Wednesday, January 24, 2018
I don't envy the administration at Alabama in this case. There's no way to win in these situations - whatever you do, one tribe or another will be ticked off. If they expel the student, every culture-war conservative organization in the country will come down on them. If they don't punish the student, they'll catch fire from both their own African American student population as well as liberal groups from around the country. None of this is Alabama's fault, but they're stuck in the middle of it.
Side note to faculty: If you want good presidents and administrators at your institutions, you need to start helping your administration in these cases. Too often faculty take sides and take shots at their own administrations - and then wonder why more smart people don't want to be university presidents. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.
I'm perfectly willing to accept the legal analysis in the article linked above. Courts have ruled that public institutions (though not private ones) are covered by the First Amendment's meaning of "government", and that speech by itself (though not speech that threatens violence or harm) is protected and cannot be proscribed or punished. This is probably why conservative agitators and firebrands tend to pick on public schools more than private ones.
I support the First Amendment and think it's in place for very good reasons. Likely the student should not, on legal grounds, have been expelled.
What's more interesting to me is the culture war behind this. In recent years it's mostly been conservatives taking up the Free Speech banner, part of their larger narrative that they are discriminated against on university campuses (a narrative debunked in research conducted by my friends Matt Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner; you can see an example here). This is really just a cover to "win" and to score points against their enemies, of course - tribal conservatives are just as likely as tribal liberals to object to speech they don't like.
This strikes me as just another way that the conservative movement has wandered so far from its roots as to be unrecognizable. When I was young, conservatives planted their flag on a series of propositions about values and ethics. One of these was the importance of personal responsibility, and the connection between rights (individual freedoms) and the responsibilities to use those rights appropriately and well to the betterment of society.
During the 1960s, conservatives decried the excesses of liberty which they saw in the liberal hippie/flower power/free love movements of the day. To conservatives, hippies weren't exercising liberty so much as engaging in libertine behavior - individual freedom with no thought to those around you, or for society as a whole. Conservatives saw the liberal cultural waves of feminism, free love, and revolutionary fervor as undermining important values that serve as underpinnings of social cohesion.
Now people who call themselves "conservatives" are busy defending people like this Alabama student who spits in the face of society, who uses her freedom in vile ways that undermine social cohesion. What is "conservative" about this student's language? Hatred and racism have no more place in conservative thought (at least, as it used to be expressed) than they do in liberal thought.
I am waiting - possibly in vain - for a genuine conservative resurgence, a return of traditional conservative values that actually care about the community. In the meantime, we're stuck with these hatred-fueled sideshows that are all about destruction and anger, and that offer no positive vision for society or the future.
Wednesday, January 17, 2018
published here. This latter piece is a very interesting and significantly deep dive into a recurrent challenge: how to actually measure student learning in a way that can be useful. This is much harder than it seems at first blush, and is therefore often done poorly on university and college campuses.
The former commentary piece takes this discussion in a somewhat more cynical direction, suggesting (if only indirectly) that efforts to assess student learning may be a waste of time, money, and energy. This is certainly where my colleagues took the discussion, along with an added dose of attacks on the people who work at accrediting agencies as "true believers" focused exclusively on "noncompliance" and engaged in "groupthink".
I suspect many faculty feel the same way - that the people who work in regional accrediting agencies are out-of-touch busybodies and that "assessment" is a colossal waste of time and energy. Conclusion: we (colleges & universities, and especially faculty) would all be better off if we just chucked the whole thing and went back to the "way things were" - before the "assessment craze" came along.
I understand this point of view. I spent much of my career as a teaching faculty member, and I have myself taught many students and many classes. I understand the sometimes perplexing challenge of being told to do new things, or to do things a different way, especially if it involves (or appears to involve) doing more work than one is currently doing. I have a deep appreciation for the culture of independence which drives many faculty, and which is one of the chief attractions of the profession.
The only problem is that the cynical take on assessment is wrong. Yes, there are measurement problems (of both the reliability and validity kind). And yes, assessment is often done poorly. But the conclusions that the people "pushing" assessment are evil, and the whole thing should be scrapped, does not follow from these observations.
