Yesterday was the first day of IU’s strike.
Last fall I posted an assessment of VCU’s mention in recent studies charting the success of minority students in higher education.
You can read the full post here, though I’ll quote the relevant passage below. My response to that report was simply: there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is I do believe VCU is doing a tremendous amount to support minority students. The bad news is I don’t believe we’re using the right datasets to chart this. To wit:
“African-America” and “Hispanic” offer us somewhat misleading categories either of which might translate to: [racial v cultural] v [racial . cultural]*, where “cultural” might or might not include language considerations, which in the definitional constraints of our study might or might not target one or both groups. Thus a recent immigrant from Nigeria, who might share many of the same learning challenges facing Hispanic students (like language adjustment), runs the risk of being lumped with African American students out of a coincidence of race, which when we take into account racial discrimination in the American educational system might not be entirely inappropriate.
I chose Nigeria for my example because I have a large number of first and second-generation Nigerian students (followed closely in African nations by students from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan).
The national language of Nigeria, of course, is English. On their language survey, however, my Nigerian students report speaking primarily Bantu or Yoruba for most of their lives. This is true even for those students born in the US to Nigerian parents, because most young people live most of their lives at home.
These students, I fear, get doubly overlooked in the data: either they are “African-American” and are assumed to fit the pattern of most African-American teens in Virginia (native and home English speakers) or they are seen as immigrants from a nation whose native language is English, as if Nigeria is linguistically analogous to the UK. Usually, datasets treat these students as African American.
Here’s where things get interesting: there may be reason to believe that first and second generation Nigerian immigrants academically out-perform African-American students who are the descendants of slaves in the US. See coverage from The Houston Chronicle, from The San Francisco Chronicle, and from The New York Times.
This would mean that even in cases where Nigerian-American students face language barriers that go overlooked they are at an advantage over students whose ancestors are the survivors of slavery (and who are them selves survivors in a very real way).
Let’s jump, for a second, to a piece on the legacy of post-slavery racial segregation by Ta-Nehisi Coats in The Atlantic recently. He writes:
Last night I had the luxury of sitting and talking with the brilliant historian Barbara Fields. One point she makes that very few Americans understand is that racism is a creation. You read Edmund Morgan’s work and actually see racism being inscribed in the law and the country changing as a result.If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it likely must be destroyed by methods kin to creation. Racism was created by policy. It will likely only be ultimately destroyed by policy.
This is precisely the problem with university datasets. They see racism as a habit, but they fail to understand it as a creation. For a survey of what the creation of racism means in Richmond (where many of our students are born and raised) glance through the mayor’s anti-poverty report, where you will see one of the nation’s largest wealth-redistribution programs in the practice of red-lining. Red-lining took neighborhoods inhabited by the descendants of slaves and systematically striped them of wealth through discriminatory home finance practices (pgs 27-29). When we talk about “wealth redistribution” in the US, we never talk about that.
What does this have to do with education? My Nigerian-American students and my African-American students face some of the same challenges (habitual racism) and some different challenges (generational inheritance of racism as educational, financial, zoning, correctional, and health care policy, just for a start). This is not to say Nigerian-American students won’t come to inherit those additional challenges. I fear they will. I just don’t know because I can’t find studies that assess it. Does policy catch up with new immigrants from Africa? Why or not? If so why, if not why not?
Finally, what should a dataset look like to start to address any of this complexity? We have to decide who we are targeting with Minority Success Programs, and we have to decide how we want them to be impacted. Were I to choose I would chose both Nigerian-American and African-American students, but I would need to first study whether their educational support needs might be different. All the data I read this morning suggests that it is. If it is, I need to measure their success outcomes separately to ensure I’m actually meeting the needs of both students. Of all students, really.
Much to the dismay of those who would decry language specificity as political correctness, I think the problem has to do with how we categorize, and I think that problem comes from habits of speech.
Coats, Ta-Nehisi. “Good People, Racist People.” theatlantic.com. Atlantic Media. 8 Mar. 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.
Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission. “Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission Report.” Richmond City Government (richmondgov.com), 18 Jan 2013. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.
