don’t sacrifice college to the pandemic

I wrote a letter to the NY Times in response to Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens’ “What is a College Education in the Time of Coronavirus?“. Unsurprisingly, the letter was not published, so I offer it here as a conversation-starter on lessons we should and shouldn’t learn from higher education’s current situation.

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what I’ve learned: chairing unc’s general education curriculum redesign

From 2016-2019 I had two positions that have taught me a lot about academic leadership and organizations. I led the process of redeveloping UNC’s General Education curriculum, “IDEAs in Action,” which was approved in April 2019; and I sat on the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) elected Council. These two blog posts are intended to explain some of the things I’ve learned from both of these experiences .

This first post will deal with what I’ve learned from three years chairing the curriculum redesign process.

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the milgram study and the suppression of violence research

milgramt

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted a study on conformity to authority that is now infamous among social scientists. The study was relatively straightforward. Participants would be asked to administer shocks to another human who had performed poorly on a test. They were told that doing so could help the poor performer learn to do better. If a participant resisted administering the shocks, a member of the research team would insist that the participant continue for the good of the research. The shocks increased in intensity over the course of the study, reaching a level that could be lethal. In reality, there was no one receiving these shocks, but a paid actor would pretend to be hurt, leading the participant to believe that they had caused real harm to another real person. As a surprise to the researchers, over half of participants administered the final “lethal” shock. The findings from this study are commonly used to explain how genocides are perpetrated. Milgram and his team argued that ordinary people are willing to commit incomprehensible acts of violence so long as someone in authority assures them it is the right thing to do.

I first encountered the Milgram study as an undergrad in an introductory psychology class. By the time I graduated, I learned about the study in at least three other classes. Each time, the discussion was essentially the same. Our professor would insist that the findings from the study are important, but that the study is unethical due to the harm it caused participants. That harm was described as the emotional trauma of walking around with the knowledge that you could—and would—murder another person if someone asked you to do so. There are other ethical issues as well, including the deception used by the research team and how difficult it was for participants to withdraw their consent to be in the study, but they were also tied back to that main concern: the weight on the conscience of a participant who administered that “lethal” shock.

As a professor, I was prepared to have the same discussion with my students in Science, Power and Diversity as we discussed research ethics. But when it came time to do so, I had a different perspective on the Milgram study that comes from my own work with perpetrators of sexual violence—and how hard it is to research them.

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no more accommodations: how operation varsity blue changed my approach to in-class exams

There are so many horrifying pieces to the recent college admissions scandal. Dozens of celebrity and CEO parents have been indicted for lying and cheating to get their kids into “top” colleges. Some created fake athlete profiles and paid off coaches to get their kids in. Others paid for fake test scores. And still others had their children fake learning disabilities to get extra time on the SATs.

That last part. The fake disabilities part. That’s the part I can’t let go. And that’s how I found myself digging through the details of the affidavit, looking for an explanation.

There are so many horrifying pieces to the recent college admissions scandal. Dozens of celebrity and CEO parents have been indicted for lying and cheating to get their kids into “top” colleges. Some created fake athlete profiles and paid off coaches to get their kids in. Others paid for fake test scores. And still others had their children fake learning disabilities to get extra time on the SATs.

That last part. The fake disabilities part. That’s the part I can’t let go. And that’s how I found myself digging through the details of the affidavit, looking for an explanation.

Continue reading “no more accommodations: how operation varsity blue changed my approach to in-class exams”

why the liberal arts? the value of general education

This post comes out of my work chairing UNC’s General Education Curriculum Revision effort. I’m posting it here on Scatterplot instead of on the Curriculum site because it represents my own view, not a formal statement from the committee. 

Unusual among our public-flagship peers, Carolina requires all undergraduate students to enroll first in the College of Arts & Sciences, even if they ultimately major in one of the professional schools. This reflects a core commitment to the liberal arts as the foundation for all undergraduate education at Carolina. Implicit in this organization is the claim that broad, serious education in the liberal arts is the best way to prepare students for future study as well as for leadership, citizenship, and professional life.

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lessons learned.