First, let me dispense with the rote ad hominem attacks on accrediting bodies and the people in them. I only have significant experience with one such organization - the Higher Learning Commission, which oversees 19 states in (broadly speaking) the American midwest. HLC is the largest of the regional accrediting bodies, and probably the most influential.
I have been through HLC accreditation processes with universities I worked for, and I have also been through HLC Peer Reviewer Corps training myself. I have met a great many people employed by the HLC as well as those who have dedicated years to working as volunteers in the accreditation process (most accreditation work is in fact done by volunteers, as is the work of reevaluating and assessing standards). These people are universally dedicated to trying to make higher education work better, always and especially for the students. Many of them have been faculty themselves, and they have a deep appreciation for the importance of higher education and the impact it has on our students' lives. They care deeply about the same things my colleagues and friends do.
So the accreditation process is not populated by people wearing horns and tails. What of the other conclusion - that assessment is not being done right, therefore it can't be done right, therefore we should just chuck the whole thing? This is not only wrong - it's dangerous. And it's really a betrayal of what we say we believe as faculty.
At its core, the assessment process is an attempt to answer a simple question: are our students learning what we say we want them to learn? If we deliver an educational experience and have no idea if anybody learned anything, then what are we doing? Not assessing learning turns higher education into a circus, another form of entertainment: pay your money at the door and we'll let you into the tent. What you get out of it - well, that's your problem.
That's clearly not a viable answer. We have to try to assess whether students are learning. And if that assessment effort tells us - reliably and validly - that some students aren't learning what we want them to learn, then we need to make changes. We either need to conclude that some students cannot learn what we're trying to teach, and stop admitting those students to our programs. Or we need to do a better job of teaching.
That's what assessment is all about. It's about finding out how well we're doing at the very core of what we say we're about, so we can do it better next time.
Note that there's a dimension that's often left out of these conversations: what learning are we trying to measure? "Learning outcomes" may be a catch phrase, but it also connotes something really important. We can't measure something if we don't know what it is in the first place. This is where a great many assessment efforts fail, because the things we're trying to measure aren't right in the first place.
Learning outcomes can be developed well. There are folks who know a lot more about this than I do; many of them work on college and university campuses as consultants to faculty. Unfortunately, many faculty have never had the benefit of their help (on smaller campuses, there may be no such people, and on larger ones they are often ignored). I wish that earlier in my career I had access to such support, because looking back I realize that I had only the vaguest notion of what my students were supposed to be learning, beyond working familiarity with some specific content in my field (a gussied-up form of memorization).
If you've got good, active learning outcomes (the kinds of things that can map onto Bloom's taxonomy), then you need to figure out how to measure them. This is where "assessment as an extra chore" is often a problem, because measurements can be made up for the purpose of checking a box instead of actually trying to measure. If your goal is to put as little effort as possible into assessment, that pretty much guarantees that it won't be any good.
Many faculty suggest (as my colleagues have) that assignments and course grades should be the relevant assessments. I agree - course grades can be a measure of assessment of student learning, if the course has good learning outcomes and if the tools for measuring those outcomes (quizzes, tests, papers, presentations, etc.) are genuinely good measures of those LOs. If all of that is true, then the grades should indeed reflect the level of student learning.
But saying that "grades are enough" does not get faculty off the hook from doing the work of designing good student learning outcomes, building the course and its assessment tools around them, and then demonstrating their work to their employing institution. It's this last point that, I suspect, secretly angers many faculty - the need to demonstrate to someone else (often, an administrator outside their department) that they've done good work.
This is where we (and I count myself in this crowd, because I've been guilty of the same mistake) can get ourselves in trouble. We want to fall back on the defense of "they can't possibly understand my course, because they have no background in <insert field here>." That's a flawed logic, however. If a well-educated individual with a PhD in a different field can't understand what you're doing, how can a student with no such background and no degree be expected to get it?
One of the root issues here is accountability. Faculty understandably are reluctant to make themselves accountable for their work to people outside their field or their department. Academic units often serve as protective shelters in which we can insulate ourselves from having to explain what we do to others.
This goes well beyond having to explain oneself to a Dean or a Provost. Faculty are quick to blame accrediting bodies, but the demand for accountability and transparency of student learning comes from a wide range of sources: state legislatures (which provide our funding, often to private as well as public institutions), businesses (which employ our graduates) and the general public (who send us their sons and daughters and, often, become students themselves). These people all want to know: what are students going to learn at your institution? It's a reasonable question.
