About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Tips on Thinking and Writing

Seven pieces of advice for students entering graduate (or undergraduate) study in education—and a lot of other disciplines too.

Last week I had the honor of addressing the students entering several of UCLA’s graduate programs in education. I offered them seven thinking and writing tips that I believe will be helpful as they pursue their studies. These tips are also relevant to a number of other areas of study, and could prove useful to undergraduate students as well. With that, let’s enter the speech right after I made my introductory remarks.

***

You can call these tips habits of mind, or intellectual strategies, or principles of inquiry, or simply tricks of the trade that I’ve picked up over the years and am passing along to you to use in your thinking and your writing as you pursue your studies.

1) Pay attention to your writing. Many of us in education come out of the psychological or social sciences and never had the opportunity to focus on our writing and to get detailed feedback on it. But writing is an exceptionally potent tool for you regardless of the program you’re in. It will be invaluable in your classwork, and also professionally as you see things that trouble you and you want to give voice to or—something we don’t do enough—when you see things that need to be celebrated. Writing will be part of your intellectual and professional toolbox for the rest of your careers.
Take advantage of resources. There are undergraduate and graduate-level writing courses on campus. There’s a Writing Center. And when you form study groups—and I hope you do—make them writing and study groups.
Trust me on this. Regardless of the type of work you do and your future goals, the more effectively you can consider your audience, craft your argument, turn a phrase, the more likely you’ll achieve those goals.

2) Make your criticisms as even-handed as you can. You will be called upon while you’re here—and in many cases after you graduate—to critique a reading, or a policy, or an educational practice. Don't just be a flamethrower. Before launching into your critique do your best to present that reading, policy, or practice as fairly as you can, even if it irritates you to do so. Then develop your critique. Your critique will be all the more effective if your reader sees you being even-handed. Which doesn’t mean you’re being wishy washy or can’t take a strong point of view. You can. In fact, I think the strongest critiques are ones that fairly present elements of the argument, policy, or practice that you’re questioning—and then systematically, point-by-point deconstruct them or demonstrate their inadequacy.

3) Related to #2. Investigate the things that trouble you. Most of you as part of your program will visit schools or classrooms or tutoring or counseling sessions or some kind of community meeting or event. Sometimes you’ll be really impressed by what you see. And sometimes you’ll have questions. And sometimes what you see and hear seems wrongheaded, even harmful. Try your best to find out the rationale behind what you saw. Talk to people. Don't assume, explore. I’m embarrassed to tell you how often in my life I’ve made a quick judgment about something a teacher or principal or social worker did only to be humbled later when I learned the full background for their actions. But, let’s say that what you find out confirms your negative judgment. That will also happen. Well, then you will have a better understanding of what you saw, a deeper grasp of the dynamics and background factors of what troubled you—which puts you in a better position to critique what you saw in a substantial and principled way.

4) Types of evidence. In a lot of my work I rely on stories, vignettes, interviews, scenes from classrooms—qualitative data. But I also draw on numbers, statistical data on frequencies, percentages, ratios. And there are quotations from authoritative sources, from scholarly studies, policy reports, historical accounts, and the like. Unfortunately, some people think that numbers come out of the devil’s workshop or that stories are enjoyable but unsubstantial. Nothing could be further from the truth. As a general rule, the more kinds of evidence you have to support a claim or an argument, the stronger your claim or argument is. A story or a clip of an interview can be powerful and moving, but it becomes more convincing, I think, at least in some contexts, if it is paired with a statistic that demonstrates the story or interview is representative of a trend, is not an isolated occurrence. Likewise, statistics can be forceful, but they can gain additional strength to move people to action when they’re combined with a story that touches the heart. This combination of kinds of evidence, of statistic and story is often what we see in the successful passage of public policy.

5) Always remember, human behavior is complex, and certainly education is complex. There is rarely, if ever, a single explanation for anything. Think about your own behaviors. Can you explain why you’re here? Why you care for the people you care for? Your relationship with your parents? Even your sleeping and eating patterns? Can you explain any of it with one motive or cause? Probably not.
Because of this rich complexity, be cautious about attributing a single cause to any educational phenomenon or explaining it with a single perspective. This is the power, I think, of what feminist scholars and critical theorists refer to as “intersectionality.” That is, that social characteristics—race, class, gender, sexual orientation—intersect and interact. To best understand one, you need to look at all in context and interaction.
Now, of course, there are times when you do want to focus on a single phenomenon, a single possible cause because it has been under-acknowledged or ignored. We might want to shine a light on race or sexual orientation or, more specifically, we might want to focus on a single variable in, let’s say, academic achievement, or college-going orientation, or in the acquisition of language. Fine and good. There’s analytical reasons for doing this. But remember that the highlighted phenomenon or variable still plays out in everyday reality in concert with all the other bits and pieces of our complex lives.

6) Whatever it is you’re interested in or become interested in as you study here, learn its history.
You may be interested in teaching math in the primary grades or in diversifying and enriching the literature read in high school.
Or college affordability might be your thing.
Or maybe feminist standpoint theory.
Or you’re taken with a particular approach to student advising.
Or how about advanced statistical methods like Structural Equation Modeling or Item Response Theory. Maybe these are what you curl up with at night over a soothing cup of tea… or something stronger.
All of these have an origin. People have been working on them for a while, in some cases, a long while. Learning how something came into being and how it developed can be so useful in the present, affecting your understanding of it, its mistakes and blind alleys as well as the missed opportunities that remain to be seized—things you can work on. Knowing the past makes you a better practitioner in the present.

