzing decisions leads to better outcomes, and the people who can do that will drive innovation and organizational success, no matter where they wind up. We need instructors and students to recognize the importance of critical thinking and be inspired with its potential to improve the world. It also requires a commitment to do justice to critical-thinking and other higher-order skills. It means accepting that courses won’t cover as many subjects, but they’ll do a better job with the ones they do cover.

Along the way, we should encourage learners who have been raised on a diet of compliance and social control to take a critical mind-set. But that doesn’t mean that we should teach them that all arguments are equally valid and that the truth is whatever you decide it is at that moment. Just as we learn to raise our standards when analyzing the claims of others, we also need to apply high standards to our own thinking. That’s why critical thinking can be an important part of self-improvement. It can help you get what you want, but it can also help you decide what you want to want.

We also have to arrive at a reasonable and workable definition of critical thinking and its related concepts. I’m not recommending that we create some semisecret code language to exclude “nonexperts” from the conversation. Education has enough of that already. However, we should come to a common understanding of terms such as assumption, relevance, argument and critical thinking itself.

The dictionary is a fine starting point, and we should add to ordinary definitions only when the interests of clarity call for it. For example, here’s the definition of critical thinking we use at my company:

Critical thinking is the ability to evaluate the connection between evidence and potential conclusions. It is the ability to make logically sound judgments, identify assumptions and alternatives, ask relevant questions, and to be fair and open-minded when evaluating the strength of arguments.

That covers the essential elements of the concept without requiring a doctoral dissertation. Others are of course free to disagree, to add, to subtract or to alter, but any meaningful definition of critical thinking is likely to include those core elements. This definition, or something like it, can be part of a shared and inclusive vocabulary that will help us identify the point at issue, the terms of the argument and the standards by which we make decisions.

With a clear and flexible structure, we make great progress, but it also helps to spot patterns of reasoning that appear across academic disciplines and real-world environments. While every situation could be different, being able to spot analogous situations can help us apply lessons we learned from our previous experience. No matter where we go, we should watch out for causation issues, representativeness and the difference between necessity and sufficiency. We should identify scope shifts, alternative explanations and ambiguous terms. Critical thinking will never be a mechanical application of procedures, but it still helps to have a sense of the usual suspects when it comes to logic.

While critical thinking is, by its nature, abstract, it also should be an applied field. For that reason, part of the process of improving one’s critical-thinking skills is to solve problems in real-world contexts and to practice drawing connections between the abstract concepts of critical thinking and the facts on the ground. Let’s not underestimate the value of practice, either. Critical thinking is like other skills in that it gets better with practice, but it has to be the right kind of practice. Pure repetition won’t help, but careful analysis will. That’s why we need to evaluate the claims we hear in everyday life, examine critiques of arguments to see if they have represented their subject fairly and construct our own persuasive arguments -- holding ourselves to the same standards we apply to others.

To illustrate the results of this process, consider this true story of critical-thinking success. On his first day at his new publishing job, an editor got bad news: samples from a new print job had come in, and they had a huge flaw that made all the books unusable. He was asked if he wanted to trash the entire print run. He would not have been blamed if he had, but instead he asked if they were sure that all of the books had that flaw. As it turned out, they didn’t. It was only some of them, and so he saved thousands of books from going to the landfill for no good reason.

For this to happen, he needed to be aware that he needed to apply his critical-thinking skills, he needed a structure to analyze the situation, he needed to recognize a familiar pattern of reasoning (in this case, representative samples) and he needed to apply what he knew from the publishing context. In this case, he knew that print samples sometimes come from only one round of printing and may not represent the entire print job. It was an insightful decision, but it wasn’t magic. Decisions like this are the natural product of sophisticated learning processes reinforced with experience.

But Can Critical Thinking Truly Be Improved?

It isn’t easy, and aptitude varies, but critical-thinking skills are not fixed at birth. We know that some people have strong skills, and they had to get them from somewhere. People still debate the extent to which critical thinking is a general skill that can be transferred whole into any context as opposed to being a context-dependent skill. The truth could be somewhat in between. There are certain structures, patterns and techniques that can be learned in general and applied elsewhere.

That is what I did while creating preparation courses for exams such as the LSAT and GMAT. We never knew exactly what the subject matter of the questions would be, but that didn’t matter as long as the patterns of reasoning were the same. That being said, context still matters, and applying one’s general skills is not equally easy everywhere.

My friend who made the inspired call about the print job had strong thinking skills but also needed to know something about publishing in order to find that solution. So there’s something to the notion that we ought to integrate critical thinking into our courses of study and not teach it as an entirely separate discipline. That’s another debate.

