Saturday, June 4, 2016


Snoop Dogg and Animal Dreams
History professor Kali Nicole Gross, in an editorial reprinted in today's Akron Beacon Journal, provides a thoughtful invitation to consider Snoop Dogg's recent critical comments about the remaking of the film Roots.

The author notes the importance of telling and retelling the story of our enslavement of our brothers and sisters of color, while also concluding that 
"Snoop's comments suggest that scholars may need to do a better job of showing how this history is important for dealing with racism and systematic inequalities today."
Read and discussing Michelle Alexander's brilliant book, New Jim Crow, would be one very good way to do this, perhaps pairing a book club like discussion of two texts: NJC and Roots.

As a white man and an educator I did not initially understand Snoop Dog's perspective, because as Gross put it:
"Some whites believe we use this history to shame and blame.  They find it hard to acknowledge the racism, savagery and greed of their ancestors.  And they do not want to delve too deeply into this history lest they be forced to acknowledge the ways that it has benefited them."
When I teach about politics, I am continually reminded of the importance--particularly for my white students--of reminding ourselves of the legacy today in white privilege and racial prejudice of the savagery of my white, Christian ancestors...our founding fathers.

I did not expect Snoop to say he was sick of shows "beating that shit into our head" about "abuse we took hundreds of years ago."  He then added: "Let's create our own shit based on today, how we live and how we inspire people today. Black is what's real.  Fuck that old shit."

Conservative commentators have picked up on Snoops' response to advance their goal of denying the importance of understanding racism or history because it prevents us from celebrating America as the land of opportunity.  That seems to distort the point here.

At the same time, as noted by Gross, Snoop has a point.  If we simply repeat the same old tropes about slavery and 'I have a dream' on holidays and in classrooms, these come to operate more as blinders obscuring our capacity to see the relevance of the lessons in these stories today.  

Lessons about continued subordination and systematic inequality and prejudice and race-hate that fundamentally challenge the platitudes about a land of opportunity and a meritocracy.

Kingsolver's Animal Dreams is one of my favorite novels.  It does not do it justice to simply note here that one central idea emerging from the stories in that book is that the path to the sweet dreams we all seek is to live a sweet life..., as Gandhi put it, be the change we want to see in the world, to enact our dreams rather than use a ritualized focus on dreams as a tool to distract us from the fact that we fail, in our every day lives, to see the gap between how we live and treat others and the dreams we claim to define us.

So, thanks Snoop and Professor Gross for helping me see multiple dimensions to this current conflict I might otherwise have missed.  This is why we value freedom--because it allows us to learn from each other, to make diversity a strength, and to so a much better job of figuring shit out.  

Because neither history in general, nor our own history of racial subordination, are unrelated to the conflicts we face today.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Time to Embrace Online Teaching Tools
A tech blogger wrote recently about the enormous return on investment he earned by signing his son up for the Kranse Prep Expert course, an SAT prep course that resulted in an increase in his son’s SAT score from 1,600 to a perfect 2,400.  

Note: I recognize that test taking is a skill and that over-emphasizing teaching to the test is one of the most damaging practices in education today.   

For me, that does not change the fact that this blog about an SAT prep course offers insights worth thinking about.

This is not an argument for more standardized testing.

The blogger asked his son what he liked about the course created by Shaan Patel at the Kranse Institute and why he thought that the course helped.  Here is what his son said:
  • I like the way it was taught, it was really easy, everything was in small bite size chunks
  • I like the way Shaan explained everything, it felt like he understood the problems I was having
  • I like that it was there when I wanted to study, it wasn't a class that I had to go to with other people
Good advice for educators here.  Reminds me of the slightly educational sting I felt when I heard a student in a meeting confidently proclaim that ‘we should set this up like a TED Talk, because they know how to teach.’ 

This is another reason we should all take the time to learn to use online teaching tools.  Not because 100% online courses are superior learning experiences (they are not, in my view), but because using these tools enhances our teaching and student learning. 