The answers can be broad, and can include citizenship, civic perspective, values, and a great many other non-economic things beyond "job-ready" skills. For those who believe (as I do) that higher education isn't merely job training, there's plenty of room for students to learn higher and more important things. We just have to articulate what those actually are, and demonstrate that they actually do.
So by all means, let's critique the methods of assessment. Most administrations I know (mine included) would welcome robust faculty involvement in helping us design better, more reliable, more valid ways to measure what our students are learning, just as we would also welcome robust discussions about what our students are supposed to learn (a topic almost entirely in the hands of the faculty). Where systems are broken, let's fix them. The only thing we can't do is give up and quit.
Tuesday, January 2, 2018
These things together represent unilateral moves by Israel to resolve aspects of the conflict in Israel's favor. They represent a turning away from negotiation as a means to find mutually-agreed upon solutions, preferring unilateral solutions over the other side's objections instead.
Amazingly enough, this is exactly what I wrote my dissertation about twenty years ago. Then as now, I was interested in conflict dynamics: if side A does X, what choices does side B have, and what kinds of outcomes become more or less likely? One of the core organizing principles, which I still believe in today: in conflict, all actions are working either towards a Unilateral solution (imposing your will on the other side) or a Multilateral solution (finding an agreement that both sides accept). Sometimes parties try to do both, but that usually doesn't work well.
The thing about Unilateral strategies is that they are both one-sided (by definition) and path-determinative. If side A chooses to pursue the Unilateral route, side B loses the option of pursuing Multilateral options instead. Side B's options are reduced - either surrender entirely, or go Unilateral themselves.
Regarding Jerusalem and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinians now face exactly this choice. Do they become despondent and simply give up, allowing Israel to take over all of the 1948 Mandate territory and becoming second-class citizens in someone else's country? Or do they fight back, pushing what has been a fairly quiescent conflict back into violence?
I don't know the answer here - I can't make a prediction, because I don't have data about how Palestinians see the situation and what their calculations are. But these are the only two outcomes possible - either surrender into de facto apartheid, or go back to violence. Neither is good from the Palestinian perspective, but they don't control the choices they're given.
I'm mindful too that there may be factions in Israel (including, possibly, the ruling Likud party) which see both of these as good outcomes. They will gladly take the territory if Palestinians are willing to surrender it, and they will gladly seize the opportunity to crush Palestinian resistance if provoked.
For those wishing for peace on earth in 2018, this doesn't look like a good start. Either way, Palestinians suffer. Israelis may suffer as well - how much depends on choices yet to be made. Not a great start to the year.
Saturday, November 4, 2017
Trump is a symptom of the problem, a product rather than a cause.
The problem is us.
I know that we're fond of, and prone to, sweeping judgments about the state of our politics. Everyone has a take on what the "real" problem is, and on the whole I tend not to put much stock in such arguments. But there are, I believe, fundamental issues that drive all of the others. And on one of these issues, I think we are very, very wrong.
I was reminded recently of a book I read back in college, E.E. Schattschneider's The Semisovereign People. At the core of Schattschneider's argument was this observation: that what happens in politics isn't determined by the power of the opposing sides, or by what they choose to do. It's determined by what the conflict is about in the first place.
What we see on a day to day basis is a parade of different issues - health care, tax reform, immigration policy, Russian meddling in American elections, protests during football games, etc., etc. Although these are all very different issues, with different details and differential impacts on different parts of the American people, they all have a sameness. They feel like they are all the same argument.
We subject ourselves to this kind of Groundhog Day politics because the community of "America" is largely gone. Far too many of us no longer care about America - which means, we no longer care about our fellow Americans. We care only about a subset of them - those who look like us, talk like us, support the parties or candidates or symbols that we do.
When you only care about Your People, you will do anything it takes to win and to make sure the other side loses. It's OK to pressure, to strong-arm, to lie, to cheat, to steal, to kill. People inspired by ISIS kill pedestrians in NY. People inspired to Richard Spencer kill pedestrians in Charlottesville.
