Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Free Speech, the First Amendment, and the Rise of Conservative Libertines

Another day, another higher ed-related First Amendment issue:
University of Alabama may have violated First Amendment by kicking out racist student
This has become a popular battle in the Culture Wars of our day. Conservative student or speaker says something shocking and offensive, backlash ensues, defenders rush in crying "First Amendment!", and everybody ends up upset.

I don't envy the administration at Alabama in this case. There's no way to win in these situations - whatever you do, one tribe or another will be ticked off. If they expel the student, every culture-war conservative organization in the country will come down on them. If they don't punish the student, they'll catch fire from both their own African American student population as well as liberal groups from around the country. None of this is Alabama's fault, but they're stuck in the middle of it.

Side note to faculty: If you want good presidents and administrators at your institutions, you need to start helping your administration in these cases. Too often faculty take sides and take shots at their own administrations - and then wonder why more smart people don't want to be university presidents. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

I'm perfectly willing to accept the legal analysis in the article linked above. Courts have ruled that public institutions (though not private ones) are covered by the First Amendment's meaning of "government", and that speech by itself (though not speech that threatens violence or harm) is protected and cannot be proscribed or punished. This is probably why conservative agitators and firebrands tend to pick on public schools more than private ones.

I support the First Amendment and think it's in place for very good reasons. Likely the student should not, on legal grounds, have been expelled.

What's more interesting to me is the culture war behind this. In recent years it's mostly been conservatives taking up the Free Speech banner, part of their larger narrative that they are discriminated against on university campuses (a narrative debunked in research conducted by my friends Matt Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner; you can see an example here). This is really just a cover to "win" and to score points against their enemies, of course - tribal conservatives are just as likely as tribal liberals to object to speech they don't like.

This strikes me as just another way that the conservative movement has wandered so far from its roots as to be unrecognizable. When I was young, conservatives planted their flag on a series of propositions about values and ethics. One of these was the importance of personal responsibility, and the connection between rights (individual freedoms) and the responsibilities to use those rights appropriately and well to the betterment of society.

During the 1960s, conservatives decried the excesses of liberty which they saw in the liberal hippie/flower power/free love movements of the day. To conservatives, hippies weren't exercising liberty so much as engaging in libertine behavior - individual freedom with no thought to those around you, or for society as a whole. Conservatives saw the liberal cultural waves of feminism, free love, and revolutionary fervor as undermining important values that serve as underpinnings of social cohesion.

Now people who call themselves "conservatives" are busy defending people like this Alabama student who spits in the face of society, who uses her freedom in vile ways that undermine social cohesion. What is "conservative" about this student's language? Hatred and racism have no more place in conservative thought (at least, as it used to be expressed) than they do in liberal thought.

I am waiting - possibly in vain - for a genuine conservative resurgence, a return of traditional conservative values that actually care about the community. In the meantime, we're stuck with these hatred-fueled sideshows that are all about destruction and anger, and that offer no positive vision for society or the future.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Cynicism and Assessment: Asking the Wrong Questions in Higher Ed

Recently, a Facebook conversation was kicked off among some of my higher ed friends and colleagues in response to this article:
An Insider's Take on Assessment: It May Be Worse Than You Think
The article itself is a commentary on another article written by a higher ed assessment professional and published here. This latter piece is a very interesting and significantly deep dive into a recurrent challenge: how to actually measure student learning in a way that can be useful. This is much harder than it seems at first blush, and is therefore often done poorly on university and college campuses.

The former commentary piece takes this discussion in a somewhat more cynical direction, suggesting (if only indirectly) that efforts to assess student learning may be a waste of time, money, and energy. This is certainly where my colleagues took the discussion, along with an added dose of attacks on the people who work at accrediting agencies as "true believers" focused exclusively on "noncompliance" and engaged in "groupthink".

I suspect many faculty feel the same way - that the people who work in regional accrediting agencies are out-of-touch busybodies and that "assessment" is a colossal waste of time and energy. Conclusion: we (colleges & universities, and especially faculty) would all be better off if we just chucked the whole thing and went back to the "way things were" - before the "assessment craze" came along.

