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Review of Timothy Recuber's 'Consuming Catastrophe'

On first reading the title of Timothy Recuber’s Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster (Temple University Press), my guess was that it would be about the 1970s -- that is to say, the era of my childhood, when movies like Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and The Hindenburg were the talk of the playground. Besides the disaster movies (which were a genre unto itself, for a few years), there were best-selling books and TV fair of similar ilk.

It was all pretty formulaic -- even ritualistic. The strains of numerous crises in public life (Watergate, the oil embargo and inflation, plus aftershocks from the 1960s) were translated into the language of blockbuster melodrama. The spectacular disaster on the screen or the page enacted a kind of miniature social implosion, its destructive force revealing the inner strengths or vices of the characters who had to face it. Various embodiments of evil or dumb authority would perish. Survivors of the disaster would reunite with their families or reconnect with their values.

The genre’s chief weakness was that the supply of viable disaster scenarios was not unlimited. The point of exhaustion came, as I recall, with a made-for-TV movie-of-the-week involving a swarm of killer bees. In retrospect, the whole period looks like one big anxiety disorder. Ronald Reagan never appeared in a disaster movie, but his election in 1980 probably owed something to the genre insofar as the public could imagine him guiding it to safety through all the debris.

In Consuming Catastrophe, Recuber, a visiting assistant professor of communication at Hamilton College, has a another period and variety of spectacle in mind: the real-world disasters from the first decade of this century (Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shootings, the BP offshore oil spill, the near collapse of the financial system in 2008), rather than symptomatic fictions churned out as entertainment.

The contrast is also one of levels of immediacy and saturation of the public attention. Very few news stories of 40 years ago unfolded with the intensity and duration of real-time coverage that has become the norm -- even when the occasion is something considerably less wrenching than a disaster. This tends to create a public sense of somehow participating in an event, rather than just being informed about it. The potentials and limits of that participation are the focus of much of Recuber’s interest.

The widest frame of his perspective takes in German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas’s argument that newspapers and magazines were foundational elements of the public sphere of information and reasoned debate that could challenge policies and opinions that derived their force only from established authority or the inertia of tradition. Besides the political and economic issues normally associated with Habermas’s understanding of the public sphere, Recuber notes that “disasters, crises, misfortunes and the suffering of distant others were central topics of discussion there, although [its] literate publics frequently disagreed about the moral and ethical acceptability of such macabre subjects.” The classic instance would be the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (see this column from 2005, on the disaster’s sestercentennial).

Recuber quotes Adam Smith on what is involved in a sympathetic response to others’ misfortune: “The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and, what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment.” This seems carefully balanced -- a synthesis of much public-sphere argument, no doubt. But it is also demanding. It implies some obligation to find an effective means to alleviate the suffering as well as to determine if any part of it was preventable. Sympathy, to use the preferred 18th-century term, was not just a personal emotional response but also a communal force. It held society together and could, if strengthened, improve it.

Fast-forward two centuries and a few decades, and we find the contradictory and perverse situation that Recuber describes in a series of case studies. Means of communication exist that can expand our powers of sympathy and our capacity to intervene to reduce suffering -- and they do sometimes, but in problematic ways. It’s not just that the intensity and pervasiveness of media coverage of disasters can induce what’s become known as “compassion fatigue.” That is certainly a factor, but Recuber emphasizes the more subtle and insidious role of what he calls “the empathic gaze.”

Where sympathy means an awareness of another’s unhappiness as something that can and should be alleviated, empathy, in the author’s usage, “refers to an intersubjective understanding of the other’s plight devoid of the obligation to intervene.” It is a relationship to the other’s suffering that is of a “more passive, vicarious character.” The capacity for empathy is much praised in the contemporary literature of self-help and personnel management. Certainly it’s preferable to the psychopathic indifference which, of late, increasingly seems like the other main option on order. But in Recuber’s estimation it rests content with having reached a secure but passive position vis-à-vis suffering, if not a rather morbidly sensationalistic variety of pity.

My impression is that Recuber, far from chastising us as a generation of moral ghouls feasting on disaster, actually regards sympathy as our original or default mode of moral perspective (rather as some 18th-century thinkers did). His case studies of disasters from 2001 to 2010 are, in effect, accounts of sympathy being frustrated, exploited or otherwise short-circuited in diverse ways by the channels into which the media directs it.

One example stands out in particular and will stick in my memory. It concerns the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, which left 32 dead, followed by the suicide of the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho. Cho sent a multimedia package explaining himself to NBC Nightly News, portions of which were shown on the program two days after the shootings. “We are sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected,” the news anchor said, “and we know that we are in effect airing the words of a murderer here tonight.”

No one could accuse him of lacking empathy, anyway; empathy can discharge its responsibilities simply by announcing itself. “The statement was an oddly unbalanced one,” Recuber comments, “… seemingly missing a second half that explained what the benefits of broadcasting the manifesto to be and why they outweighed the concerns of ‘those affected.’ Such a statement never came.”

But of course not! It’s not as if being “sensitive to how all of this will be seen by those affected” compelled the network to spare them anything. Those of us watching disaster movies in the 1970s were on higher moral ground: the entertainment was brainless but at least it involved no disregard for real suffering.

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Four fundamentals colleges must communicate in the post-election era (essay)

In the wake of the presidential election, most analysts have concluded that the higher education community  was one of the biggest losers. American colleges and universities may offer the education the world desires, but people in huge swaths of the country perceive campuses as elitist and full of political views they reject.

The election results arrived, too, amid long-boiling cynicism and doubt about the value, and values, of our institutions. Even for students seeking degrees, the costs and debts have often become onerous, and the results -- notably the jobs -- are not always what have been promised. Now, exit polls say, the election has confirmed how differently college and noncollege graduates view just about everything.

We in higher education must address vital issues of access, cost and effectiveness (let alone widespread and brutal economic inequality). We must also reconnect who we are and what we do with our own campus communities and especially with America’s wider citizenry. But communication is especially fraught as postelection campus strife swirls, amid calls for sanctuary campuses, walkouts, hate speech and acts of violence.

Our institutions, aiming to serve outstanding talent wherever it is found, bring together human differences -- cultural, racial, economic and more -- that even in normal times invite tension. Day after day, in classrooms and residence halls, events and offhand conversations, diverse and changing generations wrestle with ideas that invoke all those differences. Even without postelection duress, conflicts over ideology, language, race, gender identity and every other complicated topic would be guaranteed. Throw social media into the mix and you have quite a brew. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like can turn campus struggles into national, and immediate, spectacles.

When such crises emerge, we must respond with speed -- and across numerous media simultaneously. But what do we say in those moments, and even more, over the longer term? Having worked in higher education, at both public and private institutions, since the administration of George H. W. Bush, I believe that four pillars must serve as the foundation of higher education communication in this postelection era.

