Sunday Roundup – The Republican Assault on Higher Education

I have a bunch of pieces out in various stages of edits, and hope to have 3 or 4 pieces published next week. This week I had only one, a new Game of Thrones piece for Vice. I think the changing relationship between the books and the show is interesting. Eventually, the show will become canon, if indeed it hasn’t already

Of course, Game of Thrones is a very problematic show, as I try to face directly in my writing. I also wrote a blog post on Liking Problematic Things then had some thoughts about the way that Trigger Warnings Are Your Friends (focused more on academia than TV/entertainment).
Finally, I had a brief post on Language and Power: Stop Saying Troll. Center the victim. Call people who abuse folks online … abusers.
But the most important pieces I read this week emerged from various writers focusing on the Republican attack on higher education in Wisconsin. Here are some links:
In the last few days, the GOP in WI have removed definitions of tenure from the statute, cute around 250 million in funding from UW, and change “subject to” to “subordinate to” as a piece of their plan to destroy shared governance. Even worse, if everything passes, WI will become the only state in the country to not require even a BA to become a teacher. I don’t really understand the kind of person who looks at the problems faced by WI and decides … What we need are teachers with less education! That’ll fix it.
Here are a few links. What are you reading?

In short, Wisconsin Republicans have declared total war on public education. Both the K-12 bill and the UW bill were negotiated and written totally in secret by committee Republicans, with the details released to the public only hours before the final, fore-ordained votes were held. Moral and political commitments aside, this leaves one to wonder whether those legislators who are quickest to cite “market-based” considerations have even a basic understanding of what Wisconsin’s comparative advantage is. Wisconsin has a hard-earned and well-deserved reputation for its excellent public schools and universities. Without those, what is the point of living in Wisconsin as opposed to some other state? Set aside the fact that no UW campus will ever be able to recruit a top-tier scholar again. Why would anyone choose Wisconsin as a place to raise their family? Why would anyone in their right mind move to Wisconsin after this budget?

And let’s not forget North Carolina and Louisiana 

Trigger Warnings Are Your Friends!

The Trigger Warning debate is back. Did it ever really go away?

Here’s my new piece of the argument: Trigger Warnings preserve access to offensive content that, nevertheless, has educational value.

A year ago I wrote this piece for CNN in the context of the TW discussion. I argued that best practices for teaching any content requires preparation or “scaffolding,” and good scaffolding would cover many of the functions of what students are asking for in trigger warnings. I continue to argue that “content notes” is a more useful pedagogical context.

Here’s an excellent essay by a TW-skeptic, Sarah Marian Seltzer, who interviewed teachers and was persuaded by their methodology. She writes:

Educators who choose to utilize these warnings in their classrooms often see more nuance in the issue. “We have to take [students demanding trigger warnings] seriously… because being more acutely aware of how students are responding to challenging material is just better and more responsible pedagogy,” wrote Aaron R. Hanlon last week. Faculty in this camp say that they’re committed to academic and intellectual freedom, but also to honoring students’ experiences, in particular the often silent presence of rape survivors — a trauma-prone group — among the college-aged population. Rather than debating whether to teach troubling material, as much of the anti-trigger warning contingent fears, they say they’ve moved on to asking how to do so in a respectful way.

So that’s good and very much in line with my own approach. I especially liked this:

“Trigger warnings allow me to have a conversation, to say, ‘This is not a class about your personal life,’” Heldman told me. “This actually helps to make the class more academic. And it has the benefit of letting students prepare for what might come.”

This is very much my experience. I teach all kinds of difficult texts – stories of massacre, anti-Jewish polemic, Inquisition trials, anti-Latin polemic (Byzantium). Because I’m a medievalist, it’s less directly emotionally affecting than if I taught the Holocaust, or say 20th-century American popular culture. Still, the pre-conversation about what we’re going to read provides a framework for students to respond to potentially upsetting material. There are no spoilers in the history of the First Crusade.

Last August, I wrote about the need for a content note in This American Life’s re-broadcast of a David Sedaris piece, one filled with jokes about the intellectually disabled. TAL uses content notes when they talk about sex and racism, but not for other kinds of troubling material, and that bothered me. Moreover, I suggest it should bother them, too, because without content notes, such pieces all go the way of “Little Black Sambo.”

