Difficult Discussions, “Hot Moments,” and Contra-Power Harassment

Steve Volk, March 5, 2018

Last week’s CTIE workshop on “Facilitating Discussions” focused in large part on techniques for organizing and promoting effective classroom discussions, in large part thanks to the excellent suggestions provided by workshop participants. The conversation was so rich that we only turned to the theme of “difficult discussions” in the last 20 minutes. To compensate, today’s Article of the Week will focus exclusively on those complicated, “hot moment” challenges that spring up in our classes: how to prepare for them, manage them, and learn from them. I’ve addressed this topic before (here and here), but just as the events that create a need for this conversation continue to manifest in our classes, so it’s always useful to return to the theme.

Why “Difficult Discussion” Are Necessary

“Discussing the War in a Paris Café,” Illustrated London News, 17 Sept 1870

The definition of what is a “difficult discussion” is fairly important in that most of our classroom discussions should be “difficult.” By this I mean two things. The first is tied to the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky who argued that the social engagement arising in a discussion itself is central to the way that children and adolescents learn. Cognitive structures, for Vygotsky, originate in social activity and are “inextricably linked with language, which is itself a social construct. It is through social language” that students learn the cognitive and “communicative tools and skills of their culture.” This also relates to Vygotsky’s notion of the “zone of proximal development.” To put this simply (perhaps simplistically), there are tasks that students can do without any outside help. Activity that remains within that zone will quickly become boring; no learning will occur. Similarly, there are tasks that students are not able to do by themselves at the beginning. Setting up activities in this zone without providing support will guarantee failure and frustration. Optimal learning takes place in a “zone of proximal development” where learners, aided by the social context provided by teachers and peers, push beyond what they already know into new learning. In that sense (and I hope to be forgiven by the psychologists among us who are probably appalled by my presentation), learning occurs when students, scaffolded by the support they receive from teachers and peers, are thrust into the unfamiliar, the difficult. The discussions that provoke learning, then, are almost by definition, “difficult.”

Difficult discussions can be useful in a second way, most recently and poignantly described by Elizabeth Barnes, a philosopher at the University of Virginia, in “Arguments That Harm – And Why We Need Them.” Barnes begins by asking whether some ideas are “so offensive that they shouldn’t be engaged with?” Focusing on Peter Singer’s work on disability (“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed…”), which she finds “offensive, to say the least,” she concludes that, for a variety of reasons, “it is literally my job to think and talk about difficult ideas. The discomfort and hurt when dealing with views like Singer’s are real. But if I’m unwilling to take on a measure of discomfort, given how much privilege I have and how little I have to lose, then I’m not sure I’m using the privilege of an academic life the way I ought to be.” (I would not be doing justice to the richness of her argument if I didn’t also reference her argument that “there are some ideas that shouldn’t be engaged with.”) Continue reading

Open Your Doors!

Steve Volk, Feb. 26, 2018

Diego Rivera, “Open Air School” (1932), lithograph. Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

I fell in love with Diego Rivera’s lithograph, “Open-Air School” when I first saw it many years ago. An indigenous teacher, surrounded by her multi-generational students, sits at the edge of a field, open book in hand. In the distance, we see campesinos working the fields with their horses. A lone, armed horseman watches over the class, locating the lithograph in its historical setting, the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. Those who fought the Revolution promised to bring literacy to the masses, a goal that was not necessarily welcomed by conservatives (nor always observed by government officials). In a process that would foreshadow literacy campaigns in Cuba in the 1960s and Nicaragua in the 1980s, young literacy workers fanned out across the countryside, teaching reading and writing to those too poor to go to have attended school previously.