First principles. Higher education is by definition about something, well, higher. Ideals that are the cornerstone of mission statements everywhere express a commitment to liberation of the mind, rigorous pursuit of the truth, skepticism about received wisdom, engagement in civic life, respect for freedom of speech, and the imperative of decency and character. These ideals connect colleges and universities to something greater in the human spirit than the pressures of the moment -- be they political, cultural or otherwise.

These ideals are largely American ideals, too. Especially when doubts are greatest and bigotry is rising, the vocalizing of those ideals must be steady. Through speeches, statements, emails to alumni, op-eds and other means, campus voices must convey and stand by them. Presidents, provosts and deans -- the academic leadership -- must take the lead, as some already have done forcefully since Nov. 8. That must spread and continue for months and years to come. Presumably we believe that, in difficult times, higher education has light to fight for, and to offer.

The academic core. The noble principles that our institutions profess are rooted in the belief that powers of the mind can bring us closer to truth, and therefore closer to those better angels of our natures that our missions promise to inspire. Reason, logic, analysis, accuracy -- colleges and universities are built around such qualities. Foregrounding what is essential seems especially critical when the difference between fact, falsehood and opinion is being muddied. But a cursory examination of much of our messaging will find other ideas prioritized: career value, community service, leadership development, economic impact. These are important, but they all depend upon delivering the academic mission first, and the rhetoric shouldn’t confuse what’s first and foremost.

Stories. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about human beings going back to our cave days, it’s that we’re fascinated with stories. We in higher education need to tell ours, specifically the ones that show why the ideals and academic mission of our institutions matter.

The election autopsy is making the case that elites too often talk past other people, but that argument isn’t only about the failures of ignoring economic pain or “flyover country.” It’s also about assuming that facts and data are sufficient for argument or advocacy. Our ideals need a down-to-earth life, because that is where they reveal themselves. If we’re going to make our missions real and honest, sound reasoning has to be paired with stories of the people who are affected by the ideals. Thankfully our resources for these stories, in the experiences of students and alumni, are virtually limitless.

A bigger audience. Four-year colleges and universities naturally spend most of their time communicating with people already in the same sphere: people on the campus, admissions prospects and alumni. But only a third of American adults have a four-year degree. If we’re not communicating regularly with the rest of the country, meaning the rest of the community around us, we actually are living in a bubble, just as critics allege.

There are numerous places through which to connect, including local civic clubs, shelters, hospitals, K-12 schools, churches, farms, small businesses, industry -- and local two-year colleges, too, where so many of tomorrow’s bachelor’s degree aspirants begin. This can’t only be through service work by students and others, either. It has to be through sharing ideas, listening and building understanding and relationships. The election has been an intense reminder of the vast gap that can exist between how people with a four-year degree and those without one experience the world. Higher education can do more to listen, learn, serve -- and bridge the divide.

The election makes clear the striking importance of reaching out -- and of how, how often and how extensively we do it. The stakes have become extreme for higher education, and more importantly, for our nation. Getting this right is crucial.

Pete Mackey led communications at such institutions as Amherst College, Bucknell University and the University of South Carolina and now runs the communications firm Mackey Strategies.

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After the election, academics should pursue a form of radical dialogue (essay)

I am a professor of sociology who did not vote for Donald Trump, and I do not know of a single academic colleague who did. (And if they did, they are certainly not disclosing this in academic circles.)

I remember sitting with colleagues before the primaries when Trump was gaining ground. They laughed him off. They did not know anyone who would vote for him.

The pollsters got it wrong, too, and they all seemed to get it wrong in the same direction: in favor of established liberal Hillary Clinton. They are already writing about the statistical reasons this may have happened. I am going to set those aside for now to address a sociological, qualitative reason.

Sociologists have long studied the tendency of people to bond with others like them. Case in point: I love my academic colleagues because they are a lot like me. We are a group of passionate people who care deeply about the poor. And we are similar in other ways, too. We like to read dry academic articles and make arguments that contain the word “nuanced.”

And politically, many of us lean to the left (or even the far left). When I am with other sociologists, I tend to de-emphasize the things that are different about us and emphasize the things that are similar: I talk a lot about how my husband is an equal partner in care for our daughter, how I come from a biracial family and how I am raising my daughter in, as much as possible, a gender-neutral fashion.

That is starkly different from the way I was brought up.

I was literally raised on Podunk Road, where trailers and beat-up cars dotted the landscape. Our family was probably among the richest of a group of poor white people. Among those I went to school with, I am one of the only ones who attended an Ivy League school, Cornell University. I was likely let in under affirmative action because of a land grant that required the university to take in a proportion of local farm kids. I fit this description.

When I am with my colleagues, I talk less about how most of my family were church-going, card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association or how I still go to church every week.

The truth is, academics at elite institutions tend to be more liberal, less religious and more in favor of big government than the rest of the American population. Most of us would be hard-pressed to give a well-reasoned, conservative argument in response to any social issue. And more than one academic colleague has told me that if their neighbor had a Republican sign on his lawn, they probably would not make any effort to get to know the neighbor.

I join my colleagues in the fight against social inequality in all its insidious forms. But many academics like me have not spent much time trying to understand the groups of people who likely voted for Trump, nor have we spent much time trying to translate our academic work to these groups. And given the demographics of the United States, we forget that, for Trump to win, he needed to have some of the people whose interests I think his views work against actually vote for him -- including poor people, immigrants, women and Latinos.

For most academics, our candidate did not win the presidential election. We now face a crossroads. Will we lock ourselves in our ivory towers and face the outside world with cynicism? Or will we concede that our best social scientists got the prediction wrong?

Now is the time to move forward in pursuing a form of radical dialogue that we do not hear very often on university campuses. I would advocate that we move forward as leaders in listening to and learning from the entire world outside the academy. We need to live up to the best vision of the university, where everyone is welcomed to hear and be challenged by views different than their own.

Here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Challenge yourself to find the best voice on the other side. Academics are human, and it’s tempting when dealing with controversial issues to choose an unattractive opponent. I study religion, and I have heard many debates between erudite, attractive academics and inarticulate faith leaders. We must find the most attractive, well-spoken person on the “other side.”
  • Claim the best vision of the university as a protected space for dialogue. Each month, through the Religion and Public Life Program that I direct at Rice University, I host a discussion or reception for 20 to 30 religious and civic leaders at my home. In the midst of polarized faith communities and tensions between faith and secular communities, the leaders who come say that this is one of the few places in their lives where they have the opportunity to meet with someone who is different. I have seen conservative and liberal faith leaders, people who would never meet under another circumstance, come together around common social justice issues.
  • Claim a nonutilitarian vision of the university. Universities have fallen prey to business principles. Some of this is unavoidable as funding streams narrow. In its best form this utilitarianism is born from a desire to do work that really counts. But universities can be the soul of society. Sometimes we academics -- who are busy with committee work, raising funding for projects and getting out the last possible publication for the academic audience -- forget what a privilege it is (especially for those of us who have stable academic jobs and even stable academic jobs with tenure) to work in a university context where we get paid to do work that we love.

