Some weeks back, a publishing house in Spain announced that it would be issuing a deluxe facsimile edition of the enigmatic and sui generis volume best known as the Voynich manuscript, in a print run limited to 898 copies, selling at 7,000-8,000 euros each. That’s the equivalent of $7,400 to $8,400 -- a price tag guaranteed to separate the true bibliomaniac from the common run of book collectors.
But then Beinecke 408 (as the volume is also known, from its catalog reference in Yale University’s rare books collection) tends to throw a spell over those who contemplate it for very long. Running to about 200 parchment pages -- or closer to 240, if you count a number of long, folded-up sheets as multiple pages -- it is abundantly illustrated with drawings of plants that have somehow eluded the attention of botanists, surrounded by copious text in an unknown alphabet. It looks like what you’d get from throwing Roman, Greek and Arabic script into a blender along with a few alchemical symbols. At a certain point the artwork takes a noticeable turn: the plants are accompanied by miniature drawings of naked women sitting on the leaves, emerging from broken stems or bathing in pools. Those slightly Rubenesque figures also show up in what appear to be a number of astronomical or astrological charts. A final section of the book consists of page after page of closely written text, with starlike symbols in the margin that seem to indicate section or paragraph divisions.
It sounds like something H. P. Lovecraft and Jorge Luis Borges might have concocted to pull a prank on Umberto Eco. But mere description of the Voynich manuscript little prepares you for the experience of turning its pages, even in the considerably less expensive hardback just published by Yale University Press. The editor, Raymond Clemens, is curator of early books and manuscripts at the university’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The color reproductions of each page are made at the size of the original; the ink or paint used by the illustrator at times bleeding through slightly behind the text and artwork on the other side of the parchment. The thing that strikes the eye most about the writing is how concentrated it looks: printed in a crisp, precise hand by someone who, especially in the final pages, seems determined to make good use of the space without sacrificing readability.
Which is, of course, the maddening thing about the book -- almost literally so, at times. The effort to figure out what it says has tested, and defeated, the mental powers of numerous researchers over the past century, beginning not long after the bookseller Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired it in 1912. (The Yale edition includes a detailed biographical article on Voynich, who seems to have escaped from the pages of a novel by Dostoyevsky before settling in London and moving, eventually, to New York. The label “bookseller” is too narrow by far. One telling detail: his father-in-law was George Boole.)
The first scholar to throw himself into solving the riddle was William Romaine Newbold, professor of moral and intellectual philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, whose The Cipher of Roger Bacon was posthumously assembled from his notes and manuscripts and published in 1928. Its title reflects the earliest known attribution of the work: a letter from 1665 or ’66 reports that the book had been owned by Rudolph II -- the Holy Roman Emperor, patron of Johannes Kepler and alchemy enthusiast -- who believed the author to be the 13th-century English scientist and monk Roger Bacon. (Not to be confused with Francis Bacon, also an English scientist, born 300 years after the monk’s prime.)
Knowing that Roger Bacon was a pioneer in the study of optics and had experimented with lenses, Newbold boldly combined fact and speculation to argue that the Voynich manuscript reported Bacon’s discoveries using the microscope (spermatozoa, for example) and the telescope (the Andromeda galaxy). Furthermore, the hieroglyphs in the mysterious text actually consisted of much smaller letters -- combined in a code of great sophistication -- which were only visible with a microscope.
Quod est demonstrandum, sort of. Admirers of Roger Bacon found the interpretations plausible, anyway. But in 1931, the medievalist journal Speculum published a long and devastating assessment of Newbold’s methodology, which concluded that the code system he’d deduced was so vague and arbitrary that the messages he unearthed were “not discoveries of secrets hidden by Roger Bacon but the products of his own intense enthusiasm and his learned and ingenious subconsciousness.”
That judgment surely inspired caution among subsequent Voynich analysts. I found one paper, published in Science in 1945, claiming to have determined that the manuscript was written by a 16th-century astrologer and herbalist known to have had a particular interest in women’s illnesses. The researcher ends his report by insisting that it was not the product of “a learned and ingenious subconscious.” Be that as it may, the author also felt that “present war conditions” made it “undesirable to publish, at this time, the details of the key.”
That note of hesitation foreshadows one of the many interesting points made in the generally excellent short essays accompanying the Voynich manuscript in the Yale edition: “The extent to which the problems it poses have been a matter of professional as well as amateur interest is reflected in the fact that the best book-length introduction to this ‘elegant enigma’ was written by a government cryptologist … and published in-house by the U.S. National Security Agency.” The monograph (now in the public domain and available to download) indicates that the NSA had already played host to quite a bit of hard-core Voynich inquiry by the late 1970s, and who knows how much computational power has been directed at cracking it since then.