For the last couple of weeks, my students and I engaged in an experiment. Now I’ve started the process of revisiting what we did and thinking about what it means. Here is the learning project, as I set it up:
I wanted to see what would happen, and I wanted to test Jane McGonigal’s theories that learning is more effective in an environment that favored fun over structure and self-incentivized action over prescribed learning behaviors. I gave students two goals: to feed and care for their populations, and (if possible), locate a second habitable planet.
Here’s what actually happened:
We called the exercise early, right around the time students began developing non-traditional methods of warfare. We spent the remainder of the week reading McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, and talked about our thinking, learning, and conflict resolution habits. Why did we jump to war? Why did we refuse to collaborate? What did gaming teach us, that we hadn’t yet learned in all our debates about moral foundations and human psychology? How did the game reinforce what we learned?
Now we’re rethinking games and talking about the basic lessons of New Game Theory and of McGonigal’s book: that our games don’t just reflect who we are, they teach us who to be, that we need to move away from competitive models, and finally, that we might learn differently if we redistribute our structure of incentives.
Today we’re reading Flexner’s “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” and revising the value of education in the context of an economy of “Usefulness.” More on this soon.
Taxpayers, through their representatives, decide whether to support a college, but once that decision has been made in the affirmative, taxpayers and their representatives must allow the institution they have created to carry out its mission, which is not to reflect or ratify the ideas the public favors, but to subject all ideas, including those the public dislikes, to the scrutiny of rational deliberation. It can’t be the case that a program or a course must be approved by popular vote before a college can sponsor it or put it in the catalog. What taxpayers have bought when they fund an institution of higher education is the independent judgment of credentialed teachers and scholars. If they wanted an echo chamber that sent their own views back to them, they could have funded a talk-radio show.
Every time someone publishes a study that makes American youth sound like monsters (note here how much time the article invests in detailing the traits of narcissistic personality disorders) I show it to my students and ask them to evaluate the methodologies and outcomes.
Invariably, despite easily identifiable problems with methodology in all these studies, my students agree with the findings: they are more narcissistic, less able to experience empathy, and more coddled by their parents. They report this happily, with no concern for what it might mean were all these things to be true.
I’d like to see more reliable studies (read: less reliance on self-reportage) that might give us a sense of whether this things might actually be true (or even measurable), and what it might mean that students so readily accept the truth of it.
Via Fuck Theory:
“What I want to do is create a Foundation – in two senses. First, in the literal, organizational sense – a not-for-profit body that will facilitate the teaching and preservation of knowledge and know-how in the humanities. But I also want to create a foundation in the more abstract sense – a bulwark against the potential loss implicit in the decline of higher institutions. The loss of connections, of experience, of teaching tips, that, at the end of the day, when tenure and salary and syllabus are stripped away, are the essence of pedagogy, translation, and transmission. These are the links I want to preserve, and I believe that the best way to preserve them is outside the networks of value capitalism and institutional hierarchy.”
Yes. Let’s do that.
I think about this a great deal in the context of incarceration and reentry. Increasingly I find myself at my day job at the university, teaching, talking, reading, etc.—participating in a culture of learning.
I write “of learning” somewhat deliberately, and I suspect what I mean by that is unclear. Increasingly I worry that universities work as meta-structures that hover around learning and knowledge and similar abstractions I deeply value, but never quite serve those abstractions. ”Of learning” and not “for learning.”
In my reentry group we are all committed to learning, and to knowledge in its most fundamental form, because for many people there knowledge is the difference between life and incarceration, or between employment and homelessness. At the jail this is exponentially true. Learning, understanding, texts, perspective, these are non-negotiable life forces. That is a phrase that I couldn’t use without it falling to irony at the university, or at least not without a tremendous amount of work and self-explanation. If I spoke that phrase in the jail there would be no question of its import.
If you click through to the above post and jump past the MLA update, you’ll find a gut-wrenching call for the preservation of knowledge, which I can’t help but link to here. It seems absurd to think that anyone should have to make an argument for the digitization and preservation of intellectual resources, but I think we do. My relatively few publications in my field are wholly inaccessible outside a university subscription to journals that are inordinately expensive are difficult to locate, physically or digitally.
This is true for a majority of scholars whose work holds far more import for their fields than mine does at this point in my career. If we really value our own work, if we value the work of others, and if we believe education can make a positive impact, we can’t possibly want to make education so pricey, or knowledge so inaccessible.