In its worst form, the academy is often rightly criticized as being in an ivory tower with no central importance to helping solve societal problems. But in their best form, universities can provide society spaces to stop and reflect. That is why, in particular, the modern university needs the humanities. In my university classes, I learned practical skills for a job, but the best classes I took were my history and philosophy and writing classes -- those that prepared me to think, reflect and appreciate beauty.

I write this from a sabbatical in France. I grew up among the rural poor, but I do not know many of them anymore. In the next few months, I will return to America, to reality and, I hope, to trying to understand this new reality and sharing that knowledge with my colleagues, students and the rest of the world.

The election has changed me. When I return I want to be a better teacher and do a better job incorporating views and traditions different than my own in my classes. I might spend more time trying to translate my work to a broader public that can benefit from it and from whom I can learn. When colleagues say things that cut off dialogue or say that certain views are not welcome, I might feel freer to gently challenge. I might spend more time in my community translating my work, and I might take my students with me. I might try harder to bring that community to campus. In the best case, the election provides a chance for the academy to reflect on itself and achieve a new vision of service to the broader society.

Elaine Howard Ecklund is the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice University, where she directs the Religion and Public Life Program.

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Educators should create environments to nurture students' grit (essay)

One of the hot topics on campuses this year is “grit,” which University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth understands as a fusion of passion, aspiration, tenacity and resilience that launches people to success.

Her important new book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, challenges educators and institutions to see and strengthen this mind-set in our students. Yet some critics have taken issue with Duckworth, arguing that grit is too hard to isolate and measure, or too weak for broad impact in the face of structural barriers like generational poverty.

Recognizing these caveats, when I consider the lives and stories of my mentees at Franklin & Marshall College, grit seems like a crucial X factor in their achievement.

For example, there’s Markera Jones, who grew up contending with racism and low expectations at school. Throughout college, she kept trying and striving, whether studying Arabic or doing research with a psychology professor, working in a warehouse over breaks or studying abroad in France.

Central to her sustained drive was a calling to improve the lives of African-American children. Having graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2015, she’s now following her purpose by teaching in Memphis, Tenn., as she prepares to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology.

Then there’s Carolina Giraldo, whose parents fled the Colombian drug wars so that she and her younger brother, Luis, could grow up safe and free in America. Tragically, after years of hard work and family sacrifice, her father died suddenly during Giraldo’s first year of college.

Hurting profoundly, she picked herself up and vowed to persevere. As a sophomore she earned excellent grades and made all-conference in women’s varsity crew. The next year she won the campus award for best painting: a rendition of the eye of Michelangelo’s David. Last May, Giraldo graduated cum laude with a major in biochemistry and molecular biology on her way to medical school.

And there’s Becca Meyers, a history major who has Usher’s syndrome, which takes away hearing and sight. Navigating campus with her service dog, Birdie, and meeting often with professors, she also maintains a rigorous training regimen as a competitive swimmer. Her day-to-day life is more grueling than most people can imagine.

This September, Meyers won four medals -- three gold, one silver -- and set two world records at the 2016 Paralympic Games.

Of course, it wasn’t grit alone that propelled her to triumph. She had the moral and financial support from her loving parents to access great resources. And she came to a college that could help her balance the high demands of training and serious academics.

But that doesn’t change the fact that grit is a component of Meyers’s overall talent, which I define even more broadly than Duckworth, as all the resources we can draw upon to thrive in the challenges and opportunities of life.

Well, some ask, isn’t the idea of grit self-evident? Doesn’t everyone already know that most people need to work very hard and stay positive to achieve their goals?

Not really. Duckworth reminds us how often our society relies on mythical notions of “innate gifts” and thus fails to give grit its due. Sadly, when colleges are blind to the real assets and resources of students, we fall short of a key American ideal, which is that talent deserves the opportunity to rise.

Her research implies that highly selective colleges should do a better job identifying which applicants are strong on grit. Could we really do so? Sure -- by looking for students who have constantly sought out opportunity. By listening when applicants tell us they have acted on their passion for education in demonstrable ways. By seeing who has sustained strong grades over time or made the commitment to develop a skill that requires arduous practice.

And then there’s the educational process itself once students get to college. Because grit is not innate or fixed, Duckworth argues, we can cultivate and grow it, thereby enhancing student growth.

How would that happen?

Obviously, not by ignoring obstacles and deprivations and placing responsibility on the students alone to use their grit for success. Rather, educators should seek to build campus ecosystems where those with grit can shine, strengthen themselves and inspire others.

For example, we can give students more challenging research opportunities and one-to-one time with faculty members. We can help them pursue self-generated projects in areas of passion. We can treat those ubiquitous work-study jobs as opportunities to learn practical job skills or address inequities on or off the campus. We can celebrate the grit in the cultures and communities of students and encourage those with passion and perseverance to serve in peer leadership roles. All of this presumes that we’ll partner with students to meet their financial needs rather than asking them to assume unfair work or debt burdens.

As we consider such ideas, Duckworth places in the forefront the developmental fact that undergraduate education should be about much more than simply acquiring information toward a linear set of “competencies.” Strengthening grit can help the young develop the inner power to grow up, push forward and live well as active citizens.

Which brings us back my student Carolina Giraldo, who lost her father.

Last spring, during her senior year, she and I were partners in a workshop that asked us to choose a word that describes us best. Knowing her well, I thought she might pick “high-achieving, “caring,” “creative,” or “new American.” All true.

Instead, with pride in her eyes, she said, “Resilient.”

Which means this: more than her high grades and honors, this student values her optimistic drive against the headwinds of adversity. Having grit has become core to her moral identity and developing self.

Of course, Giraldo isn’t only resilient. But, indeed, it was her ability to bounce back from setbacks that empowered her to live all the other values that I and other mentors see in her: the readiness to work hard to learn difficult material, the freedom to dive headlong into new opportunities, the yearning to create growth and make meaning.

Such interior growth is one of the great aims of education. Where both perseverance and passion flourish, education has done its most sublime work. And, by the way, successes are probably not far behind.

Daniel R. Porterfield is president of Franklin & Marshall College.

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Minority students should receive a better education in the humanities (essay)

Diversity in the Humanities

A few years ago, James H. Tatum and his colleague at Dartmouth College William Cook published a book that was a real eye=opener. African American Writers and Classical Tradition, published by the University of Chicago Press, took an in-depth look at the work of Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, Rita Dove and others to show that “African-American literature did not develop apart from canonical Western literary traditions but instead grew out of those literatures,” while at the same time adapting and transforming African cultural traditions.

Since many of the works that had the greatest influence on those writers had their roots in Greece and Rome, the book was a wake-up call for us classicists. But while it was warmly received and won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, it has not yet led to a strong effort to answer such questions as “What about the next generation of African-American writers, thinkers, leaders? As college students, will they have in-depth access to the literature that proved so empowering to their predecessors?”

