Begin by Listening

NOTE: Parts of this article were first published on Feb. 19, 2018. I wish I didn’t feel it necessary to bring them back again.

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”Toni Morrison (1931-2019)


All images from Ogawa Kazumasa, Hand-Coloured Photographs of Flowers (1896). Public domain.

Students will soon be returning to classes across the country as well as in my hometown of Oberlin, OH. They will face the pleasurable prospect of a year of learning, the opportunity to reconnect with friends while making new ones, and the excitement of forming new communities. They also face a set of challenges that are rare, perhaps unequaled, in their intensity. They face well-known financial challenges. While the rate of increase in college and university tuition has eased significantly over the past 5 years (just below 2%, i.e., even with inflation), college remains a difficult reach for much of the population, particularly in light of four decades of attacks on wages and the unions that support workers. Tuition increases in the public sector have been driven by state cutbacks in their higher education budgets. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2016-2017 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level after adjusting for inflation, with 44 states spending less on higher education in 2017 than they did in 2008.

Students will return to class in the face of a fierce partisan attack on the very idea of higher education. A majority of Republicans polled think it is having a negative effect on the country, which is one reason why they are gradually (or abruptly, if you’re in Alaska) defunding it in the states they control. At the same time, the data is unequivocal that those with a college degree do better in a large number of outcomes, especially the economic, than those without one. Students and their families know this, which is why they continue to pay for college and why student debt has soared over the years to its current $1.5 trillion level and climbing.

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Where Does Democratic Engagement Fit on Your Syllabus?


Study with Coffee, Wall Boat. Public Domain

When I was teaching, there was a point during the summer – usually around the third week in July – when my thoughts would gradually drift from research and writing to focus, once again, on the classroom. The time had come to reread (or read!) the books and articles I had tentatively assigned for my fall classes, to think more seriously about how to design the courses I had hurriedly plotted out the previous spring, and to reflect once more on what I hoped the students would gain from the semester. The “content-transfer” portion of the syllabus was probably the easiest to manage; the more years of teaching I had under my belt, the better sense I had both of what content would be appropriate for each course, and what chunks of that content I wanted students to hold on to long after the semester ended. In other words, I had become comfortable with the process of backward planning.

But I found it harder to settle on the specific skills and dispositions I hoped students would acquire; not because I didn’t have these in mind, but because my list for each swelled year after year. The skills I hoped they would gain in writing ability and proficiency at historical analysis were soon augmented by a host of others: speaking and presentation skills, the ability to argue on the basis of evidence, information literacy, statistical competence, self-reflection, the ability to read images as well as texts on multiple levels. The dispositional outcomes I desired for my classes rapidly accumulated as well, and I struggled to make them measurable, not just aspirational, goals: empathy, resilience, risk-taking, perseverance, perspective taking, ethical and moral reasoning.

In the last few years, I have become increasingly concerned with how to foster the skills of, and a positive orientation toward, democratic engagement. This should not be a surprise, in light of the country’s extreme polarization and the intensification of repellent messages emanating from a White House determined to gain political advantage by fracturing the country on the basis of race and a “radical renegotiation of belonging.” But I am also concerned because of my apprehension that many students, incensed by these appeals to the darkest elements of the U.S. soul and lacking a clear sense of how to respond productively and forcefully to the goading challenges – after all, who among us knows how to respond? — may take their anger out on easy, if inappropriate or insignificant, targets. Continue reading

After the Gibson’s Verdict: What Is at Stake

The jury’s massive $44 million award in the lawsuit filed by Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibsons against Oberlin College (reduced by the judge to $25 million and likely to rise again as lawyers’ fees are tacked on) continues to generate national attention as well as negative editorials slamming the College. I am dismayed, to say the least, by the media’s portrayal of Oberlin as a college that delights in bullying local merchants, condones thievery, and promotes what one editorial writer labeled as “cruel, malicious, and vicious mob tactics.”


Students protesting in front of Gibsons, November 2016

Having lived in the town and worked at the college for more than three decades, I know Oberlin as an institution that tries to take its local responsibilities seriously. College administrators, faculty, and staff are certainly aware of the ways, large and small, that its nearly 3,000 undergraduates can irritate the residents of this small town. Students wander across the streets seemingly oblivious to on-coming traffic, ride bicycles on downtown sidewalks, walk shoeless in December snows, and, yes, shoplift. This is not a defense of those actions, certainly not of shoplifting which, as I wrote earlier, is an infuriating example of class privilege as performed by some students. College administrators have never excused stealing even if they lack the means of putting an end to it. Continue reading

Gibson’s Bakery v. Oberlin College: Local Issues, National Angers

Gibson’s Bakery, Oberlin, OH (Photo: Steve Volk)

