Sunday, June 08, 2014

Should Teachers Reveal Their Biases? (updated)

After a somewhat provocative tag-team student post got quite a few American Studies students all "Reilled"-up and a little bit "Mad", I thought I'd recycle parts of this post I first wrote many years ago (check out the exact date -- talk about an artifact -- it's the month before the presidential election!). The question that today's blog post poses has been hotly debated in my own department and I am not surprised that a group of such thoughtful (and largely respectful to each other) students would take it up, on their own!

I had read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (the link is now broken, unfortunately) which references a recently published book, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, written by three faculty members from George Mason University. If you read the students' post, part of the discussion focused on how appropriate it is when teachers reveal their political perspective**. Would that action have an inappropriate effect on their students? Would it amount to, as one student argued, being "indoctrinated"?

Does this guy look like me? Or Doc OC? Ah, who can tell the difference, anyway!

The book's authors state that based on their 2007 study, the majority of professors "say they keep their own politics out of the classroom". In fact, only a minority of college faculty (28%) admit that they openly reveal their political bias to their students.

But even if the above statistics are true, does it even matter if teachers conceal their political leanings? Another study, conducted by two professors from Pennsylvania State University may have the answer. In their research-based article, "I Think My Professor Is a Democrat", they published two related findings, based on student surveys:
  1. College students agree that most professors do not reveal their political bias (thus corroborating the findings from the book mentioned at the beginning)
  2. But 75% of students were able to guess correctly their professor's political leanings, anyway.
Finally, the biggest question looming behind this particular discussion: if the great majority of college professors call themselves liberal, does this influence their students to become more left-leaning as well? The same researchers conducted another study which found that students started shifting slightly to the left under both Republican- and Democrat-voting professors -- not just under liberal-leaning teachers.

What do these studies mean for our class discussions (online and off)? What could be responsible for the shift to the political left? Perhaps, too, there is a difference between college-level classrooms and high school with regard to these findings?

**For students who want to hear "both sides" of every issue (assuming "both sides" are equally meritorious), my own philosophy has always been (quoted from Howard Zinn): "You can't be neutral on a moving train." I guess I'd rather be upfront with my views than play guessing games all school year-long.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

(De-) Grading College

President Obama has announced a new initiative that will rate colleges. The program which The New York Times calls a "radical new effort," hopes to "hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons." The word business seems operative here since the "college process" has become a hugely expensive enterprise and a hugely profitable one for certain companies (think: test prep, tutors, private counselors, college visits and tours, glossy brochures and videos and other arms of the octopus we might call the Educational-Industrial Complex). But should the federal government really be involved in the business of college?

According to the article, the proposed rating system "would compare schools on factors like how many of their students graduate, how much debt their students accumulate and how much money their students earn after graduating." Are these really the best ways to measure education? Is the life of the mind reducible to a cost-benefit analysis? 

This rating system seems to have considerable overlap with our recent discussion of social class and social capital. Who benefits from such a system? Who loses? 

Shockingly, a top Obama official said the rating system would be "like rating a blender," a flawed analogy that might not have been created by someone with a humanities background. In the current education climate, however, the humanities degrees may be devalued more than ever before since they don't promise the highest salaries on the "investment" of education. A recent article decrying the drop in Humanities degrees cites these disturbing trends: "In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics." What accounts for this sudden and drastic shift in choice of majors?

Now you may not be as troubled as I am by the current trend away from the humanities and for the "bang-for-your-buck" mentality that is steering students toward lucrative fields such as business and engineering. But, my fear is that such students are being led unwittingly toward the post-college payoff of big salaries without ever considering the larger purposes of education: ethical and humanistic understanding of ourselves and our world. Remember the W.E.B. DuBois quote? "The purpose of education is not to make men carpenters, but to make carpenters men."

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Paginas en Blanco": Whitewashed History

Douglas Hale, Secrets (2014)
Recently we've been reading the Junot Diaz novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel that is profoundly concerned with storytelling and history. In describing the absences in both family and national history, Diaz uses the phrase "paginas en blanco" which he describes as a "blank be filled in with the truth" (90).