Access to serious study of the literature and experience of ancient Greece and Rome, long the core of a liberal education, is now severely limited for all students in the United States -- whatever their ethnicity, socioeconomic status or color. No more than one college student in seven attends an institution with a department or program in the ancient Greek and Latin classics. For an African-American student the opportunities are likely to be even more restricted.

That is in part because of the limited curricular offerings at the 83 historically black colleges and universities offering bachelor’s degrees. Those institutions, Wikipedia reports, accounted for 13 percent of black higher education enrollment in 2001. Of these institutions, I know of only one, Howard University, that has had a department of classics. A similar limitation of opportunity is evident if we ask which institutions, HBCU or not, enroll the largest number of non-Hispanic African-American undergraduate students. According to Collegexpress, the following nonprofit four-year institutions enroll the largest number of African-Americans:

  1. Georgia State University
  2. Florida A&M University
  3. University of Maryland University College at Adelphi
  4. University of Memphis
  5. Troy University

More than 40,000 African-American students are enrolled at these five institutions, but only a few of the five provide a coherent program for the study of ancient Greece and Rome.

Some African-American students, to be sure, attend institutions with strong programs in the ancient world. These are often highly selective, well-endowed colleges and universities, often with aggressive minority recruitment programs. Yet even there, the percentage of African-American students in the student body is less than one might hope.

This situation needs to change, and in classics, there are signs that it can change. Many departments of classics can point to African-American students who have flourished through their study of the classics. The challenge, then, is to find ways to make such success more widespread.

That will take action both at the campus level and nationally. Fortunately, models of proven effectiveness can be adapted, such as the Teagle Foundation’s College-Community Connections, which introduces low-income students from New York City public high schools to the liberal arts. Cheryl Ching, a former staff member directly involved in the program, recently looked back on one example of its success, writing in an email, “I think about the freedom and citizenship seminar that Andrew Delbanco and his colleagues at Columbia University developed for the Double Discovery students, where there was a conscious effort to relate Plato, Aristotle and all the great writers of Western civilization to lives of the mostly students of color in the program.”

Such successes are waiting to be replicated. The Paideia Program’s Living Latin program in Rome reports some spectacular results for similar students, including those at the precollegiate level. That program might be scaled up with added attention to the special needs of minority students while still in high school. Collaborative efforts among institutions, collegiate and precollegiate, might benefit from the experience of the Sunoikisis program at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies.

No doubt other promising models and good ideas can be shaped, tried out and rigorously evaluated to help the next generation of students experience in depth what proved so important in the past. In higher education these days we talk a lot about access, but we rarely include in the discussion access for all students to a rich and genuinely diverse curriculum. Making that kind of access available to all students is the real test of leadership at every level, from the individual department to the national organizations that shape educational policy.

Black learning matters.

W. Robert Connor has served as director of the National Humanities Center and president of the Teagle Foundation. He blogs at www.wrobertconnor.com.

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How dwindling support for the humanities and higher ed's lack of diversity are related (essay)

Diversity in the Humanities

One morning not too long ago, I opened Inside Higher Ed and read a story about the dwindling support for humanities. Citing low enrollments, Western Illinois University had just cut four degree programs, including philosophy and religious studies. Faculty members were worried. Metrics were being questioned.

In other news outlets, another dire situation played out: more student protests over a lack of diversity -- this time at Seattle University. The tone was urgent. The institution placed the dean on administrative leave, and the students demonstrated for 22 days, demanding more attention to diversity in the curriculum.

Were these two separate stories? Or were they, in fact, closely intertwined?

Campus politics over the past decade have centered on diversity issues -- on addressing racial, ethnic, sexual and gender bias in the student body, faculty and administration. “Inclusivity” is the watchword on campuses today. Consequently, over the past few years, new diversity officers have been hired, budgets for diversity efforts have been skyrocketing -- in 2015, for instance, Yale University committed $50 million toward faculty diversity initiatives -- and intellectual approaches to the understanding of diversity are being integrated into curricula at places like Hamilton College.

While the emphasis on diversity is gaining momentum, force and funding, the perceived crisis in the humanities appears to be fading into the background, left to defend itself ad nauseam. In fact, it seems that these two movements may even be functioning against one another. The result of more affordable access to college for lower-income students, for example, may very well be leading to cuts in programs with low enrollments or lower salary yields (i.e., the humanities), as Gordon Hutner and Feisal G. Mohamed of the University of Illinois readily underscore in “The Real Humanities Crisis Is Happening at Public Universities.”

But can our institutions of higher education afford not to support and invest heavily in the humanities? Can we welcome a growing number of diverse students without increased attention to the study of languages, art, music and cultural contributions of people from diverse communities around the world? Can our country claim to educate democratic citizens without teaching our children to analyze the messages that inform their personal and political lives -- skills learned in literature classes? Can our country grapple with radical Islamic groups while defunding religious studies programs and courses in Arabic language and culture, art, and history?

I find it troubling that explicit and comprehensive support for the humanities as central to any institution’s efforts to build a diverse and inclusive curriculum and campus culture has largely been absent from national conversations.

The humanities inform the kinds of values implicit in diversity and inclusion initiatives because our disciplines consistently demand that we become more attuned to the nuances of each other’s lives. The knowledge students gain in the most diverse learning hubs on our campuses -- as most of our modern languages and literatures departments are -- allow them to more truly value each other’s differences inside and outside the classroom, in local or global communities. In those spaces, they learn to confront their own biases and blind spots by engaging with distinct social and cultural backgrounds and the ways in which language, literature, theater, film, art and media shape and inform diverse and ever-changing worldviews and identities every single day.

The humanities give us the knowledge and the skills to share and express who we are and how we see our place in the world. In the process, we all gain the critical and creative thinking, communication, and comprehension skills needed to build the bridges that our diversity and inclusivity efforts are working toward.

The goal of diversity measures is to broaden the voices and perspectives on a campus. So why are we cutting out the vital stream of voices embodied in the arts and humanities? In an era of tight budgets, these may be seen as competing priorities, as distinct issues, but that’s a mistake. Greater diversity can broaden our conceptions of art, history, music, language studies and other arts and humanities. And the arts and humanities can support and enrich a culture of inclusivity across many communities, fields and professions.

Christine Henseler is a professor of Spanish and Hispanic studies at Union College.

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Serving as the sole conservative on a post-election panel (essay)

I’m a mathematician. I’m teaching Calculus II and mathematical structures for computer science this term. I write blog posts on topics like the best way to determine whether two lines intersect in three-dimensional space. Yet at 3:30 p.m. on the day after Trump’s election I found myself on a hastily convened panel with five of my faculty colleagues, facing an emotionally charged crowd of about 400 students, faculty and staff.

Our mission -- it felt like we were a team in that moment -- was to help our campus make sense of the results of an election that many found shocking and even frightening. The rest of the panel consisted of professors of politics and government, religion, gender and queer studies, and African-American studies. Why was a mathematician on the panel? I was the person the university found to give the conservative perspective.