Yesterday was my first day at the jail. I sat in on David Coogan’s prison writing workshop in preparation for my own poetry class this spring. The students were great. The RCJ inmates were great. I am really looking forward to working at the city jail.
There has a been a lot of talk for the last ten years about our tendency to build schools like prisons. The hallways of the Richmond City Jail are very much like the schools I attended growing up, simply larger. The “school” in the RCJ, however, is nothing like any school I have ever been in. john dooley, education director with the sheriff’s office, has created a precarious paradise in what feels like the very center of the jail. It’s a tiny room, crammed with books, and every inch of wall and furniture space is covered with material for thinking: art, solar system diagrams, mantras, quotes, photos of global civil rights leaders, flags, flowers, more items and words and images than I could write down in the two hours I was there. john fills every chair with students. His programs produce more GEDs than any other in Richmond.
The room is covered with words like “sanctuary.” john seems to see language as a kind of magic. He places words like “peace” and “thoughtfulness” on chairs and on notebooks as a way of instilling these traits in those who come into his room. He’s using every resource at his disposal to keep students safe during the small amount of time they are afforded to learn. Safety is not easy to accomplish in such an overcrowded and under funded facility.
Yesterday, the Richmond City Jail. Today, back to VCU. On the docket: Bansky and Allen Ginsberg (click through for the originals):
Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages.
-David McCullough, “You’re Not Special.”
This will make it into my fall unit on personal writing. I was unaware this was making so many rounds, until a friend informed me that “helicopter parents are, unsurprisingly, livid.”
Posted over at FlowingData: “New York University graduate student Josh Begley grabbed 4,916 satellite images of prisons via the Google Maps API and put them all in one place.” Both FD and Begley present the project as data representation, which I don’t quite follow. These are images, that give us no concrete information with which to work. The data on US prisons, of course, is astounding and very difficult to represent for adequate impact. Communicating our exponentiating incarceration rates or the social and economic impacts this system would be a nearly impossible task.
We frequently consider mapping to be data representation, and there is a very slight sense that these images function as micro-maps. The project would be fascinating paired with density mappings of prisons across the US, but as it stands each image is detached from its location, standing alone as an aerial view of the prison itself. The inner structures, of course, are wholly off limits to us as viewers, so even as architectural representations the images are frustratingly limited.
Begley’s project, however, a tremendously powerful design narrative. We have a wealth of information about city growth and urban design, and on how design can impact or narrate the quality of life of a location’s inhabitants. Armed with the limited information that these spaces house a huge population of people whose mobility is totally restricted, a small number of people with free range, and a very restricted number of visitors, we can interpret a lot about the philosophy of these spaces and of the culture that produces them. In this way, this collection is of incredible value, and will surface in this coming fall seminar’s unit on Richmond history and urban planning.
I’m hoping to design next year as a service optional course that examines urban social problems and incarceration alongside personal histories. It now looks likely that I will be teaching with Open Minds this coming spring semester. Later this month I’ll be blogging about the structure of two courses: my freshman seminar and a service learning poetry class that will meet in the city jail.
“One in One Hundred: Behind Bars in America.” Public Safety Performance Project, The Pew Center on the States. 28 Feb. 2008.
In the last week I received the following recommendations from various avenues, professional and personal:
Increasingly I find accessibility and education to be about access to information as much as it is about access to facilities. Working with men and women who have been incarcerated has shocked me into an awareness of the impact long-term lack of access to technological development. Every year information becomes more closely tied to one’s ability to purchase access, through internet accessible devices and through wireless service. As an increasing portion of what is “published” now (this blog for instance) moves to an exclusively digital medium, it cuts out a significant and often silenced population—those without access to these forums. Public libraries boast unlimited access to the information they contain, but anyone who has tried to engage in substantial work on a library computer knows better.
My current classroom, for example, demands students have almost constant access to the internet. They use it to submit work, to access work, to access grades, to interact with one another, and for countless other purposes. I have a radically different approach at OAR, and my practice will have to be wholly reevaluated if I’m able (as I hope) to teach at the city jail next spring.
