Thursday, February 23, 2017

Pleading Ignorance

The last time I was in school, I enrolled in a seminar on education policy. It's not my area, but the course satisfied a degree requirement. After week one, I learned just how far out of my wheelhouse I had strayed.

I enjoyed the seminar and learned a ton, but the bulk of what I learned is 'just how little I know.'

I walked away from the experience with a profound appreciation for work I can't really do - the work economists, sociologists, and education researchers put into understanding how policies impact large populations.

Because that's what's at stake, right? Large populations.

Kids across the country are impacted by national and state education policies like Common Core, NCLB, School Choice, and Race to the Top.

So, while I was considering those issues in that seminar room, I had to stop thinking like a teacher. I had to stop thinking about individual classrooms, even individual schools. Not because those spaces don't matter (they do), but because the research tools used to understand education policy are not the tools used to examine pedagogy or a student's development.

That was a hard break for me to make. I didn't really succeed in the ten weeks I had, but the course did change the way I argue about school and education policy.

Ed policy is primarily the domain of quantitative researchers. They pour over numbers for two reasons:
  1. Legislation and policy are designed to impact huge numbers of people. When talking policy, knowing the details of what happens to a few individuals isn't informative - it can even be misleading.  
  2. Because of the first reason, numbers have typically been the best way to change the minds of policy makers. 
Let me say that again: Numbers have typically been the best way to change the minds of policy makers. 

I am no longer sure about that.

School Choice advocates believe that a crucial American value is at stake: Individualism.

For conservatives, the right to make choices for ourselves and the obligation to take responsibility for our choices is paramount. It is an assumption that undergirds the foundation of our nation.

I hear that.

To a point, I agree with it. According to the Political Compass survey, my distrust of authority makes me a Leftist Libertarian.

But I can only value individualism to a point.

If the choices I make benefit me while I knowingly damage my community. I gotta stop.

That is the limit a society ought to put on individual liberty.

I don't think many people from either side of the spectrum are going to argue against that.
I know liberals who will say conservatives don't believe this.
I also know conservatives who will say liberals don't believe this.

But put aside the disdain for a second.

The issue we have is not that one side wants to damage the community. They don't. I know you think they do, but they don't.

The issue we have is that neither side can say when the other has knowingly damaged the community.

We no longer agree on what we know anymore.

We have undermined the institutions we used to count on for knowledge.

NASA, economists, the media, universities...

Those were once sources all sides would go to for reliable information. Granted, arguments abound within each of these institutions, but we used to allow those internal arguments and accept each institution's concensus.

Today, people use disagreements between scientists or scholars to discredit science and scholarship.

So, we have a school choice advocate running the Department of Education. She aims to implement voucher programs nationwide. She intends to do so despite news of major studies from education policy researchers showing how voucher programs harm students who participate.

Here is an analysis of the results from a study of Louisiana's voucher program:
When people try to improve education, sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. The successes usually register as modest improvements, while the failures generally have no effect at all. It’s rare to see efforts to improve test scores having the opposite result. Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, calls the negative effects in Louisiana “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature” — not just compared with other voucher studies, but in the history of American education research.
The work that went into these studies is complex and requires specialized knowledge. The findings have been examined by other specialists looking for weaknesses in the studies. The data used to arrive at the conclusions is drawn from the real world. Three separate studies found the same thing:

Students were harmed by voucher programs.

That much can be asserted with the closest thing to which I call certainty.

But if I present this to the new Secretary of Education or other supporters of school choice, the current state of political discourse allows them to focus on the sliver of uncertainty inherent in all the sciences. They can tell me we'll never truly know that harm was done... or what caused the harm... or what harm actually is... or something else.

They will remind me that the only thing we can be certain of is the value of the individual.

I think knowledge has got to up its public relations game.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

We Cannot Argue about Saydnaya Military Prison

Over the past several years I have tried to remove "moral outrage" from my rhetorical toolbox.

I don't want to argue that someone else's views are awful, even if I believe they are.

I prefer to build arguments that demonstrate how my position is strong.

I didn't always feel this way. I've used moral outrage in my arguments more than once.

But then I recognized something:
When people argue that my position is morally bankrupt, I roll my eyes.

They might have a point. But I will never know, because the moment they go down the path of moral outrage, I tune them out.

And I'm pretty sure anyone I argue with is going to do the same thing.

No one ever asks, "Are we the baddies?" We all believe that our actions are justified.

So, when I try to convince a person that our disagreement stems from their moral failing, I have already begun to lose the debate.

