When I ask my students what they are stressed about they provide a litany of complaints: High student loan debt, the need to work many hours and attend school, costly housing, social pressures, and an uncertain future. When I ask them what they could do about that they stare back blankly: “What should we do about that?” they say with puzzled looks.
My students know they pay the highest state tuition in the country (we rank dead last in support for higher education here in New Hampshire). They know that college students in the US carry higher student debt than any other country in the industrialized world (most carry none). They know that climate change is real (they take science courses) and they know that the middle class is shrinking (they take economics) and that good jobs will be hard to find.
But strangely (or not so strangely) that are disengaged from these issues. They don’t believe that they have any say or control over these events. They don’t talk much about these things and instead seem to live in their own silos when it comes to matters of grave importance to their future. They have a kind of nihilistic view of life that is disheartening to many of us who are their teachers.
I have written a lot about mentoring in the past, especially when it comes to individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders or ASD’s. Our most effective tool in helping people at the College who are chronic social “outsiders” has been to pair them with “insiders” who befriend them, share their wisdom, connect them with the real world. Isn’t it time we consider more planned mentoring of our lost college students? Don’t we older adults have some wisdom to share that will help guide them in a tough uncertain future?
I will be joining Michael Goudzwaard of Dartmouth University (formerly of Keene State College) to present on our experience teaching the first MOOC (massive online open source course) out of New Hampshire. Our talk, "Insider/Outsider Dilemma: Mixing MOOC with Campus Online Course" will cover our experience using a collaborative team approach (Professor, Instructional Designer, Student Assistant) in producing an online class that mixed our own KSC students with others from around the world. In addition to presenting some data on interactions between our KSC students and those enrolling for free via the MOOC, I will try to generate discussion about a few ideas, including:
1. The use of a collaborative team that acknowledges the role of teacher, designer, and student assistant in producing a MOOC.
2. Creating opportunities for college campus students to engage with "interested others" from around the world.
3. The importance of "injecting one's own style and character" in to a classroom.
4. The mix of free open source materials and lectures with locally generated material.
5. Creating high quality MOOC hybrid courses at a very low cost.
6. Possibilities for specialty MOOC programs (tMOOCs) such as our "E-Autism MOOC"
7. Being wary of equating online and face-t0-face education (e.g., role of social capital)
Kombucha is a fermented drink that is all the rage in my corner of the world. You can buy several brands in several flavors in our local food coop (e.g., mango, chia, original). My kid has been making her own homemade Kombucha for the past year...making her own yeast producing "mother" and combining it with black tea and other ingredients. At first I was turned off by it's vinegeray after-taste but I'm becoming hooked on its strong and refreshing taste. It's kinda yummy.
Growing up in and around New York I was exposed to a range of foods and tastes. My mother had learned, for example, to make curry dishes from her Indian roomate in graduate school so leftovers were usually "curried" for the next meal (note: I made up the word "curried"). And in the city we ate lots of different things, some of which I liked and some that I didn't care for. But the big point is that not only did I try everything, I learned that over time I might "learn to like it" after repeated attempts.
Individuals with strong taste aversions experience initial dislikes of foods as highly punishing and immediately decide not to eat them ever again. And so, they end up living their food lives within narrow borders, which is really too bad. As kids get older it's important to talk about this and explain that one's "upper brain" can talk to your "lower brain" and force a kind of exposure therapy to disliked foods. And, repeated attempts to eat aversive foods might just produce new results (e.g., "Hey that's kinda good!").
So, when we talk about "accomodation" (versus change) of individuals with sensory aversions it's important not to assume that "going with" is always the best path. First we can try, gently and systematically, to "go against" by introducing aversive sensory stimuli. Exposure to our worst fears is usually a good, not a bad thing. In the end, it helps people to live within greater rather than smaller boundaries.
I started blogging in the early days of blogging on Radio Userland and tapped in to the excitement many of us felt about our new found freedom of expression. I wrote often about how the net via blogging now afforded Profs at small colleges with traditionally fewer supports direct access to an interested audience. I was taken by the early writings of pioneers such as Jon Udell who showed us how the media could be pryed open to include reporting from everyday folks and aggregated in useful ways.
And, there is no doubt that all that did happen and that so many aspects of life, including business (web pages, RSS), music (Pandora), academia (blogging) changed and flourished as a result of novel use of the web. Yet still, it seems that so many people continue to feel unempowered, disengaged. Influential blogging is owned by a limited group of people who manage to climb the google chain, music breatk-throughs to fame are possible but still difficult, and scoring big with an internet business is often equated to buying a lottery ticket.
So why hasn't the web achieved democratization? Why do so many feel that "having a say" is still for a select few who have managed to achieve high Klout scores? Despite tremendous access via cell phones, laptops, public access computers in libraries or cafe's, most people do not get to say what they think or to "vote" in any meaningful way. For example, why don't we really know how many in the Ukraine favor annexation by Russia? Or how many think the US has a shot in the upcoming World Cup? Or what people really think about celebrities running amok? Or about shrinking funds for state colleges and universities? Instead there is pervasive cynicisim that all that matters is what a select few think...that "what people think" is not really about "what people think" but more about power and money and control.