The trigger warning, therefore, emerges as a pathway towards preserving content, preserving material as its language ages our of the mainstream into the widely and wildly offensive. Because without the trigger warning, well, then I have to advocate that this never be aired again.

Norms change. Studying changing norms or just previous eras requires engaging with material that is offensive. Content notes are a way to say – I recognize the problem, here’s why we’re reading/discussing/viewing this, and let’s go learn something.

Trigger Warnings are about keeping material in the curriculum, not banning it. Embrace them.

Liking Problematic Things

I like TV shows, books, and movies that are imperfect matches for my values. They are produced in societies that are, likewise, imperfect, and few cultural creations can withstand any kind of purity test.

That doesn’t mean that you just get to ignore the problem. It also doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop enjoying something that is problematic. What you have to do, as is so often the case, is to start with listening.

I just ran across this great post from the blog Social Justice League – How to be a fan of problematic things. I found it by reading Shakesville (Melissa McEwan) on Mad Max and feminism (tl;dr it’s an imperfect feminist film that is a fantastic feminist film. Also Tom Hardy gets it), and that took me to McEwan’s piece on watching The Heat and what it meant to see a body with which she could identify be presented matter-of-factly on the screen (as opposed to the usual fat-shaming), and from there to Social Justice League. It’s from 2012, but I’m writing tomorrow about good representations of disability on problematic shows, so it’s very timely for me.

Some quotes:

Firstly, acknowledge that the thing you like is problematic and do not attempt to make excuses for it. It is a unique irritation to encounter a person who point blank refuses to admit that something they like is problematic

Don’t deny. Listen.

Secondly, do not gloss over the issues or derail conversations about the problematic elements. Okay, so you can admit that Dune is problematic. But wait, you’re not done! You need to be willing to engage with people about it!

Also listen.

Thirdly you must acknowledge other, even less favourable, interpretations of the media you like. Sometimes you still enjoy a movie or book because you read a certain, potentially problematic scene in a certain way – but others read it entirely differently, and found it more problematic

Did I mention, listen?

As fans, sometimes we need to remember that the things we like don’t define our worth as people. So there’s no need to defend them from every single criticism or pretend they are perfect. Really loving something means seeing it as it really is, not as you wish it were. You can still be a good fan while acknowledging the problematic elements of the things you love. In fact, that’s the only way to be a good fan of problematic things.

I’m a fan of this blog post. Go read it.

Language and Power: Stop Saying Troll

Troll Warning: Image of a troll
silhouette in a red triangle.
From WikiCommons.

Trolls are happy to be trolls, mostly. They like the term; it conveys power. They have driven a lot of good people off the internet in their large-scale acts, and just made it an unsafe place in an everyday, small-scale, nasty way.

Whitney Phillips, author of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture says – Stop Saying Troll. Trolls like being called trolls, because it both gives them deniability (“just trolling,” rather than systematically harassing or using hate speech). It also centers the harasser rather than the victim, by looking at what the “troll” is doing rather than the experience of the target. Phillips writes:

The term “troll” has come to subsume all kinds of antagonistic online behaviors, regardless of whether the participants would describe themselves as trolls. I am wary of this new framing (in my research I was exploring a very specific, subcultural sense of the term), and whenever possible avoid using the term as a behavioral catch-all. Instead, I prefer to describe online antagonism in terms of the impact it has on its targets. So, if someone is engaging in violently misogynistic behavior, I call them a violent misogynist, as “troll” implies a level of playfulness that tends to minimize their antagonistic behaviors, or at least establish a firewall between the embodied person and their digitally mediated actions. (“I’m not really a racist, I just play one on the Internet” doesn’t account for the fact that, regardless of what might be in someone’s heart, his or her actions have a real and demonstrable impact on those forced to read yet another racist statement online.)

