Saturday, May 09, 2015

Boundaries Are Always Harder to Define

Among other categories, the campus tracks enrollments by race.  Using those categories, last fall I had a majority non-white class.  It was the first time for me.  I suspect it won't be the last.  Here is the breakdown, though before I provide it I want to note that instructors are not given this information.  The information they are given that comes from Banner (the Student Information System) is the home address.  Based on that and other identifying information, of the 23 students overall who completed the class 8 were international students (7 Chinese and 1 Korean), 3 were Asian-American students, and 1 was Hispanic. 

I suspect that many instructors will never look at the home address in Banner.  Will they be aware of what category each of their students is in, simply by an eyeball test?  In yesterday's NY Times, Nicholas Kristof's column, called Our Biased Brains, argues that very early on we learn about racial identities and most of us (African Americans are the exception) develop a preference for the race we are a member of. No doubt we are conscious about race, but do we make mistakes from time to time in assignment of category?  And might it be that our own mental categories don't coincide with the official categories the campus maintains?

One troublesome aspect in the official categories is that International Student is a designation, which in theory encompasses all the races but in practice has come to imply East Asian, witness the piece from Inside Higher Ed, The University of China at Illinois. In other contexts the expression, "they all look alike to me," is offensive.  Yet to the unwitting instructor (I include myself here) it is quite easy to mistake an Asian-American student for an International student and vice versa.

Another category I struggle with is Hispanic.  There is first the Hispanic-Latino naming dispute.  The campus seems to be hedging its bets on this one, where one of the race categories is Hispanic yet in area studies there is the Department of Latina/Latino Studies.  More to the point for me is not really knowing who counts in this category and how my mental model of who counts is not reliable this way.  To illustrate, I did a Google Image Search on Sephardic Jew.  Below is one of the pictures I found, apparently a well known actor, Hank Azaria, though I was not familiar with him.  Is he Hispanic?  My immediate answer is, maybe.  He was born in Queens, where I grew up.  His grandparents apparently came from Greece.  Is that what's decisive or is it largely immaterial?   In my process of looking via Google I learned that Jerry Seinfeld is a Sephardic Jew.  I do not consider Jerry Seinfeld to be Hispanic. 

These puzzles for me led to further mental associations.  I thought of the film version of West Side Story.  That movie came out when I was a kid and was something of a big deal, in part because Leonard Bernstein did Young People's Concerts that were on TV in NYC, and the music from West Side Story was sometimes featured in those. Anyway, in the movie George Chakiris (born in Ohio, of Greek ancestry) plays Bernardo, the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks.  And Natalie Wood (born in California, of Russian ancestry) plays Maria, Bernardo's sister.  Then I started to think of other films where White actors play characters of other races.  One I came up with immediately, because I saw part of it on TV recently while doing my workout on the elliptical, was Remo Williams, where Joel Grey plays the Korean martial arts master, Chiun.  That movie is an enjoyable farce.  What about in a more serious setting, are there movie examples of that?  I thought of A Passage to India, which has at its core the tensions across race and culture in the presence of colonial rule.  The chameleon-like actor, Alec Guinness, plays an Indian character, Professor Godbole.  I'm sure the reader of this piece can come up with many other such examples.

For me, the effect of these examples is to blur what it means to be of one race or another.  In contrast, the type of bean counting that the campus does on enrollments, perhaps mandated by law, of that I'm unsure, seems to sharpen the distinction between the races.  I then asked myself a question I wasn't able to fully answer.  Which do we want, blurring or sharpening?  My partial answer is this.  Most people identify themselves with some subgroup of all human beings, and that subgroup serves as their primary identifier.  In some cases that subgroup may be racially defined, in which case sharpening the distinction is preferred.  In other cases the subgroup may be defined by other than race, religion for example, in which case the racial distinctions should be blurred.  But then, trying to apply this thinking to myself, I'm not even sure of what my own primary subgroup is.  I feel like something of an outsider to any one category, though my parents were Jewish, as were a majority of the kids I went to public school with, I'm completely non-observant now. Similarly, in some ways I feel strongly that I'm an academic and defined by my professional identity, but I don't try to publish in refereed journals anymore and haven't for some time.  How many people feel like outsiders this way?  I don't know.  I do know that I don't like to be lumped into the single category, White.  I hope with this to convince the reader that I feel uneasy with the entire discussion, but that much of these feelings are useful to keep in mind as we turn to the next part.

