By Doug Ward

A new grant-funded initiative at the University of Kansas will promote the use of data to improve teaching, student learning and retention in science, engineering, technology and math programs.

KU is one of 12 universities to receive a $20,000 grant from the Association of American Universities as part of a major AAU project to improve STEM education. The grant will be used to promote faculty-led course and curricular changes that enhance student learning among undergraduates, and to help eliminate long-standing achievement gaps for students from underserved groups.AAU logo

The KU initiative will be led by an interdisciplinary team that includes Andrea Greenhoot, a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence; Caroline Bennett, an associate professor of engineering; Mark Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; DeAngela Burns, vice provost for undergraduate studies; and Doug Ward, associate professor of journalism and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

“We see this as an important evolution in teaching and learning at KU,” said Greenhoot, who also leads a multi-university course-improvement program called TRESTLE, which is funded with a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. “Many KU faculty have been actively working to integrate evidence-based practices into their classes. Institutional data will help us gauge whether these efforts are helping students be more successful in later courses, and in completing their degrees.”

The new initiative will build on another project that CTE began last year. That project, part of a multi-university partnership known as the Bay View Alliance, is intended to help faculty members and departments use data to better understand student learning and student success, and to align with university goals of increasing retention and graduation rates.

Both initiatives aim to answer such questions as these:

  • How well are entry-level courses preparing students for later courses in a program sequence?
  • Are redesigns of such courses leading to better preparation and higher rates of success in later courses?
  • Are there inequities in student achievement and success for students from underserved or other groups? How effective are our efforts to reduce such gaps?

The AAU initiative at KU will begin later this semester with a goal of including 10 STEM departments in discussions about how to use institutional data to inform course and curricular improvements that can foster better student learning and improved degree completion. Administrators and deans already have access to this type of data, Burns-Wallace said, but many universities are extending access to faculty as they work to improve student success.

“This is a great opportunity to incorporate faculty into a wider conversation,” Burns-Wallace said. “Student success is a shared responsibility, and this grant will help STEM faculty understand how their course and curricular transformations have an even broader impact on overall student progress at KU.”


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

 

Wayne Regan won the Hat Day contest with a paper hat that says “I ♥ ACCT 200.” His instructor, Rachel Green, held her hands up over each finalist when it was time for students to signal their favorite hat.

By Doug Ward

A young woman with a flower headdress caught my attention as I walked through Budig Hall earlier this week. I stopped and asked her what the occasion was.

“It’s Hat Day in Accounting 200,” she said.

I wanted to know more, and Paul Mason, who teaches the 8 a.m. section of the class, and Rachel Green, who teaches the 9:30 section, graciously invited me in.

Hat Day, they said, is a tradition that goes back 20 years. It takes place one day toward the beginning of each semester and works like this: Students get a bonus point if they wear a hat to class. Teaching assistants choose what they consider the best hats from their sections of the class. Those students (who get another extra point) come to the front of the room, and a winner is chosen based on student applause. The winner gets one more extra point, for a total of three.

Hat Day serves two purposes, Mason said. Accounting 200 is the introductory course for the business school, and Hat Day helps instructors make the point that accountants wear many hats on the job and that students can do many things with an accounting degree.

Just as important, he said, it allows students to see the lighter side of business.

“It’s our way of letting them know that accounting isn’t just numbers,” Mason said.

It serves one more purpose: creating a sense of camaraderie among the students. Each section of the class has upward of 500 students, and the clapping and cheering on Hat Day loosens things up a bit.

“When they’re in a big class and they start laughing, it makes the class smaller,” Mason said.

A new way to provide online instruction

John Rinnert of Information Technology explains the lightboard to a group of faculty members.

A new device created by staff members from Information Technology and the Center for Online and Distance Learning will allow faculty members to record instructional videos through an illuminated pane of glass they write on like a whiteboard.

Development of the device, known as a lightboard, was led by John Rinnert of IT. A faculty member created the first video on the lightboard last week, and after a demonstration of the board this week, Rinnert expects more people to sign up to use it.

The board is a large pane made from the same type of glass as shower doors, Rinnert said. The glass rests in a metal frame, and LED track lighting gives markings on the board a neon glow as users write and draw. Another track of LEDs faces out, illuminating speakers as they write.

Instructors will soon have the ability to superimpose graphics on an area of the glass, much like a television weathercast. Instructors who do that will have to watch a monitor as they write so they can see where the graphics are placed.