Years ago in writing my dissertation I stumbled on an insight: in any conflict, if one sides resorts to zero-sum thinking it will quickly drag the other side into the same morass. A Prisoner's Dilemma world moves from TFT-style mutual cooperation to mutual defection and conflict very quickly. It's not enough for some to want to be cooperative - both sides (all sides) have to agree, or the whole is dragged down to the lowest common denominator.
That's where we find ourselves today - the lowest common denominator of American politics. Richard Spencer and Milos Yiannopoulos wage a battle to "win" for their side, whatever the heck winning is, by cheating and abusing and pushing buttons and generally behaving in all sorts of barbarous ways our parents taught us not to.
The Trump Administration does the same, attacking anyone and everyone it disagrees with, disrespecting every institution and every rule it finds inconvenient, and generally acting like a bunch of barbarians.
The reason why the story about the agreement between the Clinton campaign and the DNC in 2015 has legs is that it fits this same narrative: do anything you have to in order to win. Republicans decry it as "crooked Hillary", but show me a Republican today who doesn't have that very same stain on their actions.
We are all becoming barbarians.
My research and writing over the years has helped me understand all of this, to see behind the surface to the next level of dynamics. But as author Noah benShea once put it, Reason explains the darkness - but it is not a light.
I don't know where the light is. There were times in the past when natural disasters and tragedies have brought us together as a people, at least for a little while. I remember the Mississippi floods of the 1990s, where for a time it seemed like Americans just came together as Americans and forgot our divisions. After Oklahoma City we saw how toxic a political cultural could become, and for a little while we turned our back on hatred and came together in honor of murdered children. I remember a time, too short a time, after 9/11 when we did the same. Even after Hurricane Katrina, though the Bush Administration took some abuse for its sluggish response, we all agreed that it was a tragedy and did what we could to help.
In the past two months we (the United States, we Americans) have been hit three times by major hurricanes. Where is the unity, the sense of shared purpose, the empathy? Still we squabble and argue and spit. Houston and Florida have been forgotten in the national conversation, while Puerto Rico is a sordid battlefield of childish insults and corrupt bargains.
I wrote a year ago, just before the Presidential election, that America is Dying. One year later, it has only gotten worse, and the trajectory has not changed. President Trump isn't helping, but neither is he the driver. We are destroying ourselves.
This will end when, and only when, we start to value our fellow Americans - all of them - more than we value our own selfish and tribal desires and wants. When we stop seeing every fight as an existential conflict which we must win or die. When we become willing to listen, and to bend, and to compromise because the relationships we have with one another are more important than the issues of the day. When winning matters less than people - than us.
To put it in theological terms: it will end when we learn to love each other again.
Friday, October 13, 2017
I want to step back from all of that and look at this from a broadly simple negotiation perspective. For all of his vaunted experience as a "dealmaker", it's not at all clear that the President understands negotiation at all, at least not in the international realm.
At issue is Iran's desire to develop, and possibly deploy, nuclear weapons. The incentives Iran has to do so are strong, perhaps overwhelmingly so:
1) The United States, the single most powerful military on the planet, has repeatedly declared the Iranian government to be an enemy.
2) The 2003 Iraq war demonstrated that the United States is quite capable of waging preemptive war, without reasonable pretext, against states it perceives as enemies. Iraq did not possess any significant WMD capability at the time, and the US knew this.
3) The ongoing crisis with North Korea shows a different outcome. North Korea, like Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is more or less permanently on the US' list of enemies. But North Korea does possess nuclear weapons, and is rapidly developing the ability to deliver them widely. It also possesses a significant conventional deterrent against something the US cares about (South Korea).
4) Israel, Iran's most implacable foe, possesses nuclear weapons and has no significant powers in the region to deter it.
From Iran's point of view, the desire to possess a nuclear deterrent simply to insure the regime's survival is entirely understandable. It is also the case that regime survival tends to be at the top of every country's list of priorities - meaning there is nothing else as important as that goal.
In light of this, if the US goal is to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability what are the available options?