What, then, does Reggie Watts have to do with this? That is harder to articulate. Watching his presentation over and over again, I can’t help but think this piece is about information and (in)accessibility. Watts does what every TED presenter does: he boasts access to information denied to many of us—languages, cultural markers, jargon, etc.—and he does so in a way that draws attention to the strangely performative foundation of TED talks. Watt’s hits on it all: the circus-like showmanship, the oversimplification of information too complex to understand without years of training, the confident delivery of pricy and meaningless assurances of expertise.
His performance is total nonsense, and it’s easily the most meaningful TED talk I’ve seen in a long while.
I don’t know if I ended up siding with the academics just because I happened to end up in graduate school, or if I ended up in graduate school because I already secretly sided with the academics. In any case, I stopped believing that “theory” had the power to ruin literature for anyone, or that it was possible to compromise something you loved by studying it. Was love really such a tenuous thing? Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?
[Uncovering the slave burial ground, 24th May, 2011]
A year ago last week the city of Richmond broke asphalt on a parking lot that had, for years, covered a burial ground used for slaves. I attended the ground breaking ceremony with three of my coworkers.
I, like my colleagues, taught the controversy in class. Some taught students about the debate as a way of engaging issues of social justice; I taught Dovi’s article (linked) as part of a long unit on local history, Southern identity, and community.
This year when I taught my classes about the burial ground, several things had changed: first, the asphalt had been removed, which changed our conversation considerably; second, my course this year was significantly different from year’s past. This year I had made “community engagement” an non-negotiable portion of their grade. All students had three options: to design for themselves as service learning project, to participate in a public art project, or to engage in research that would be presented to the public.
I’ve written extensively about the public art project here already, but not about the service learning component. By the end of the semester twenty-two students opted to participate. Together they committed over four hundred hours to twenty-six local organizations. The project seemed incredibly successful, and it has left me wondering what the role of service might be in a program like ours. Our class is necessarily more of a “community” than their other classes. We are small, and we are together all year. Seeing student reports on their service, on their long- or short-term impact, on their relationship to a city they have perhaps never seen before arriving on campus, and on a city they perhaps did not hope to know well was fascinating, and wholly refigured my sense of what it means to be a student, a teacher, and a person affiliated with VCU.
[photo taken from a student presentation on mural painting on the East End]
Service, I can’t help but think, is integral to education. Recognition of need in one’s community is more informative than most of what we learn both in school and elsewhere. I can’t help but think back to Jane Addams and her apt assessment of the neglect that is our failure to engage young people with work that needs done. She claims that “we have in America a fast-growing number of cultivated young people who have no recognized outlet for their active faculties. They hear constantly of the great social maladjustment, but no way is provided from them to change it, and their uselessness hangs about them heavily (21).”
Talking about “service,” however, is a complicated task, as is seeing oneself as capable of serving others. Addams follows her assertion that young women must be engaged locally with a warning of the misled superiority of those who would assume the extent of their own ability to serve:
“Many of the difficulties in philanthropy come from an unconscious division of the world into the philanthropists and those to be helped. It is an assumption of two classes, and against this class assumption our democratic training revolts as soon as we begin to act upon it (62).”
How, then, do we serve our community and ourselves without assuming this kind of distinction?
I don’t have an answer to this question yet; it’s an unsettling admission as I know service will be a core component of my courses next year. It’s also unsettling as I engage in service myself at OAR, and am in the process of applying to teach an SL designated course through VCU’s Open Minds program.
I do, however, have this to report: my colleague Mary Shelden engaged her own students in a service project at the William Byrd House in Oregon Hill.
[photo: William Byrd House Community Center, 2012.]
Working at Byrd House allows students to participate in community initiatives that originate in the community and not outside of it. Byrd House, like Hull House, is a settlement school, a organization built in a community, by the community, for those who live around it. This model, I hope, might help students to see that they service does not mean solving the problems of others, but engaging others in facilitating outcomes they have chosen for themselves.
[photo: Empty Bowls, William Byrd House, Apr. 29th, 2012.]
Addams, Jane. “The Subtle Problem of Charity.”The Jane Addams Reader. New York: Basic books, 2009.
I'm a writer, translator, and teacher living in Richmond, Virginia and working at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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