Rinnert, Julie Loats from CODL, Anne Madden Johnson from IT, and I started talking about obtaining a lightboard a few years ago as a way to draw more faculty members from math and sciences into creating flipped and hybrid courses. Any faculty member is welcome to use the board, but those in STEM fields who do a a lot of on-board problem-solving should find it a familiar environment in which to work.

I wrote about a similar device that students in Engineering Physics 601 created last year. That lightboard is still awaiting a permanent home in Malott Hall.

At a session we did this week, Loats pointed out how important it is for students to hear instructors explain their thought processes as they work through problems. Many instructors do that effectively in the classroom and in videos they create without being on camera. The lightboard offers another tool for them in preparing material for online and hybrid courses.

Those interested in using the board can contact either CODL or IT.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The annual conference of the Association of American Colleges and Universities offered many thought-provoking sessions, teaching tips and discussions about the future of higher education. I wrote earlier about some of the themes. Here’s a sampling of some of the other ideas that stood out.

The importance of engaged learning

A session on engaged learning offered some of the most insightful observations of the conference. Engaged learning encompasses a variety of practices that help students learn beyond the classroom, including community service, study abroad, research projects and other opportunities that allow students to work outside the traditional classroom and reflect on what they have done.

James Holloway of the University of Michigan said engaged learning provided important opportunities to demonstrate how classroom learning translates into making society better. Universities bring together “huge bodies of enthusiastic, engaged people,” he said, and serve as a launching pad for new kinds of learning.

“This unscripted learning is how we help students translate what they learn in the classroom into bigger problems,” Holloway said, and helps demonstrate the value of residential education.

Randy Bass of Georgetown was even more forceful about the importance of engaged learning.

He pointed to the growth of online education and the proliferation of digital information.

“In a couple of decades, we won’t need colleges and universities to teach people stuff,” Bass said.

As a result, higher education needs to mentor students in learning and to help them handle “unscripted situations.” It must also demonstrate that it is more than a collection of learning experiences, that it helps students move “from a sense of self to a sense of the world to a power to act within that world,” he said.

Quick hits

  • “Students are thirsting for a new kind of education,” one that involves team-based, interdisciplinary, student-driven, hands-on problem solving, said Jacqueline Schulz, a student at Tennessee Tech and a member of Stanford’s University Innovation Fellows program.
  • Universities should use the results of course redesign to make the case to administrators and legislators to provide more money for faculty development and teaching resources.
  • We need to change the culture around shared courses to provide more consistency. That doesn’t mean ordering faculty members teach a certain way; rather, it means focusing on shared goals.
  • Many Ph.D. graduates have no opportunities to learn about pedagogy or instruction while completing their graduate work, which focuses almost exclusively on research. One conference participant asked: “How are we investing in the next generation of faculty members?” The answer: not very well.
  • Far too many faculty members see teaching as something they have to do “to pay the bills.” They see teaching as a skill, something that has less value than research, which provides their identity.
  • We talk a lot about empowerment on our campuses but rarely explain what we mean.
  • Curriculum typically develops by accretion, not by design.
  • Faculty members need to do a better job of sharing what they are doing in their classes so that administrators know what is happening and can explain the types of things faculty members are doing and the types of successes they are having.

Faculty need to keep learning

Mary Deane Sorcinelli of Mount Holyoke College and a colleague I work with frequently at the Bay View Alliance, was, as always, a great source of information and inspiration. A couple of things she said stood out:

  • Research done in the 1980s asked faculty members what they read to learn about new practices in teaching and learning. The response: nothing. Rather, they rely on conversations with colleagues. Sorcinelli said that still seemed to be the case today.
  • We need to make faculty development a component of a “four-legged stool”: teaching, research, service and professional development. “I think it’s that important,” she said.

Teaching insights from José Bowen

José Bowen’s book Teaching Naked offered excellent advice about using technology outside the classroom. Drawing on a new book he wrote with C. Edward Watson, Teaching Naked Techniques, he offered some interesting insights about teaching:

  • Students need an entry point into course material. To do that, start with what matters to students and then connect that with what matters to you. He said music was one way to do that. Nearly all students listen to music, so use that knowledge and affinity for music as a connection to class material.
  • Classes that students perceive as difficult or scary will activate their fight-or-flight reflex, making learning all but impossible. We have to recognize that and find ways to help students get over their fears. “We’re all too tied to our content,” Bowen said. That makes it hard to understand what scares or motivates students.
  • The five most important factors for learning have nothing to do with pedagogy: sleep, water, exercise, food and time.
  • Never put a grade on a paper. If you do, students will look at the grade and never read the feedback. Instead, provide the feedback without a grade and tell students to look for the grade on the learning management system a few hours after class.
  • “Pedagogy is a design problem.”