After explaining my function on the panel, I said the following:

"It’s kind of odd that I’m here to be the conservative on this panel; I’m not that conservative. I’m probably more of a right-leaning moderate. I also didn’t vote for Trump, as I have concerns about his judgment and temperament. Instead, I voted for Gary Johnson. But this is Puget Sound, and so here I am representing the conservative perspective.

"Right now I feel a lot of things. I feel fear and worry. As I said, I’m concerned about Trump’s judgment. I’m also concerned because of the anger and division that I see, as well as the bad behavior by some of Trump’s supporters.

"As I watched the election returns roll in last night, though, I was surprised to discover that I also felt kind of excited, maybe even elated. And so why is that?

"I grew up in a small town in north Louisiana in the 1980s: a world that is Southern, rural, conservative and Christian. I’m second-generation college: my grandparents worked at jobs like coal miner, gas station attendant, department-store clerk, farmer, beautician. For most of my adult life I’ve been an academic, though, and for the past 11 years, I’ve worked at a very progressive liberal arts college in one of the most progressive parts of the country. That has given me a sort of double vision or cultural whiplash at times.

"Hillary Clinton called my people 'deplorable.' She said we were 'irredeemable.' Our current president, who I think sees the world similarly, said that my people are bitter clingers who hold on to guns and religion because we don’t have anything else worthwhile in our lives. Why would I want to support someone like that? Someone who talks that way about my people is not going to do a good job representing me. I’m glad she lost. I’ve got some concerns about Trump, but I’m glad Hillary Clinton lost.

"To understand this election, you have to understand that to be white working class means that you have almost no power. Not economic. Not cultural. Neither do you have the power that comes from moral authority, unlike most other victimized groups.

"To a large degree, Trump represents the revolt of the white working class. The revolt is partly economic. The cultural aspect is that they’re tired of being, in their minds, looked down on and condescended to by the people who run the country.

"I’ll hypothesize that, in some respects, the more Trump is mocked for his hair, his language, his racism, his sexism, his bigotry, the more the white working class says, 'That’s how I’ve been treated, too. Trump is like me. Trump is one of us.'"

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my campus after saying this, in an emotionally charged room with hundreds of people. But it represented the culmination of something that had been building in me for years.

Shut Out of Group Norms

I became an academic because I wanted to teach, help my students work through the big questions of life and discuss those big questions inside a larger community. I wanted a career at a liberal arts college. On the political axis, I thought of myself as a moderate. I knew academe leaned to the left, but I had always thought of the left (and academics in particular) as being fairly open-minded.

Not too long after I took my first tenure-track position in the fall of 2004, I was invited to a party by one of my colleagues. I had assumed it was just a friendly get-together. Most of the evening, however, was spent bashing President Bush. The critiques were more visceral than intellectual, and I saw none of the nuance that I expected from academics. In hindsight, I realize that much of what the guests were doing was signaling to each other their membership in a community, as well as venting frustrations, and they had assumed the party was a space where they could do that.

For unrelated reasons, I took a position at my current university -- a very different institution, in a very different part of the country -- the following year. Here, I have repeatedly found myself in situations where someone makes assumptions about everyone in the room, assumptions that I don’t share. The culprit has always been my Southernness, or my small-town background, or my Christian faith, or my lack of progressivism.

I remember the awkward silence that briefly followed when one of my students asked me outside of class whether I am religious, and I told him I am a Christian. I remember the snide comment about Texas at a faculty workshop. I remember a colleague’s casual dismissal of Fox News and the people who watch it. My mother watches Fox News. She’s one of most giving and selfless people I know -- someone who dropped everything to do disaster relief work in south Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

I remember others’ stories, too. I remember the two conservative students who vented in my office for half an hour, thankful that somebody was willing to listen to them. I remember the conservative colleague who told me that he’s tired of being a target and so he just keeps his head down now. I remember the alumnus who told me that he would never have dared to be out as a Christian on our campus because then he wouldn’t have had any friends.

Every institution has a culture and a set of shared norms, and an academic institution is no different. Those sacred values don’t come from the institution’s mission statement but arise from the shared set of beliefs held by the people who are part of it. A newcomer to a college may not ever be able to articulate that college’s norms, but he internalizes them every time an idea is praised with no countervailing opinion expressed. She internalizes them every time a group is criticized, and no one comes to that group’s defense. Over time the in ideas and out groups become part of the assumptions that people make. You don’t even think about them anymore. They’re like the oxygen in the air.

Where does that place you when you don’t share many of those norms? Sometimes you find yourself bewildered. On the literal level, the discussion is about Donald Trump or Barack Obama or George W. Bush or racism or transgender rights or environmental policy. But really the conversation is often about sacred values. When you don’t share the group norms, you feel shut out of the conversation because its very framing assumes the group norms. People don’t listen to the stories you use to explain your views because your stories are tied up with your norms -- not theirs -- and they don’t have a good mental place to connect them to. As a result, your stories get explained away.

You can always try to go deeper, of course. However, trying to get the group to look hard at its assumptions and then trying to explain why you don’t share them is difficult and exhausting. And even when you do have the energy, it’s easy to transgress some norm that you didn’t see and then face an unexpected blast directed at you. That makes you want to engage even less.

Besides, there are much easier options. You can become cynical. You can become angry. You can start hating the group. You can nurture your pain and envision yourself as a beleaguered minority. You can start throwing rhetorical explosives, which sure feels good -- at first. You can find another group. I’ve been tempted by most of these possible actions and have committed several of them.

The story that I’m telling here is about me at a progressive liberal arts college and slowly identifying more over time as conservative. It could also be the story of the white working class at the national level. And that brings me back to Trump and the post election panel.

Hopeful Signs

After I finished my remarks, I was worn out. I had just made myself far more emotionally vulnerable than I am used to, and I had done it in front of an angry and fearful crowd. I don’t remember much of the question-and-answer session, but I don’t think I had the wherewithal to attempt to answer anyone’s questions.

After it was over, one of my faculty colleagues made her way up to the table. “Thank you,” she said, “Your remarks made this all worthwhile.” The next person in line was a student. “My father is really conservative. I don’t agree with him on a lot of things, and I’m scared about Thanksgiving. Do you have any advice for me?” She started tearing up. I hope what I said was helpful. Another student: “I’m a moderate. Thank you for giving another perspective.” “Just … thank you,” from a student in one of my classes this term. Then more expressions of thanks from faculty colleagues: “We should talk more,” “That’s exactly what we needed” and even “Nice pedagogy.”

Then, that night, I started getting emails. They continued to trickle in over the next several days. They said things like “That gave me a sense of courage,” “I realized I haven’t been listening well or asking the right questions,” “While you and I don’t agree, it was important for me to hear that” and “Thank you for pointing out that we are not all evil.” All in all, somewhere around 25 or 30 people have made a point of expressing gratitude for my remarks. The feedback hasn’t been uniformly positive -- I’ve also received some pushback -- but even that has been collegial.