For now, I hope to have advanced the case that everyone can get better at critical thinking, but only if we make it a priority. The fact that we haven’t made great progress is evidence that we haven’t tried more than it is evidence that we can’t.

Ben Paris has more than 20 years of experience in educational assessment and learning design. He is the vice president of learning architecture for ansrsource, where he develops learning solutions for academic and professional environments.

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Teaching diversity-sensitive students after the election of Trump (essay)

A student said she is “terrified” by what might happen once Donald Trump becomes president. That was a few days ago in a class discussion of how the Trump administration will affect higher education.

It wasn’t my class. I was a guest lecturer and didn’t know the student. But the sentiment wasn’t unusual. Lots of people on our campus feel this way. So I asked her, “Terrified is a pretty strong word -- what exactly are you terrified of?” Silence. I continued, calmly, “What do you think is going to happen?”

More silence, until someone else said, “Because of Trump’s comments about other people.” That seemed sufficient explanation for everyone, and I felt no need to challenge it. Many people look at our president-elect and expect the next four years to be a nightmare, but they aren’t prepared to enumerate its predations. They are genuinely alarmed, but it’s hard to pin them down.

One professor in a recent article spoke of “the recent election and its hideous aftermath of swastika flaunting,” while one of my colleagues at Emory University insisted we must develop an “impactful left willing to call out white supremacy, whiteness and misogyny.” Statements such as these signaling so much worry aren't easy to address. I've chosen not to argue over them but only to reply, “Well, we’ll see.” If you read conservative publications, you can find similar quotations highlighted all the time with terms such as “loopy left” attached. But it's best to let them stand by themselves and pass or fail the test of time.

When students express such fears, however, we have a situation that calls for action. It isn’t hard for a tenured professor to let his peers believe what they believe and go his own way. In the humanities, you teach classes and conduct research by yourself, and when you mingle with colleagues at meetings and on committees, you hold up your end, help the team and smile -- even though you may fall on the other side of things.

You can't do that and be a teacher, though. What the students believe and assume affects what happens in their course work. If the outcome of a presidential election has jarred them to the point of horror, they have a mind-set that is bound to show up in their work, especially if it’s in an American subject. It will influence how they read and write about Huck Finn and O Pioneers! So we have to ask where it comes from.

The first job I had was as a dishwasher in a country club restaurant. It was 1974, and my brother and I were 15. The pay was $1.90 an hour, which sounded good to us. We cleaned the storage room, scrubbed pots and pans, and ran tray after tray through the assembly-line dishwashing machine as soon as the busboys started clearing tables once the dinner rush began. By the night’s end, we stank like sewage and sweat, but we didn’t care. One of the cooks, a middle-aged guy who was a star lineman in high school, would sock me on the shoulder every now and then just for fun. My brother and I looked enough alike to make it hard for him to tell us apart, so he called us both “Shithead,” sometimes adding “No. 1” and “No. 2” to his commands. None of that made us want to quit, however, and I never thought of griping to anyone.

At the same time, I grew up with parents who instilled a universalist vision of humanity in their kids. They revered Martin Luther King Jr. and taught us that people are “all the same underneath.” When we started elementary school, we lived in a mixed neighborhood in Southwest D.C. and were best friends with a black kid and his mother and father. It was my parents’ deliberate reversal of white flight to the suburbs.

And so when my brother and I went to the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1977 and lived in the dorms for two years with, successively, Chinese, Mexican, Guatemalan and Iranian roommates, we thought nothing of it. There was the occasional racist remark -- sometimes by an outsider, once in a while by one of the guys -- but we shrugged it off. Too many other things were more important. And it was easy not to take it personally because we were so clear about its stupidity. We knew racial animosity existed just as other animosities did, such as the guys you didn’t like because of the elbows they threw on the basketball court. “He’s a racist” didn’t stand above “He’s a waste case,” “He’s a sleaze,” “He cheats” and a dozen other bad judgments.

I was lucky. The combination of we’re-all-the-same-race at home, getting pushed around a bit at work and enough diversity among friends to realize that diversity works best when we stop thinking so much about it saved me from overreacting to human vices of the social kind. That included attitudes and language that count today as politically incorrect and offensive.

