Thursday, April 20, 2017

How is a student like…and not like..a customer?

 Much is written currently about the changes and challenges of higher education.  Concerns seem to center around either perceived old dinosaurs clinging to their brick and mortar, small classrooms and priorities for the university centered on research passions, community service, and personal relationships with students.  Reformers, and even market disrupters, as they style themselves, focus on technology, cost cutting, privatization and job placement;  they often reduce the relationship between a professor and student to that of a service-provider and customer.  This binary distorts some nuances, as they all do, but sets the stage.  Given that so much of the institutional conflict on campuses these days stems from this divergence in worldview, it’s worth asking:  how is a student like…and not like…a customer? 

A student is like a customer in that she is paying for a particular service to be provided, and often going into dangerous amounts of debt to do so, especially in the case of for-profit colleges (though rising costs are not limited to for-profits).  She deserves readily returned phone calls and emails, thoughtful feedback on work, clear standards set and readings and assignments that are up to date and which speak to course objectives.  Especially at the graduate level, which I teach, he deserves mentoring, experiential learning opportunities, opportunities to network and for professional exposure and development. 

Yet the similarities between a student and a customer end there, revealing the limitations of this analogy that regrettably seems to drive the direction of change in higher education today.  In debating what sort of changes are best, we often fail to remember that our choice doesn’t have to be between the status quo and market-driven reforms;  other reforms are possible and needed.

So then, while the comparison of a student to a customer has some utility, what does this analogy miss?  How is a student not like a customer?  The most key point here is that learning is a process, not a product.  The process of learning may well (and should) continue long after the “product” of a class or a degree is delivered.  In addition, with the consumer/business owner relationship, the consumer rarely co-constructs the end product, let alone the process involved in delivery.  Even with engaged-consumer models in which businesses try to involve consumers in marketing or advertising via social media, this cannot be compared with the co-construction of learning in which students may co-create educational goals along with faculty, produce knowledge in partnership with them and meaningfully self-assess.  This is especially, though one hopes not exclusively, true of adult learners. 

Secondly, the purpose of one’s relationship with a customer, it is fair to say, is to make a profit.  Of course any institution of higher education needs to be financially healthy, but unless you are a for-profit university (many of which are now currently under federal investigation), the relationship between a professor and student ought not to be motivated by money, but rather out of a desire to mentor and support the student.  Professors and students alike are responsible for building classroom community.  While the financial pressure universities are under in the current economy has been observed countless times, most faculty would object rather passionately to compromising educational goals, and the student experience, for financial purposes.  By contrast, profit is of course the reason businesses exist. 

Moreover, students, unlike customers, are simply not always right.  (The same could be said of faculty.)  Perhaps Starbucks did not mistake my order; they are likely to replace my drink regardless if I’m unhappy with it.  The same of course cannot be said of all students, some of whom are at times unhappy with a grade, the volume of reading or a challenging and uncomfortable discussion. 

Consider the sanctions of a professor in MN who was teaching about structural racism and was reported to the administration by three of her white, male students.  This is where I see the difference between a student and a customer most starkly.  Many students welcome uncomfortable and controversial dialogues and experiences that take them out of their comfort zone;  others, perhaps especially those most socially privileged, do not.  Yet facilitating such dialogues and designing such experiences remains an essential task of effective faculty—especially when one teaches conflict resolution as I do. 

The task of maintaining a meaningful research agenda highlights another area of higher education where an exclusively business model or culture fails us.  Conducting research demands intellectual freedom and autonomy, whereas employees in a corporation are simply expected to complete their task as asked.  Any given faculty member can share an example of censorship, or attempted censorship, reinforcing the need for a commitment to academic freedom.  Most recently, I can recall a meeting a new colleague at the International Studies Association 2015 conference who told me her environmental science colleagues at her Oklahoma university were under a gag order from the Dean as pertains to research which drew connections between fracking and the rise in earthquakes in the Midwestern U.S.  My own area of research, peace and conflict resolution, is by nature controversial and emotional, and sometimes unavoidably political, making this distinction between the mission of a business and the mission of a university important to my research personally. 