I’ve responded in multiple ways. Scenes from Jerry Maguire keep running through my head: the ones where Jerry criticizes his company, everyone applauds and then Jerry gets fired. At least I have tenure, while Jerry did not. Another is a feeling of regret -- regret that I’ve underestimated my own campus.

Mostly, though, I’m more hopeful now than I have been in quite some time about my university. I hope we can dial back the inflammatory rhetoric -- especially the “-ists” and the “phobics” that we slap as labels on people. I hope we can do a better job of listening to people who have different values -- especially to a large group of people in this country who are not well understood by academics but whose support just elected Donald Trump president.

To understand the disparate people in our country, however, we need a greater variety of perspectives than we have now on campuses. Our sacred values shouldn’t effectively exclude large swaths of the country. We shouldn’t have to tap a moderately conservative mathematician who didn’t vote for Trump to give the conservative view on Trump voters.

Academe shouldn’t even be an institution that needs hastily convened panels like the one I was on: we should know how large groups of people in this country think and feel. We should be teaching their experiences and listening to them. We should have more people with their belief systems on our campuses, teaching and learning, so we can learn from them.

And so I find myself, ironically, arguing in favor of one of academe’s most sacred values: diversity. I’m not arguing for diversity the way academe functionally defines it, though. Instead, I’m arguing for intellectual diversity. Trump’s election -- and academe’s response -- only confirm that, for an institution of higher learning, it's the most important kind of diversity to have.

Mike Spivey is professor of mathematics at the University of Puget Sound.

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The limitations of emergency text-messaging systems during a crisis (essay)

At 9:56 a.m. Monday, Nov. 28, Ohio State University students and employees received an active shooter alert, but there were two key pieces of information they did not know.

One: as students rushed in total panic to build walls of chairs and desks in front of classroom doors, they did not know the alert was inaccurate. Contrary to the words in the warning, no active shooter was on the campus. He had a knife.

Two: perhaps even more important, they had no idea the campus assailant they’d just been warned about had already died several minutes before they received the first vague danger warning at 9:54 a.m. and the second one about an active shooter at 9:56 a.m. He was shot dead by a university police officer at 9:53 a.m., about a minute after he started his attack. The danger was over when people received both of those Buckeye Alerts.

The attack at Ohio State University is a reminder that although colleges and universities have spent tens of millions of dollars during the past decade to put in place complex emergency communications systems, the technology has serious limitations. Because of the way most such attacks develop, communications will always be too slow and, at least initially, not very accurate.

Pennsylvania State University put in place one of the early text communications systems in higher education in 2006, the year before the attack at Virginia Tech. Back then it was simply another news delivery system to add to the many other advances we were making in digital communications.

I have watched as the technology has expanded, improved and been deployed to thousands of colleges and universities, hospitals, and other institutions around the nation.

Higher education systems should have such systems in place, and we should practice using them, but we need to lower our expectations for their impact. I am not aware of any such system saving lives in an active campus attack.

It is also worth remembering that although there have been some high-profile shootings on college campuses, the overall rate of campus homicides is a fraction of the rate found across the country in general. Statistically our students are far safer on the school side of College Avenue than they are on the town side.

In addition to aggressive improvements in communications, campus police around the nation have stepped up training, purchased new equipment, added officers and changed tactics. But in light of those improvements and the enormous sums being spent on new technology, it is important that students, employees and parents not be lulled into thinking technology will help keep them safe.

Imagine receiving a text message that essentially warns “Hurry up! It’s time to panic!”

And very little else. There are no details. No information on what is happening or where it is happening. No detailed description of the bad guys and what they are doing. And no specific advice on how to stay safe and alive other than an often vague message like “Shelter in place!”

The key is being fast. And not at all surprising in an emergency like the one at Ohio State, accuracy and context often come later.

Unless that smartphone sitting in your pocket happens to deflect a bullet, I’m not sure mass-alert technology will be a life-saving tool during an active shooter event on campus. Here are some of the reasons they are not perfect solutions.

  • Bad guys have phones, too. What if the bad guys are subscribers to your alert system and social media postings? That’s pretty likely if they are a student or work for the institution. Every message to the public can also alert them to what the college believes is going on. If you alert students to shootings on the west side of campus and tell them to move to the east side of campus, the bad guys can see that. If you tell students to shelter in place and turn out the lights, the bad guys can read that, too.
  • Shootings take seconds; phone calls take minutes. When a 911 call is made, this happens: a dispatcher takes down the pertinent information and starts to think about it. Maybe they ask some questions. Then they share it with police to respond to the call for assistance. Then the dispatcher or someone working with them types up, or selects from a predetermined group of messages, a note to send out by text messaging and social media to perhaps tens of thousands of subscribers. While this several-minutes-long, well-thought-out and practiced official process takes place, another unofficial one is already well underway. A hundred students in the area of the shooting have already sent 100 different and probably contradictory text messages to their friends, posted to Facebook, tweeted about the event and put it on Snapchat. And more than a few are in the process of putting themselves in danger to get photos and videos of the assailant and the attack in progress. It’s time for them to be a social media star, to go viral and generate some clicks.
  • Not enough subscribers. At some institutions, only a fraction of the student body and faculty and staff are signed up for the official text alerts. You can’t read what you don’t see.
  • Too many subscribers. Other colleges have the opposite problem -- thousands of family members, news media and the general public are signed up. That can slow the process of pushing out the message quickly to the people who need it most and first.
  • Lack of facts. Messages, especially initially, are often vague and perhaps even misleading. Police simply don’t have much detail. Consider the giant, terrifying stampede at JFK airport this year when someone thought they heard a gunshot. Thousands of people fled, throwing the terminal into chaos for hours. Those reports were wrong. Trying to follow the letter of the law as best they can, some institutions send out multiple alerts every week, and most of them are related to sexual assaults. Those messages are often vague and tied to when the assault was reported, not to when it occurred. It is not unusual for a victim to struggle with the issue of whether to report an assault for several days or even weeks before going to campus police. If the assault happened four days ago, should an emergency text alert be sent to 50,000 people the hour it is finally reported? In many cases it is. Subscribers become cynical when they read the words “Emergency Alert” and then receive old news.
  • System overload. When an earthquake centered in Virginia rumbled across the eastern United States around 2 p.m. on Aug. 23, 2011, Penn State was one of many institutions to immediately tap its text alert system. A couple things went wrong. Because scores of text alert systems on the East Coast all jumped into action at once, and the general public also rushed to the cellular system to talk and text with each other, the system ground to a slow crawl. A small group of Penn State officials sitting in a room together mapping out our response received the text alert we had ordered sent to students and employees over a 30-minute window. That’s a big difference in an unfolding emergency. And, of course, we could not assure any of our text alert subscribers that there would not be another aftershock five minutes later. We really had little useful information to share with them.
  • Slow delivery. One company brags that it “sets the standard for rapid, reliable message delivery.” It says it can deliver messages at a rate of 10,000 a minute. But what if your large state university has 70,000 subscribers? Is it OK for the message to take seven minutes to reach thousands of phones? Many people can be shot and killed in seven minutes. And in the best-case scenario, a couple minutes will elapse between that first gunshot, the call to 911 and then somebody pushing the send button for an emergency text.
  • The news media. In the middle of a crisis, what is the last thing you need? Yep, a dozen TV news vans and reporters live tweeting and transmitting video from the scene with a lot of frightened bystanders who have no factual information but are ready to speculate for Action News. When we had a sniper on Penn State’s campus shooting at students, the first rushed report from a major newswire service said two people were killed. It was actually one. And this was a professional communicator getting facts wrong. Our communications team lost time the rest of the morning trying to correct that information.
  • False positives. Panicked callers dial 911 or university safety offices because they “saw something.” A man with a gun? It’s legal in most states and increasingly on college campuses. Someone “Middle Eastern-looking spoke Arabic into a cell phone”? Give me a break. The admissions office is spending a lot of money trying to get Middle Eastern students enrolled at your university. And yes, they have cell phones, like every other person in the country above the age of 10. And they absolutely speak another language. Alert systems are put into action and the equivalent of campus SWAT teams respond to these false calls. The public also sends the messages virally on social media before the truth catches up with reality.
  • Turn off those phones! One rule many faculty members include in their syllabi and repeat all semester in the classroom is that students should put their cell phones away until class is over. Officials make the same announcements before guest speakers start talking and concerts begin. As I said earlier, you can’t read what you can’t see.
  • Too much information. One of the weakest links in most systems is how to sort through hundreds of simultaneous calls and social media postings and get police officers to the scene of an active shooter in the first seconds of a developing massacre.
  • Used for the wrong purpose. We once had the head of one of our campuses send out a text alert to tell everyone he was missing his keys. No, really.