The Yale University Press edition ventures no theory of who created the Voynich manuscript or what it says. A chapter reporting on examination and tests of the material indicates that the parchment can be dated to roughly 1420, give or take a couple of decades, while multispectral imaging reveals the erased invisible signature of a pharmacist who died in 1622, using the noble title he received in 1608. That may not remove all possibility of a hoax, but it would seem to backdate it by a few centuries. The enigma, like the book itself, has proven nothing if not durable; this handsome and (relatively) affordable edition will serve to spread its fascination around.
I do not live in a bubble, and one of the ways I work things out is to write. So I have put this piece together as a means of expiating my own grief over the results of the recent presidential election.
At first, I wanted to keep my mourning private, especially as my current role as a college president requires me to tread carefully and not give an institutional patina to my personal thoughts. I have also not wanted to invite the various trolls who consider my views like catnip. But I have come to the view that silence will probably cause greater harm to our country's immigrant students, particularly those "DREAMers" -- the hundreds of thousands of students in the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, who were brought to this country as children and have been allowed to attend college. The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe allowed them to stay in school, while DACA gave them employment authorization, lawful presence and Social Security numbers. It is by no means legalization, but it has been a transformative program while Congress has fiddled over immigration reform.
Indeed, I have dedicated my entire life to many ideals, but the ones that matter the most were repudiated on election night. Since then, I have arranged over a dozen conference calls with DREAMers, immigration lawyers, college presidents and reporters. Many know I helped write the Texas statutes that give many of the DREAMers resident Texas tuition and financial aid. Inasmuch as I have taught higher education law and also immigration law for 35 years, these are my fields. I have won many more contests in this terrain than I have lost, but this one hurts, and I feel as if we all let down my students, a dereliction of duty that I feel deeply. I fear for the DACA students, many of them in my own institution, who placed their lives and hopes in higher education and the polity. I urged them to trust we would do the right thing if they took responsibility for their own lives by studying and coming forward. They have done so, but now we have not held up our part of the bargain.
In the wake of the election, a number of colleges and universities are declaring themselves "sanctuary campuses," saying they will limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. However, the various proposals for carving out sanctuary campuses have occasioned even more vexation for me, and this viral-fed option is what finally moved me to write this article.
These well-intentioned efforts to establish a sanctuary use the term in its root ecclesiastic meanings, such as providing safe harbor. But from whom?
"Sanctuary" is also a contronym -- an example of a single word that has opposite meanings. ("Sanction" is another.) To many folks, the term depicts a defiance of law and serves as a trope for unauthorized immigration and liberal pieties. That it has become tinged with racist and anti-Mexican sentiment renders the term even more poisonous. One person's safe harbor is another person's harboring, in the dueling metaphors, if not the actual immigration law.
My view on these proposals is that they provide a chimerical outlet for people who are frustrated and have no other pathways to ameliorate the situation. But the term "sanctuary" is a term that is too fraught with restrictionist meanings or misunderstandings about the difference between "defying the law" or choosing not to implement discretionary practices, for policy, efficacy or other reasons. Worse, it has no legal meaning and the admonitions are vague and impossible to implement, which will only frustrate people more.
I have urged all those people who have called me to be very cautious in suggesting that a legal cocoon is possible or even needed for students -- who, after all, are not lawbreakers. Of course, institutions should provide support and services, as they would for all their students, especially vulnerable ones. But exacting pledges that cannot be kept will do no one any good.
And there are longstanding rules of engagement, or, in this context, nonengagement in higher education, such as the current Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy on such enforcement. As it notes, schools and colleges are exceedingly low priorities, and forms of this policy have been in place for many years. Virtually no campus has ever been raided for students in unauthorized status or undocumented campus workers, and they are unlikely to be.
But just as I cannot tell you how to react to any rollbacks of the Affordable Care Act, I cannot tell people what could happen and what the alternatives are. I know it will not be good, if for no other reason than it has already exposed vulnerable populations -- who are not "criminal," and who actually may be lawfully present (such as DACA holders) or in legal status (such as F-1 students from Muslim countries).
And I cannot promise these students that positive results will come of all this. I have urged them to be careful in expressing themselves in ways that might give rise to thermodynamic reactions, as have begun to surface. Getting arrested and convicted of any transgressions would give real rise to possibilities of deportation. And they should be careful about using social media in a way that might expose their parents to possible harm. I will not urge them to march into the valley of death or to put themselves at risk, although I will agree that the peaceful marchas galvanized public attention in 2006. American citizens who urge this option for DREAMers should examine their consciences and not encourage these students to put themselves in harm's way. At the very least, we should do no harm.
