Monday, October 01, 2007

In the Heat of Mocking a Killing Bird

Used to be things were black and white: ice cream sodas, ideas, and race relations. Last night I caught the tail end of David and Lisa. The TCM channel was doing a Keir Dullea retrospective – 2001: A Space Odyssey came on next. This morning I read some brief reviews about the film online and I was surprised. The reviews characterize the movie as a love story and a study in mental illness. Perhaps I’m jaded, thinking about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the same genre. But to me, David and Lisa is plainly an allegory. David didn’t want to be touched – he thought he could remain safe if everyone kept their distance. This is a perfect metaphor for the upwardly mobile middle class distancing themselves from the rest of the world. David blamed his parents for his predicament. This happened earlier in the film, before I turned it on. It serves as a strong indictment that we don’t prepare ourselves or our children for living in the real world when we take a gated community approach to life. Lisa lived in a sing-song universe (I’ve been known to do likewise). She constructed her own reality, a more pleasant place. The movie ends with both of them leaving their comfort zones – Lisa, having spoken a regular sentence, takes David’s extended hand. The message is that we can confront reality, hard as it may be, if we do it together.

Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin are both beautiful to watch in this film. Dullea displays elegance and tension in a single look. At the end of the film he puts the tension aside. He becomes human, caring, outward looking, with genuine concern for Lisa’s well being. Margolin has wonderful eyes, an empathy in her look, her running away a sign she has been hurt badly. The film is so good because it takes on such tough issues and yet does so with delicacy and touch.

I led off with it, on a banal level because it was shot in black and white, on a more serious plane because it reminds that we need to break through our shells and confront the serious issues of the day. This is a post about one of those serious issues – race and what, if anything, does learning technology have to say about it. It’s not an issue I talk about nor do I write about it, even occasionally. I’m more than a bit out of my comfort zone in this post. So I need a way to warm to the subject. Leading off with the film and book references is my mechanism for doing that.

Race is not an issue that should be depicted with delicacy. The resulting violence certainly conjures up a different set of emotions, a sense of assault, a feeling of horror, and fear, lots of fear. The first movie I recall that gave us all of that was In the Heat of the Night. Where David and Lisa is delicate, In the Heat of the Night is raw. Both speak to a possibility that we might work together. But they come at that possibility so differently, one to heal the hurt they brought on themselves, the other to ward off the demons of Southern White racism.

Harper Lee’s novel, reading de rigueur when I was a young teen, bridges both worlds. Ironically, mental illness has a role to play in her story, not as a window into the craziness of the real world, but rather in the character of Boo Radley, who could love the Finch children from afar, creating the mysterious presence of an adoring stranger, and ultimately serving as their protector against the vengeful violence of Bob Ewell, who was fueled both by racial hatred and a strong sense of inferiority that comes from being “poor white trash.” The film version has iconic status in the minds of many. For years, I wanted to wear tortoise shell eyeglasses, to imitate Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the film.

Indeed, the film embedded perhaps the most important message of ‘60s with regard to race – with understanding and respect for our fellow humans we could put race issues behind us, a critical example of the more general lesson, time heals all wounds. A few year later, in college, I “was taught” the mechanism by which the healing takes place. The racists die off. Their children take on the understanding of Atticus Finch rather than the hatred of their own forebears. This is the hopeful approach to both multiculturalism and pluralism, should it only be true. Part of the lie in the lesson is in ourselves, not just in the progeny of the Bob Ewell’s of the world. We don’t have the Atticus Finch commitment to right the wrong. We’re back in the David and Lisa world, trying to keep reality from touching us. I’m ready now to address my subject and I’ll begin with my own experience.

* * * * *

As a learning technologist, I had one episode where race was explicitly an issue. I’m not sure of the exact date. It must have been 2000 or 2001. There was a graduate student with whom I interacted who had been doing a study on digital divide among our students, with the Whites in the have category and the Black and Latino/a students in the have not category. The issue was about whether a student was under a serious disadvantage if he didn’t have a computer in his dorm room or place of residence, but had to rely on a computer lab instead for access. And the related set of issues is whether this created more cultural distance between the students as there are a host of related literacies that develop as a consequence of always on computer access.

So it occurred to me on my own (and there was one African American University administrator pushing this theme) that perhaps we should do a like study among the faculty, to see if there was a digital divide among that population. I consulted with one Black faculty member who had some prior experience as a Campus administrator and whom I knew via a summer workshop I had headed up. He thought it was a reasonable idea to investigate. I can’t recall whether he suggested this or if the idea cam from elsewhere, but soon thereafter I had a meeting with the heads of the African American Studies program, Latina/Latino Studies program, and Asian American Studies program, to talk about doing a study on digital divide among the faculty.