* * * * *

When I started at Illinois back in 1980, upwards of 90% of the undergraduate students were from within the state.  Most came from the more affluent suburbs of Chicago.  There was also a sizable population from down state.  The city of Chicago itself was underrepresented.   The only real way I learned how this mattered was via one of my fellow assistant professors in the Economics department, who happened to be the daughter of the Belgian Ambassador to the United States.  She said our students were too provincial.  That is not a word I used regularly in my working vocabulary, which is perhaps why I remember it now.  Also, as someone who grew up in NYC I had substantial fear of people from the Midwest, which my 4 years in graduate school at Northwestern didn't eradicate completely.  So I was accepting of that conclusion without wondering how she reached it.  It occurs to me now that she must have directly experienced some intolerance, a woman teaching economics was uncommon then, and somebody who spoke English with a French accent even rarer here.

Fast forward twenty years.  I am the representative from my campus on the CIC Learning Technology Group.  The CIC is the academic arm of the Big Ten but also includes the University of Chicago, which is not in the Big Ten.  At the time the group was sponsored by the Provosts.  The various representatives in the group were either Associate Provosts for Undergraduate Education or like me the leading Educational Technologist for their campus.   It was quite a collegial group and I became friendly on an individual basis with many of the members.  In a sidebar conversation with my colleague from UIC, our sister campus in Chicago, she tells me that my campus is not hospitable to African-Americans.  I was already somewhat aware of the this via discussions on my campus about "digital divide" that I was engaged in.  But I hadn't realized the issues impacted the entire university, not just my campus.  Regarding selectivity and the prestige of a degree, my campus was ranked much higher than UIC.  But qualified African-American students might nonetheless prefer attending UIC.  That was a real issue.  It probably still is.

The above two anecdotes are there to show that issues with lack of collegiality along racial/cultural lines have been with us on campus at least since when I began here as a faculty member.  Those issues are more prominent now.  There are several reasons why.  One of those is the change in demographics of our undergraduate student population toward a much larger share of international students coupled with a much greater reliance on tuition as a revenue generator for the university.  A second is prominent role that the Internet plays and its enabling of hate speech, even in circumstances where race is not really at issue, such as on whether to cancel classes or not due to cold weather.  A third is the greater attention being given to race at a national level as a consequence of the senseless killing of black men by police that has made the news. 

I am a fairly regular reader of the New York Times Opinion Page.  Among the regular columnists, Charles Blow is the one who writes regularly about race issues, often taking on the Republican attack machine in the process.  It might be expected that an African American columnist will write on race issues, but as a regular diet of columns I find this problematic.  So it occurred to me that Blow should swap columns with somebody else at the Times, Joe Nocera for example.  Nocera has written a spate of columns on the NCAA as evil cartel.  Imagine if for a month or so that Blow would write about the NCAA, race could certainly enter the discussion there but the constraint would be that there was a connection to NCAA issues, and Nocera would write about race relations, preferably entirely outside the world of sports.  The alternative perspective would be helpful to readers. 

In that spirit I am writing about issues that were taken up in a recent campus report on Racial Microaggressions. While I have written on race issues before, it is far from my usual fare and it is not easy for me to do.  This post is taking much longer to write than is typical for me.  It almost certainly would be a good thing if other voices who don't normally talk about race to begin to do so in a thoughtful way and do that publicly.  Perhaps this piece will encourage others to do likewise.

Part of the reason to do this is to show that while commentators are like minded, they do disagree on occasion.  For example, I took issue with some of the recommendations in the report, particularly its call for mandatory diversity training for all on campus.  The campus doesn't do mandatory training well.  It doesn't do such training okay.  It does a poor job.  The Ethics Training that all faculty and staff must do on an annual basis makes people resentful of the training and doesn't make them any more ethical in performance of their jobs.  I believe that newly entering students get Alcohol Awareness training, but that clearly doesn't work.  Even the training that the IRB administers for anyone doing research on human subjects is heavy handed.  One has the feeling taking this training that part of it is there for the campus to avoid liability.  Better educational approaches wouldn't worry about that at all, but instead ask what activities best get the trainees to appreciate the issues at hand.  This calls for the trainee to make some contribution to the product, as a co-author contributes to writing a paper.  Campus training doesn't allow for that.  It is much more heavy handed.