Feel-good actions and solidarity are fine and have an important place in the civil-rights narrative. But I do not hold out hope that the sanctuary proposals will make any genuine change or provide actual sanctuary -- whatever that empty vessel means to anyone on either side of the issue. And so I prefer more meaningful actions, such as working with student groups and their supporters: advocacy groups, bar associations, social service agencies, philanthropies and the usual support infrastructures for colleges and communities. The University of Houston Law Center, where I have spent most of my professional life, has stepped up, and my colleagues and law students are providing technical assistance and advice, as have many of my immigration law professor colleagues.
I ride with my students in the university's elevators every day, and it always is a life-affirming experience, as so many are first-generation students, immigrants and students of color. When they recognize me, they relate their experiences and their triumphs and concerns. In the last two weeks, they have actually cheered me up -- not for the first time. I have dedicated my entire life to them, and they have reciprocated. One of them sensed my own dread and said to me, "Llegamos tan cerca (We came very close)."
What can we do? We still have more than 20 states in this country that provide resident tuition for the undocumented. But the students' trajectory would clearly be altered if DACA were abolished or allowed to expire. It would be a foolish and tragic policy to demonize and deport these DREAMers, even as their parents have been criminalized in the narrative. We need these students, and they surely need us now. Can't we all agree that comprehensive immigration reform is overdue 30 years since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986? If we want to do something constructive, such advocacy has never been more necessary.
That will be a tremendous fight, under the circumstances. But these students in whom we have invested should be at the front of that line, when Congress recognizes its responsibilities. That is where we should all focus our efforts.
Many community groups work to assist immigrants; two of them are directed by formers students of mine, and two others employ former students. All are 501(c)3 organizations, and donations to them are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.
Submitted by Ben Paris on November 29, 2016 - 3:00am
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.
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.
Scott Eric Kaufman -- an American critic and journalist who developed a readership while blogging as a graduate student in English -- died in Houston on Monday following multiple organ failure and acute complications.
He was about a month short of his 40th birthday. A great many Inside Higher Ed readers will know his work -- whether from his blog Acephalous or more recently when he wrote for Salon and The A.V. Club, among other venues -- and I hope that they will join me in trying to help his family with medical expenses. Donations can be made at this website.
Everyone called him SEK, sooner or later. It always seemed like a hard nickname to get a reading on: both formal and informal, somehow. We met during and after the Modern Language Association convention in Chicago in 2007, which would have been around the time he turned 30, and that is how I remember SEK still -- looking vaguely David Foster Wallace-ish, my memory insists.
It compounds the dismay at realizing he has died so young -- and drives home the sense that this has been an especially cruel year. I’ve just noticed that he identified himself as (((SEK))) on his Twitter account, the parentheses being an anti-Semitic signal that the person whose name is so punctuated is Jewish. He’d found a way to neuter a whole class of trolls using one of their own devices. Anybody who can do that is someone you want on your side in a fight, and not just in spirit.
The past is full of dumb controversies -- their urgency made ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight. The stakes are difficult to credit since the outcome now seems inevitable. I doubt anyone coming of age in the present decade can imagine how intense the discussion once was over whether or not graduate students or junior faculty could afford the risk of having a blog -- indeed, whether even someone with tenure might not endanger any claim to professional respect by blogging.
No, seriously, it was an issue. The year was 2005. A would-be moral entrepreneur calling himself Ivan Tribble wrote an article full of dire harrumphing about blogs as an unscholarly and self-indulgent pastime that might (and probably should) render the hobbyist unemployable. The piece ran in one of the major journals of news and opinion covering higher education, read largely by administrators and senior faculty members who -- having, in many cases, only just learned how to download a PDF -- barely knew what a blog was, much less whether it might have any value.
Tribble’s admonishing of younger academics about the risks of blogging was, in reality, a bit of rhetorical sleight of hand: the real point was to rally the gatekeepers, to warn them that nothing good could come of this new way of constituting and engaging a public. The debate that ensued turned out to be a defining moment for the first generation of academic bloggers. (You can judge how Tribble’s side of the controversy fared by the fact that it was the first generation of academic bloggers.)
SEK was among the first to respond to Tribble’s argument, but he also contributed what I’d say was the last word on the subject. He was, at the time, a graduate student in English at the University of California, Irvine, working toward the Ph.D. he received in 2008. He’d begun blogging in early 2005 -- a mixture of reflections on his work, anecdotes from his teaching experience (most memorably about finding two undergraduates having sex in his carrel) and venting on whatever seemed to merit it.