A failure to integrate these new tools is a lot like rejecting newfangled ‘books’ because these undermine the established, entirely verbal, dynamic between students and teachers in the pre-printing press classroom.

Everything was in small bite size chunks
This important insight clashes with established practices that emphasize assigning large amounts of text and ‘explaining’ these with long unbroken lectures.  Yes, this is how we have long done it and many have learned just fine on this path (and there is still a place for lecturing and the importance of being well-read remains paramount), but consider why it is that, even in the pre-online era, so many of us came to experience the critical value of the discussion that takes place in a seminar. 

That experience tells us that when we take the time to parse out complex arguments in digestible portions, at a pace set in collaboration with our students, then our students learn more, engage more deeply with the material, and are more likely to come to love learning itself.  Since we already do this and recognize the value of doing it, this should mean that we see in online tools a tremendous opportunity to do more of this—that is, to provide smaller, bite size chunks of the complex material we expect students to master as one way to help them do just that—master it by connecting it to their own stories one bite at a time.

It felt like he understood the problems I was having
This insight has at least two components, as I hear it.  And the two intersect in ways that suggest responding to both will create synergies that strengthen our students' learning experiences.

First, we need to meet our students where they are.  If students do not encounter problems in their learning, we are not challenging them.  When we challenge them, they will struggle.  They will become confused and frustrated.  If we can dole this out in much smaller portions that confusion and frustration becomes more surmountable and more likely to become a string of actual teaching moments.  Before online tools, this could only mean assigning less material; with online tools we can now square that circle.

Second, when we break learning down into bite size chunks this makes it easier to anticipate ‘where they are’ and the intellectual challenges they will face and to structure our course delivery to get them through in a way that enhances their self-efficacy rather than deepens their dependence on us. 

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” 

It was there when I wanted to study
This insight has at least two dimensions as well, though it is not immediately clear to me that these two dimensions can be aligned to suggest pedagogical innovations that move our course design in the same direction.

First, this suggests an impact of the internet age that challenges brick and mortar.  With information available at our finger tips any time of day or night, there is pressure to reduce (some would say eliminate, but I continue to resist that conclusion) the organization of learning as an endeavor requiring us to be at certain place (physical or virtual) as a prescribed time to engage with others. 

Second, this suggests the importance of using multiple modes of delivery, such that a growing portion of course content can be delivered on a ‘point of need’ basis—that is, when a student is ready and willing and able to digest it.  Online tools allow us to do this in ways that should profoundly enhance the learning experienced in the remaining face2face portions of any course we offer.

Finally, the more we use online tools in the ways noted here the more time we are free during the course to do the most important thing we can do for our students: provide text-specific and individualized formative feedback on their work.  When we do this we send the very real message that we do ‘understand the problems’ they are facing and care enough about their learning to have structured our course as the scaffolding they need to engage with and master challenging material.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Childlike Contentment Moment
The past two weeks have been jammed packed with intense and significant and challenging work. No shortage of opportunities to feel that precious beauty of being in the moment, fully engaged and alive.

Then I went to the gym this morning.

It has been about 4 years since I stopped playing hoops 3-4 times week, which I had done most of my life.

Today, after lifting I thought I would check out a ball and just shoot around a bit by myself...then asked to join a game, then we played another.

A total blast.

Walking out, the best player on my team called out to me, "Bill, we play at 10 every Saturday. You should join us,' as he swung a low five my way.

I said 'thanks' as our hands clapped and walked in the other direction, into the locker room.

For the next several minutes I felt a level of contentment and euphoria and in-sync-with-the-worldness I have not felt since I was a kid, when I was too young to appreciate it fully.

Maybe this says I am shallow or vain or both or worse.  All I know is it felt great and I was taken aback by how simple and impactful that one comment was today.  Thanks man.  I just might join you.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Just Daring 2-minute Video
See what happens when a white guy and a black guy commit the same crime.