Coincidentally, but ironically, we were all interim in our positions at the time. (I was a little irked by my own status as I got my job via a faculty committee that had recommended we have a Center for Educational Technologies and that I should be the director, but there hadn’t been a formal search pursuant to that recommendation.) I recall our interim status serving as a mild bond among this group. They were all interested in doing the study. So we developed an email survey about use of instructional technology and barriers to usage, sent out by each director to their own constituencies, with the option that the recipients could reply to me directly if they so wanted.

I learned a few things from this exercise. Some of the faculty who were surveyed became irked at me for not understanding that as faculty they were treated quite well and had good technical support – race didn’t matter in this regard at all. One faculty member in the History department was unaware of the support offerings that my Center provided and so she received some consultation as a consequence. I also learned that in some cases where instructional technology was not being used in the classroom the underlying explanation was scheduling, not preference. The instructors actually wanted to teach in a smart classroom but because the mechanism that allocated those classrooms favored other criteria – the prior history of space utilization and class size of the department doing the scheduling – it was difficult to get these courses into a smart classroom. I believe we made some efforts to counteract that effect at the time, though it being several years ago I’m now ignorant of the current circumstance on this issue. And a fact I already knew from other contexts, that Black faculty get a large number of requests to participate in events around Black issues on Campus, even if those issues lie entirely outside the domain of the faculty member’s research, meant that these faculty had even more than the usual time pressure so lack of uptake of instructional technology could be explained entirely by that, rather than by inadequate technology support. But only some had done little with learning technology. Other faculty of color had accomplished much with technology. Overall, there was no digital divide among the faculty that I could discern.

Several years earlier, I was engaged in a different sort of issue about race. The Econ department was recruiting a minority faculty member under a campus program called TOPPS. The candidate was Sandy Darity and his recruitment was something of a big deal. I recall going to a lunch with him at the Union, where many of my colleagues in the department attended. I went to a cocktail party (I can’t recall where) that had faculty from around campus who were interested in this particular hire. I attended Darity’s seminar. And the evening after the talk I went to dinner with him, the department head, and one other faculty member. I had no special role in the recruitment other than being a faculty member. This happened before I gone too far down the path with learning technology. With junior recruitment I sometimes had gotten involved fairly heavily because I felt responsibility as a potential colleague. But in this case Darity would be coming in as a full professor, so my involvement was due to this being a big deal.

Econ has been a divided department and this particular case was controversial. Darity could be classified as a Sociologist by some; I don’t mean that as a derogatory term but I do mean it to contrast with the Chicago School heavy theory emphasis (in the tradition of Lucas and Prescott) in the Econ department here. There was awkwardness around this disparity and, unfortunately, you could not parse it in a straightforward way from awkwardness about race. I found his talk strange – not the subject, which was about North-South trade and how the evidence put the lie to the rising tide theory – but rather the style, which was pure anecdote with no model and little data. Also, it ended abruptly after 50 minutes. Our usual for seminars is an hour and a half. One of my colleagues whom I respected and still do respect a great deal characterized the talk as a polemic rather than a paper. Another colleague, whom I’m more suspicious about, said a few days later that if it were Yaw Nyarko, then fine, no problem with such an offer. (I don’t believe that the Econ department later tried to recruit Nyarko, but I’ve been involved with learning technology matters since and have not tracked all the hiring activities in the department.)

At the dinner, I felt a need to be a human being to Darity; he’d been under a lot of scrutiny during the earlier part of his visit. So I gave him some grief for ordering White Zinfandel – real men drink red wine. It’s funny, you joke about the things that don’t matter because you can’t talk about the other things that do. I also recall engaging him in a semi-serious conversation about something Thomas Sowell had written in the New York Review of Books. (I was still a subscriber at the time.) Unlike the rest of his visit where he was entering our space, in this conversation I was treading on his territory. My recollection is that it was a reasonably pleasant dinner and that we ended with the standard parent question on a recruiting visit – how good are the schools? But overall the visit was quite awkward.

It brought back to mind a different experience I had in graduate school. Glenn Loury was an Assistant Professor at Northwestern while I was a grad student. There was a nighttime seminar series then held at 626 Noyes street, one of the houses where the Econ department had offices before it moved into Anderson Hall. It must have been 1977 or 1978 and I was probably a second year student at the time. Loury gave a theory paper on the dynamics of black-white income inequality and what would be the optimal time path under which the inequality would be eliminated. The underlying question was whether it made sense to give an immediate push to reduce inequality or if laissez-faire was better. This was supposed to be a theoretical way to get at the question of whether affirmative action was good or bad.