 This brings me to a final aspect where students differ considerably from customers:  the job of education is not merely to provide workers and employees for the economy, though that is one critical contribution.  It is also to, along with families and other social institutions, shape citizens for a healthy and free democracy.  These two goals are not, as I view it, inherently in conflict, but can become so when higher education policies lose sight of the latter to pursue the former.   To maximize learning and professional benefits for students, ultimately we must understand them perhaps as customers in a limited sense, but indeed as much more than that. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

On the American Epistemology of the Gutcheck

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Epistemology is one of those cornerstone terms that worries grad students and obsesses their faculty members such as yours truly.  It’s your theory of knowledge—the unconscious tests you do mentally to figure whether some theory or fact is in fact true.  Can it be trusted?  Acted upon?  Think of it like a filter, shaped by our culture, history and education.  If a river is all of the stimuli and information we receive and interpret minute by minute in our daily lives, epistemology is the kayak we forget we’re in.  Or the prescription glasses we forget we’re wearing.

Everything we see, think, hear and do, each practical, personal or policy choice we make, has gone through this filter—whether we’ve realized it or not.  Hence the obsession with epistemology on the part of devoted faculty members worldwide—we don’t just want our students to think about X subject, we want them to think about thinking.  How do we go about assessing what we accept as true and what we reject as false, or if not false exactly, opinion that doesn’t merit being the basis of research, policy or life choices.


This is why I’m so concerned with what would appear to be the American epistemology of the Gutcheck.  Colbert mocked it, but CNN didn’t appear to get the joke, presenting the Gutcheck as an actual thing, a reliable means of determining what is or is not true.  A disturbing amount of journalists and political elites seem to be on board with this perhaps uniquely American epistemology.  Your gut is all you need.  There isn’t a need for a deep sense of history, data or empiricism.  There’s recently been a ‘gut check’ for about everything from torture to climate change.   GWB was criticized for relying on a gut check to run much of his foreign policy but the prior examples suggest that this is not simply a conservative thing.  There is something masculinist and simplistic to such an epistemology, of course, and it’s easy to conclude that Gutcheck’s popularity is partly a response to a violent and chaotic post-9/11 world.  That’s surely a factor, but this epistemology—the epistemology of individualism and self-reliance, in somewhat more charitable terms, has always been part of Americana, with roots back to Emerson and Twain.  At its best it can arguably encourage independence of mind and a willingness to hold unpopular opinions, healthy tendencies for a democracy.  But at its worst the Epistemology of the Gutcheck is dangerous—reductive, macho, anti-scientific and ahistorical—leaving us without any solid ground on which to base votes, public policy choices or anything else.  Followed to its (ill)logical conclusion, it becomes okay to have not just your own opinions, but your own facts. And that’s where real social unraveling begins.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Dialogue, satire and the attack on Charlie Hebdo

As I watched the recent attack on the Charlie Hebdo publication in horror with everyone else, the role of deep historical memory, even historical trauma, was clear at a number of levels.  The details of this specific attack are still unfolding, and in fact at least as I write, the attackers remain at large in an unfolding hostage situation.  But the outlines of the context raise some questions, as well as possibilities for clarity and progress. 

Juan Cole does a powerful job of discussing some more recent history which may have, he argues, radicalized the attackers, such as the invasion of Iraq and related torture at Abu Ghraib.  As we think about radicalization, identity and history, though, I’m also led to ask two other questions. 

Given that we know schools, like the media, faith institutions and families, are a key institution of “identity making”, I first wonder what the schooling of the two suspects was like.  The NYT reported that at least one of them had dropped out of school, and no doubt consequently were poor and unemployed.  What were their classrooms like? Did schools reach out to include them?  Did teachers have the skill and autonomy they need to meet the needs of such students?  Were they allowed to express their identity or told not to? Was their own history or identity taught at all? Recognized and respected?  No school, teacher or curriculum obviously are to blame for their bloody crimes, but if we are to understand the systems of which we are all a part, these are questions worth asking. 

Second, a reflection on dialogue and satire.  Dialogue is probably the most common tool practiced by peace educators and peace builders.  As distinct from debate, dialogue has as a goal improved relationships and understanding between participants. Debate is focused on “winning” an argument, a criteria which cannot help but be subjective (which I must admit despite my love for a good debate).  This is why so many debates end with both parties feeling they’ve won. 