All that said, today I learned of the report issued by Amnesty International detailing the systematic killing of civilians in Saydnaya Military Prison in Syria. And now I have to dust off my moral outrage.
At Saydnaya Military Prison, the Syrian authorities have quietly and methodically organized the killing of thousands of people in their custody. Amnesty International’s research shows that the murder, torture, enforced disappearance and extermination carried out at Saydnaya since 2011 have been perpetrated as part of an attack against the civilian population that has been widespread, as well as systematic, and carried out in furtherance of state policy. We therefore conclude that the Syrian authorities’ violations at Saydnaya amount to crimes against humanity. Amnesty International urgently calls for an independent and impartial investigation into crimes committed at Saydnaya.
I cannot assemble an argument related to this without moral outrage.

In the 20th century, we defined "human-perpetrated evil" as the systematic murder of civilians by a government. That is not something I will debate.

What was done at Saydnaya is evil.
Supporting the Syrian government is facilitating evil.

If we fail to help people trying to escape from a government that built facilities for the systematic killing its own citizens, that is a moral failure.

If you are rolling your eyes right now, your moral compass is not functioning.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

It's Hard to Hear "Wrong"

John William Waterhouse's "Echo and Narcissus"
I love mythology.

Mythology gives us fun and exciting stories with huge characters you want to believe once roamed the earth.

But myths are not real.

Just like learning styles.

Yeah. That's right. I said it.

Learning styles are not a thing.
Even if you want them to be a thing, they are not a thing.

I'm sure you've heard about learning styles.

Maybe you even took a test that felt very "test-like" and made you feel confident telling people something like this:
"Oh, I am a kinesthetic learner; I need to be moving to learn effectively."

The person who gave you that test probably believed in learning styles. A lot of people do. It's a very popular idea. But to be clear, learning styles are not a thing.

Learning Styles emerged from a theory that had not been researched. The idea sounded great, and a lot of people decided to believe it before doing the research.

The good news is that other people went and did the research. Here's what they found:
The overwhelming majority of the literature concludes the same thing: there is no proven benefit to matching a teacher’s instruction to a learner’s preferred style.
So, a lot of people are wrong - a lot of smart people.
And I want them to stop being wrong.

I want to stop reading about learning styles in papers from strong students.
I want to stop hearing intelligent parents tell me about the learning styles of their children.
I want to stop knowing that this myth is behind lesson plans being used in my kids' schools.

I want to stop all this, but I also don't want to be a jerk.

Telling people they are wrong about something they believe makes you look like a jerk - especially when that 'something' makes them feel informed.

People look back on all the times they used that flawed knowledge, all the times they mentioned it in passing, all the times they relied on that incorrect information to make a decision. Suddenly they feel foolish, and you are the reason they feel foolish.

You may think you're doing people a favor, but it sure doesn't feel that way for the person you're "helping."

It was easy for me to accept learning styles aren't a thing because of the way I heard the news.
I had used the phrase in a paper I was working on, but I wasn't referring to the concept that's been debunked. One of my advisors pointed it out and told me to get it out of my manuscript. He knew I didn't mean to invoke the popular concept, but he explained that the phrase was a red flag in education research. He told me it is pseudo-science, like astrology.

I got the message and pulled the phrase out. That was easy, but I was not invested in the idea.

It's a different story for people who learned the concept from a respected teacher, an authority, or a good read. These people are going to resist, and I get it.

I want to take something from them. They had this knowledge, and it was useful.

Here comes some jerk who has proof that the thing they valued is actually worthless.

So, you have to acknowledge some kind of worth.

It is a good idea to vary teaching methods so that students experience learning in more than one way. So, a lot of the teaching techniques that were prompted by the idea of "learning styles" are helping students.

Show people why it was okay to believe what they did.
That makes letting go of flawed knowledge easier.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hide Your Degree, Hide Your Accomplishments

My Ph.D. ain't helping.

If I want to have a constructive argument with people about politics, I can't refer to my education or my profession anymore.

My degrees put me at a disadvantage.

That's one way I'm experiencing today's brand of populism.

Achievements I am very proud of are being used to set me apart - to sow distrust and undermine the ideas I bring to a conversation.

If I use my skills as a scholar to demonstrate a source is biased or flawed, my skills are dismissed as tools of the elite.

My arguments about political rhetoric leave people I respect feeling insulted.

I have had people tell me, "We are sick and tired of people like you thinking we're stupid."

And this didn't start in November. I dealt with this during the Democratic primary, the general election, and now under a new administration.

It's more than anti-intellectualism.

