A Statement on Civility and Civil Discourse

Image result for incivility

Last week, in one of our large 120-student sections, a student was threatened by another student after class for something she had said in class. She did not see the student’s face, but she heard him say “You better watch what you say, or I’ll shoot you.” Or something like that. After trying and failing to identify the student, we decided that, at a minimum, the instructor should post a message on iCollege and say something in class about the importance of civil discussion and debate, and the unacceptability of threats of violence. I offered to write a first draft of the iCollege message, and I’m posting it here in case anyone would like to adapt the language for their own purposes (preferably as a preventive rather than reactive measure). Here’s the message:

A lot of you are probably as disgusted as I am by acts of politically-motivated violence that have occurred around the country recently. I wanted to take this as an opportunity to discuss something important about our democracy. As we have discussed, the basic hope of our system of government is that we can be free to disagree about all kinds of important things and also to organize politically–often times in competition with those with whom we disagree–to seek to see our views represented in public policy. Proponents of authoritarian government think this is nothing short of insane. To them, it seems like a recipe for anarchy, disorder, and chaos. And yet Americans have governed themselves, however imperfectly, democratically for over 200 years, and we have enjoyed more stability than most countries — whether democratic or authoritarian — could even dream. One reason for this is that our democracy has a variety of customs, practices, and unwritten rules — which political scientists call “norms” — that enable us to debate and compete politically without crossing the line into violence. To be sure, these norms have historically been unevenly recognized. For example, slavery and the Jim Crow system of racial segregation were predicated upon violent suppression of African Americans’ political freedom. But the norms, when recognized and followed, have served Americans well, including, arguably, when the first African American President of the United States demonstrated — by his example — their value throughout his time in office. One of these norms is something we have an opportunity to practice in this class, and I fear is something eroding in our politics. I am referring to the norm of civil discussion and debate. The basic idea with this norm is that we seek to “disagree agreeably.” That is, we are free to express our views insofar as we do so in a respectful way and that we do not in any way deny or threaten anyone else’s right to offer their own potentially contrary views. Civil discussion and debate does not mean we pretend to agree with one another when we in fact disagree. In fact, for it to be meaningful and worthwhile, it requires that we openly express our disagreement. But it does require that we respect the free expression of those with whom we disagree as the price we pay for having our own right of free expression equally respected. Civil discussion and debate is based on reason-giving. It means we do not simply say what we think, but we offer reasoned justifications for what we think. One great hope of such reason-giving is that others will find our reasons persuasive and thereby come around to agreeing with us. But civil discussion and debate also requires acceptance of the fact that others will often remain unpersuaded and that this too is their right. Anyway, there is more to it than this, but I did want to make clear that I welcome discussion and debate in this class, but I expect everyone to conduct themselves according to the norm of civility. Everyone should respect the mutual rights of everyone else to express and justify their viewpoints, and it is never acceptable to threaten or intimidate anyone in or out of class for anything they have expressed in this class. This is not only a vital democratic norm; it is also a university rule. Threatening violence for any reason is strictly forbidden on this campus. I hope it is unnecessary for me to say this, but, like I said, I am afraid the norm of civility is eroding, including on university campuses.”

Link to US Civitas Facebook Thread

Want to Help? Reach Out to Demonstrate You Genuinely Care

Image result for student mental health

With the adaptive learning system, I now receive lists of students falling under one of three categories: high engagement/low performance; low engagement/low performance; low engagement/high performance. The idea is that each of these categories of students faces different challenges and potentially can benefit from different kinds of interventions. I will write more about this in the future, but I did want to mention something that I think is important, and that relates to this very interesting article about how suicides can be prevented by sending certain kinds of messages to patients. We, of course, are not suicide prevention counselors, but I think the research reported in this article reflects a simple and more general truth: people are more receptive to help when they believe “helpers” genuinely care about them. I’m considering different ways of reaching out to the students of the different categories, but I think this article vindicates the approach I took this semester, which was to simply email words of concern (and offer of help) to students in the low performance categories, and words of praise and encouragement (and willingness to meet and discuss grad school, etc.) to students in the higher performance category. I seemed to get a positive response from this approach (although I’m not gathering data to prove it this semester), and the messages from students indicate that it was the expression of genuine care that affected them most. They knew they were in an online class with 700+ other students. They seemed surprised and touched that they were noticed by their teacher and that he cared enough to reach out to them. The other connection to this article is more direct: one student in particular responded to my initial outreach message and told me she had been sexually assaulted, was really struggling, and had already dropped two classes. I have no idea if she was suicidal, but I was able to send her information about counseling services available on campus and to make sure she knew that I and others on campus will do what we can (within our spheres of influence) to support her. In this case, I gave her deadline extensions, which appears to have been enough for her to finish the class successfully. (She also went to counseling, and I of course was legally obligated to report her case to Dean of Students office.) This experience reminds me of what Salman Khan said in his first Ted Talk about using Khan Academy’s adaptive learning system and video tutorials to flip classrooms in low-performing schools. He said that the best part of the technology, somewhat paradoxically, is that it allows for more fully humanizing the student learning experience. My brief experience with sending the messages to students suggests that this is another way that adaptive learning can humanize the learning experience, especially in online courses where students otherwise feel alienated from their instructors.