What research tells us about students

Authors of a new volume of How College Affects Students offered insights about their latest research. These are some takeaways from Andrea Greenhoot, CTE’s director, who attended that session:

  • Channeling resources toward teaching rather than administration is associated with better student outcomes.
  • Living on campus is no longer associated with better student achievement. It had been in the past.
  • First-generation and low-income students benefit the most from first-year seminars.
  • Colleges and universities that have larger percentages of full-time faculty have higher graduation rates. Underserved students are hurt most by overuse of adjunct faculty.
  • Where students go to college doesn’t matter that much. What matters is what they do once they are at college.
  • Students are more stressed today than they were 10 years ago.

Notable quotes

“Our entire institutions are set up around maintaining prestige. That doesn’t align with the idea of student-centeredness we are trying to achieve.” — Andrea Beach, Western Michigan University

“We often don’t practice coming up with good ideas.” Rather, we generally stop with the first. “It’s when you get beyond the first one that things get interesting.” — Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, University Fellows Program at Stanford

“Universities have the unique ability to run off in all directions and stay in the same place.” — Randy Bass, Georgetown


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

SAN FRANCISCO – A sense of urgency pervades this year’s meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The tenets of a broad, liberal education have been under assault at the state and national level, many Americans have grown skeptical of the cost – and debt – that college brings, and the terms “evidence” and “value” seem mandatory in any conversation about higher education.

The sessions at the AAC&U’s annual meeting this week have been filled with discussions about telling the story of liberal education, effecting change across departments and campuses, scaling effective practices to improve learning and retention, and creating an inclusive, equitable and global-facing educational environment amid a political climate of anxiety, suspicion and nativism.

No one at this year’s gathering has all the answers we are all seeking. And yet, even among the concern and urgency over the future of higher education, there is clearly a sense of hope. After all, those of us at the convention believe in the mission of liberal education and see ourselves as problem-solvers. No one is cowering or retreating.

The atrium of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco provided an expansive visual setting for the AAC&U conference. Like higher education, it mixed the abstract with the practical, the expansive with the creative. A big question, though: Are the elevators of higher education going up or down?

An early panel discussion did an excellent job of framing the problem that colleges and universities face – one that they helped create – but also of illuminating potential pathways forward. That panel, titled “Always on the Fringe,” emphasized the shift over the last two decades away from college as a public good.

Jeff Selingo, a professor at Arizona State, said that most colleges now emphasized their personal benefits. And Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple, said that approach had turned a college degree into a commodity. Illustrating that, one audience member said that at many colleges, students now enroll by putting classes into an electronic “shopping cart.”

Goldrick-Rab said that as colleges shifted their focus to education as a commodity, the financial system shifted from grants to loans to pay for college. That has led to a “high tuition, high aid model,” she said, convincing colleges that they could charge increasing amounts because degrees have value, while offering scholarships and other financial aid to discount the price.

That approach, she said, hasn’t worked, largely because it fails to take into account the rising cost of housing, books and other learning materials. Students are being priced out, and middle-class students are struggling with the cost of housing and food. Thirteen percent of community college students are homeless, she said.

“One reason people don’t have trust in the system is that we’ve told them these things and they know they aren’t true,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They’ve learned over and over that when we tell them there will be money, that just isn’t true.”

Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College, said Spelman had avoided that “high cost, high aid” model but that the financial pain families endure is very real, especially when students fail to graduate.

“The worst possible outcome is debt but no degree,” Tatum said. “That is the betrayal.”

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, spoke about the challenge of regaining the public’s trust. If universities depend solely on the private sector, he said, they will be told to produce more welders and fewer anthropologists.

“So how do we lobby for more funding without sacrificing our autonomy?” he asked.

Selingo said higher education needed to stop clinging to the past and start thinking about what the college model, mission and experience in the 21st century should be.

“We keep going back to the model of public education from the 1960s rather than looking forward,” he said.