It is an effort to consolidate "rhetorical capital."
Here's what I mean by that: A person's rhetorical position is strengthened when people trust that person more than they trust other sources of information. So, one way to earn trust is by undermining trusted institutions.
"You can't trust the scientists. They are just after funding."
"You can't trust the economists. They work for Wall Street."
"You can't trust the teachers. They just cost tax dollars."
"You can't trust the media. They are owned by corporations/They have a liberal agenda."
I worked my way through universities to become a professional scholar in a community I admire.
But now the legitimacy of universities is under attack.

A claim of expertise is met with cynicism.

I found some strategies to avoid inadvertently silencing myself in this piece about populism in South America.
“'Don’t listen to them, folks', says the populist. 'Stop letting them think they can school and fool you. The only true fact is that the enemies are few and that they lie. Let’s show them they’re the ones who are wrong. They’re the ones who are stupid. They’re scared! Or, worse, fearing justice! They think only about themselves. Turn off the TV. Listen to me.'
The author goes on to point out that if your arguments against a populist show contempt, you’ve "just lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, you’ve played into it."

The new challenge for me is to know how my strengths can be used against me.

Intellectually, it's an interesting challenge.
Spiritually, it's crushing me.

NOTE ADDED 1/25/2017
A few people have thoughtfully responded to this post with something like, 'Perhaps it's best that your arguments stand on their own. A good argument should not depend on your professional qualifications.'

I just want to say that I completely agree with that and I hope this much is clear:
I do not think people should listen to me because of my profession. I do not think my political arguments carry more weight because of my degrees.

This post is about my experiences of having those qualifications used against me. People are dismissing my views because my advanced degree represents a link to "the establishment" they are blaming for the state of affairs they deem unacceptable.

This is why I have to hide my degree; because it weakens my position before an argument even begins.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Challenging Our Preconceptions - A Refresher

I can't remember the first time I saw this video of Hans Rosling's talk challenging people's preconceptions about world health and poverty. I've seen and shared it often. By internet standards, it is an oldie.

I watched it again recently and was struck by its renewed importance.

Yes, it is a TED Talk, and I know that can get a bit tired for some, but this one doesn't have that guru vibe some of them are guilty of.

Rosling effectively demonstrates the gap between 'what we believe is true' and what facts and data actually tell us about the world.

With the phrase "fake news" on the tips of everyone's tongue...
With an incoming president who prefers an impressive message over a fact-based one...
With people seeking to discredit and disregard all arguments that contradict their beliefs...
With every argument becoming a zero-sum game...

With all that in the air, it is worth watching a man who can successfully challenge 'what we believe is true.'

It's not enough to have the facts.
The facts have to be clear and clearly linked to the point being made.
And yes, presentation and enthusiasm count.

If you haven't seen the video, take a look.
If you have, have another look and consider this kind of rhetoric in the context of the past several months of news and politics.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Following Up on Johnny's Teaching Ability

Last fall I wrote a response to a Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece that was critical of how we teach composition.

I've never had a post get as many hits as that one, and I get it. This is a popular debate.

While I was happy for all the visits, I know my response could have done more. I kept my blog's casual tone and stopped short of going into much of the research to support my response.

I am pleased to see that the Chronicle has published a response in which the always brilliant Doug Hesse did the heavy lifting I did not do.

His response cuts the snark and is backed by the knowledge of a well-established community of scholars.

Here are some highlights:
A 2005 article, "The Focus on Form vs. Content in Teaching Writing," analyzed why formalist approaches — like the back-to-basics kind that Professor Teller advocates — remained so popular in teaching composition, despite overwhelming empirical evidence that they were significantly less effective than other methods.
The teaching of writing happens — or should — within a deep field of practice, theory, and research. It’s also an enterprise marked by a fair amount of what Steve North, in a 1987 book, The Making of Knowledge in Composition, called teaching "lore." Lore consists of ideas and assumptions that are grounded in local experience ("what worked for me") and then passed along informally, for the most part, from one faculty member to the next. Lore is sometimes informed by research, and thus transmutable and generalizable, but more often it is not.
Teller’s essay participates in the tradition of lore. Not having been in his classes or having read his students’ work, I can’t judge his local experience, but I can judge how well his approach compares with the most effective national practices.
For example, his assertion, "Substantial revision doesn’t happen in our courses," might speak for his own classroom, but it surely doesn’t speak for mine or those of thousands of other professors. Consider his claim that students "do not use the basic argumentative structures they need." Again, while perhaps true of students in Teller’s own classes, that broad claim is unsubstantiated by my experience, by research on my campus, or by the wider literature in the field.
I am happy to belong to a community of scholars that includes the likes of Professor Hesse.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Rules I Don't Know

I'm writing today, and while doing some editing I realized I wasn't sure of a mechanics rule.