The Best Way to Save People From Suicide

Link to US Civitas Facebook Discussion Thread

‘Opening Day’ Icebreakers

Here are four recommended discussion questions for the first day of class. (I would probably only use one question, but these are four suggestions for ones to choose from.):

(1) Why is this course required for all Georgia college students? Should it be?
(2) How many ways did government influence your life from the time you woke up this morning up until now?
(3) Business corporations wield an enormous amount of power in our society. How is a business corporation similar to a government? How are they different? (gets them warmed-up for Chapter 1 of my textbook)
(4) What is the purpose of government? (this is a good warm-up for Chapter 2 of my textbook, so I would probably not use this the first day if using my textbook)

Any other ideas? What do you think of these?

#FirstDayOfClass #DiscussionQuestions


Link to US Civitas Facebook Discussion thread

Video: Let’s teach mastery-not test scores

Some food for thought regarding the direction higher education may be heading. I recoiled when he listed “high need areas” as “finance and design.” (My top 2 would be “civics and public policy.”) But I like a lot about Khan’s visions for K-12 and perhaps higher education. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s definitely a thought leader on K-20 education reform, so it’s important to be familiar with his ideas for navigating our profession. (I’m big fan also of his ideas about mastery and mindset — see this Ted Talk for more). #HigherEdFuture #MasteryLearning #GrowthMindset

Link to US Civitas Facebook Discussion Thread


Article: “Five Tips for Using Multiple-Choice Tests to Bolster Learning”

Well, if this is correct, then I need to make the textbook questions easier. Here’s what doesn’t make sense to me. In my view, the purpose of multiple select questions is not to get students to use higher order thinking skills, but, rather to assure they are not getting an answer correct simply by process of elimination. Also, by making the questions difficult to answer by process of elimination, we are enabled to let them take multiple attempts at a quiz (for full credit) without putting too much pressure on them. If we let them take multiple attempts for full credit with easy quizzes, then they can pass easily without knowing anything. (Think, for example, of the student in an online section a few years ago who admitted he didn’t even read the Soomo Get the Gist questions; I suspected many students didn’t read the sections, but even I, cynical as I am, assumed they at least read the questions!) But if we give them only one or two attempts for full credit at an easy quiz, then we put more pressure on them. Personally, I like unlimited attempts at difficult-but-low-pressure quizzes. But I’m always open to following what the research says. I know students don’t like the difficult multiple select questions, and this research shows that students who make an earnest effort at answering correctly after reading a section will learn from missing the quizzes if they are relatively simple. Plus the easy quizzes are easier to write, so that’s another reason I wouldn’t mind following what this research seems to suggest. Any thoughts on this?

Link to US Civitas Facebook Discussion Thread

Teaching ‘Public Goods’: A useful exercise

I think a good discussion / activity to go with Chapter 1 of my textbook is to have students come up with a list of “public goods” and then ask if they are truly, strictly speaking, non-excludable. You don’t want to confuse them, but it might be worth thinking about the concept more closely and, it the process, ingrain in them the understanding that the technical definition of “public goods” means less than by what people often say are public goods. For example, a lot of things that most agree are socially beneficial (e.g., parks or roads) actually are excludable and therefore not actually “public goods.” We just choose not to exclude because we want “public” (i.e., universal) access. But it is only because of this strict definition of “public goods” as non-excludable goods that we can say that providing public goods is someting that all governments purport to do. Not every government makes a priority of providing public parks or universal literacy. But all governments claim to provide non-excludable goods like “national defense” and “order.”

Link to US Civitas Facebook Discussion Thread


Tip for first-day lectures: ‘Sell’ the class

After my first day of class yesterday, I remembered (too late) how important it is to “sell the class” to the students very early on the first day. I saved my “sales pitch” for the last part, whereas it would have been better, I think, to tell them why the class is the most important damn class they will ever take at the beginning. (I normally say this to all of my classes, so it can’t literally be true, but it helps, i think, to speak with that kind of conviction about why the class is something they should be excited about within the first ten minutes of class on the first day.)

Link to US Civitas Facebook Discussion thread

Boston’s Remarkable Experiment with Youth Engagement through Participatory Budgeting

Peter Levine reports:

On Friday, I had the opportunity to observe about 50 Boston young people at work on the city’s youth Participatory Budgeting initiative. I will write the whole story for GOOD Magazine, so this is just a teaser. In essence, volunteer young people (ages 12-25) have brainstormed more than 400 projects that the city could support out of its capital budget. I watched committees of youth come together to study, refine, and screen these proposals. In June, as many youth as possible will be recruited to vote for their favorite proposals at meetings across the city. The city will then allocate $1 million of its capital budget to fund the top-scoring projects.

This is an example of Participatory Budgeting, a process that began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 and has since spread to 1,500 locations in many countries, according to the Participatory Budgeting Project. It bears some resemblance to other processes, including the New England town meetings that began in the 1600s and still survive in some towns in our region, not to mention the 265,000 village councils of India and other participatory government mechanisms around the world. It is nevertheless an innovation. . . . (Keep Reading)