Simple experiment.
What we observe is not surprising, though that should give us pause.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Conflict Displacement: Blame the Messenger
We have seen whistle blower laws fail to protect honorable employees who expose often harm-causing corruption within their organizations.  The laws are a good idea, but they often fail because elites successfully frame the messenger as the source of the problem.

We observe this same strategy whenever we hear whites claim that the only problem with racism today is that blacks keep bringing it up.  Or the only problem with insulting corporate logos is that Native Americans keep reminding us that they are insulting. Or the only problem with Trump is that Megan Kelly can't handle being called a fat pig (I know I mashed story lines together on that last one--can't keep up with which woman was subjected to which specific Trumpian insult anymore.)

A third form of this strategy is to blame protesters or critics for the problem they are criticizing or protesting.

Let's start with some common sense:  no one protests because they would rather be standing on a street corner with a sign instead of playing with their kids or watching the game or working on their house.  The decision to protest is nearly always tortured, requiring individuals and groups to weigh costs and benefits, and then to invest time and energy in an effort that from the get-go has limited chance of succeeding.

Despite this common sense, we all fall prey to the stock story line about union protesters who are too lazy to just do their job.  Though we find it harder to swallow this line when it is actually true about elites, like Senators unwilling to do their job and even consider a Supreme Court nominee.

It is not just protesters in picket lines who are subjected to this blame the messenger strategy for avoiding elite accountability.  It is not uncommon for elites (inside the organization in question or observing from the outside), to respond to criticism of their leadership by taking a strong position in favor of collaboration.  

While this strategy overlooks the fact that protests and criticisms nearly always focus on the absence of collaboration from leadership in the organization, it nevertheless articulates a common sense principle, which in the abstract--without knowledge of what is actually going on in the organization--sounds fundamentally reasonable. We do, after all, need to work together to strengthen our organizations.

The strategy, however, is designed to insulate leaders from accountability by blaming the messenger.  Packaging a message that is designed to sound heart-felt, but in fact asserts what needs to be achieved, intentionally creates a misleading analytical frame that blames those most interested in collaboration as the source of the non-collaboration. It frames the power-poor efforts to secure more collaboration as a threat to collaboration itself.

Our most common response to conflict is to 'lump it,' because doing nothing is the path of least resistance, the response least likely to involve risk and time and energy.  When we see non-elites choosing not to 'lump it,' and instead to express their profound concern about leadership failure…we need to remember that divergents are not the problem, they are the solution.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Trump is a Parody of Toughness and Caricature of a Leader

In today’s Akron Beacon Journal we find two commentaries worth reading, and particularly valuable if read together.

The first is a powerful analysis of the importance of understanding why we value free speech and individual liberty.  The second might be the most intelligent analysis of Trumpism I have read this year—and there has been a lot of remarkable analysis written on this topic—focusing on Trumps inability to defend his own positions because he relies on the misleading sound-bite versions of conservative positions—caricatures and parodies—that too often dominate the arguments of the uniformed to frame his own positions.

Taken together, these allow us to see both what it looks like when elites win the struggle over scope and salience to frame our national conversation around utterly trivial formulations of the most important conflicts we face today…and we see both the deeper principles at stake (democracy, legitimacy, freedom) and how seeing these deeper levels we better understand Trumpism, leadership, political communication, and the skills we need to ‘learn to hone our voices in defense of our values.’

The Akron Beacon Journal reprinted this commentary from the LA Times today.

LOS ANGELES: Teaching a freshman seminar on freedom of speech on college campuses has made us aware of the urgent need to educate the current generation of students about the importance of the First Amendment. From the beginning of our course, we were surprised by the often unanimous willingness of our students to support efforts to restrict and punish a wide range of expression.

Not a single student in the class saw any constitutional problem with requiring professors to give so-called trigger warnings before teaching potentially disturbing material.

Surveys across the country confirm that our students are not unique. According to the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale, 72 percent of students support disciplinary action against “any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive.” Too few students grasp that one person’s offense can be another’s expression of truth to power.