Students in selective colleges who fret over the implications of Trump’s victory had no such formation -- at least, not as far as I can tell. Instead of embracing the universalist thrust of the civil rights movement -- which spoke of “integration” and not “diversity” -- students today are taught to uphold identity differences (e.g., the iniquity of declaring “All lives matter”). We no longer tolerate bullying and harassment in the workplace -- a positive good, of course, but one that frees youths from learning to cope with a jerk in other ways than complaint. And not only the K-16 curriculum but also the entire cultural sphere and reigning political idiom has taught them to remain ever mindful of racial and sexual identity, no matter how liberal and unbiased they are.

They feel the scrutiny all the time. Having seen others punished by the authorities for saying or writing the wrong thing, and watching their peers turn on a dissenter and hammer him on social media, they know the wages of forgetting diversity etiquette. Teenagers can be savage, and when you add political sin to cliquishness, you have a ravenous hegemony. Youths who are ambitious, the high achievers, observe the taboos as though their wariness were a key to success.

And so when Trump says the things he says, millennials are darn certain that something awful is going to happen. A sexist remark that gets out in public means catastrophe. Vengeance must follow; the violator must be punished. But Trump hasn’t been punished. He’s committed a hate crime … and he's become the most powerful man in the world.

The distress that students now feel runs deeper than fear of what the Trump administration plans to do. His triumph signifies the fall of the diversity-sensitive propriety that has guided their academic careers and, among the successful students, their social lives. One of their gods has failed, and even if they didn’t choose and worship that god themselves, the loss of him means that the universe has trembled. It’s disturbing.

The way to help students through this revolution of the heavenly orbs is to provide them with a story: the story of diversity. They have grown up in the diversity era and experienced it as bare, self-evident truth. It is up to us as teachers to explode this ahistorical condition. We must lead students through the genesis of diversity from the melting-pot civics of the early 20th century to the 1978 Bakke decision to today’s diversity bureaucracy and regulations in public and private institutions. We should include in that history criticisms of diversity in its definition and its implementation, along with empirical challenges to the actual benefits of diversity programs in higher and lower education.

Once students understand diversity as a social theory, not a sacred goal, once they see sensitivity not always as a necessary and proper condition, they will alter their expectations. Instead of regarding Trump and the 60 million people who voted for him as a new reign of terror, they will accept them as part of the inevitable swings of political fortune. There are other outlooks available besides diversity sensitivity, and they aren’t apocalyptic.

Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.

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Developing metrics and models that are vital to student learning and retention (essay)

Is English 101 really just English 101? What about that first lab? Is a B or C in either of those lower-division courses a bellwether of a student’s likelihood to graduate? Until recently, we didn’t think so, but more and more, the data are telling us yes. In fact, insights from our advanced analytics have helped us identify a new segment of at-risk students hiding in plain sight.

It wasn’t until recently that the University of Arizona discovered this problem. As we combed through volumes of academic data and metrics with our partner, Civitas Learning, it became evident that students who seemed poised to graduate were actually leaving at higher rates than we could have foreseen. Why were good students -- students with solid grades in their lower-division foundational courses -- leaving after their first, second or even third year? And what could we do to help them stay and graduate from UA?

There’s a reason it’s hard to identify which students fall into this group; they simply don’t exhibit the traditional warning signs as defined by the retention experts. These students persist into the higher years but never graduate despite the fact that they’re strong students. They persist past their first two years and over 40 percent have GPAs above 3.0 -- so how does one diagnose them as at risk when all metrics indicate that they’re succeeding? Now we’re taking a deeper look at the data from the entire curriculum to find clues about what these students really need and even redefine our notion of what “at risk” really means.

Lower-division foundational courses are a natural starting point for us. These are the courses where basic mastery -- of a skill like writing or the scientific process -- begins, and mastery of these basics increases in necessity over the years. Writing, for instance, becomes more, not less, important over students’ academic careers. A 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement at UA indicated that the number of pages of writing assigned in the academic year to freshmen is 55, compared to 76 pages for seniors. As a freshman or sophomore, falling behind even by a few fractions can hurt you later on.

To wit, when a freshman gets a C in English 101, it doesn’t seem like a big deal -- why would it? She’s not at risk; she still has a 3.0, after all. But this student has unintentionally stepped into an institutional blind spot, because she’s a strong student by all measures. Our data analysis now shows that this student may persist until she hits a wall, usually during her major and upper-division courses, which is oftentimes difficult to overcome.

Let’s fast forward two years, then, when that same freshman is a junior enrolled in demanding upper-level classes. Her problem, a lack of writing command, has compounded into a series of C’s or D’s on research papers. A seemingly strong student is now at risk to persist, and her academic life becomes much less clear. We all thought she was on track to graduate, but now what? From that point, she may change her major, transfer to another institution or even exit college altogether. In the past, we would never have considered wraparound support services for students who earned a C in an intro writing course or a B in an intro lab course, but today we understand that we have to be ready and have to think about a deeper level of academic support across the entire life cycle of an undergrad.