Even with all those problems, and others, I still think we need robust text alert and social media systems in place on college campuses. But it is important we dial down the expectations for such systems and understand their serious limitations. The real key in limiting a mass shooting on your campus is going to be your police department -- their training, size and equipment. At Ohio State, an officer was on the scene of the attack and quickly ended it.

Until something better comes along, I will continue to start the first day of class the way I always do -- once we go through the syllabus and everyone in class has introduced themselves, I talk to my students for a couple minutes about their safety. I tell them where the two closest exits from the building are located and how to try to barricade the half glass door to the classroom -- the one that opens outward and has no lock -- to buy themselves a couple extra seconds until the police arrive. And to keep that cell phone in their pocket over their heart. It may do more good there.

Bill Mahon is a former vice president of university relations at Penn State, where he now teaches strategic communications in the College of Communications. He is a partner of University RepProtect, a suite of readiness services offered by public relations firm Ketchum.

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Review of Christopher P. Dum, "Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Hotel"

“We think about this as a studio apartment,” says one member of a couple living in a single-room occupancy. In better days the unit was a motel room. To see it as a studio apartment is a triumph of imagination and will, as the speaker is fully aware. “We have to,” she continues, “’cause if we continue to realize where we’re at in life, we would spiral into a massive depression. And the housekeeping we do would not get done …. I call it home and I cry on the thought of losing it ’cause this is all I have.”

Christopher P. Dum, an assistant professor of sociology at Kent State University, is careful to protect the identities of the ethnographic subjects he spoke to in researching Exiled in America: Life on the Margins in a Residential Hotel (Columbia University Press). In exchange he has been given access to some extraordinarily precarious and fragile domestic spaces -- dwellings that will seem to most readers just slightly more stable than a homeless shelter or living out of your car. But that is, by Dum’s reckoning, a blinkered view. The squalor is real and inescapable; what’s harder to see from a distance is the residents’ effort to find, or create, some kind of order in seriously damaged lives.

The author lived at the hotel he calls the Boardwalk for a year as fieldwork for his dissertation, gradually overcoming the residents’ (understandable) suspicion that he worked for law enforcement and intriguing some with the prospect of having their stories told. The hotel originally drew Dum’s attention while he was investigating the difficulties of registered sex offenders in finding housing. (In the public mind, “registered sex offender” has come to mean pedophile, although the label applies equally to those convicted of exhibitionism, soliciting prostitutes or even, believe it or not, public urination.)

Also staying at the Boardwalk during the author’s stay were recently released ex-prisoners and people with a range of mental-health issues, physical disabilities or substance-abuse problems, often in combination. It sounds like a population guaranteed to create even greater chaos than the sum of its dysfunctions. What Dum found instead is an emergent and fragile community of what he characterizes as “social refugees … impelled to relocate within their own country of citizenship because of the influence of social context and/or social policy.”

From studies of migration he adopts the notion of push and pull factors to discuss the two strong forces shaping life at the hotel. One is the overwhelming power of stigma: the area’s largely middle-class public “viewed motel residents as belonging to one or several devalued groups,” with the sex offenders among them being especially contaminating and marginalizing. Driving past the Boardwalk and yelling that its inhabitants were child molesters seems to have been a local pastime.

Membership in stigmatized groups pushed residents away from mainstream society and toward the Boardwalk, which in turn pulled them to its “sustaining habitat” -- a term from urban sociology akin to the real-estate mantra “location, location, location.” Boardwalk residents had ready access to bus stops, cheap food, a Laundromat and other “opportunit[ies] to engage in the same type of consumer relations that characterized the lives of their [better-off] detractors.” There also seems to have been some comfort in knowing that their landlord owned another nearby property called Park Place. (I’d guess that the real names of these motels were just as overblown as their Monopoly stand-ins.) Park Place was cheaper, in more serious disrepair and had a reputation for violence among the tenants. “They start drinking Milwaukee’s Best in the morning,” one Boardwalker explains, “and that makes them get wily.”

However uninviting Boardwalk might look from the author’s photographs, it’s hardly the worst place where life could leave you. Some tenants Dum interviewed managed to establish a degree of stability that included employment (one aspect of a sustaining habitat) as well as a certain amount of interior decoration. They felt a responsibility to care for other residents, particularly those with severe mental disorders. An informal but exacting code of etiquette governed the sharing of cigarettes, food and intoxicants. A certain amount of sexual jealousy and trash talking was inevitable, as was the occasional round of threats or punches, but Dum indicates that he heard of very little theft or predation. “It’s like any other community,” one resident told him, “it’s just people trying to get along.”

At the same time, even success in carving out livable circumstances could leave residents feeling trapped. Treating one’s room as a studio apartment entailed more than psychological strain. Rent “did not guarantee heat, air-conditioning, a fridge, kitchen or even drinkable water,” Dum writes. “Offsetting these conditions exacted so much material cost to buy fans, space heaters, refrigerators, microwaves and bottled water that once residents settled at the hotel they found it very hard to leave. They struggled to make monthly, even weekly, rent payments, and because of this, putting down a security deposit and first month’s rent for an apartment was nearly impossible.”