The tradition after the seminar was to go out for some beers and talk about the paper some more afterwards. After the talk one of the other students asked me to ask Loury to join us at one of the bars in Chicago. (Evanston was dry at the time.) It was an awkward moment. On the one hand, by then I had a well deserved reputation for drinking beer and engaging in conversation over beer. On that dimension, I was the logical one to ask Loury. But there were several other graduate students at the seminar who were senior to me and on academic grounds one of them should have asked. They obviously felt uncomfortable doing so. I did ask Loury. He turned us down. He had some other obligation, or so he said. The rest were relieved. I don’t think Loury held this incident against me. On several subsequent occasions I had a beer with him. That night never again came up in conversation. But I don’t think those type of situations are easily forgotten.

Each of the previous incidents lie in that gray zone of discomfort where civil discourse remained but where there was a sense of unease. I’ve had one experience outside of the gray zone, squarely in the world of hate speech. This had to with my teaching. When I was teaching intermediate microeconomics in the large section with 180 students, I managed it all via undergrad TAs who graded the homework in addition to providing office hours, face to face in the afternoons and online in the evenings. I recruited those TAs from students who did reasonably well in previous offerings of the course. A couple of those undergrad TAs were African-American students.

The first was kind of strange because I knew this guy from afar before he took my class. In the winter time when it was icky outside, I used to jog on the track at IMPE which was in the main gym above the basketball court, 11 laps to the mile. While I was doing my 9:30 – 10:00 minute miles, this guy would lap me a couple of times. I saw him there quite frequently. Later, when he became my student and them my TA, he reminded me of a different student I had known when I was a TA at Northwestern. That guy’s name was Phil – no clue about his last name. He was always in the Library and every time I saw him he was by himself. There’s nothing wrong being in the Library and by yourself, and he was quite a good student, but I got the sense that it was a coping strategy, that there were no peers who could lift him up only friends who might drag him down. I don’t really know this. It’s only a guess. But I’d bet that was the case. The same was true this for my TA, Harold. He was quite serious and kept to himself. As far as I know he TA’d without incident.

That’s the way I’d like things to be. My own philosophy to collegial interaction; I’m OK, You’re OK; works fine if race is a non-issue. Then we can interact as colleagues should, critiquing each other’s work, trying to lend support and improvement to the ideas we’re floating. It’s a world I’m comfortable in and one I’d like to encourage. For example, after Nyarko visited here (some time before Darity’s visit) I did have some follow up email with him and made suggestions about this paper. But it begs the question, what does one do when I’m OK, You’re OK is not appropriate or simply doesn’t work?

The other Black TA I had was a girl. She endeared herself to me fairly early on. We did nighttime training sessions in a computer lab at the beginning of the semester to get the students in the class up to speed using the software. That year I was mentoring a junior faculty member who was teaching another section of the same course and using my method. This was an apprenticeship for him before he adopted the approach to teach economic statistics on his own. He had a wheelchair bound paraplegic student attend one of my training sessions. Previously I had welcomed him to send any of his students to one of my training sessions – I had many more training session than he did because I had more students. But I was unprepared to meet the needs of this particular student and if I recall correctly she arrived a little late, spoke loudly, and appeared to be disrupting the session.

Because I hadn’t gotten prior warning I was not in a position to immediately accommodate her needs, especially since these training sessions were outside the regular class meeting time and asking my students to attend them meant I had made an implicit promise to focus on them during the session. The Black TA figured out the predicament, spent the rest of the session giving one-on-one support to the handicapped student, and it went ok. Regarding intelligence on human relations, this TA gets high marks.

But her math background was a little weak and to do economics at this level you need the math. My mechanism was that each TA graded one problem from the problem set and for which I had written up the *correct* answer that they could use to help them in grading. Until then I didn’t assign the problems to particular TAs. I let the TAs choose the problems in a first come first serve manner. As luck would have it, the Black TA got the hardest problem to grade on the first problem set. She was slow in evaluating the submissions and slow sending them back to the student teams; my mechanism relied on fairly quick turnover so the teams could resubmit problems based on the feedback they had received. The slow grading was gumming up the works. After that first problem set, I believe I assigned the problems to the TAs for the remainder of the semester.

On the second or third problem set one of the students in the class, a white male, sent an overtly racist message along with the submission of his homework problem, in addition to which he accused the TA of being incompetent on the grading. I didn’t know what to do about this. I may have mumbled something to my TA but otherwise ignored the problem. Sometimes I let students work things out on their own because I think it is best for them to do so, though when they are getting the fundamental economics wrong I’m more apt to interfere. In this case I should have interfered based on the merits but I didn’t know how to handle it. So I mumbled and kept my nose out of it. I’m not proud of that at all.