Young people’s support for freedom of speech has waned in part because of their admirable desire to create an educational environment where all can thrive. Our students or their friends have experienced the psychological harms of hateful speech or bullying more than they have experienced the social harms of censorship or the punishment of dissent.

Simply telling students to toughen up isn’t persuasive. Moreover, they were born long after the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests that gave their elders direct experience with the need for free expression. It is their education that’s lacking.
History demonstrates that when we give officials broad powers to restrict or punish speech considered hateful, offensive or demeaning, that power is inevitably abused. Unpopular speakers are victimized, and legitimate opinion silenced. Over the course of U.S. history, officials censored or punished those whose speech they disliked: abolitionists, labor activists, religious minorities, communists and socialists, cultural critics, gays and lesbians, demonstrators and protesters of all stripes.

The students were surprised to learn that people went to prison for speech criticizing the draft during World War I, or for teaching or espousing communism during the 1920s and 1930s and in the McCarthy era. The effect of the First Amendment’s strong protections for “dangerous” and “offensive” speech allowed oppressed and marginalized groups to challenge indecency laws, segregation, patriarchy and declarations of war.

Another key lesson was that censoring intolerant or offensive speech can be all but impossible to manage without threatening legitimate debate. There are those who will take offense at anti-Zionist speech and at pro-Zionist speech, at the rhetoric of Black Lives Matter and the demands of racial equality, at advocacy for LGBT rights and for religious beliefs that run counter to those rights.

Our students came to realize that there was no way to create a “safe space” on campuses where students could be free from one set of offenses without engaging in massive censorship, and perhaps creating another kind of offense.

Of course, freedom of speech is not absolute. Incitement of illegal activity, defamation, true threats and harassment are not protected by the First Amendment. Learning what kinds of expression can be constitutionally punished gives students a realistic sense of how speech can be regulated on public university campuses.

For speech that students find offensive but that does not fall within these categories, they must also consider one of the most hard-won lessons of free speech law: Often the best remedy for hateful speech is more speech, not enforced silence.

By challenging and contesting offensive speech students learn to hone their voices in defense of their values, an important skill in a diverse democratic society. By contrast, punishing expression often achieves little except to create martyrs.

[NOTE:  The skills and techniques referred to here are the skills of democratic citizenship…the skills we all need to ‘learn to hone our voices in defense of our values.’  This insight is mobilized when we insist on moderate Muslims standing up against extremists in their camp, but we too often fail to hold ourselves to this same standard. 

Today, doing that means we need to stand up to Trump, we need to engage in the conflicts rather than sitting on the sidelines as the all-knowing Monday-morning quarterbacks.  And we need to understand…to enact, using the skills we are learning here…that the only remedy for hateful speech that is consistent with our values ‘is more speech, not enforced silence.’ 

We need to stand up and challenge elites like Trump who want us to think about conflicts in ways that make productive problem solving less likely…and we cannot do this successfully until we master the skills we are learning in this class, skills referred to here and skills reframed as our core democratic values in the First Amendment.]

At the beginning of the semester we took a vote in the class: Who would agree that the University of Oklahoma was right to expel students who had led a racist chant in a bus on the way to a fraternity event? All hands were raised. By semester’s end, many, but not all, had changed their minds, and those who still supported the university did so with a much more sophisticated understanding of the balance of issues.

Rather than mock students or ignore their concerns, we need to make sure they understand the context of the Constitution’s free speech guarantees. At stake is not merely the climate on our campuses, but the longevity of the great social benefits associated with the rise of modern free speech traditions.

Gillman is chancellor and professor of law, political science and history at the University of California at Irvine. Chemerinsky is founding dean and a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

The Akron Beacon Journal reprinted this commentary from the Washington Post today.

WASHINGTON: This campaign season has offered an unexpected form of reality television entertainment: Watching the light of discovery and calculation in Donald Trump’s eyes when he is presented with difficult policy issues, apparently for the very first time.