This year we, too, have been thinking about the relationship between national history and family history. So, we borrowed the model from the Post Secret project and invited the students in our class to each offer up a single pagina en blanco from their own families. We wanted to explore the secrets that remained hidden or the truths that were never talked about openly within family history in a project we call "Paginas en Blanco de Mi Familia". The rules were simple: a single sentence of text and evidence of thought in the graphic presentation of the "secret." Please check out the finished compilation below.

Páginas en Blanco de Mi Familia from Spiro Bolos on Vimeo.

Now it's your turn! We'd like to invite readers of to contribute their own "pagina en blanco" -- a story from your family history that has been whitewashed or silenced, or one that may simply lurk unexpressed. Do NOT include your name or other identifying information. Instead, just upload the annotated image by using the dropbox in the right-hand column of this blog. When we get enough submissions, we will publish the results here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Between the Lines: Covering (and Uncovering) Sports

Things really seem to be progressing. Take, for example, the responses to Jason Collins, the first openly gay male athlete in a major professional sport, who was just signed to a contract with the New Jersey Nets.  Or the announcement of Missouri football star who announced he was gay just before the NFL draft.

(We like the "first ever..." narrative so much we seem quick to forget about women athletes such as Martina Navratilova, who came out over 30 years ago or even male athletes such as boxer Orlando Cruz or the professional lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein since they did not compete in the so-called "big four sports").  Many have greeted Jason Collins and Michael Sam with applause and high fives.  But, to what extent do the cases of Collins and Sam's brave articulation of their identity really represent progress? The answer may be found in those very high fives.

Consider the case of Glenn Burke, the man who invented the high five: an article on "the origins of the high five." The article itself is fascinating, particularly in light of our consideration of stories and storytelling. Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Dodgers and later the A's invented the phenomenon, but the behind-the-scenes stories are where the real action lies here.

You see, Burke was a gay man at a time when no professional athlete in "major sports" had ever come out. That Burke -- and presumably many other gay athletes -- had to keep his orientation secret in 1978 may come as no surprise. After all, many gay professional athletes still think they must keep their identities secret for fear of hateful reactions from teammates and fans and the loss of advertising revenue. (Think of recent ex-pro athletes Tualo Esera in the NFL, Billy Bean in the MLB, and Jon Amaechi in the NBA, who came out when their careers were over).

So, do you see Jason Collins and Michael Sam's announcements as a cause for celebration or an opportunity to lament the pain of earlier -- and current -- athletes who could not come out? Some, including Josh Levin at Slate  have even seen a new form of homophobia in the responses to Jason Collins' announcement.  Levin cites a chorus of people who aggressively shout "I don't care" or "This means nothing" as a means of shutting down the coverage altogether.

How are the storylines of sports are being managed today? Whose stories are privileged? Whose stories are silenced? What are the "paginas en blanco" in the world of sports? Are the lines drawn differently for men and women? For athletes of different races, classes? Do we see in the case of Jason Collins and others reasons to be optimistic for the future of sports?  

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cut the Cord

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to the White House to attend the State Visit of the French President. Actually, it was a kind of contest the White House Instagram feed offered to all of its 260,000 followers. And I LOST. But you might ask, what business does a high school social studies teacher have with meeting President François Hollande, anyhow?

Good point. But instead, please answer this question: what business does the chief lobbyist of Comcast, David Cohen, have with meeting the French President? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Comcast is about to buy Time-Warner cable? If this merger is approved, it would give Comcast, among many other advantages, "enormous power in negotiations with networks over licensing fees and in determining what shows reach consumers on mobile devices, laptops and television sets" as well as "flexibility to set the market rates" since it would be absorbing Time-Warner, its biggest cable competitor.

I wonder if the FCC and Department of Justice will approve the deal? Is there an emoticon for sarcasm?

L-R: Brian Roberts, President Obama, and Jim Kim
Consider the following:
Hmmm. A kind of "Media-Industrial Complex", no? I thought the USA was all about capitalism and competition: higher quality products/services and lower prices? Furthermore, this merger of Comcast and Time-Warner would literally shrink the number of voices in the media landscape and allow Comcast to control almost 40% of broadband internet market. Thoughts? How do we (or should we) "cut the cord" of influence between government and industry?

UPDATE: Here's a more eloquent critique featuring an interview with Harvard Professor Susan P. Crawford.