In 2006, he organized a panel on blogging for that year’s MLA and took a survey of his readership, which proved to be, as he told a packed room at the convention, “highly educated, consisting of a group best described as ‘the unusually literate.’” Out of the nearly 800 responses, he said, “two hundred and eleven were graduate students in English; another 172 of them were professors; 164 were historians, most of whom were professors; after that the disciplines begin to break down. Forty-two philosophers, 27 sociologists, 24 neuroscientists, 18 students of religious studies, 11 political scientists, seven physicists, three classicists and one self-described ‘freelance librarian’ named Rich.”
He went on to explain, “My list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, merely suggestive of the intellectual community an unspectacular graduate student can create when he spends an hour or two writing for someone other than himself, his committee and the lucky 11 people who’ll skim his work, if, by some miracle, it lands in a flagship journal. My ideas are out there, circulating, in way not often seen outside of conferences and seminar rooms, but the diversity of the crowd forces me to find some way to communicate with my readers in terms they’ll all be able to understand. This doesn’t mean, as some would have it, that I’m simplifying my ideas for a general audience.”
That any of this might even be possible came as a revelation to some people. Earlier this month, a young professor at a conference mentioned to me that reading Acephalous and The Valve (a now-defunct group blog SEK participated in) had, in effect, bridged the gap between what he’d hoped to find in graduate school and the realities he had to accept once there.
At the time of the conversation, Kaufman was already in intensive care, and I regret never thinking to pass those remarks along. But anyone who benefited from his life and work can express their appreciation to his family, so here’s that page for donations again.
As the CEO of a tech start-up and a former professor, here’s what keeps me awake at night: half of college students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math end up dropping those courses and switching to another major. That is disturbing, not only because I am personally passionate about STEM innovators’ potential to improve lives, but also because it is no secret that we are in dire need of a STEM-proficient work force. If we continue at this rate of attrition, in the next decade, America will need approximately a million more STEM professionals than the field will produce. While we’re pumping much-needed investments into ensuring more K-12 students have access to worthwhile math and computer science education, these investments will mean very little if students abandon STEM once they get to college.
If these skills are so critical, why are students failing to complete STEM degrees? And what can we do to reverse the trend?
In recent years, we’ve gained a better understanding of why students drop STEM majors. Many leave the field early -- even during the first courses they take as undergraduates -- because they’re striving to get good grades in comparison to their performance in non-STEM courses. Some students who struggle the most are discouraged to the point of dropping out of college altogether, which is a devastating outcome for students who once hoped to be computer programmers, doctors and engineers.
The other largest driver of STEM attrition is a lack of engagement with the material. There is a mismatch between today’s students, who understand and interact with the world through technology, and the outdated, two-dimensional delivery of information found in too many STEM courses. This is a shame, given that STEM subjects are inherently engaging, interactive and rooted in exploration.
In classrooms around the world, instructors are tapping into the potential of new technologies to address this learning deficit, and interactive learning models are proving most effective at increasing student engagement and boosting student performance. In STEM programs in particular, these new technologies have been grafted to the established curriculum as one way to improve student retention rates, and the results are promising. Studies show improved student performance in these courses -- more A’s and B’s, fewer D’s and F’s -- with particularly significant gains for the lowest-performing students.
Interactive learning tools using web-based technology, such as digital textbooks and homework assignments, present endless possibilities to improve student engagement and achievement. And we’re not talking about digital copies of static text but rather materials that are alive with animation, graphics and instant-feedback question sets that emphasize learning through action. Such tools work because they disrupt the classic passive learning model and invite the student to become the doer.
Students taking these courses demonstrate not only improved results but also a greater desire to learn. In fact, most report a preference for interactive learning tools and choose to spend twice as much time with interactive textbooks than traditional textbooks, even though there is less text. Students are staying on track and moving on with a deeper understanding of the content.
When I taught at the University of California, Davis, many of my colleagues faced the same issue: traditional textbooks and teaching resources are simply not as effective as we need them to be, leaving even the most talented instructors equipped with inadequate tools. Embracing web-based resources allows us to show movement, cause and effect, and coding outcomes much better than a PowerPoint, chalkboard or old-fashioned textbook ever could. And without the costs of printing and physical distribution, web-based interactive tools address yet another barrier to student retention -- the burden of soaring textbook prices -- head-on.
This is a pivotal moment in developing the STEM work force. We are witnessing a generation of students with inherent talent and capacity give up before they’ve even begun. If we don’t focus our efforts on supporting greater numbers of students to succeed in STEM degrees, we may find ourselves navigating a STEM shortage more stark than the gap we see today. Fortunately, instructors are keenly aware of the challenge and are cultivating the necessary ingenuity to steer this generation back to STEM and to success.