The author’s fieldwork turned out to coincide with the final phase of the motel’s existence. After years of code violations -- largely unnoticed by city inspectors for the simple reason that they often didn’t even show up -- the local government forced the closing of Boardwalk and Park Place. Exiled in America is on the whole an exemplary piece of social reportage and analysis, but while reading it I often wondered if calling his interview subjects “refugees” might not be pushing it. As it turns out, most of them found out they were being evicted a few hours before the deadline. So, yes, refugees.

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Educating students in ambiguity and discomfort (essay)

The current public assumption that safe spaces and trigger warnings conflict with academic freedom and are the result of political correctness gone mad is a false dichotomy. If students today are indeed more fragile, then it is vital that we in higher education understand: (1) the specific nature of this sensitivity and (2) what colleges can do to help.

After this divisive election, we will need more capacity for talking about controversial issues. While the anonymity of social media may have escalated invective, it has not made for more ease with difficult conversations. Technology has allowed a generation to end relationships by text message, or even by “ghosting” an ex -- deleting a relationship from your life without any conflict or effort.

Avoiding conflict, of course, also sacrifices an opportunity to learn. Our campuses and world, meanwhile, are increasingly more religiously, culturally and ethnically diverse and now more politically divided. So at the very moment when we have more varied ideas, thoughts and opinions on our campuses, we also have students who are less equipped and perhaps less eager to have challenging discussions.

The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a Dear Colleague letter to college presidents asking that we help students learn to disagree in a “respectful manner.” But what it means to be “disrespected” is highly contested, so we are indeed having difficult conversations about trigger warnings and safe spaces. Ultimately, college is about helping students think critically. That requires learning how to interrogate complexity while withholding judgment and trying to feel safe in precisely those uncomfortable spaces where our ideas and attitudes are being challenged.

But this is a process. The first stage of college is finding a safe home. We learn much more when we explore from a place of safety, have the rights tools and feel accepted as equal partners in the discourse. The news media has greatly exaggerated the very few students who want “protection” from ideas they find uncomfortable. Safe spaces are mostly simply places of congregation, and assembly with other people who share your ideas, history and culture is a basic human impulse. With a safe home base established, we can then encourage students to venture into discussions in which they may have greater discomfort.

Pedagogy is about moving from comfort to discomfort and eventually finding comfort in discomfort. The measure of a college, then, has nothing to do with the sensitivity of its first-year students or if their professors use trigger warnings, but rather with the outcomes. Can we teach students to embrace ambiguity and discomfort? And, if so, how?

A Path Forward

First, colleges must assemble a diverse community of learners. Employers say they want graduates who can solve complex problems with people who are not like them. This year, for example, the first-year class at Goucher College is 35 percent students of color and 25 percent Pell-eligible students. We also have students from 60 countries on our campus, and we require 100 percent of our undergraduates to study abroad, as travel can be a great way to encounter differences and discover that not everyone speaks or thinks as you do.

But bringing diverse students together is just the beginning. To have open, meaningful and difficult conversations, young people also need to learn to live with a higher tolerance for ambiguity -- or “the tendency to perceive ambiguous situations as desirable.” It is essential for democracy, and it is being used in research on global leadership because it is related to cross-cultural communication and performance in diverse work environments. At Goucher College, we use a Tolerance for Ambiguity scale that asks students to respond to statements like:

  • An expert who doesn’t come up with a definite answer probably doesn’t know too much.
  • A good teacher is one who makes you wonder about your way of looking at things.
  • The sooner we all acquire similar values and ideals the better.

We are using that tool and other existing psychological constructs to measure where our students are when they first arrive on our campus in terms of dealing with ambiguity, and then we follow up every year to see if and when they have progressed. All of this is confidential and analyzed by researchers only in the aggregate. We will, however, look for patterns and connect trends with pedagogy and activities. (Are juniors willing to take more cognitive risk? Did our required study abroad experience increase cultural sensitivity?)

This work is at an early stage, but our hope is that we will come to understand better how college and various interventions can have an impact. We have begun by actively doing everything we can as college administrators and faculty members to demonstrate that there are multiple good answers, that knowledge is complex and that we can change our minds.

We must also be intellectual and ethical role models, so on our campus, we are responsive and transparent about student concerns. We routinely engage students in open meetings and alter policy as a result of their input. It is certainly more work, but it has the dual benefit of building community while modeling that smart people have open minds.

We must also create a campus culture that invites and supports the most difficult conversations. On a night of unrest in Baltimore, I joined a spontaneous gathering of dozens of faculty members and students watching the news. Late into the night, students continued to share their responses, fears, anxieties, hurts and pains. It was profoundly uncomfortable -- and we all learned. In the weeks that followed, we decided we need to be even more uncomfortable, and a group of faculty members created a seven-week seminar, Back to School on Race. More than 150 faculty and staff members signed up and participated -- and we all learned more about the deep structures of racial inequity as seen through the lenses of multiple disciplines, as well as the ongoing pain and discomfort that such topics bring to many members of our own community. This became a springboard to further conversations about curriculum, pedagogy, support and campus culture.

Thus, to help our students embrace discomfort, we must first establish a home for them. Later we encourage them to encounter discomfort, allow them the time to reintegrate that new information and then send them back out to embrace more discomfort.

Next fall, we will also introduce a new curriculum that begins with a first-year seminar designed to welcome students to the world of inquiry through faculty members who model their own passionate exploration of a topic of their choosing, with the focus more on how faculty are thinking about their topic rather than what they are thinking. Students will then take three exploration courses that are based in our new interdisciplinary academic centers. Over four years, and not in a single course, students will also need to demonstrate that they are racially and culturally literate.

We encapsulate all these efforts in our new version of the three R’s of learning: relationships, resilience and reflection. We start by getting to know our students. We emphasize to them the importance of building relationships that will prepare them for more discomfort. We focus on resilience (and also measure this in our students) because we have found that, in general, those who see failure as an opportunity learn more, grow personally and succeed professionally. Conflict and failure allow us to test boundaries and open us up to new ideas and new perspectives.

Reflection is what ties it all together and feeds our compassion and social conscience, so we will soon require all graduating students to develop a reflection portfolio. Recognizing there are a multiplicity of accents, experiences, histories and values living all around us is a first step, but we must then also reconsider our own values, frameworks and prejudices, and then confront our differences honestly.

Technology and globalization have increased our exposure to difference, but that alone has not opened hearts and minds. The internet offers us increasing access to new ideas and knowledge, and most of what students will need to know for the jobs of the future, they will need to learn as they go along after they graduate. That means that colleges should focus less on making sure we cover the content and more on teaching students how to become self-regulated learners. New knowledge is only really useful if you know how to let it in and allow it to change your mind. We need to rethink the pedagogical processes by which we get students to truly embrace difference.

Without critical thinking, discernment and reflection, democracy retreats from the sound of the loudest voice. The value of the liberal arts will only increase as knowledge and ideas proliferate. We need graduates who are not only capable of difficult conversations but also eager to listen and reflect. Perhaps we should restrict degrees to those who realize the answer to most difficult questions is almost always “It depends.”

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José Antonio Bowen is president of Goucher College.

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