Just as problematically, the “troll” framing—which is so often used with either the implied or explicit caveat “just trolling,” i.e., “not a big deal/stop being so sensitive/learn how to Internet”—also casts aspersions over those who do not want to constantly deal with identity-based antagonism online. In short, referring to nasty online behaviors as “trolling” frames online antagonism as a game only the aggressor can win, most apparent in the phrase “don’t feed the trolls” (which I critique here). In the process, use of trolling as a behavioral catchall privileges the aggressor’s needs and interests and right to free expression over those of the people they target. It’s the troll’s world in this model. Everyone else is just living in it. And that gives these “trolls” far more credit than they actually deserve.

 I always think that pondering how we frame and discuss problems is worthwhile. The troll discourse emerged more or less organically and isn’t going anywhere soon, but I like this analysis and it’s well worth reading.

Sunday Roundup – Low Cost and High Quality Education Go Together

This week I had one published piece – Low Cost College Isn’t Enough (, 5/20/15)

Over the next 18 months of the presidential election, there’s going to be a lot of conversation about lowering the cost of college. I am asking you to help me make sure we also talk about high quality, which for me begins with a discussion of adjunctification, excellent advising, and lots of other resources to help the most vulnerable students.
Two further points:
Other posts:

#JusticeForKayleb – VA Gov calls for Investigation

Last month I wrote a piece for Al Jazeera America on zero tolerance, restraint, abuse, and the cult of compliance in our schools. I started with a report from the Center for Public Integrity and the story of Kayleb Moon-Robinson.

Kayleb Moon-Robinson is a 12-year-old boy who lives in Virginia. One day at school, he kicked a trash can and was charged with disorderly conduct in juvenile court. A few weeks later, he disobeyed a new rule (made just for him) that he stay behind in the classroom while his peers left. When the school resource officer (SRO) arrived to take him to the principal’s office for disobedience, Kayleb reportedly struggled and swore. The officer allegedly slammed the boy down on a desk and handcuffed him. Kayleb is now being charged with felony assault on a police officer, and his future is very much in doubt.
Kayleb is autistic and African-American. The state of Virginia wants to brand him a criminal. The Center for Public Integrity names it as the state most likely to send students to jail. 

Now, the CPI reports that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has called for an investigation into why this is happening.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has asked members of his cabinet to recommend policy changes in response to a Center for Public Integrity report showing that schools in the commonwealth refer students to police and courts more often than other states.
“They’re going to look into it, and make recommendations and he will act on it,” Brian Coy, McAuliffe’s spokesman told the Center. “Virginia parents send their children to school to learn, not to end up in the juvenile-justice system.”

So this is a good step and a necessary response to the CPI report.

But there’s still Kayleb facing criminal charges. It’s time for the Governor to not just act in a macro way to change policy, but also to focus on the individual and fix this.


Autism Speaks Critiques – Resources and a Plea for Neurodiversity

UPDATE: My NYT piece has been delayed. Still in the works but probably 10 days or so from now, for various reasons. Stay tuned!

Today I am going to have a piece in the New York Times about Autism Speaks and a recent parenting dilemma. I thought it might be useful to have some resources here. I’ll post the link to the piece when it’s up.

From the letter:

We, the undersigned organizations representing the disability community, are writing to urge you to end your support for Autism Speaks. We profoundly appreciate your interest in supporting the autism and broader disability communities. Our work is about empowering and supporting people with all disabilities, including adults and children on the autism spectrum, to be recognized as equal citizens in our society and afforded all of the rights and opportunities that implies. Unfortunately, Autism Speaks’ statements and actions do damage to that work and to the lives of autistic people and those with other disabilities. It is our hope that we may work together in a spirit of partnership to find new and less controversial ways for you to show your commitment to our community.

There’s lots more, but if you start on the master post, you’ll find your way through the critiques. They do not speak for autistic people. They do not speak for many parents. I do not believe they do more harm than good.
One response to the Autism Speaks problem is to emphasize the concept of neurodiversity. Neurodiversity asks us to reframe our understanding of the many ways that peoples’ minds work. Instead of thinking about disabled and normal, consider diversity. 
It so happens there’s a new project, NOS Magazine, that has just launched a kickstarter. NOS = not otherwise specified, for conditions that don’t quite fit into clear diagnostic categories. This kind of journalism and representation is exactly what the disability community needs, and I’m asking you to support them if you can.