Many times, as in Rivera’s lithograph, which I was delighted to find in the collection of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, they taught their classes out of doors, in open air schools. And while, because of recent events, my attention immediately shifted to the man on horseback, the vigilant guard who was needed to secure the students their right to learn and the teacher her right to teach, I have always been struck by the openness embodied in the image, the way in which teaching and learning unfold in an enveloping environment rather than closeted away behind closed doors. Continue reading

Teaching with Tenderness

Steve Volk, February 19, 2018

Always start with the names:

Utagawa Hiroshige, Bird and Mallow Flowers (ca. 1842), Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College

Alyssa Alhadeff
Scott Beigel
Martin Duque Anguiano
Nicholas Dworet
Aaron Feis
Jamie Guttenberg
Chris Hixon
Luke Hoyer
Cara Loughran
Gina Montalto
Joaquin Olivier
Alaina Petty
Meadow Pollack
Helena Ramsay
Alex Schachter
Carmen Schentrup
Peter Wang

Victims of the Douglas High School massacre in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day. Since Adam Lanza killed 26 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been more than 140 school shootings in the United States. And, of course, those were preceded by Columbine, and Virginia Tech, and too many others.

 

 

How do we respond?

The appalling toll of gun violence in this country should need no reminding. But when we, as teachers, read of school massacres, it is a kick to the gut. Again. As individuals, we feel anger and sadness, rage and compassion all at the same time. Our empathy with the victims is strong. But as teachers, our response is direct and visceral; we feel a need to hold our students, a deep desire to protect them even as we know we can’t.

How do we respond?

Do we talk to them about Parkland? Do we talk to them about Albert E. Morton, a 31 year old Black man who was shot and killed by police while driving in his car in Harrisburg, PA, one of 123 people shot and killed by police in 2018? Do we talk to them about 20-year old Alexis G. who was deported to Mexico, a country he doesn’t know, in June 2017 after having lived almost his whole life United States? “If I were to sing an anthem right now, it would be the Star-Spangled Banner,” he said before being deported. Continue reading

Digital Distractions? Technology, Teaching and Learning in the Contemporary Classroom

Steve Volk, February 12, 2018
Contact at: svolk@oberlin.edu

In my current day job, leading Oberlin’s teaching and learning center, I am frequently asked to observe colleagues’ classes to offer some “formative” feedback, remarks that go to them alone, not to department chairs or deans. (Let me know if you would like me to sit in on one of your classes, by the way.) Many of these classes are relatively large, and I park myself in the back of the class where I have a clear view of the class, including the students’ laptops and phones. Oh, the things I have seen! Chats and texts, Amazon purchases, sporting events and Netflix movies, emails and emoticons.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed the disruption and distraction that digital devices introduce into the classroom, adding to the potential for a wandering attention that was already present in a pre-internet age. Reporting on the dangers of digital distraction is no longer confined to academic journals or the education press. Articles in Forbes (“Students spend nearly 21% of class time using a digital device for an unrelated activity like email or social media…They also check a digital device 10.5 times per class day on average”), the New York Times (“A growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures”), Fortune (“Score one for the Luddites. Taking notes with pen and paper may be more effective than with a laptop or tablet, studies show”), and myriad other sources have reported on the research findings (usually citing the same research study).

While I’ll go over some of these research findings in this article, let me summarize them here for those who are just about to stop reading so they can look at that text that just came in… Continue reading

Ground Control to Major Tom: Supporting Music Across the Curriculum

Steve Volk, February 5, 2018

Here I am sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

David Bowie, “Ground Control to Major Tom” (1969)

Could you use David Bowie’s songs to teach a cultural studies class? Certainly. How about English, History, Environmental Studies, Physics or Math? The question was answered at the “Music +” workshop which unfolded Friday in StudiOC. Kathryn Metz, an Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology, crafted the session designed to help us think about the whys, hows, and with-whats of using music across the curriculum. If the lessons learned can apply in literally any liberal arts setting, it wasn’t hard to understand why the appeal of using music across the curriculum seemed particularly opportune for Oberlin, which has a unique (in the true sense of the word) set of resources that faculty and instructional staff can tap into. These include, of course, everything that a world-class Conservatory brings to the table: faculty, staff, a superb library that features a massive collection of books, scores, and music, streaming options, instruments, photographs, art works, and an impressive archive. Further, there is the opportunity to attend over 500 live performances a year including an Artist Recital Series that brings some of the most revered musicians as well as many rising young performers to campus each year (Sleep? Pfff, that’s for the weak!). Finally, we have an often overlooked but unparalleled resource: our students. Whether in the Conservatory or the College, a substantial number of students not only have come to Oberlin because of the music, but are at home with music from Bach to Beyoncé.