What is the role of satire, such as that published by Charlie Hebdo, in debate and dialogue? Is there something in the nature of satire’s lampooning and mockery that shut dialogue, and perhaps debate, down?  Or alternatively, does satire indeed provoke debates that we’d otherwise be afraid to have?  Voltaire and Mark Twain are among my favorite thinkers, and Colbert my favorite comic, so forcing myself to consider alternative views that question satire here is difficult.   Does it indeed mock that which demands mocking as a form of a check on power?  In which case…does anyone need to mock the mockers?  My concern about those (Bill Maher comes to mind) who set themselves up as satirists is that too often they don’t actually need to marshal a logical chain of argument.  They simply need to caricature.  It would be wrong to say satire doesn’t involve an intellectual argument; no fan of Twain could claim so.  

Yet the dialogue facilitator in me, the peace builder and student of Elise Boulding and Ghandi, knows that making peace with an enemy, and acknowledging their humanity, is the harder but more sustainable path.  For this, reform of inequitable global systems, a legacy of the historical trauma of colonialism, is a must. 

Avowed academic and supporter of academic freedom that I am, I can only “come down” on the side (why must there always be “sides? Isn’t that itself simplistic?)  of #jesuischarlie.  After all, free speech is necessary for the dialogue I call for above and the murdered journalists fought for it bravely.  Yet satire, if it is to be useful, must target power.  I look forward to increased publication in mainstream Western media of lampooning of such realities as xenophobia, Islamophobia, and white, male and Western privilege. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Oral histories, peace education and teaching 9/11

Based on the research I've been gathering for the past year, presented in my new book, oral history emerged as the most prominent and popular, as well as arguably the most effective, way teachers engaged their students in learning about 9/11.  Several aspects made this a good fit for teachers wanting to engage their students beyond surface, inadequate or in fact nonexistent explanations of the events of 9/11 in most textbooks. 

First oral histories are a strong fit for the goals of peace education in general.  As I note in my new book, the use of oral histories helps students imagine themselves as participants and agents in the unfolding drama of history, not just readers or students.  From the stand point of a peace educator’s commitment towards social justice, this is key.  Otherwise students are less able to imagine themselves as powerful actors capable of bringing about change.  Too often students understand history as something they are removed from that is either irrelevant to today or which they don’t really have access to.  Howard Zinn seminally warned against this elite top-down approach to history, calling attention to the dangers of such an approach for the health of a democracy. 

Oral history is a much more engaging approach for students than the average history textbook as well.  By asking students to gather oral histories of 9/11 from parents, other relatives or neighbors, students connected with the obviously painful emotional content of the material.  Oral histories thus allowed students to view history something as directly relevant to themselves, addressing a constant concern of history teachers. 

Pragmatically speaking, oral histories also meet state and local curriculum requirements for writing, research, critical thinking and oral presentation. In an era (at least in the US) of standardization and “objective” testing, teachers are typically required to demonstrate a direct connection between what they do and a particular state objective.  9/11 is not “on the test” in many cases so teachers wishing to address it must be creative and sometimes even subversive when addressing it, especially if doing so in a perceived non-orthodox manner. 

Oral histories also helped address some challenges specifically regarding teaching 9/11, according to my qualitative data.  Because the 9/11 era remains such a controversial and politicized topic, teachers needed way to allow students to access multiple historical views and narratives of what occurred.  Oral histories provided for this multi-vocality as students were bound to encounter a variety of views in their interviews.  

Oral history in the classroom can also be thought of as a collective methodology.  Students learned in community with the family members or others that they interviewed.  They also strengthened/built community in the classroom as most teachers using this lesson asked students to present what they had found in their interviews.  Oral history also helped students understand the gravity and emotional power of 9/11, its massive significance to US history, since it allows students to access primary sources (i.e. the people they are interviewing).   Hearing the memories of the terror and shock of that day directly from people who experienced it in the course of gathering oral histories also allowed students to access what educators call the “affective domain”, that is, the realm of emotion rather than mere intellect.  This is a much more powerful and long-lasting type of knowledge.  For these reasons, asking students to gather oral histories regarding the experiences of older friends and family on 9/11/2001 proved to be one of the most popular lessons by those few teachers who did decide to implement a full lesson or unit on the 9/11 era. 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Dangerous Memories and Teaching 9/11

Author's note:  the below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Teaching Terror:  9/11 and Collective Memory in American Classrooms.  It will be available from Routledge early Aug. 