Nationally, institutions like ours have developed many approaches to addressing the classic challenges of student success, developing an infrastructure of broad institutional interventions like centralized tutoring, highly specialized support staff, supplemental classes and more. Likewise, professors and advisers have become more attuned to responding to the one-on-one needs of students who may find themselves in trouble. There’s no doubt that this high/low approach has made an impact and our students have measurably benefited from it. But to assist students caught in the middle, those that by all measurement are already “succeeding,” we have to develop a more comprehensive institutional approach that works at the intersections of curricular innovation and wider student support.

Today, we at UA are adding a new layer to the institutional and one-to-one approaches already in place. In our courses, we are pushing to ensure that mastery matters more than a final grade by developing metrics and models that are vital to student learning. This, we believe, will lead to increases in graduation rates. We are working hand in hand with college faculty members, administrators and curriculum committees, arming those partners with the data necessary to develop revisions and supplementary support for the courses identified as critical to graduation rather than term-over-term persistence. We are modeling new classroom practices through the expansion of student-centered active classrooms and adaptive learning to better meet the diverse needs of our students.

When mastery is what matters most, the customary objections to at-risk student intervention matter less. Grade inflation by the instructor and performance for grade by the student become irrelevant. A foundational course surrounded by the support that a student often finds in lower-division courses is not an additional burden to the student, but an essential experience. Although the approach is added pressure on the faculty and staff, it has to be leavened with the resources that help both the instructor and the students succeed.

This is a true universitywide partnership to help a population of students who have found themselves unintentionally stuck in the middle. We must be data informed, not data driven, in supporting our students, because when our data are mapped with a human touch, we can help students unlock their potential in ways even they couldn’t have imagined.

Angela Baldasare is assistant provost for institutional research. Melissa Vito is senior vice president for student affairs and enrollment management and senior vice provost for academic initiatives and student success. Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. is provost of digital learning and student engagement and associate vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at the University of Arizona.

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Advice to academics for creating and selling online courses (essay)

Kirsten Drickey provides some concrete advice for leveraging your teaching experience and subject matter expertise by teaching online courses beyond the academy.

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Bennington College's experiment with short-term, pop-up courses

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Bennington College’s pop-up courses allow professors and students to tackle world events as they happen.

The aftermath of the 2016 national election on student affairs (essay)

The past 18 months leading to the election of Donald Trump last night have been incredibly challenging for us as a nation and certainly for all of us who work in higher education.

The angry and hostile dialogue has left many in our communities feeling unsafe, devalued and marginalized. For many of our students and staff members, the results of the election will magnify those feelings of outrage, despair, hopelessness and genuine fear for their future. It is important to note that after the rhetoric expressed during the election, our Muslim, Jewish, African-American, Latinx, undocumented and LGBTQ students and staff, as well as students and staff members who are sexual assault survivors, will likely have strong emotional reactions to this election outcome.

How do we move forward? First, we need to acknowledge what just happened. About 47 to 48 percent of voters, more than 59 million Americans, sent a clear message that they wanted something different and wanted someone who spoke to their concerns. We live in a fractured and divided country with two very different visions about our future path.

This division and the politics of hate that have surrounded this election make the work we do in student affairs even more important today than it was before the election.

This will not be easy, and it never is. Those of us who work in student affairs will need to take some time to absorb the results of this election, tend to the self-care necessary, support those who are hurting or angry and afraid, and then quickly get back to the work we do: providing support to our students who themselves will be struggling with a range of emotions following the election.

This election does not stop the work we must do to address racial injustice on our campuses and in our communities. It makes it more important.

This election does not stop the crucial work we are doing to increase degree progress and completion for first-generation students, low-income students and students of color. It makes it more important.

This election does not stop the need to support the hundreds of thousands of undocumented students who are on our campuses. It makes it more important.

This election does not stop the work we are doing to engage students in difficult conversations around race, gender identity, religion and sexual orientation. It makes it more important.

This election, and its results, creates an urgency for a new generation of leaders -- leaders who are on our campuses. The work we do to encourage active discourse, protest and activism is core to our democracy and to our need to engage a new generation committed to ideals of inclusion and social justice. This is more important than ever.

The next few months will be critical for our country and our colleges and universities. It is unknown how President-elect Trump will view the higher education sector. NASPA will continue to monitor, teach and provide opportunities for dialogue about these issues within the next few months.