Smita Bakshi is the co-founder and CEO of zyBooks digital interactive textbooks and a former electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of California, Davis.
Submitted by Anonymous on November 22, 2016 - 3:00am
The STEM Fields
When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case Fisher vs. the University of Texas in July, university admissions officers cheered the affirmation of including race and ethnicity as admissions criteria when narrowly tailored to the institution’s mission. Despite the positive decision for affirmative action, however, university leaders are facing another challenge: making sure they have the right diversity practices in place to support the students they admit. Colleges and universities still have plenty of work to do to encourage students to pursue high-needs fields, like STEM and the biomedical sciences, where diversity is urgently needed.
In addition, universities continue to struggle with faculty diversity, which studies have shown is important not just for excellence in teaching and research but also for the overall campus climate. All the more reason, then, for us to redouble our efforts in researching and sharing effective practices for improving campus diversity -- and identifying ineffective practices that we should stop.
We’ve got a great base to start from. Take the many initiatives designed to ensure the success of underrepresented students -- programs designed precisely to ensure that we don’t lose them on their way to graduate school and the biomedical research work force. These efforts develop student talent along the educational and career continuum in biomedical and STEM fields, and ensure student persistence and success. Most important, some of these programs have developed successful models and gathered evaluative research to understand their success.
For example, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County has been widely recognized for its successful development of many underrepresented students in the sciences. An evaluation of the program found that the key levers of success were financial support, identity formation as a member of the community of Meyerhoff Scholars, summer research activities and professional network development.
Another example is the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, which aims to address the barriers facing underrepresented students in matriculating to doctoral programs. The program has produced a number of high-profile graduates, including Fabienne Bastien, the first African-American woman to be published in Nature and the first African-American recipient of the NASA Hubble Fellowship. Half of the program’s Ph.D. graduates are female, and 83 percent are minority-community individuals.
What would yet more research on these and other programs tell us about how to support the success of all students? We need more empirical evidence to close gaps in the existing research. We also need to bring exemplary practices to scale more quickly at many more institutions. For example, based on gaps in existing research we need to:
Identify effective interventions that universities can implement to reduce stereotype threat, a phenomenon that occurs when members of a disadvantaged group perform poorly when made aware of negative stereotypes about their group;
Learn more about how underrepresented students in STEM are accessing high-impact practices, such as internships and undergraduate research, and develop strategies for increasing participation; and
Identify effective teaching and learning methods that will boost underrepresented undergraduate student performance in required gateway courses.
These three areas, ripe for action, also demonstrate the gaps in the evidence. For example, high-impact practices are supported by a robust body of research, but less is known about how well underrepresented students are accessing these experiences. This is because most high-impact practices occur beyond the classroom, and it is difficult to track students’ participation and tie their experiences to academic outcomes.
In other cases, different interventions have been tested at the institutional level but have not been evaluated across institutions or in different contexts, such as adapting undergraduate interventions for graduate students. It’s a complex problem, and the research needs to get at that complexity.
Working together, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, its Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities, and the Association of American Medical Colleges have gathered the existing evidence in a recent report that also identifies what’s missing and where we need to go next.
To address these gaps in research, we will need more partners in government, industry, philanthropy and academe to take action -- testing the available models, researching new options, reporting on their results and revising approaches based on the evidence in hand.
Improving evidence for pilot interventions will help leaders build a case for adoption of those shown to be effective at many institutions. Learning more about potential barriers to access will help university leaders improve pathways into these experiences and track student outcomes more effectively.
And at a more basic level, probing more deeply into what works and what doesn’t in our efforts to support diversity will help us with a much more fundamental problem: we’ll get a clearer picture of the “systemic unfairness” that our blind spots prevent us from seeing, as Lisa Burrell pointed out in her Harvard Business Review article “We Just Can’t Handle Diversity.” More precise research will help us avoid such phenomena as hindsight bias, which, as Burrell describes, “causes us to believe that random events are predictable and to manufacture explanations for the inevitability of our achievements.”
In its decision in the Fisher case, the Supreme Court justices called on universities to “engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection” about how diversity is achieved. We go one step farther: higher education institutions and their partners need to research as well as reflect, demonstrate as well as deliberate and put a fine point on existing findings to close the gaps in the research. Only then can we counter the challenges to our efforts to diversify the biomedical research work force and ensure that we’re doing everything we can to support the success of all students.
Jennifer C. Danek is the senior director for Urban Universities for HEALTH, a collaborative effort of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities/Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Marc Nivet is the former chief diversity officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.