When a jury awarded more than $33 million in punitive damages to Gibson’s Bakery and the Gibson family in its suit against Oberlin College, its action didn’t simply indicate the jurors’ desire to “make the college pay” for the injury ostensibly done to a local merchant. It traveled considerably beyond that since, as the plaintiff’s accountant had testified, Gibson’s Bakery calculated it only stood to lose some $2.8 million over the next 30 years, due to the claimed harm.* Rather, the preposterous size of the jury’s award was evidence that the case long since had leapt over its modest origins in an alleged shoplifting. In many ways, the Gibson’s-Oberlin conflict had become a national billboard on which the fault lines splintering the country were sadly advertised.

Gibson’s sells everything from donuts to the New York Times, the one item which brings me into the store daily. But it was wine that launched this cascade of trouble when an underaged Black student allegedly walked out with two unpaid-for bottles on November 9, 2016. Actually, as the police bodycam video indicates, the wine never left the store. (For one eyewitness account of what happened that night, fast forward to 6:55-8:27 on the video.) In any case, as the student left the store, Allyn Gibson, Jr., the grandson and son of the store’s owners who was working the register, pursued him across the street. City police ultimately arrested the student along with two of his friends, after a tussle which began in the store and which, according to the student eyewitnesses, was initiated by Gibson. (The police report of the event inexplicably excluded testimony from the three students involved as well as the student eyewitnesses who placed the first call to the police.)

News of the arrests spread quickly to the nearby campus, sparking a peaceful protest in front of the store the following day. One leaflet handed out by students described the store as a “RACIST establishment with a LONG ACCOUNT of RACIAL PROFILING and DISCRIMINATION.” Students began to boycott the store and, some days later, the college suspended its traditional order of bagels and donuts as college officials pledged to “determine the full and true narrative” of what had happened that night. The college resumed its purchases less than a month later.


Photo by Bryan Rubin, Oberlin Review

Now, it is quite possible that had this incident occurred a year before, or even a week before, little would have come of it. But November 9 was the day following Donald Trump’s unsettling victory, and many students were feeling exceptionally raw. On this particular November 9, for many students I would imagine, Gibson’s became the nearest target within walking distance against which they could express their anger at the racism which, in their view, had led not only to the mistreatment of their peers, but was tightly bound up with Trump’s electoral victory. A small, hometown store with its own particular complement of virtues and flaws – over the years, students of color had raised similar complaints about the store – would come to stand in for all that, in the protesters’ view, had just gone off the rails in the country. Continue reading

“You May as Well Fight”: Thoughts from the Passover Season

Passover began on Friday, April 19 and lasted through sundown yesterday, Saturday, April 27, the day that an anti-Semitic 19-year old (who shall not be named) chose to open fire in a synagogue near San Diego, killing Lori Kaye and wounding three others. I have much to say about the upsurge in hate crimes that has occurred under encouraging watch of the current regime in Washington, but I’ll hold that for another occasion.

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The Family Seder, The Sister Haggadah (Barcelona, mid-14th-century)

Here, I want to talk about the Seder we hosted for many friends and family on the first night on Passover and the interesting conversation that unfolded during the gathering. We all read from a Haggadah that a colleague and I compiled and have edited over many years, with additions that call attention to events of the past year that have a particular resonance with Passover as a celebration of liberation, a call to struggle, and a reminder that we are to treat the “strangers” among us with the dignity that all humans deserve since not only were we once slaves in the land of Egypt, but we remain morally compromised and metaphorically enslaved until all are free. Continue reading

The Real Scandal Behind “Operation Varsity Blues”

Steven Volk, March 13, 2019

What was your first reaction when you read the news about the FBI operation known as “Operation Varsity Blues” that took down the latest college admission racket? You know, the one that had wealthy parents paying bag-loads of money to get their kids – often without their knowledge – “guaranteed” admission to gold-plated universities, colleges to which they otherwise (i.e., in the real world of college applications) would not have been admitted. Um…what else is new? Isn’t this what happens all the time? As Libby Nelson put it, “the whole business of being admitted to elite colleges in America in 2019 — and make no mistake, it is a business — is corrupt all the way down.”