1) Preemptive war, a la Iraq 2003. This option is so costly as to border on the insane. Beyond Iran's ability to close the Strait of Hormuz (thereby shutting off 20% of the world's oil supply), the ability of the United States to successfully invade and overthrow the regime in Tehran is debatable. Iran is large, with a large and nationalistic population, and its geography is varied. It is not Iraq, which is flat, internally divided, and by 2003 had been weakened by 12 years of crippling and universal international sanctions. Oh, and Iran can inflict casualties in Israel and can engage in MUCH worse behavior with regard to terrorism than it currently does.
2) Sanctions. As Trump has pointed out in the case of North Korea, these don't work very well. Sanctions can serve to constrain a regime's resources, but you can't keep the regime from allocating the resources it does have. Iran's economy, even under sanctions, is vastly more robust than North Korea's (there is always a market for oil). There is no combination of economic or diplomatic sanctions which the United States can administer, especially unilaterally, which outweigh the strategic value of a nuclear deterrent to Iran. Hopes that sanctions will cause pain to the people, who might then pressure the regime to change its path, are likewise fantasies. The nuclear program enjoys widespread support among the Iranian population - they have reasons to dislike their government but this isn't one of them.
3) Diplomacy. The only remaining path is to reach an agreement with Iran whereby it agrees to voluntarily forego nuclear development, presumably with significant safeguards and verification of its behavior. In order for any such agreement to be viable, the Iranian regime must believe that the benefits of such an agreement outweigh the benefits of pursuing nuclear weapons. Trump keeps railing about how we "gave up too much" in the existing deal, but I don't know why he thinks we could have given them less and still had them agree to it. Perhaps he doesn't understand the concept of sovereignty, or the limits of the US ability to inflict punishment on the Iranian regime.
Those who are eager to scrap the existing deal either don't understand any of this, in which case they are likely to be very disappointed in the outcome of that action, or they are seeking something else entirely. There has been concern in the past that there are those within the US foreign policy establishment who would welcome a pretext to wage war with Iran, and who might therefore be interested in re-creating the 2003 formula. I can't say for sure what Trump thinks (if, indeed, he thinks anything at all). All I am sure of is that one of these two things must be true.
Talk about "denying Iran all paths to a nuclear weapon" are ludicrous. If North Korea can develop one, Iran certainly can. They have nuclear technology, generations of nuclear scientists and engineers, and the ability to obtain and refine fissile material - all without the help of Russia, which is likely to want to help, at least under the table. Claiming something does not make it so - something this administration seems disinclined to understand.
None of this bodes well for the region or the world. If the Trump Administration follows through on this course of action, we will likely end up with yet another nuclear standoff. Iran may well renounce the NPT altogether, as North Korea did some years ago. We may move closer to the re-creation of an Eastern Bloc, this one based not on Communist ideology but on a desire by a set of authoritarian regimes (Russia, Iran, China?) to band together to balance against the US. The world will not be more peaceful, and nobody will be safer or more secure. But this and future administrations will have yet another nuclear-armed bogeyman to use as a useful foil in domestic politics.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
By all measures and to all indications, the United States appears more polarized and factionalized today than at any point since the 1960s and early 1970s. Our national leadership - including but not limited to the aforementioned President - seems determined to add fuel to the fire rather than finding ways to put it out. The media (social, mainstream, and otherwise) have become amplifiers that increase the volume. Everywhere people are concerned, confused, frightened, angry.
There are, as always, no simple solutions. But there is a simple diagnosis: we have forgotten how to listen to each other.
I don't mean that we've become actually deaf. But there is a vast difference between hearing the words coming from someone else's mouth, and listening. Generally, we hear others' words either as confirmation of our own views or as fodder for snarky memes and late-night talk shows that make us feel better about ourselves and superior to Those Idiots Over There.
Listening assumes basic human empathy. To listen to someone, I must first believe that they are of value, that they deserve "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" just as much as I do, that they matter. This is no small thing, because it requires us to recognize that someone else's humanity is every bit as valuable as my own. It forces us to love others as we love ourselves. We long ago sanitized Jesus' command (love your neighbor as yourself) by referring to it simplistically as "the Golden Rule", and in so doing forgot how genuinely hard this is.
We begin our lives as intensively selfish creatures. It takes time before we become aware of the existence of other humans, still more time before we come to recognize them as humans instead of moving objects in our environment. And though empathy often develops quite young, so does selfishness - the desire to Look Out for Number 1, to put ourself ahead of others.