One other important intersection between the literature on historical memory and the literature on peace education is Zembylas’s concept of critical emotional praxis (Zembylas 2008, Beckerman and Zembylas 2012).   In his words, critical emotional praxis “creates openings for different affective relations with others”.  The point here “is to explore the conditions under which trauma impacts educators’ and students’ lives, to destabilize and denaturalize that regime of thought that perpetuates a conflicting ethos with those who are deemed responsible for ‘our’ trauma, and to invent new practices of relating to others”.  For this to be achieved, what he calls “dangerous memories” (2008, p 133-157) must be allowed to come to the fore.  Trauma obviously creates pain and suffering, around which we as humans naturally desire to create meaning. We also desire to restore physical, mental, emotional and even I would argue cultural security.  In seeking to achieve both of these goals, we often harden the boundaries between “us” and “them”, them being of course the groups we have identified as the perpetrators.  For teachers, this means being aware of the spaces of inclusion and exclusion in our classrooms.  Trauma narratives often privilege the narrative of those positioned as the victim, and marginalize and silence those seen as the perpetrators.  

In the case of the historical trauma of 9/11, dangerous memories might include memories of Muslim students, immigrants, or other similarly marginalized students in the wake of 9/11.  The 1953 CIA coup in Tehran is another appropriate example, as are US military bases in Saudi Arabia and the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.  Memories of FDNY firefighters who did not have working radio equipment should not be censored.  Stories of Afghan civilians struggling to survive the Soviet invasion, the Taliban regime and the US invasion after 9/11 must be given air.  Surfacing and creating space in the classroom for such dangerous memories is essential for students “to understand how trauma operates through affective connections and articulates its differences from other places around the world” (Zembylas, 2008, p. 5).  Such pedagogy “develops capacities for critical emotional praxis” which can inspire and strengthen the skills needed for peace building.  Zembylas refers to this as the “pedagogy of dangerous memories” (Zembylas with Beckerman, 2008, pg. 133-156).  As we will see in Chs. 3-5, many classroom teachers find it difficult enough simply to find time to address 9/11 at all, given the demands of state centralized curriculum.  Thus it is hard to imagine critical emotional praxis or discussions around ‘dangerous memories’ taking place on any regular enough basis to disrupt harmful orthodox national narratives about 9/11.  Rather dramatic changes in school structure and policy would be necessary.  That said, as we will see more in Ch. 4, there are teachers finding subversive and creative ways to at least complicate the narrative of 9/11 somewhat and to humanize the Other. 


Thursday, May 8, 2014

5 Culturally Violent Cliches You Can Ditch Tomorrow

1.  “Boys will be boys”.  Much has been written about this one, but times have not changed enough.  Often deployed as a defense against poor male behavior, what a shame that we still hear it as a defense against harassment (as in the case of Schwarzenegger) or even alleged violent rape (as in the case of former IMF head Strauss Kahn).  So it becomes clear how dangerous this one is for women.  After all, if this is just the behavior driven by biology, how can we expect any more?  The result?  Girls and women at risk.  

Yet we also shouldn’t over look the damage this one does to men and boys (most of whom do in fact typically get through their day without raping or hitting someone). Call it, in the former President’s words, the soft bigotry of low expectations. Biology, as the classic feminist insight goes, is not destiny. It’s not destiny for women; it’s not destiny for men either. The problem is not that so many men commit these crimes, it’s that we have a culture of excuses and impunity for the ones who do (who of course go on to continue).

2.  “Men can’t change.”  This one is obviously closely related to the one above.  I’ve heard it used by friends (more women than men oddly) and associates to justify all sorts of things—cheating, “date rape”, street harassment, not taking half the responsibility for the housework.  There are of course plenty of problems with this.  First, it burdens women with having to do all of the accommodation.  In this respect it is a poorly disguised argument for a male-centered culture and maintaining the status quo.   Second, it condescends to men.  If I were a man, I think I’d find it incredibly offensive, in fact.  To change (learn, grow) is to be human.  It’s as essential as breathing as we go through the stages of our lives. 