Dominican University – We’re Doing Something Right

In my recent CNN piece, I wrote about my university with both pride and realism. We are a relatively low-cost private school that does some things exceptionally well. Those things that we do well cost money, though. I wrote:

The Pell Institute’s publication “Moving Beyond Access: College Success For Low-Income, First-Generation Students” lists advising, tutoring, mentoring, and intense interaction in the classroom as among the key features necessary to retain first-generation students. In other words, it’s not enough just to help students get into an affordable college. Once accepted, we have to help them succeed. I’ve seen advising, special programs and small classes work wonders at Dominican University, where I teach, and we’re just one of many student-oriented universities that provide great supports for students who need it. But such programs and low student-to-faculty ratios cost money, and across the country, cost-cutting is making it harder for such students to thrive.

In an original draft, I received some pushback from my editor for seeming too promotional, so I added the vague “we’re just one of many …” clause. Since the theme of the piece is “quality matters” not “Dominican is great,” I didn’t argue, but I had the sense that we really are pretty good at Dominican and that it’s not an accident.

My Dean saw my CNN piece and sent me an essay by education reformer Michael Danneberg (his bio) that specifically praises Dominican for our graduation rate. Graduation rates cannot be compared just by numbers, of course, because they have to be normed against expectations. High achieving highschool students are, obviously, more likely to graduate. According to Danneberg, “Dominican has the highest completion rate of similar colleges nationwide that serve similar students with similar levels of academic preparation.

That’s pretty exciting and is also news to me. We have wonderful students and I knew we were crushing the expected graduation rate (normed for wealth, race, first-generation, etc.), but not to this extent. Here’s the whole section from in which Danneberg compares us to a rival school (sorry St. Xavier) that is not doing so well: Dannenberg writes, speculating about where a hypothetical Midwestern philanthropist should give his or her money [my emphasis]:

Our Midwestern philanthropist should consider contributing scholarship aid forundocumented and other needy students only to needy individual colleges and universities that make a “meaningful commitment to diversity” and education equity. In higher education, that means schools that serve minority and working class students and gets them through — to degree completion in comparable numbers.

It just so happens there’s a great example of such a school in the Chicago area and a nearby example of a not-so-great school when it comes to educational equity.


Both Dominican University and Saint Xavier University are pretty good non-profit, private colleges when it comes to access and enrollment of students from low-income and working class families. But check out Dominican’s completion rate as compared to Saint Xavier’s. Not only is Dominican higher, but there’s virtually no education equity gap between white and underrepresented minority students. In fact, Dominican has the highest completion rate of similar colleges nationwide that serve similar students with similar levels of academic preparation.

Our philanthropist, all education philanthropists, should consider giving to Dominican University and similar schools doing a relatively good job on educational equity. And in the process they should challenge nearby Saint Xavier University and similar schools to do a better job.

So how is this happening? I have some guesses.

We have a shield!

First, our students are great. But I assume that our peers also have great students, though perhaps some aspect of the admissions process comes into play. There could be some micro-demographic that shapes outcomes.

Second, we have robust systems that create links between advising, tutoring (academic enrichment), student services of all sorts (under the Dean of Students) and faculty. People do fail at Dominican, but no one falls through the cracks unnoticed. We notice. We intervene. We often succeed in helping people get back on track.

Third, as a professor, I can say that since my first day on campus, I’ve been inculcated in a culture based on “relationship-centered” teaching. That doesn’t mean easy, but it does mean treating each student with respect and the attention they deserve.

Fourth, we have small classes and only teach 3 per term, not 4 or 5. That costs money, of course. It’s money well spent according to these outcomes.

Fifth, we have great leadership, from our President on down. Here’s a piece I wrote last summer about her decision to make Dominican a leader in educating undocumented students. She has a fine sense of the balance of mission and business. I don’t always agree with her (no one should every always agree with their leaders!), but I do trust her.

At any rate, I’m thrilled to have the things we do well noticed by an outsider. Dear Anonymous Midwestern Philanthropists – we’re ready for you to fund us!