I must admit that my own reaction was to think: Oh, crap. Yet another reason for the public to throw shade on higher education. As if we needed another one. Nearly 60% of Republicans already think that higher education has a negative impact on “the way things are going in the country,” according to Pew survey. Sean Westwood of Dartmouth observed that “Colleges are simply seen as a production facility for Democratic beliefs and Democratic ideology.” (I probably should stop here to note that, according to the latest survey of undergraduate teaching released by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA, some 48% of the faculty identify as “liberal,” a number which has fallen from the 2010-11 survey. A large number, to be sure, but not even half of the faculty.) For their part, lower-income families will argue that the economic value (the “return-on-investment”) of a college education has fallen, although that is also inaccurate. And it probably doesn’t help that the media and the current occupant of the White House are fixated on challenges to free speech on college campuses that, studies show, are extremely rare, on controversies over “trigger warnings” that are daily, unremarked-upon, lead-ins to radio or TV coverage of difficult issues, or on cultural appropriation dust-ups which – also few in numbers – manage to live on for years, fueling the public imagination that all we do in college is argue about who can eat sushi and wear hoop earrings.

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Into the Free Speech Debate, Once Again

Steven Volk, March 4, 2019


All images from John Wilkins’ An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language (1668), Wellcome Library, London

In an “off-script” romp before the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) on March 2, President Trump announced his intention to issue an executive order to block federal grants to colleges and universities that don’t take steps to “guarantee free speech.” Here’s some of what he said:

“We reject oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas. These ideas are dangerous,” Trump said. “Instead we believe in free speech, including online and including on campus.”

Wait, what? What does that even mean? That Trump opposes the “hard left” from confronting people with “ridiculous and dangerous ideas”? That “ridiculous and dangerous ideas” should be welcome on college campuses while any attempt to prevent them should be challenged? That people should be allowed to express their opposition to the “hard left’s…ridiculous and dangerous ideas” because those ideas are “dangerous” and therefore should be, um, censored?

Ugh. Why waste time parsing Trump’s verbiage when his CPAC listeners, like lions in a cage urging their keeper to throw them another hunk of red meat, know exactly what he means irrespective of the words that tumble from his mouth? To conservative Trump supporters – and nearly four-fifths of Republicans think that professors are bringing their (one assumes liberal) political and social views into the classroom – all higher education is a snobbish club where coddled snowflakes and feminized “soy boys” flee from challenging ideas, debate pronoun use, and beat up those foolish enough to sport a MAGA hat on campus. (We’ll just ignore the contradictions here.) Trump and CPAC can extravagantly salute the “free speech” flag without either actually supporting it – more on this below – or understanding its intricacies.

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Actually, Deadlines DO Matter

Steven Volk (Contact at:

In a recent Reddit post, Tobias Rush, a musicologist at the University of Dayton, remarked that he allows students in “music theory and aural skills classes to turn homework in late and redo it as many times as they want for a higher grade. The students LOVE this policy and it does benefit them in that it gives them opportunity to learn the material by doing.” The posting was picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Teaching Newsletter,” where it appeared under a headline offering, “How One Professor Learned to Stop Worrying and Drop the Deadline.” The article notes that it’s a bit more complicated: Rush provides due dates for each assignment but, “they are really just suggestions, since assignments can be turned in late without penalty.” Ultimately, he clarifies, “There is a hard and fast due date at 5:00 pm on the last day before finals week where all materials are due.”


zen Sutherland, Flickr Creative Commons

The arguments in favor of such an approach are significant, including never having to parse various requests for extensions, from the familiar (computer crashes without any backups; the untimely death of a grandparent), to the outrageous (“I’m going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and won’t have time to complete it before I leave. I’ll bring you back some beads”), to the sadly believable, if eyecatching (“I lost my carabiner which had all my keys, including the one for the lockbox where I keep my ADHD meds, and my father can’t mail me a new prescription until next week…”). One also doesn’t have to calculate grade deductions for assignments turned in late (is that a grade down for every day late, or every CLASS day late?), or trouble one’s mind as to whether it’s better for students to turn in an assignment, however late, vs. discouraging them from doing the work by mandating a failing grade after, say, 5 late days.

Prof. Rush also notes that such a policy requires significant preparation (“we have a big discussion about this on the first day of the first class…”), as well as talking about the final due date continually as the semester draws to a close. He also notes that, in the end, he ends up with a lot more grading at the end of the semester, when everything is finally submitted. And he indicates that the policy works best for certain “lower-level” assignments, not for all assignments.

Yet for Rush, as reported in the Chronicle, the policy paid off: “…His students, all in their first and second year, appreciate having the space to better understand their time-management skills, or lack thereof…His method allows the procrastinators at the margins to understand the material rather than give up.” While Rush hasn’t studied the results of his experiment in a thorough manner, he noticed an increase in the average grades in his course.

Maybe Not?