I understand this point of view. I spent much of my career as a teaching faculty member, and I have myself taught many students and many classes. I understand the sometimes perplexing challenge of being told to do new things, or to do things a different way, especially if it involves (or appears to involve) doing more work than one is currently doing. I have a deep appreciation for the culture of independence which drives many faculty, and which is one of the chief attractions of the profession.

The only problem is that the cynical take on assessment is wrong. Yes, there are measurement problems (of both the reliability and validity kind). And yes, assessment is often done poorly. But the conclusions that the people "pushing" assessment are evil, and the whole thing should be scrapped, does not follow from these observations.

First, let me dispense with the rote ad hominem attacks on accrediting bodies and the people in them. I only have significant experience with one such organization - the Higher Learning Commission, which oversees 19 states in (broadly speaking) the American midwest. HLC is the largest of the regional accrediting bodies, and probably the most influential.

I have been through HLC accreditation processes with universities I worked for, and I have also been through HLC Peer Reviewer Corps training myself. I have met a great many people employed by the HLC as well as those who have dedicated years to working as volunteers in the accreditation process (most accreditation work is in fact done by volunteers, as is the work of reevaluating and assessing standards). These people are universally dedicated to trying to make higher education work better, always and especially for the students. Many of them have been faculty themselves, and they have a deep appreciation for the importance of higher education and the impact it has on our students' lives. They care deeply about the same things my colleagues and friends do.

So the accreditation process is not populated by people wearing horns and tails. What of the other conclusion - that assessment is not being done right, therefore it can't be done right, therefore we should just chuck the whole thing? This is not only wrong - it's dangerous. And it's really a betrayal of what we say we believe as faculty.

At its core, the assessment process is an attempt to answer a simple question: are our students learning what we say we want them to learn? If we deliver an educational experience and have no idea if anybody learned anything, then what are we doing? Not assessing learning turns higher education into a circus, another form of entertainment: pay your money at the door and we'll let you into the tent. What you get out of it - well, that's your problem.

That's clearly not a viable answer. We have to try to assess whether students are learning. And if that assessment effort tells us - reliably and validly - that some students aren't learning what we want them to learn, then we need to make changes. We either need to conclude that some students cannot learn what we're trying to teach, and stop admitting those students to our programs. Or we need to do a better job of teaching.

That's what assessment is all about. It's about finding out how well we're doing at the very core of what we say we're about, so we can do it better next time.

Note that there's a dimension that's often left out of these conversations: what learning are we trying to measure? "Learning outcomes" may be a catch phrase, but it also connotes something really important. We can't measure something if we don't know what it is in the first place. This is where a great many assessment efforts fail, because the things we're trying to measure aren't right in the first place.

Learning outcomes can be developed well. There are folks who know a lot more about this than I do; many of them work on college and university campuses as consultants to faculty. Unfortunately, many faculty have never had the benefit of their help (on smaller campuses, there may be no such people, and on larger ones they are often ignored). I wish that earlier in my career I had access to such support, because looking back I realize that I had only the vaguest notion of what my students were supposed to be learning, beyond working familiarity with some specific content in my field (a gussied-up form of memorization).

If you've got good, active learning outcomes (the kinds of things that can map onto Bloom's taxonomy), then you need to figure out how to measure them. This is where "assessment as an extra chore" is often a problem, because measurements can be made up for the purpose of checking a box instead of actually trying to measure. If your goal is to put as little effort as possible into assessment, that pretty much guarantees that it won't be any good.

Many faculty suggest (as my colleagues have) that assignments and course grades should be the relevant assessments. I agree - course grades can be a measure of assessment of student learning, if the course has good learning outcomes and if the tools for measuring those outcomes (quizzes, tests, papers, presentations, etc.) are genuinely good measures of those LOs. If all of that is true, then the grades should indeed reflect the level of student learning.