Low Cost and High Quality – One without the other is meaningless

NOTE – This piece has been updated to remove a sentence in which I attributed ideas to Goldrick-Rab which she doesn’t hold. I regret the error.

Yesterday I wrote a new piece for CNN, offering my take on the expanding debate about the cost of college.

Today, Bernie Sanders is going to file a 70 billion $ bill in the Senate to offer free public education to all Americans. That will be the latest move by Democrats to make the cost of college one of their issues. I expect to see Sanders debate Clinton (and whoever else) on debt-free vs free college. That’s a good debate to have as the plans are different. I trust Sara Goldrick-Rab, who I quote in the piece, that we need to make sure to concentrate resources on those who need it most.

My mantra – Without investment in high quality education, lowering costs won’t help those most in need.

I hope that the cost of college becomes a major political issue. But let’s remember that low cost must be paired with high quality. High quality means providing good jobs for the people asked to prepare students for good jobs of their own. It means building educational structures with lots of face time, individualized education, and support systems for those new to learning. Otherwise, we can cut costs down to nothing, but we won’t help the people most in need. To fix higher ed, the focus on savings must be accompanied by a massive public reinvestment in teaching and advising.

I’d like to ask for your help in making sure that when politicians start talking about cost, we ask them – who will be doing the teaching? Who will be doing the advising? Who will make sure that vulnerable students don’t fall through the cracks?

Let’s get to work.

Academic Freedom: How Duke Should Respond to Jerry Hough

Being a racist is not enough to invalidate academic freedom.

Jerry Hough, a Duke Professor, left a racist comment on a New York Times page. He is now reportedly on leave. Hough has denied he’s a racist. From Slate:

Hough told both the local ABC and Fox affiliates that he was on leave after his comments, in which he identified himself as a Duke professor, raised uproar on campus. In emailed statements, the political science professor defended his comments, saying “Martin Luther King was my hero” and insisting he is “strongly against the toleration of racial discrimination.” The key question, though, according to Hough, “is whether my comments were largely accurate. In writing me, no one has said I was wrong, just racist.”

For the record. Dear Mr. Hough – You are wrong. Also, yes, they are racist. What’s more, he has a history of making comments on race that betray a consistent rhetoric of racial inferiority for African Americans.

And yet, of course, I’m here to talk about academic freedom. As I’ve said many times, academic freedom does not guarantee complete impunity for consequences of one’s speech. It does, however, guarantee due process and a very, very, high bar for any speech act to be determined as actionable by one’s employer.

What happens next? Here’s what I wrote about a homophobic FSU professor last fall.

[O’Connor] does not seem to have been granted the kind of due process usually called for by advocates of academic freedom. Indeed, one of the most consistent criticisms of the University of Illinois was that even if one believed that Salaita’s tweets constituted grounds for rescinding his job offer, he should have been allowed to respond to accusations as part of that process. I agree with that criticism. I wonder whether O’Connor was offered a process in the event she chose not to resign (FSU will not comment on personnel issues).

We discover the limitations of free speech, academic freedom, and civil liberties by wading in the muck of the margins.

There needs to be a clear process. The bar for firing someone over speech must be VERY high. My gut says that these comments do not clear that bar, as repellent as they are. My gut reaction though is irrelevant, as what matters here is process, transparency, and not letting an attack on Hough undermine a broader defense of academic freedom.

It’s probable that no black student would want to take a class with Hough, but I’m troubled by the idea that a theoretical future “feeling uncomfortable” with a professor be allowed to enable firing, whether tenured or not. Because anyone could theoretically say that in the future they might feel uncomfortable with someone over their stated public positions; indeed, in other free-speech cases (Gundy, Salaita), groups of conservatives have made just that argument. A hypothetical future discomfort cannot be proven or disproven. It doesn’t clear the bar.

But you know what does clear the bar? Discrimination. Hough has a long history of Duke. I believe it is now the job of the university to look for clear evidence of discrimination by Hough against black students (or any group of students). It’s not about speech. It’s about actions.

Also, I hate writing these posts. I really just want to shout and rant, but here I am again, wading in the much of the margins.