In the process of doing background reading for writing this piece I became aware of the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Relations.   Among other activities for students, they offer an I-Connect Diversity and Inclusion Workshop for all first-year students on campus.  I could not find on their Web site how long this office has existed nor could I find how many cohorts of students have been through the I-Connect workshops.  It would be good to have some sense of the efficacy of this workshop.  Lacking that here, I will simply move on.  But let me make one point first.  This office is part of Student Affairs.  That may explain, in part, why I was unaware of it.  Faculty tend to be more knowledgeable about the academic affairs side of the house.

In the concluding section I suggest several possible more bottom up approaches that potentially would be better than mandatory training.  These are things that might be tried.  I really don't know what will work.  I'm not sure anybody else knows that either.  But it seems to me there are many possible activities that could energize the community in a good way around race issues.  So I certainly don't want to argue that we should just sit on our hands.  I only want to discourage top down mandates, which tend to be heavy handed and are therefore ineffective.  In the remainder of this section I'd like to recount a few other anecdotes to illustrate other dimensions of the issues.

The first of these is my own experience witnessing something very much like a microaggression, really a series of these, mainly coming from one student in particular.  This happened in a seminar for the Campus Honors Program that I taught in fall 2009.  I wrote about it at the end of the semester in a post called Theism - "Pan", "Mono", and "A".  The thing is, I inadvertently invited it to happen, without realizing I was doing it till too late.   Once the door is open, it is very hard to close it again.  What I didn't understand at the time, but have a better feel for now, is that kids who have a desire to avoid all the drinking that many undergraduates engage in on campus need some alternative that they find compelling and engages them.  For some students, this ends up being a faith-based living arrangement.  In that class several of my students resided in faith-based housing.  It was really only that one student who committed microaggressions.  Since there was another student in the class who lived at the same place, this other student was extremely quiet and spoke but rarely in class, many of his classmates also were very quiet, I take it that there were multiple factors in confluence which caused the microaggressions.  Based on that experience I conjecture that extroverts among the students, the type of kid who can dominate a class discussion, tend to be less sensitive to needs of their classmates and are therefore more prone to commit a microaggression.

Then, as I said, I encouraged this through my prompts for their blog posts, asking the students to bring in their own experiences into the discussion.  I didn't intend that encouragement to enable discussion of religion in our class, but neither did I proscribe such discussion up front.  I have continued to use blogging in my teaching and continue to provide prompts that encourage the students to relate the topic at hand to their personal experience.  And I haven't had another experience like the one in that fall 2009 class.  So I would deem that sort of thing unlikely, though not impossible.  I probably could manage it better were it to happen again.  It was a bit unnerving that first time.  The other issue I want to bring up here is that apart from deterring the microaggression, reasonable instructors might disagree about what the teacher's role should have been in this case.  As I wrote in the linked piece, my prior was that discussion of religion should be cordoned off from the classroom entirely.  I can imagine that in a biology course where evolution is discussed that religion might come up there and the instructor shouldn't entirely deflect the discussion.  Of course, we do have a Department of Religion on campus.  I really don't know whether instructors in those courses encourage students to discuss their own religious beliefs.  And I don't know whether other instructors would agree that discussion of religion should be cordoned off in the courses they teach.  That, in itself, might be an interesting question on which to poll the faculty, though getting at that might also create more enmity than it's worth.

The next anecdote concerns a class I taught in Behavioral Economics in spring 2011, the first time I taught since I retired in summer 2010 and a course that hadn't been offered by the Economics department before then.  It had been my intent in designing this class that I would teach it repeatedly thereafter, but my experience that spring was so bad that I taught the course only that one time.  I now teach a course on the Economics of Organizations instead.  In the behavioral course I had the students read the best selling book Nudge, by Thaler and Sunstein.  In that prior campus honors seminar several of the readings were popular books and that worked well, so I was prone to try it again.   This time around it created lots of problems.