But saying that "grades are enough" does not get faculty off the hook from doing the work of designing good student learning outcomes, building the course and its assessment tools around them, and then demonstrating their work to their employing institution. It's this last point that, I suspect, secretly angers many faculty - the need to demonstrate to someone else (often, an administrator outside their department) that they've done good work.

This is where we (and I count myself in this crowd, because I've been guilty of the same mistake) can get ourselves in trouble. We want to fall back on the defense of "they can't possibly understand my course, because they have no background in <insert field here>." That's a flawed logic, however. If a well-educated individual with a PhD in a different field can't understand what you're doing, how can a student with no such background and no degree be expected to get it?

One of the root issues here is accountability. Faculty understandably are reluctant to make themselves accountable for their work to people outside their field or their department. Academic units often serve as protective shelters in which we can insulate ourselves from having to explain what we do to others.

This goes well beyond having to explain oneself to a Dean or a Provost. Faculty are quick to blame accrediting bodies, but the demand for accountability and transparency of student learning comes from a wide range of sources: state legislatures (which provide our funding, often to private as well as public institutions), businesses (which employ our graduates) and the general public (who send us their sons and daughters and, often, become students themselves). These people all want to know: what are students going to learn at your institution? It's a reasonable question.

The answers can be broad, and can include citizenship, civic perspective, values, and a great many other non-economic things beyond "job-ready" skills. For those who believe (as I do) that higher education isn't merely job training, there's plenty of room for students to learn higher and more important things. We just have to articulate what those actually are, and demonstrate that they actually do.

So by all means, let's critique the methods of assessment. Most administrations I know (mine included) would welcome robust faculty involvement in helping us design better, more reliable, more valid ways to measure what our students are learning, just as we would also welcome robust discussions about what our students are supposed to learn (a topic almost entirely in the hands of the faculty). Where systems are broken, let's fix them. The only thing we can't do is give up and quit.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

New Year Thoughts About Israel

I ran across this article today and was reminded of the slow boil that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
Israel changes law to make it harder to cede Jerusalem control
Between this and the Trump Administration's decision to recognize a united Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, things have been moving fast - and not in a good way.

These things together represent unilateral moves by Israel to resolve aspects of the conflict in Israel's favor. They represent a turning away from negotiation as a means to find mutually-agreed upon solutions, preferring unilateral solutions over the other side's objections instead.

Amazingly enough, this is exactly what I wrote my dissertation about twenty years ago. Then as now, I was interested in conflict dynamics: if side A does X, what choices does side B have, and what kinds of outcomes become more or less likely? One of the core organizing principles, which I still believe in today: in conflict, all actions are working either towards a Unilateral solution (imposing your will on the other side) or a Multilateral solution (finding an agreement that both sides accept). Sometimes parties try to do both, but that usually doesn't work well.

The thing about Unilateral strategies is that they are both one-sided (by definition) and path-determinative. If side A chooses to pursue the Unilateral route, side B loses the option of pursuing Multilateral options instead. Side B's options are reduced - either surrender entirely, or go Unilateral themselves.

Regarding Jerusalem and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinians now face exactly this choice. Do they become despondent and simply give up, allowing Israel to take over all of the 1948 Mandate territory and becoming second-class citizens in someone else's country? Or do they fight back, pushing what has been a fairly quiescent conflict back into violence?

I don't know the answer here - I can't make a prediction, because I don't have data about how Palestinians see the situation and what their calculations are. But these are the only two outcomes possible - either surrender into de facto apartheid, or go back to violence. Neither is good from the Palestinian perspective, but they don't control the choices they're given.

I'm mindful too that there may be factions in Israel (including, possibly, the ruling Likud party) which see both of these as good outcomes. They will gladly take the territory if Palestinians are willing to surrender it, and they will gladly seize the opportunity to crush Palestinian resistance if provoked.

For those wishing for peace on earth in 2018, this doesn't look like a good start. Either way, Palestinians suffer. Israelis may suffer as well - how much depends on choices yet to be made. Not a great start to the year.