But, as much as I love bragging about how Oberlin’s musical button is bigger than yours, the central message of the workshop was that any teacher in any school can leverage music to increase student learning with access to a simple sound system and the internet. Continue reading

Mentoring: Small Acts That Go a Long Way

Steve Volk, January 29, 2018

I’m pretty sure that my primary work in the “Article of the Week” is to remind educators of what they already know. I know that I certainly could use frequent and repeated reminding. All this by way of reporting on one of the many sessions I attended at the just-concluded annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities in Washington DC. (Truth be told, I escaped at one point to visit the Renwick Gallery’s absolutely marvelous exhibit of 19 miniature crime scenes created by Frances Glessner Lee. Not to be missed!).

The presenter at this particular session was José Antonio Bowen, the president of Goucher College. I’ve heard Bowen speak a number of times before and knew that I would be in for a treat. A former jazz pianist who has appeared around the world with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck, leader of the José Bowen Quartet, composer of symphonies (one nominated for a Pulitzer), multiple recordings (including a “Jazz Shabbat Service,”) a degree in chemistry from Stanford, the inaugural Caestecker Chair of Music at Georgetown, Dean of Fine Arts at Miami, author of hundreds of scholarly articles, and numerous books, including the award-winning Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student LearningOK, you get the idea. No matter what you’ll do in your entire career, he’s already done more. On stage – and he’s often on stage even when he’s not – he’s part carnival barker, part preacher, part your favorite high school science teacher.

Combining personal stories and insights drawn from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, Bowen’s talks are filled with broad observations about where we are (and where we should be headed) as educators, and specific tips on how to improve teaching and learning. What makes his observations more fun is that, as president of a small liberal arts college, he actually has a place to bring his ideas to life. Continue reading

2017 – The Year in Higher Education

Steve Volk, January 22, 2018

It is stock-taking time; time to think about where  higher education stands one year after “45’s” inauguration, time to figure out how we as educators at liberal arts colleges have weathered what all agree was a very stormy year. Attempting to draw meaningful conclusions as to how our sector has been impacted by events in Washington, and how current developments will play out in the long run, or even next year, is challenging. But with this in mind, let’s look at the past year in higher ed, at where we stand on January 20, 2018 compared with January 20, 2017.

Attacking the Foundations: Alternative Facts and Fake News

When beginning to think about the year past, I recalled Antonio Gramsci’s often repeated remark about  “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”  The essence, the very heart, of what we do demands to some degree that we never abandon an optimism of the will. But it is fair to say that the year heaped yet more challenges on to higher ed’s already over-loaded plate. Perhaps the most serious challenge faced by educators came with the Administration’s on-going attack on facts, evidence, and truth. Two telling moments book-ended the year. The Trumpian year began, in case we’ve forgotten, when senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway defended on NBC’s Meet the Press, Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inauguration two days earlier had drawn record numbers. This, despite all evidence, photographic included, to the contrary. What could have been ignored or laughed away instead became a cornerstone of the the new Administration’s approach to information when Conway defended Spicer’s assertion as “alternative facts.” (Within 4 days of her linguistic rebranding, sales of Orwell’s 1984 had jumped 9,500%.)

The year ended with Trump’s “highly anticipated” (ahem!) “Fake News Awards,” which were intended to blast the media by pointing to some of its miscues and factual errors, mistakes which are typically corrected and updated. As everyone knows, the “awards” were fundamentally about branding as “fake” any news that challenged Trump’s view of himself or the world and casting the media as an “enemy of the people.” Continue reading