I remain optimistic about the work we are doing in higher education and the role each student affairs professional plays in the lives of our students. Our work has never been more important.

Kevin Kruger is president of NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

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Teaching English and literature to students in the high-tech era

Teaching Today

Eric Farwell provides four ideas to help interest today’s students, who seem to want to read only increasingly shorter pieces, in English and literature courses.

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Two college professors train students to critique institutions in far more responsible ways than Trump does (essay)

Of all the outlandish and absurd claims Donald Trump has made in the months since he announced his candidacy for president, the most recent -- that the news media and global elite are conspiring to rig the election against him -- is one that we take most umbrage with. Who are we? Two English professors at a community college who have spent the last year studying and teaching the difference between conspiracy theories and institutional critique.

As avid readers of Thomas Pynchon and viewers of The Wire, we’ve developed a pedagogy that asks students to analyze how institutions might or might not be illegitimate or criminal. And to us, Donald Trump’s claim seems weak. Where’s his corkboard? Where are his out-of-focus black-and-white photos? Where is his string connecting the evidence?

Yet, he’s right to focus our gaze on institutions. There are legitimate critiques to be made about the many forces, institutional and otherwise, operating against all of us. Having institutional knowledge and the ability to understand what competitive forces exist is required of any educated person. Polls have shown that Donald Trump’s largest support block are those with just a high school education. Those are, in fact, our students who have just enrolled in our English 101 composition classes.

It is dangerous to confuse comparatively uneducated with not smart. One doesn’t need a college degree to suspect and know that often, as Hillary Clinton has said, “the deck is stacked.” And many educated as well as uneducated people are likely to propose sweeping generalizations like Donald Trump -- such as “it’s all rigged” -- as evidence for their opinions.

But when we teach the difference between conspiracy theory and institutional critique to our students -- when they practice institutional analysis with corkboard, photos and string, and when they write essays that must have credible sources -- they are more likely to understand that social justice and consequential critiques are possible only if we study the details.

In our classes, most students grasp how a former House majority leader is profiting by doing things like trying to help drug companies avoid paying federal taxes. They also get how he may only be a piece of a larger problem, both in the way tax avoidance is lobbied for in this country and how an entire industry of consultants’ sole purpose is to help companies become more efficient at avoiding paying taxes.

They grasp the injustice when they uncover that there have been little to no consequences for financial institutions after the 2008 economic meltdown. They understand how police departments often reveal information about wrongdoing only in the wake of protests or public outcry. They understand that the complexity is vast, but in order to be authors of consequence, they need to have coherent evidence of the contrary. Stating that the system is “rigged” is a lie that becomes the truth by the power of acquiescence.

In their own investigations, our students have outworked Trump in articulating and supporting claims of institutional criminality. They have identified and investigated organizations and conspiracies that range from the local, like a Queens, N.Y., Wing Stop or Popeyes franchise, to the global, like corrupt government contracting in India and Italy. It’s unpredictable which institutions students will choose to investigate: the New York Police Department, for-profit universities, the Iranian leadership. But, if there is some suspicion of injustice, our community college students are on the case.

They have, on their own initiative, cold-called whistle-blowers at animal rescue agencies, walked into police stations and asked for the names and ranks of the precinct’s officers, and interviewed anonymous informants. In short, they have done the work of heroic investigators, the kind you would hope an engaged citizen in a democracy would undertake.

With those projects, students are engaging in the kind of work we witness in binges of popular television crime shows like Breaking Bad or True Detective, where investigators tack photos, maps, names, evidence to corkboards, office walls -- whatever they can find -- to allow viewers to vicariously sense that, yes, the rapidly connecting world that feels beyond our comprehension is being pieced together one bit at a time.

We ask, why leave these problems to television fantasy? Why not ask students to make sense of senselessness as an exercise of critical citizenship? Why not expect the same of our public figures?

In other words, if Donald Trump were a first-year community college student, all signs indicate he’d be a lazy one. We’d send him back to do more research. He has made a claim, but his critique would be classified as an empty conspiracy. If he presented this claim that it’s all “rigged,” we’d say, Mr. Trump, show us your corkboard, your photos, your documents, your works-cited page. Show us some work. You will not pass unless you do.

Jed Shahar and Benjamin Lawrance Miller are assistant professors at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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How to convince students to attend office hours (essay)

Teaching Today

Megan Condis explores why so few students take advantage of office hours and gives some tips on how to get more of them to do so.

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