One way to start that process, he said, is to rethink how we talk about higher education. Our emphasis on the broad components of liberal education doesn’t register with most people, he said. People want opportunities and jobs but don’t know how to get there, and colleges and universities need to learn how to speak in those terms.

Policymakers in Washington haven’t been much help, he said. They tend to come from elite institutions that continue to grow more elite.

“They have never met the students who have struggled,” Selingo said, but they set policy for everyone.

All the panelists spoke of a need to help students connect classroom learning to careers. That is, we need to better explain how the skills students gain in philosophy, chemistry and other disciplines translate into skills they can use on the job. That is especially important, they said, because the number of freelance and temporary jobs has been growing faster than traditional jobs. Many students may never work as a traditional employee, they said, and must learn how to thrive in that freelance world.

Roth said, somewhat facetiously, that “critical thinking is vastly overrated.” For most students, criticism comes easily, he said. They find it much harder to build on ideas, develop opportunities and work creatively – all things that we need to improve in our classes.

“If everyone is critical, ideas die quickly,” he said.

True critical thinking is as important as ever, though, Tatum said, given the political turmoil and our tendency to surround ourselves with people who look and think like us, even as the world grows more diverse. Those are components of what she called the “stuckness” of society.

Among the solutions that came up in that panel discussion and at other sessions this week reflect the determination among educators.

  • Build on skills students already have. Too often, we focus on what students are lacking rather than on what they bring to the classroom.
  • Bring students into the conversation. If we hope to change higher education and the culture that envelops it, we must enlist the help of students. One workshop leader recounted something a student told her: “Don’t have a conversation about us without us.”
  • Broaden the conversation. We usually think of education in terms of teaching, but everyone a student comes into contact with can have an impact. In fact, one workshop leader said, food service workers and maintenance staff often know students better than faculty and administrators do. We need to bring those members of the university community into our conversations.
  • Improve listening skills. This goes for students, faculty and administrators. We need to help students listen to one another but also need to improve our own ability to listen to opposing views and understand the underlying thinking. We all need to break out of our parochialism, Roth said.

Throughout the conference, there was agreement that higher education needed to do a better job of explaining what it does, why it matters and why it deserves public support.

“I don’t think we can go back to a time when we think that higher education is a public good,” Selingo said. “We have to shift the narrative as a result.”

And we need to do that quickly.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Consider a few of the changes roiling public higher education.

Technology has created new ways for students to learn and to earn credentials but has also eliminated the need for a physical presence in many courses. Competency-based models have elevated the importance of work and life experiences in learning. Declining state support has pushed tuition costs increasingly higher, leading to growing scrutiny of colleges and universities by families and legislators. Many recent graduates have even expressed doubts about whether college was worth the expense.

Ann Austin, a professor at Michigan State University who recently led the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, says these types of changes are as significant as those that higher education experienced in the late 19th century. That’s when the land grant acts led to a vast increase in the number of public universities, helping give rise to technical training, science education, social sciences, medical schools, law schools and other professional schools. Also during that time, faculty and curricula began to specialize, but students also gained the right to choose electives. Colleges for blacks and women also took root. By the early 20th century, higher education operated much differently than it did just a few decades earlier.

ann austin photo
Ann Austin

Modern institutions are only beginning to come to terms with the changes that lie ahead, and can really only guess at how those changes might reshape education.

“There’s a big question about what higher education will look like in the coming years,” Austin said.

Austin does a lot of thinking about change, which has been the focus of her research but also her work at NSF and the development of the Center for Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning, which she co-founded.

Austin spoke recently at the semiannual meeting of the steering committee of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of nine North American research universities (including KU) working to improve teaching and learning in higher education through cultural change. She drew from her extensive research into cultural and organizational change in higher education, especially in the areas of faculty development and the need to adapt the workplace, as she urged alliance members to think more strategically about the types of changes they are trying to make on their own campuses.

A changing landscape

Her views are especially important during this time of shifting ideas, perceptions and practices in higher education. Societal, legislative and financial forces are bearing down from the outside, providing opportunities for making much-needed changes from the inside, especially in the way we approach and value teaching.

Austin argues, though, that to do that we must not only analyze the problem we are trying to change, but examine it from many different angles and consider the issues that drive or impede change. Many times, she said, we jump into a change process but don’t identify the problem, the issues or the context. Nor do we consider how we would address the problem, even though “this is something we should be coming back to over and over again.”