We resolve this tension in part by forming groups, which helps us to exercise empathy and altruism towards some other people while still discriminating against and rejecting others. Tribes are, in a sense, a more complex form of selfishness. Evolutionary philosophers like Jonathan Haidt have suggested that this is as far as we can go - that selfishness is simply built into who and what we are, so we always have to have an out-group.
And yet we strive to be better. The highest ideals of nearly every society, and certainly every major religion, include some version of what we so glibly call the Golden Rule. We are reminded to show hospitality to the stranger, to care for the weak and helpless, to put the needs of others ahead of our own. The stories that unite us, the ones we all cheer for despite party or race or nationality, are the stories of heroic self-sacrifice: the firefighters rescuing people from the burning building, the fishermen who drove down to Houston with their boats to rescue people from the flooding, the neighborhoods coming together to help each other recover from the hurricane or tornado. As divided and polarized as we are, these are the stories that we all agree represent the best of us. Greater love hath no man indeed.
The lost art of listening is really just empathy put into its simplest action. If I can listen to you, not with the intent to rebut or ridicule or mock or disagree, but simply to try to understand your point of view, then I am practicing empathy. I recognize you as a fellow human being, made in God's image as I am.
Most of our current troubles derive from a lack of listening. Very few in government listen to those outside their party or their support circle. The President spends much of his time actively discouraging the practice, calling people names and denigrating those who disagree with him. We used to argue that the President is a role model for the nation. I think that's true, and our current one is modeling the problem, not the solution. Leaders in Congress and the most common voices we see in the media are little better.
We also don't listen much to each other. I've written before about "bubbles" and the problem of fear. We don't listen to each other because we're afraid of each other - afraid of being demeaned, dismissed, or even attacked (verbally or physically). Like all abilities, the less we listen, the less good we get at it. In an atmosphere where no one is listening, many people will grow up never learning the skill at all.
There are others out there making this same point, though they are often faint voices (because conflict is louder by nature, and because those who run society's megaphones make more money from noise than from quiet conversation). A conservative friend of mine sent me this one from the Weekly Standard. The author makes a lot of excellent points and hits on exactly the same problem, although parts of his article are couched in the same kind of partisan snark that makes listening so difficult. Those habits die hard, but die they must.
I've watched the bizarre conflict over the NFL mostly with sadness. Those yelling at the players, including our President (who seemed to think it important to call them profanities and demand they be fired), aren't interested in listening to what those players have to say. They don't want to hear the concerns of African American men who are trying to speak up for their brothers and sisters who can't speak up for themselves.
Likewise, those who support those protests don't always stop to listen to what the booing fans in the stands are saying. In a polarized time, symbols of identity become critically important. For some, those include the flag and the national anthem, symbols that have a nearly sacred meaning to some (even as they have a different meaning, or no meaning, to others).
To listen to others is not necessarily to agree with any of them. I can understand that for some of my fellow Americans, the flag means more to them perhaps than means to me. That's OK. I don't ask that they adopt my meaning. I can also understand that some of my fellow Americans have an experience of discrimination that I don't have, and that because of that difference they feel differently about some institutions than I do. I don't ask that they adopt my feelings either.
I don't know what the "solution" to these issues is. Race relations, protests, free speech on university campuses, immigration - there's a long list of things about which we are seriously polarized. I don't know what the solution to any of them should be. What I do know is that there is only one way to get to a solution: listening. The longer we put off really listening to each other, the more pain there will be. The sooner we start listening, the better our chances of finding solutions.
Sunday, September 24, 2017
I say "almost every President", because the current occupant appears to have abandoned this role altogether. However one goes about uniting a divided and fractious country, nobody thinks that the best way to do it is for the President to pick a hot-button issue and then forcefully take one side, hurling vulgar insults at the other.
Apparently, the President thinks there are "good people" on both sides of the Charlottesville rallies, but not around the issue of the national anthem at football games?
If the Trump Administration has any beneficial impact on the United States, it will be to teach us - by force of necessity - how to rise to be our better selves despite what the President says or does. If this lasts a full four years, we may discover by 2020 that we don't really need the President anymore. We're on our own.