* * * * *

Finally, let me bring learning technology into the discussion. And for that, let me start off with the final lecture of Randy Pausch. In the introductory remarks by Steve Seabolt, he refers to Randy as “the White-ist guy I know.” The remark gets a laugh from the audience and is probably completely benign; Seabolt is referring to Pausch’s taste for mayo on white bread (in turkey sandwiches) and presumably other like un-hip behavior. I thought it a strange thing to say nonetheless. But I don’t want to linger on that. Instead, I’d like to focus on something Paush himself describes near the tail end of his quite moving presentation, how misdirection, something he learned about on the football field, is one of the essentials of good teaching. You teach students something that is both hard and important by getting them to work on something else that captures their immediate attention. You, the teacher, overly focus on that something else to get the students to buy in. But underneath you understand that you’re mainly after the something else and in the end you judge your own success by whether that something else has been well learned.

We have a problem on campus talking about race and interacting on race issues. It’s not surprising that we’re in this boat. The campus problem reflects the same problem in society at large. We’ve had multiple incidents of hate speech recently. We have a new program on campus- Inclusive Illinois, one campus many voices. This program is aimed as a counterforce. As far as I can tell the approach with this program is straightforward, no misdirection.

There are multiple projects on campus involving Second Life as a teaching tool. One of those has been led by Professor Sharon Tettegah in the College of Education. I got to know Sharon soon after she joined the faculty here and over the years we’ve become friends. I’ve seen her give multiple presentations on Second Life. In the first talk she gave she emphasized the role for students as designers in of virtual worlds and the type of learning we might encourage by giving students such a designer capability. In subsequent presentations she talked about a different type of empowerment that Second Life affords, taking on different personalities via the avatars the person uses navigating within Second Life. It is a great environment for role playing and via the interaction with others a good way to learn how others react to a persona that one takes on in role play.

I have written previously about my not getting it regarding the profession’s fascination with online games. And, truthfully, I didn’t really get it about role playing either. I always put suggestions of this sort through my own set of internal filters with one of the primary questions, would it work for me? Role playing didn’t seem to make it through. After all, I already had a strong voice. I’ve been told that shows up in my blogging. Why would I need role playing?

But sometime over the weekend I came to a different conclusion and in this post I belabored my own experiences with race to show why. I don’t have a strong voice when it comes to race relations. Instead, I feel uncomfortable. I’d like to hide till the discussion turns to something else. And then, in something I read in the last week or two, perhaps something on the site about race relations fueled by the Michael Vick and O.J. Simpson stories, there was the story how even nowadays Blacks receive almost constant reminders that they are second class citizens who shouldn’t be able to succeed in society. I’m oblivious to the vast majority of those reminders; either my realm of experience avoids them altogether or I’ve been wearing the blinders for so long that I just don’t see what isn’t immediately in front of me. I really don’t know which is the better explanation, but it seems clear to me that both fit in fairly nicely with being uncomfortable actively engaging on race issues.

And now I make a leap, but one I do quite regularly in thinking about learning technology issues, that I can generalize from my own experience and thinking. The generalization is that role playing would be quite good for many of us as a way to heighten our sensitivity on race issues, that technology like Second Life might be quite good for such role playing, indeed something like Second Life might be necessary to pull it off and then, bringing Pausch back in, that the only way to do this and overcome the sense of discomfort is by taking a misdirection approach. We have to be overtly about some other use of role playing with technology or some other use of the technology itself – maybe that’s the design of online environments, maybe it’s to use the technology for virtual tours; on what the misdirection should be I’m not sure.

Let me close with one other point. My Campus at the level of Purchasing and Campus Legal has been extremely conservative about Second Life and giving University sanction to faculty or departments in purchasing “islands” in Second Life. Second Life mimics the real world in many respects and it can be a rough and tumble place. The University, on the other hand, we think of as a cloister, a safe haven. We go to efforts to preserve that. Narrowly speaking, I can understand the Purchasing point of view.

But putting two and two together, and understanding how on this Campus there is a tendency for silos to develop on issues, following the maxim that to keep things tractable make them smaller, I think it is a mistake to deal with race issues over here via the Inclusive Illinois campaign and deal with Second Life issues over there via the approach advocated by Purchasing and Campus Legal, never for the twain to meet. We’re in a position to put learning technology into service in support of a huge social issue on campus, in a way where it could make a real difference. We’ve got the previous 45 years of experience to make us realize that these problems don’t go away by themselves. Shouldn’t we be designing learning experiences for our community so that we’re not in the same boat 45 years hence?

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