In essence, she suggested that BVA members engage in change as they would a research project: Clarify a problem that needs to be addressed, gather information about that problem, analyze that information, provide context, and draw conclusions on how best to move forward.

Austin offered many provocative questions to illuminate the process she laid out, drilling down on the many facets of an institution that provide opportunities for or impediments to change:

  • Why is this issue a problem? What elements of the problem need to be addressed? What factors will affect the process of change?
  • Who owns the process of change and has access to data? Who gets recognition? What alliances do we need to form?
  • How do we maintain momentum and energy, especially as leadership changes?
  • How do we establish support mechanisms to aid the process in person and online?
  • Who has informal power, and how do we handle resistance?
  • How do we connect our efforts to institutional priorities?

We must consider these and many other questions if we hope to succeed, Austin said.

“If we want people to change, they have to know what to change and why they should change,” she said. “They also need to know that they won’t be penalized for doing so.”

A multi-university approach to change

BVA has approached change at many levels of university culture as it has worked to improve recognition of innovative teaching at research universities, to promote the use of active learning in large undergraduate classes, and to build community among faculty members so that they can share ideas and experiences that lead to improved student learning. Recent projects include use of embedded teaching experts to improve instruction, use of data analytics to better understand learning, and creation of new processes for evaluating teaching. Ultimately, it hopes to change attitudes toward teaching and the university culture that impedes innovative teaching.

Austin’s presentation came after a morning in which several BVA members raised concerns about the slow pace of change in higher education, saying that members must do a better job of explaining the value of change. Some said teaching centers needed to do more to move change from the grass-roots to the administrative level. Others wondered how they could tie the need for improving teaching to improving university finances. Still others expressed doubt that attitudes toward teaching had changed at all.

Mary Huber, a BVA advisor who is a senior scholar emerita at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, challenged that notion. Those of us who value teaching have indeed helped bring about change, she said.

“The conversations we are having today are much different from the ones we had 30 years,” Huber said. “We may have not had the magical transformative powers we had hoped, but what we have done has been hopeful.”

And if Austin is right and we are at the cusp of an enormous wave of change, we must continue to remain hopeful as we work to shape the future.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A colleague pulled me aside this week and said she wanted my thoughts about something. She seemed apologetic.

She is relatively new to college teaching, having made the switch to academia after a distinguished professional career. Students rave about her. She pushes them to think creatively and to stretch their abilities through hands-on projects. She holds students to high standards, but she is also accessible and serves as a strong mentor. When we talk, I always leave feeling energized and hopeful.

This week, though, she seemed uncharacteristically down, and she wanted my advice.

“How do you, a teacher of teachers, feel at the end of the semester?” she asked.

I laughed before offering a brutally honest answer: Mentally and physically exhausted, I said. Morose and filled with self-doubt. I dwell on missed opportunities, worry about what I may have forgotten to teach, and wonder whether I have truly helped students.

She leaned back in her chair and exhaled. “Oh, good,” she said. “I was afraid it was just me.”purplish-red hibiscus

It’s not, I said. Teaching feels like both a sprint and a marathon combined. Each week, we dash toward short-term goals, never fully able to catch our breath as the pace of the semester sweeps us along. I felt much the same way as a student, pouring myself into my studies, gasping toward the finish line, and wondering whether I had made the most of my opportunities.

I learned something then that I continue to draw upon now: Even though I felt exhausted and numb at the end of the semester, I had a chance to recuperate and rejuvenate. Academia, I found, had its own seasonal pace, its own cycle of depletion and rebirth. Every semester, I had a chance to start over.

I try to hold on to that thought at the end of each semester now that I’m a professor. I also remind myself that my class is only one of many that students will take. As I told my colleague this week, none of us can teach students everything. Seeing end-of-the-semester projects with sloppy writing, weak research, haphazard connections and faulty reasoning may seem like failure, but it’s not. Each of us has only a small part in the broader learning of our students. If we have done our jobs right, we have helped students improve their thinking and their maturity, helped them gain confidence in their ability to learn, and provided strategies for helping them learn in the future. The work we do will help them improve on their skills old and new in future classes.

I also remind myself that students are as tired as I am at the end of a semester and probably aren’t doing their best work or their best thinking then, just as I am not doing my best work or my best thinking. The end of the semester is a lesson in humility for all of us.