3.  “Get a job.”  The more heated the debates about the U.S.’s economic direction becomes, and the longer the unemployment rate hangs around 6 or 7%, the more we’re going to hear this one.  Dig beneath this weed, and you’ll find the roots of a cultural belief that those who are poor are so because they have failed to be productive enough, smart enough, fast enough, strong enough.  Yet given unemployment claims that rise, working poor with two or three jobs, foreclosures that have occurred as a result of unemployment and calls for job (re)training, it’s clear that the trouble isn’t that people don’t want to work.  The trouble is systemic—a failure of both the public and private sectors to create jobs, effectively regulate the financial and housing sectors and to help students into job training programs. 

4.  “Kids these days!”  Here we have another argument, conservative to its core, whose job is to maintain the status quo.  It’s a social change and social movement truism that youth are progressive.  Whether it’s Sean Hannity fretting about Spring Break shenanigans, or Susan Patton admonishing women to marry young (while you still have some hope!), this culturally violent cliché works to prevent young people from finding their voice and being agents of change.

5.  “Sticks and stones” remains the oldest defense of bullying in the book.  It willfully ignores the power of language to shape, not just describe, reality.  It also defines the victim of the bullying as weak and therefore possibly to blame, since this way of thinking often reasons that weakness will invite being treated as a target.  Notice how we misplace responsibility here.  It’s not on the victim to “not be a victim”; it’s on the bully not to be a bully any longer.  The old “sticks and stones” illusion also overlooks the role of language in dehumanizing, and legitimizing violence against, target groups. 


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fear of a Bully-free Nation?

Do we live in fear of a bully free nation?

I know this may sound odd.  Surely we want fewer bullies?  Surely we all, as parents, educators, counselors, ministers and so on, have been working on this for a long time?  It goes without saying (doesn’t it?) that fewer bullies is a good thing.

Yet when we think about the reality of backlash against peace education (called by some teaching tolerance or multicultural education), I have to ask:  do we actually fear a bully free nation?  It’s a big country of course and no observation about Americans will fit us all.  But the more I listen to concerns expressed about what older white men especially seem to view as the “wussification” of America, the more I wonder.  Note this is a bi-partisan concern.  Exhibit A might be the following from Bret Humes, lamenting the feminization of America.

Let’s call this next one Exhibit B—from former PA Gov. Ed Rendell.

And Exhibit C, in which a former a Vice Presidential candidate chides the President for his “mom jeans”, a clear linking of feminine qualities to weakness and thus an inability to lead.

For a more shocking and late-breaking example, here's a series of rightist commentators praising Vladimir Putin's invasion and annexation of Crimea.  (You read that right.)  Why would any American do something so unpatriotic?  They want President Mom Jeans to be more of a man and be tough--as if the mere projection of an image of toughness is a substitute for geopolitical strategy.

Without diving too deep into the weeds of critical feminist theory, we need to connect the dots here between the US hegemonic role in the world, with its implied responsibility for global security, and this evident fear of a bully free nation.  This logic goes that a feminist or feminine culture cannot provide for security.  Only masculine or even militarist values can do this.  For a great read on this, you can’t do much better than Brock Utne’s “Feminist Perspectives on Peace and Security”.  Susan Faludi’s recent The Terror Dream looks at these same ideas in the post 9-11 era.

This way of thinking tends to define bullying as a natural part of childhood and complaints as just an inability to take a joke or stand up for one self.  We just have to be tougher, the Humes and Palins lament.  How will we defend ourselves if we're soft?  What if we raise soft kids?

As a peace educator, of course, I know this insistence that only militarist values can keep us secure could not be more mistaken.  The best way to have security is to have community!

That’s worth repeating.  The best way to have security is to have community.  So the sorts of relationship building, community development, international education, intercultural work, peer mediation and anti-bullying curriculum that we peace educators develop are essential to local but also national security.  This is not a standard way of thinking about security, I acknowledge.  But intractable problems need creativity and new solutions. We won’t have great answers until we are asking the right questions.  To resolve the backlash on peace education, we must confront the fear of a bully-free nation.