Let me explain this by beginning with lessons learned and then working back from there.  Many students who study economics (and business too) are conservative/libertarian in their politics, have an instinctive distrust for government, and have a strong belief that people earn what they deserve.  If these people make a lot of money, it's because they worked hard for it.  And if they are poor, therefore, they most be loafers.  These students have views that are different from mine.  I am more liberal.  I think government has a positive role to play, though I do distrust excessive bureaucracy, but I also believe big business can be a threat and needs a counter force to rein it in.  I also believe that income-wise where you end up depends a lot on where you start and, hence, it is not only effort that matters in income.  Further, if you do fabulously well, you were apt to have had more than your fair share of good luck.  In most classes I teach neither the students' views nor mine come out in the open.  I prefer it that way.  In this class these views did come out and they clashed.  There wasn't microaggression.  There was overt hostility and anger.  I lost control of the class as a result.

The underlying philosophy in Nudge is something the authors call Libertarian Paternalism, a seeming oxymoron that the authors claim is really quite sensible.  The Libertarian piece is that people should be free to choose what they want.  The behavioral econ tweak of the neoclassical choice model, one that has substantial bite in practice, is that often people make choices passively rather than actively.  In other words, they come to accept what is first presented to them and then don't consider possible alternatives.  Thus, an agent who set the default that precedes the choice will influence the actual outcome.  The paternalism part comes from setting defaults in a way to achieve socially desirable objectives.

Ahead of time I thought the class needed some intellectual background on paternalism, the old fashioned kind.  So I assigned some readings that we'd discuss in class.  One of those was this piece by Amy Gutmann.  Gutmann is the President of the University of Pennsylvania and a distinguished scholar.  That mattered not to the students.  Some of the students went ballistic about me assigning this piece.  The class went downhill after that.

Let me add some things here that I conjecture about but don't really know.  Let's imagine that the conservative political views I described above are correlated positively with microaggressions, something that I don't think is too hard to believe.  Let's also consider the microaggressions themselves as symptoms rather than root cause, with the cause stemming from the students' underlying beliefs.  Then it will occur to some to want to address the cause directly. And in articulating why, one reason will be to protect students from microagresssions, which is consistent with the Student Code. But another reason will be to benefit the students who are apt to commit the microaggressions, to give them a healthier value system on which to based their judgments and actions.  If my experience in that behavioral econ class is any indication, there would be a lot of pushback from some segment of the student population that this is the worst sort of paternalism, liberals imposing their values on conservatives.  If something like this is to be expected, the issues are whether a treating the symptoms only approach can be effective and, if not, how progress can be made otherwise. 

The last anecdote is aimed at reminding us that a student being uncomfortable in class can at times be a good thing; the discomfort fosters learning and the student feels it should be overcome via the student's own efforts.  The following passage is from a Chinese-American student who took my class last fall, writing in her last post of the semester.  She liked the course but was nonetheless uncomfortable in participating in class discussion.

At first I was worried about the blogging since I feel that I am a horrible writer. I dreaded writing essays ever since middle school. It is usually tough for me to formulate my thoughts and make them flow. I would sometimes spend several hours on these posts, but most of that time, I was thinking about what to write and how to start writing about it. After that obstacle, it was a bit easier. Despite the difficulty, this was actually my favorite part of the course because I was pushed to make connections between my real life experiences and the economics behind it. If a professor were to just teach me topics like transfer pricing and the Shapiro Stiglitz model with definitions and graphs, there is no way I would recall the material several weeks from now, but bringing it to a personal level in these blog posts really helps with absorbing the concepts.Furthermore, I really enjoyed the structure of the class and the fact that it was discussion-oriented. Although I never talked, I felt engaged in the topics discussed and I was able to absorb a lot of information aside from days when I did not get much sleep the night before. You may have seen some "glazed" looks from me those times (I apologize for that). Moreover, the reason why I did not chime in as much as other students is because I either felt that I could not relate or was too shy to contribute. There were multiple times when I had wanted to but remained silent because I have a fear of being wrong in front of people even in the most trivial situations. This is due to a somewhat traumatic experience that happened in the past, but I am getting better! And hopefully I will continue to do so in the midst of searching for full-time jobs.