7) I just asked you to go deep in the past. Now I’m going to ask you to try to gain a wide, broad view of the present. It is the nature of graduate study that we specialize, we are trying to get very good at something that is pretty specific: in your case, in college advising, or in an area of teaching, or in a research topic. This is what we do. Every once in a while, though, look up from your specialization and survey the broad landscape of education and note where your specialization fits in. In the vast system that extends from pre-school to graduate school and includes adult school and occupational training, and much more, where does my contribution belong?  How does what occurs in the rest of the system affect my sphere of work? How does my work affect the rest of the system? Every so often, you want to ask yourself those questions.

So those are my seven tips. I hope you find them useful.

In wrapping up I’d like to offer this suggestion. A little while ago, I recommended that you always keep in mind the rich complexity of human life and educational practice and to not limit your vision to a single way of seeing. Well, speaking of different ways of seeing, you have here in your entering class a remarkable range of life experience, and educational and professional experience, and knowledge of disciplines and educational practices. What a reservoir of resources!  Graduate school is immensely stimulating but also taxing, growth-fostering but difficult. You’ll need good people around you to help you process it all. Get to know each other, form meaningful relationships, making sure that some of your new acquaintances have different backgrounds and interests from yours. You will benefit greatly from this diversity of background, interest, and knowledge. 

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Who Is Smarter Than Whom?: Status Games in Higher Ed


A while back I was reading letters of support for an award, and in one of the letters there was a demeaning characterization of the home academic department of the candidate. While the letter writer praised the candidate to the skies, the writer portrayed the candidate’s department—a department of great prestige outside of the candidate’s university—as being of marginal status in the eyes of those in other academic disciplines within the university. The letter writer wanted to assure anonymous evaluators like me that the candidate was of much higher intellectual quality than the candidate’s discipline would suggest. 

Boy, am I sick of this academic snobbery. 

What I read is not without its irony, however—worthy of the most trenchant portrayals of academic life (think David Lodge’s Small World or Richard Russo’s Straight Man). The discipline of the snooty letter writer is one that I heard routinely ridiculed when I was studying and then teaching in an English Department.

And so it goes in the academic status games.

Applied disciplines (e.g., journalism, nursing, management) have less status than “pure” ones: philosophy, biology, mathematics. And within disciplines there is typically a status hierarchy, with “theoretical” pursuits having more dazzle than applied work. Art history and musicology trump the making of art or music. The theoretical mathematician has the status edge on the applied statistician. The literary theorist sits on a higher rung—much higher—than those who teach writing.

Of course, these status dynamics are not absolute, are ignored, even subverted by some faculty, and an institution’s history and current reality come into play as well. And in our era of the “entrepreneurial university” and economic accountability, traditional academic status markers might lessen in importance; what will count will be enrollment numbers and the employability prospects of a given major.

Still, as someone who has spent decades at a research university running a tutorial center and a freshman composition program and then residing in a school of education—all quite low in that disciplinary hierarchy—I can tell you that judgments of intellectual virtue based on disciplinary affiliation are alive and well and factor into all sorts of behaviors and decisions, from departmental funding , to faculty promotion, to the letters written for honors and awards—like the one I read.

We have not even considered the more pronounced status differentials among various units at the college or university: for example student services versus academic departments. And then there are the loaded status distinctions made among the different kinds of institutions that comprise higher education in the United States: the community college versus the state college or university versus the research university—with research universities scrambling to climb to the top of their own heap.

All professions generate status distinctions, so why should the field of higher education be any different? Fair enough; I take the point. But the thing that gets to me in all this is that the distinctions are made through narrow and self-interested attributions of intelligence that hardly reflect the variety of ways people use their minds to apply knowledge, solve problems, reason and make decisions, and so on. Furthermore, intelligence doesn’t reside inert in a discipline or a kind of work or in one segment of a system rather than another; intelligence emerges in activity and in context. The attributions of intelligence I’m concerned with have much more to do with the preservation of power and prestige and turf rather than helping us all—faculty, staff, and students—improve on what we do. Faculty don’t get better at teaching by luxuriating in their bona fides or looking down on the department across the quad.

This last point about getting better at educating is at the center of a new book by my UCLA colleague, Alexander Astin, an expert on higher education in the United States. In Are You Smart Enough?, Astin argues that colleges—especially “elite” colleges—are more concerned with acquiring status markers of intelligence (high entering student gpas and test scores, faculty publication numbers, and so on) rather than creating the conditions for students to become more intelligent during their time in college. Instead of the scramble to attract students already identified as smart, Astin wonders, what if colleges put increased effort into helping students become smarter through more attention to teaching, mentoring, and enrichment activities? It’s a provocative and important question.

Back, now, to that letter. Over the years, I’ve spent time in many sectors of higher education, from a medical school to a community college tutoring center, and one of the things that has most struck me is the distribution of intelligence across the domains of the enterprise. To be sure, I’ve observed the routine pursuit of trivial research, uninspired teaching and unimaginative management, tireless self-promotion. A whole host of sins spread across areas of study and levels of the system. But I’ve also witnessed insight and inspiration, deeply humane problem solving, moments of brilliance in both a writing and a mathematics classroom, in a counseling session and in a meeting of tutorial center coordinators, in a laboratory and in a library. No little domain has a lock on being smart.

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