Check out UNC with the top result on Google!
If I place an independent clause after a colon, do I capitalize the first letter of the independent clause?

So, I looked it up.
That's how I write.

I have no qualms about publicly sharing I don't know this rule.

I know to seek the rule out during the editing stage of my writing.

Again, that's how I write.

I draw on a ton of outside resources as I go. My writing ability is by no means housed exclusively in my mind. In class, I refer to this by its fancy name, distributed cognition.

It is something I work hard to teach my composition students - and something I work hard to teach future instructors. Writing is a socially supported ability. You can't do it all by yourself. Most of "learning how to write" is the process of discovering what resources you need and how to access them.

This is one reason I shared a minor objection on social media yesterday about a NYT opinion piece on technology in the classroom.

The author wrote an excellent argument for disallowing laptops in her lectures, but the argument went a step too far, suggesting that everyone ought to ban laptops.

I let my students use their phones, laptops, and tablets in class. If they're on Reddit, I ask if it's related to what we're working on (sometimes it is). I want them to incorporate the technologies they use every day into their writing practice. I design classroom activities around that goal and my technology policy.

I would not ask another instructor to model their classroom (or their lecture hall) after my own.

This is all to say, I had a nice moment while writing today. It helped me reflect on my writing practice - both how that is related to my teaching of writing and how it is related to my teaching of pedagogy.

Now, back to editing.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Are We Different?

Last week I facilitated the final college prep session of the semester at the O.H. Close Youth Correctional Facility. It is work I am doing through the Prison Education Project.

Each week, three student volunteers and I ran an early-evening session in the correctional facility's library. We ran discussions and activities with 17 wards, all of whom had expressed interest in going to college when released.

The profound impact this experience had on me was made clear during the second-last session when one of the young men told me he wanted to ask a question unrelated to the group activity we were doing. It was a challenging and insightful question.

This young ward of the juvenile correctional facility asked me,
"Are we different?"

He went on to clarify what he meant. He knew about my work as a professor. I had talked to him about my 12 years of experience working with incoming freshmen. He wanted to know, based on my time at O.H. Close, is there something that differentiates a minor convicted of a crime from the other students I've worked with.

I told him it was a brilliant question. The other three at our table knew it was brilliant too. They leaned in to hear how I would respond.

I told them, as is the case with any brilliant question, there isn't a simple answer.
I was stalling for time.

I started by saying, I treat all my students like adults. Each student may have a different set of needs, but that does not change how I think about them as a person. My students are grown people who deserve my respect. That's where things start.

Then I explained how I approached the college prep sessions at O.H. Close. I had made a conscious effort to treat the young men at the facility like incoming freshmen. I delivered each session in the same way I would have delivered an orientation for new students on campus.

I told the guys that I did not treat them differently and they had never given me a reason to treat them differently.

I looked at the young man who had asked the question and said, "But that isn't really a complete answer to your question." And I shook my head. "This is a tough one. This is a challenge. You're challenging me. You know that, right?"

And he laughed, because he did know. The other guys laughed as well.

And that's when I told him what I thought. The life experience that lands people in a youth correctional facility, and the experience of living in a youth correctional facility, those things shape a person. Those things don't disqualify a person from the college experience. They don't make a person less...

But if my answer suggested that these young men's college experiences were going to be similar to my own, I would have been lying. Sure, I could have fallen back on the cliché: All students are unique, and each faces their own personal challenges.

But these young men know what it is to be fed into a system that enforces its expectations.

And colleges do that.

In many ways, by enrolling in classes and declaring a major, these young men would be defying the expectation colleges have.

I said all this.

I told them to take pride in that kind of defiance.

But I also said that their life experience would make their college experience different.

And I admitted I didn't know how it would feel to be them on a college campus. A lot of people wouldn't know, and that was going to be a challenge at times.

But I think it's a pretty cool challenge. I asked the guys if they could see it that way.

Then I looked at the young man who had asked me the question in the first place, and I asked, "How'd I do?"

And he knew what I was asking.

That's the impact this had on me.
I now know why I have to keep asking how I did.
Because we are different, and that's a challenge.

When I argue with people who see the world differently than I do.
When I design a course.
When I assess a placement exam.
When I react to an election.
When I stand up for people.
When I stand up to people.
Each time I have to keep asking myself: How'd I do?