I just sent my final email* as my department’s Director of Graduate Studies. If I had the energy, I’d throw a party to celebrate the end of my term, but I don’t think I have it in me. Instead, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on what I learned, in hopes that others who want to be an advocate for graduate students (whether in an official position or not) might find some use for what worked and what didn’t over the last three years:

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cost-cutting in higher ed

In the Washington Post earlier this week, Steve Pearlstein published a piece promoting four things universities should do to cut costs:

  1. Cap administrative costs
  2. Operate year round, five days a week
  3. More teaching, less (mediocre) research
  4. Cheaper, better general education

The next day, Daniel Drezner responded with four things columnists should do before writing about universities.

  1. Define what you mean by “universities.”
  2. Don’t exaggerate the problems that actually exist.
  3. Don’t rely on outdated data.
  4. Be honest that you’re using higher ed reform as an implicit industrial policy.

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ask a scatterbrain: supporting students on the job market.

I am wrapping up my second year as DGS in my department. Over the last couple years I’ve made some small, but significant changes in our grad program and I’m finally beginning to see the results. Now that I’ve found my sea legs (just in time for my term to end next summer), I’m ready to tackle something new: improving our support for students on the market. Continue reading “ask a scatterbrain: supporting students on the job market.”

making the most of a mentor.

I was asked by the folks over at  The Hidden Curriculum to answer a question prompted by my recent scatterplot post: (grad)student-faculty interaction.  Specifically, readers were curious about how to identify mentors and make the most of those relationships, as well as any advice that I had on bridging gender gaps in mentoring.

The take-away is that it is possible to establish some of the qualities of interaction that those more informal encounters foster regardless of where the specific interactions take place. Whether in an office or on a soccer field, an open and honest relationship – with good communication and shared expectations – with a faculty member will enhance the mentoring you get. Check out the post for more, including my distinction between advising and mentoring and resources for students (and faculty) interested in improving mentoring experiences.

 

just graduated, and fumbling through grad school.*

This NYTimes article, Just Graduated, and Fumbling Through a First Job, appeared in my newsfeed today, despite being published last week. My initial thought was that it would make a nice addition to the “Examples from Everyday Life” links for my Social Psychology class (impression management, socialization, age vs. cohort differences, etc.). But my DGS role soon eclipsed those thoughts and I imagined a parallel piece that might appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education, as the article had a lot of insight that new graduate students could benefit from.**

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(grad)student-faculty interaction

Notre Dame loves to make videos. They are currently working on a series about graduate students’ experiences on campus and I had a meeting with the production company today to discuss one of the videos, a segment focused on (grad)student-faculty interaction. As great as the meeting was, I left feeling incredibly discouraged about the state of (grad)student-faculty interaction and wondering what, if anything, can be done to change it.

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the chronicle’s wasted opportunity

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a reader contest recently, inviting readers to design their ideal college, from the ground up. The results are here (sorry for the paywall).

This could have been a great opportunity to rethink what’s best and worst about current higher education. (In truth, I thought about suggesting a scatterplot combined entry but didn’t get around to it.) It sure didn’t turn out that way! The five finalists include three that are just silly: proposals like “Costco University” in which “delivery” is the final say and there is literally no institutional capacity – everyone does what she can raise money for and nothing more.

Most importantly, though, there’s no real consideration on the synergies involved in the contemporary university: research and teaching, humanities and sciences, basic and applied, undergraduate and graduate, as examples. The proposals are largely about undergraduate education, isolated from all the other functions of the university. And they are focused on the things that make liberal-arts colleges (justifiably) proud: small classes, global focus, broad thought. But even if these are the kinds of things that make all higher education better (I’m not convinced they are) they’re certainly not feasible on the scale of today’s higher education.

students helping students.

As academics we know that the way that a class goes, how much students get out of a class, and their evaluation of the course or the material depends heavily on the students themselves. How much effort do they put in? Are they prepared to learn? Do they contribute to discussions and take the material and assignments seriously? What are their previous experiences and biases? Despite the student-centeredness of learning, most of us grossly neglect student insight. When we do ask for it, it takes the form of evaluations – of our classes and teaching, which can devolve into fashion critiques – where we (our teaching, our course) are the focus.

I wanted to briefly introduce two way that I turn the spotlight to the students themselves and then use student insight to improve my courses (and students’ experiences in them) without (necessarily) having to make a single change of my own.

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