And so, to anyone listening, I'm wondering how the internet can adapt to accomodate the thoughts and beliefs of the many, rather than the relatively few?
I had lunch not too long ago with a recently retired college president with whom I was discussing my own kid's plans on applying to college. After telling him about the various schools my kid was thinking of attending, he muttered, "Social Capital."
It took me a bit of time to fully process what he meant by the remark, even though it was obvious: Getting a degree is not just about, well, getting a degree, but also about the people you meet, the social network you create. And, obviously attending a first or second tier school is going to create more social capital than a third or fourth tier school. Put simply, the connections one makes at Harvard or Middlebury are very different than the ones a student makes at lesser known schools.
Of course no one wants to put "social capital" on the table when discussing higher education. Educators would rather talk about, well, education. But for the sake of our students and their future we should talk about it. And, we need to work on improving the social capital of our lesser known schools. And as for online for-profit schools, students should be mindful of these limitations before incurring big debt to obtain these degrees.
I recently received an email sent to a group of profs using a particular room on campus reminding us (scolding?) to put chairs and tables back in rows and columns before leaving. The message was prompted by an angry prof fed up with having to "restore" the room to what he believes is the "standard" of rows and columns. Another prof quickly responded by saying that she "prefers semi-circles" for her more discussion based class.
The early exchanges would seem funny to an outsider, but the subtext was intense: "What is meant by the "standard?" Aren't "rows and columns" a throw-back to educational approaches imported from England in the 1850's along with chalk and slate? Why shouldn't profs using rows and columns "restore" the classroom to semi-circles? Who decides "the standard" way of teaching? Blood boils. Faculty gather in small groups to argue straight rows vs. semi-circles. Battle lines are drawn.
(most of my responses literally contained this one word: "Or...")
Can we appreciate a diversity of approaches to teaching? There is no one science to how to teach an effective class. Some Profs lecture (sage on the stage) while some work to engage discussion (guide on the side). All can be interesting. All can foster learning. We all have our own biases.
Is this really about our failure to communicate effectively? To be empathic towards our colleagues...our brothers and sisters in this thing called Academia? Here's an idea: Consider talking directly with the Prof who holds the class before yours....tell 'em what you want ("Hey Bob, I notice you use sem-circles, but I use rows...can you help me out by pushing the tables and chairs back before my class? Or..."Hey Bob, can you help me out by erasing the white board before you leave since I use it in my class too" and so on.
Wouldn't it be nice if we could "put our differences on the table" and ask our colleagues to "understand where we are coming from" and to "help us out a bit." Ultimately, we don't have to agree with each other (personally I reject the idea that rows and columns is the "standard"). But as the great comedienne Joan Rivers likes to say, "Can we talk?"
Pete Seeger was an important person for the world and for me personally. His music and his life inspired so many to do good for the planet and for each other.
My personal connection is through my mother, Joan Welkowitz's side of the family. When Pete was young he was a frequent visitor to my Grandmother's home and to my Grandfather's store on the lower east side of Manhattan. My mother's brother, my Uncle Michael, played banjo and guitar and traveled with him before heading off to college and an academic life. He and other folk/activists from those days would visit my Uncle Lou and Aunt Shani's store, The Den of Antiquity, on McDougal Street in Greenwich Village, where as a kid I would sit on the stoop with their dog Denny and watch amazing people come and go.
My mother sang Woody Guthrie and Pete's songs to me as a kid and my sister and I sang them to our kids. At my parents funerals in Stockbridge, MA, we sang their songs to say goodbye. Pete Seeger made the world a much better place. He was an important person. We will miss him.
I've had the privilege of teaching small "seminar size" classes this semester which has allowed me to get to know all of my students pretty well. I've been teaching Psychology at Keene State since '96 and I always end the semester by providing a few parting words, always positive. I let them know how proud I am of them and their work and encourage them to move forward, pursue their dreams, do good work. Since I teach upper level courses most of my students are looking toward the end of their college careers.
Something drew me in to a darker zone this week. Instead of delivering a "Dr. Seuss styled go forth and do whatever you want" kind of message, my words took even me by surprise.
I told each class: "I'm worried about you. I'm worried that you don't get what's out there or all around you. That you are, to paraphrase David Foster Wallace, like fish that don't realize that you're in water. That you have to be more engaged with the world, that you need to take ideas more seriously, that you need to read more books. That, in the immortal words of my Uncle Herbie, 'you need to figure it out'."
I see my students, I care about my students, I'm worried about my students.
Later in the hallway I overheard a student talking about me "Is Larry ok?"
Sort of. Yeah I'm fine.