The Stereotype Threat

Steven Volk, February 29, 2016

I was recently reading a blog post by Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher. She wrote about a trip she took in the 1980s down the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe on route to a teaching post. The environs were beautiful and she asked the tour guide if they could stop and walk along the shore. No way, he replied. The banks of the river had been strewn with landmines from the civil war and they still remained. The likelihood was that she would be blown up. Nor was Zimbabwe the only place in the world where talks in the countryside can carry fatal consequences. There are an estimated 110 million landmines in place around the world, and many, if not most, will remain long after hostilities have ceased since it is much more expensive to remove a landmine than to put one in.

The experience led Salzberg to think about her own emotional landmines and the ways that we often think of ourselves as inadequate. And it led me to think about the hidden “landmines” that we, and the larger society, have placed in the path of many of our students. What I want to address here are those specific “landmines” which have been studied as under the concept of “stereotype threats.” Continue reading

Sermon on “The Mount”

Steven Volk, Feb. 22, 2016

The MountI have thought a lot about the rolling catastrophe that has engulfed Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. If you haven’t been following events there, you’ve been spending way too much time watching reruns of the Super Bowl halftime show…or preparing your classes! In either case, the Chronicle of Higher Education has prepared a handy packet of articles to help someone in your situation. Or, in case you don’t want to go there, here’s a short summary:

In December 2014, Simon Newman, a private-equity chief executive with no real higher-education experience, was named to be president of the Roman Catholic, liberal arts institution in north-central Maryland. Among Newman’s early initiatives was a plan to improve The Mount’s (as it’s called) metrics – numbers that US News & World Report pays attention to when compiling its “best colleges” edition – by addressing first-year retention. The way to do this, he reported in an email to the faculty, was to get “20-25 students to leave” at the start of the fall semester, before these new students would be counted by reporting agencies. He planned to send incoming-students a “survey” which welcomed them to make use of this “very valuable tool” to help them “discover more about” themselves. They were told that the survey was “based on some of the leading thinking in the area of personal motivation and key factors that determine motivation, success, and happiness. We will ask you some questions about yourself that we would like you to answer as honestly as possible. There are no wrong answers.”

National Police Gazette, 1880

As it turned out, there would be “wrong” answers, as the survey was not about happiness, but an attempt to find first-year students who should be “culled” before the end of September. The plan was opposed by Provost David Rehm (OC ’83), and Dr. Greg Murry, Director of the Veritas Symposium, a “first-year seminar” course designed to initiate students into a “Catholic liberal arts community dedicated to the pursuit of truth,” and where the “survey” would be distributed. Murry conveyed his concerns to President Newman, and it was during their discussion that President Newman delivered his by-now infamous sentiments:

This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.

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Drawing-to-Learn: Beyond Visualization

Steven Volk, February 15, 2016

London is a city of museums, and I have had the good fortune to take my students to quite a few in my (still) short time here. Last week, for example, in class we studied the so-called “Glorious Revolution” (1688-89) in England (more on its glories, real or imagined, in another post!). And then on Friday we traveled up river to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to see an exhibit on Samuel Pepys, the garrulous diarist who chronicled so much of the second half of the 17th century.

John Michael Wright, "Charles II in His Coronation Robes," c. 1687 (Charles II: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015)

There’s only so much I could say in class about Charles II, the man who restored the monarchy to England after a brief flirt with republicanism, without spiraling my students into a deep slumber. But, on entering the Pepys exhibition, the visitor is almost immediately confronted by a portrait of the monarch in his coronation robes painted by John Michael Wright (c. 1687). What the spectacular painting could say was infinitely more informative (not to mention entertaining) than anything I could cobble together.

Supporting the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand word, we know that images are remarkably generative texts. Perhaps this is because, as John Berger has argued in his hugely popular book, Ways of Seeing, published in 1972, and based on a BBC series of the same name, seeing and recognition come before words. We see, and then explain what we see with words. But, he continues, at the same time what we know or believe affects how we see. Our past knowledge or experience changes the way we see.

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Who Brings the Fight for Equality?

Steve Volk, February 8, 2016

Laura Redniss, RadioactiveThe struggle for a greater representation of student, faculty, and staff of color in higher education has been a continual theme in protests of at least the past two years. Response to the protests have varied from place to place: at some universities, administrators have lost their jobs; at some, generous earmarked funds have been made available to spur diversity hiring, many new conversations have begun about how to create the conversations and the actions that can carry us forward. But, in general, the issues of race, racism, and growing inequality in higher education has been (and is being) brought to our doorsteps and our classrooms by students.

All of this was on my mind when my eyes fell on an op-ed in the January 31, 2016 Sunday Times (London) titled “Watch out, universities; I’m bringing the fight for equality in Britain to you.” It was by David Cameron… the Prime Minster…the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Not only was Cameron in a sense standing in for the students and their protests (co-opting is a word that also comes to mind), but this was the same David Cameron who jacked tuitions to their current level (which, at £9,000 [$13,000] a year are now higher than in-state rates at public universities in the United States ($9,139) and considerably higher than the £0 (!) which students paid prior to 1998). Regardless, in the article, Cameron relentlessly takes the universities to task for excluding BME (black and minority ethnic) students. “Consider this,” he wrote. “If you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university. Only one in 10 of the poorest white boys go into higher education at all.” Well yes, and the same is true in the United States. But who is the messenger of this information? We are in a strange world when the politician most responsible for policies that have led to growing inequality speaks as the person who will bring “the fight for equality” to the university.

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