As my post title is about boundaries, an exploration of the boundary would consider what happens on both sides of it.  If instructors sometimes deliberately make students uncomfortable for good learning reasons, then student discomfort can't itself be taken as sufficient that there is a problem which requires some remedy.  What distinguishes the discomfort caused by microaggressions from the discomfort my student writes about?  Are those easy to parse or not?  We should be concerned with Type I and Type II errors here. 

* * * * *

What might we do to make things better?  Much activity of this sort probably should be about raising awareness.  If possible awareness would be about more than merely alerting people that there is a problem.  It would point them to instances where the problem doesn't manifest or where the problem has been overcome.  Then people might emulate these good examples.  Things will improve on campus if such emulation happens at scale.  But as the good examples might encourage some to deny that there is a problem at all, some documentation of the problem itself is surely necessary as well, just to counter the naysayers.

We live in a world where broad scale communication happens via social media, where online video is the preferred form of communication, and where if a video "goes viral"  it can then influence a very large audience.  I have made many instructional videos related to the courses I've taught.  None of these videos have gone viral.  I do not know "the trick" for making a video that will go viral.  So what I say next should be taken as aspiration only, not a game plan that were it followed is known ahead of time to succeed.

There are two courses on campus that I am aware of that satisfy the Advanced Composition Gen Ed requirement and entail video production.  One of these is Writing with Video.   The other is Writing Across Media.  Students do projects in these classes.  A part of each project is making a video from scratch.  This semester, one of my students from last fall is taking Writing with Video.  As part of one of his projects, he did a video interview with me and a clip from that became part of his project.  Based on this, I suspect many students taking these classes are looking for appropriate subjects for their projects and for people whom they can video interview.

What if the principal investigators of the Racial Microaggressions paper met with the course coordinators of the video production classes, offering to send a solicitation to all the students who were asked to complete the survey that formed the basis of their paper, asking those students whether they'd be willing to appear in a video interview as well as to identify friends they might have of another race who'd be willing to appear along with them?  Part of the solicitation would be to note that the video projects might very well have a half-life beyond the course where the projects are created, so to also request that the students being interviewed give permission to make the videos public.  If such a solicitation produced some positive response this would enable a social experiment aimed at making things better.  (There are a host of logistical issues that would need to be addressed to make this work.  I am not going to get into those here.  My point is that something like this might be tried, not how to orchestrate it if it were tried.)

Beyond this, what of diversity education for faculty, staff, and graduate teaching assistants that would be of the opt in kind?   There are many potential venues for this.  The various college teaching academies offer one possibility.  CITL has a variety of different workshop series that provide a different possibility.  But who with the appropriate expertise would offer these sessions and wouldn't they end up mainly as preaching to the choir? 

Scratching my head about this for a while it occurred to me to trying something like a particular training session for learning technologists that I was involved in for the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Program back in 2007.  We made a video vignette of a "how not to" kind, deliberately campy in style so that when it was shown to the group in attendance it elicited quite a bit of laughter.  After the showing of the video was completed, the group was instructed to find all the errors that were made during the video.  It worked remarkably well in that setting.  So my question is might something similar work for diversity education?  I should note here that though we didn't plan it at the time that video was used again in later institutes, after the people who were involved in the video were no longer in attendance. 

At issue here is whether the real felt pain from actual microaggressions gets diminished this way, so as to disregard the problem that the training is trying to address.  If that happened, of course, then this sort of approach would fail in a fundamental way.  So there would be a risk in trying this, no doubt.  But there seems to me an upside potential as well.  If the videos were sufficiently illustrative of what is at issue then the campy humor would help to make the audience larger and the message better understood.  For that reason it seems to me worth trying, though I will admit here I'm entirely uncertain as to who would get the ball rolling. 

Let me wrap up.  Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."  To this I'd add that up front most of us don't know what it is we want.  We need to think it through, try out some tentative possibilities, and then go from there. So let's talk about this some more, let's try some things while we're doing that, and in so doing let's make things better by practicing the art of the possible. 

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