My main advice to all faculty members is to be kind to yourself at the end of the semester. Take time to reflect: What worked this semester, and why? Most certainly you had some successes. What were they and how can you transfer those successes into other areas? At the same time, what didn’t work? What parts of a course do you need to change? What can you do to improve overall student learning but also learning in smaller components of a class? What activities or assignments can you change to boost students’ confidence but also help them improve on weak skills?

After that reflection, take some time to relax and revive. Yes, you missed some opportunities this semester. We all do. No, students didn’t seem to learn as much as you would have liked. Do they ever? So give yourself a break. Do something that doesn’t require intense thinking. (I personally favor binge-watching “The Walking Dead.”) And remember that rare, magnificent part of academia: Next semester, you get a chance to start over.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

When it comes to seeing the truth, the facts sometimes get in the way.

Audrey Watters makes that argument in an intriguing blog post on the results of the presidential election. During the election, she said, a focus on facts (in the form of data) caused many people to overlook many voters’ willingness to shrug off Donald Trump’s inflammatory statements, conspiracy theories and falsehoods and put him in the White House. Something broader was stirring among the electorate that collections of facts failed to illuminate.

Academics, she argues, fall into that same trap. They drill down on the facts in narrow ways, often missing broader “truths” that take shape as people compile those facts into stories they tell themselves and others. She elaborates on that perspective further in an article about the wild claims of technology companies:

“Here’s my “take home” point: if you repeat this fantasy, these predictions often enough, if you repeat it in front of powerful investors, university administrators, politicians, journalists, then the fantasy becomes factualized.”

I bring that up here because as teachers, we must help students examine these facts, stories and “truths.”

Note the parentheses around “truths.” In some cases, what we see as the truth is based on faulty assumptions. In other cases, as in the recent election, we interpret the facts or assemble the facts in ways that blind us to possibilities we don’t want to see. Or we take as fact information that is little more than fantasy.

Filippo Menczer of Indiana University explains the troubling consequences of that ignorance. Writing about the impact of fake news sites, he says: “Each piece of misinformation contributes to the shaping of our opinions. … If people can be conned into jeopardizing our children’s lives, as they do when they opt out of immunizations, why not our democracy?”

Instructors talk about ways to engage students in discussions about the 2016 elections.
Instructors talk about ways to engage students in discussions about the 2016 elections. The Center for Teaching Excellence held four sessions in November about handling hot topics in the classroom.

The columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. has long lamented the diminishing weight that facts play in American life, including a belief among some conservatives that facts themselves are biased. We used to agree on a basic set of facts, Pitts says, even if we disagreed on how to act on those facts. Now, people too often dismiss facts they don’t like and cling to “facts” that lack any basis in reality.

That certainly points to the importance of helping students improve their critical thinking. It also points to a need for teaching digital literacy, or the ability to work intelligently in the online world, separating the valid from the invalid, the informational from the promotional, the real from the fake. That’s especially important given a recent study that found that students from junior high to college pay little attention to where information comes from or whether it is valid. They simply consume, often blindly accepting what they find on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, especially if a friend passes something along.

We all have what Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald describe as cognitive blind spots: disconnects between our self-perceptions and intentions, and the way we act toward people different from ourselves. That is, we may see ourselves as equally accepting of all types of people, but our internal biases often sway us in ways we don’t realize.

Banaji and Greenwald don’t examine politics in their research, but it’s easy to apply the idea of blind spots to political leanings and social class. One reason the American political divide keeps growing is that we gravitate toward people who support our own views. Highly educated academics and policy makers rarely have conversations with those in the working class who have grown disdainful and distrustful of institutions like universities, governments and the press.

Charles Camosy of Fordham University made an excellent point in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, saying that academics live in such an echo chamber that they have trouble comprehending views that don’t mesh with their own. The divide between the working class and elite institutions “permeates everything,” he says. “It permeates how news organizations cover stories. It permeates how people think about fundamental questions.”

So what can we do?

The first step is to engage in conversation with our students. Many instructors and students have struggled to have reasoned, rational discussions about the election. Some have simply avoided the issue altogether. That was clear during recent CTE workshops where we worked through approaches to engaging students in difficult conversations. We simply must have those conversations in the coming weeks and months.

The second step is to do something that comes unnaturally for many academics: listen. Camosy put it this way:

“We just don’t do listening very well. We’re not paid to listen. We’re paid to give our views and to teach others about our views. And that’s not very good for dialogue. So we need to get better at intellectual humility.”

We do indeed.