The idea was so intriguing that I thought I would try it – well, actually I did try it, about a decade ago. In the syllabus for an introductory survey of colonial Latin American history (50 students), I wrote: “This semester, I am adopting a new policy regarding late assignments based on an understanding (and a hope) and it is you who are ultimately responsible for your education.” Much like Prof. Rush, I provided deadlines for every assignment (4 in total), but indicated that assignments could be turned in after the deadline without a grade penalty, up to the date of the final exam; nothing turned in after that date would be accepted. My approach differed from Prof. Rush’s in two other ways: Students who turned in assignments late would be graded normally, but would not receive any written comments – which, I noted, “means that the assignment will lose some of its value as a learning opportunity.” And students could not pass the course unless they (ultimately) turned in all the assignments. Continue reading

The Many Lives of a Syllabus: Making Yours Work

NOTE: This is cross-posted at the GLCA Consortium for Teaching & Learning.

plants to save time

From: From 114 proved plans to save a busy man time (A.W. Shaw Co, 1918).

A “syllabus,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “(a) a concise statement or table of the heads of a discourse, the contents of a treatise, the subjects of a series of lectures, etc.; a compendium, abstract, summary, epitome,” and, in a more contemporary sense “(b) a statement of the subjects covered by a course of instruction or by an examination, in a school, college, etc.; a programme of study.” We all know it as the “thing” (I believe that’s the formal term) that we need to have completed by the first day of class. Perhaps instructors dislike it so much because when we finally copy it for distribution, it means that our summer/winter/whatever break is over. (I’m old enough to associate the smell of the mimeo machine ink with the start of a new semester.) And, perhaps, as instructors we dislike it because we don’t think our students will actually read it. We certainly  have ALL had occasion to answer a student’s question by responding, “It’s on the syllabus!”



And yet – I will argue – the syllabus is actually a critical document whether or not your students read it (and I will suggest ways to get them to, yes, read it). Why is it so important? It is the actual place where your understanding of learning theory (how students learn) intersects with your pedagogical style and approach (not just what you feel comfortable with, but what you understand as important for student learning) mapped out on the field of reality: the content that you have to “cover” that semester, how well your students are actually prepared, and the concrete reality of your life at that moment (new child at home? a parent who is ill? a book manuscript due at the publisher? your “heavy” teaching load semester, etc.). What I am arguing is that a “successful” syllabus – one that helps you teach and bolsters your students’ learning – needs to take these elements into account. Yes, you can prepare a syllabus that is close to the original Latin meaning of the word: a list – in this case of the readings and assignments. But to do so is to lose the opportunity to grapple with what you really want to accomplish in your course and how you can help your students achieve at a high level. Continue reading

“Teaching as Possibility”: Lessons for Teachers

Steven Volk, December 30, 2018 (a version first published December 7, 2014)

[In memory of Jakelín Caal Maquín and Felipe Alonzo-Gómez, two Guatemalan children who died in December 2018 while in the custody of the US Border Patrol, children who will never sit in our classes.]

Jakelin Caal Maquin

Jakelín Caal Maquín


Felipe Gomez Alonso







Semesters can feel like ocean journeys. Sometimes the seas are choppy, sometimes calm. Sometimes you’re relaxing on an ocean liner, sometimes pulling the oars of a rowboat. And when land is once again in sight, it often feels that it’s you, teeth gripping a tow-rope, who hauls the ship into port. I was reading something the other day, don’t even ask me what, that called attention to the words we use to talk about what it is we do as faculty members. When asked about our “load,” we understand the question to be: How many courses do you have to teach each semester? When asked if we’ve had a chance to get to our “work,” we know we’re being queried about our research, writing, or creative production. Outsiders could ask why we have developed that vocabulary to talk about what we do, but we know the answer, so I won’t bore you.


Wellcome Library, London. “A large mule carrying a heavy load,” Etching by J. E. Ridinger. CC.

Teaching, of course, is far more than a load, an 80-pound pack that we hump up endless hills, and the end of the semester is always a good time to remind ourselves what we can and should be about. Teaching, as Maxine Greene once put it, is possibility. My wife, a professor of early childhood education, turned me on to Greene some time ago, amazed that I didn’t know her writing. As much a force of nature as a human being, Greene, who died in 2014 at the age of 96, taught for nearly 50 years at Teachers College (Columbia University). TC proudly claimed her as their “Philosopher Queen,” and a rightful heir to John Dewey.

In a 1978 essay, Greene observed that too many people in modern society feel dominated and powerless. But rather than become pessimistic,  she suggested that “such feelings can to a large degree be overcome through conscious endeavor on the part of individuals to keep themselves awake, to think about their condition in the world, to inquire into the forces that appear to dominate them, to interpret the experiences they are having day by day. Only as they learn to make sense of what is happening, can they feel themselves to be autonomous. Only then can they develop the sense of agency required for living a moral life.” She called this sense, “Wide-Awakedness.” Continue reading