The third step is to engage more meaningfully with people different from us. Academia has been making admirable steps in creating more inclusive environments for women, people of color, and people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. It still has a blind spot, though, in the way it interacts (or doesn’t) with working-class Americans, people without college degrees, rural and small-town residents, and conservatives in general, the overlapping groups that voted for Trump.

Only by opening ourselves up to those conversations can we hope to comprehend broader truths from amid our fortress of facts.

Briefly …

The New York Times recently published an insightful series of stories that follow three students at Topeka High School as they contemplate going to college. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth reading. … A conservative group has created a website called Professor Watchlist, which it says is intended to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”Mark Bonchek of Shift Thinking writes in the Harvard Business Review about the importance of “unlearning” in effecting change.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

For many students and educators, this year’s election felt personal.

Women were ridiculed for their physical appearance. Mexican immigrants were called drug traffickers and rapists. Muslims were accused of hating the United States, and a ban on Muslim immigration was proposed. A reporter with a disability was mocked. Black Americans were portrayed as living in war zones. Supporters of one candidate were called “deplorables.”

Since the election, Muslims and students of color have been threatened and intimidated at some campuses, international students have wondered about their future in the U.S., and many students have feared for their safety.

This all runs counter to the inclusive nature of a university campus, not to mention an enlightened society. Higher education helps people discover their passions and build their intellect. It thrives when people feel safe to challenge conventional wisdom, examine assumptions and plumb the depths of understanding. Society at large thrives when its members feel safe.

words in sidewalk chalk saying peace & love
Messages like this appeared on sidewalks around the KU campus this week.

The election results have generated widely divergent feelings among college students and faculty, making some classroom conversations difficult. That is why at workshops this week at CTE, we have been discussing ways to engage in those conversations with students. Graduate teaching assistants and faculty members report anxiety in classes. Many students are afraid to speak even as others are in a celebratory mood. Some have retreated into themselves, needing time to comprehend the election results, while others have made inappropriate comments in classes.

This awkward environment challenges even experienced instructors. Participants in the sessions this week have provided some potential solutions (I’ll get to those shortly) but also asked many potent, difficult questions:

  • Where is the line between free speech and hate speech?
  • How do we make sure all of our students have a voice?
  • How do we help students who report disdainful interactions that aren’t crimes but that make learning more difficult?
  • How do we help students think more critically about the opinions they and others express?
  • How do we support students who feel threatened by the president-elect’s rhetoric without silencing the views of students who support him?
  • How do we help students become more comfortable with post-election ambiguity about the future?

The CTE website offers many resources for engaging in these sorts of difficult conversations and for creating an inclusive classroom environment. A handout created by CTE’s director, Andrea Greenhoot, provides additional guidance, and workshop participants offered more excellent suggestions. Among the advice:

  • Listen. Allow students to express their views in and out of class. Offer empathy and support while maintaining a civil, respectful environment.
  • Set ground rules for discussions. These are even better when students come up with the rules themselves.
  • Don’t force discussions. Some students may not be ready to engage in these difficult conversations. They need more time to process their thoughts and feelings.
  • Ask for evidence. Ask students to research the evidence they offer to support their points of view and to back up their assertions.
  • Find connections. Find ways to tie election discussions to the theme and content of your courses.
  • Look to your discipline. Consider how material from your own field can help promote civil discourse.
  • Practice respect. Ask students to listen to other perspectives and try to understand them before responding.
  • Use writing exercises to help students reflect and to help them step back from tumultuous encounters.sidewalk chalk message that says you are important

Unfortunately, divisiveness and alienation seem likely to continue in the coming years, given the rancor of the election, the deep political divide of the electorate, and the divergent worldviews of Americans. As educators, we simply cannot back away from controversial topics and difficult conversations. If anything, those conversations will be all the more important in the coming months and years.

At the same time, we simply cannot tolerate bigotry and hate. We must redouble our efforts to make facts, evidence and intellectual discovery the center of our academic journey and the political conversation.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo, who helped lead a workshop this week, pointed to the university mission statement as a means for guidance. That mission statement provides a reminder that even as we deal with attacks on our beliefs and our integrity, we have clear foundational principles to rely on as we move into the future.

“The university is committed to excellence,” it reads. “It fosters a multicultural environment in which the dignity and rights of the individual are respected. Intellectual diversity, integrity, and disciplined inquiry in the search for knowledge are of paramount importance.”

We have much work ahead to live up to that.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.