Abortion is the current case in point. In the late 1990s, Trump supported the legality of partial-birth abortion. For a few hours on Wednesday, he endorsed criminal sanctions against women who have abortions.

On this issue, Trump has been to the left of Harry Reid (who voted for a partial-birth abortion ban) and to the right of Mike Huckabee (who has consistently rejected punishment for women who have had abortions). And Trump is utterly incapable of defending either position. He shows no capacity for ethical reasoning — balancing claims about the moral and legal value of nascent life against claims about autonomy and choice.

If that seems harsh, let’s go to the transcript of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews trying to corner Trump on criminalization. Asked if this is the logical consequence of pro-life views (it isn’t), Trump doesn’t advance an argument about religion, morality and the role of law (other than to call attention to Matthews’ Catholicism).

At the outset, Trump observes that “people in certain parts of the Republican Party and conservative Republicans would say, ‘Yes, they should be punished.’ ” Trump eventually embraces what he thinks a social conservative would say.

In fact, this is not the pro-life position. It is the left’s stereotype of the pro-life position.

[NOTE:  This is a form of dissipating public energies by redirecting our attentions toward more trivial conflicts, in this case by focusing us on more trivial ways of framing important conflicts…framed to make reasoned problem solving even harder.]

“No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion,” responded Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life. “This is against the very nature of what we are about. We invite a woman who has gone down this route to consider paths to healing, not punishment.”

Trump ended up hurting the pro-life cause by reviving a stereotype of harshness. And it is part of a pattern.

[NOTE:  Trump’s move here (and on other illustrations below) increases citizen confusion about this conflict, which hurts those on the side of the conflict Trump says he wants to help AND contributes to weakening overall legitimacy of our governing system by increasing citizen confusing and frustration.]

In the immigration debate, the restrictionist side makes some serious arguments for prioritizing control of the border and for an immigration system that puts greater emphasis on skills. I generally don’t find such arguments compelling, but they are worth debating.

Trump has not, however, made this case in any serious or systematic way. Instead, he has embraced an anti-immigrant caricature. Illegal immigrants, he says, are disproportionately “criminals” and “rapists.” The Mexican government is purposely sending criminals across the border.

When two Trump supporters beat up a homeless Hispanic man in Boston, Trump called them “passionate.” He retweeted that Jeb Bush “has to like the Mexican illegals because of his wife.”

When Trump eventually loses — as he certainly will in the primaries, at the convention or the general election — the movement to restrict immigration will be left as a stereotype of exclusion and bigotry.

Trump has had a similar, malignant influence on debates concerning the war against terrorism. There is no doubt that America and Europe face a heightened threat from returning Islamic State fighters, and from homegrown terrorists inspired by the Islamic State. Additional measures will be required — in the Middle East and at home — to pre-empt these threats.

But Trump has chosen to inhabit a cruel and counterproductive parody of toughness. He calls for banning all Muslim immigrants. He would conduct the war against terrorism with war crimes, such as killing the families of terrorists. He calls Syrian refugees fleeing violence the “ultimate Trojan horse.” He entertains the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Islamic State — which would, of course, also kill everyone the Islamic State oppresses.

This stereotype of strength actively undermines the war against terrorism by alienating Muslim allies and cultivating mistrust in Muslim communities.

[NOTE:  By framing immigration conflicts around the type of caricature we hear in bar room arguments and terrorism conflicts around a parody of toughness, Trump fails as a leader to frame these questions in ways that maximize our capacity as citizens to understand and weigh in. 

Instead, he frames each in a way that reduces one side (the side he says he wants to help) to a caricature of bigotry and leadership to a parody of toughness…in both cases making it harder to find common ground on how to productively address either immigration or terrorism…and, at the same time, damaging our understand of, and faith in, the importance of individual liberty, freedom of speech, leadership, and democratic deliberation.] 

For many of Trump’s supporters, this extreme and unpredictable use of language is part of the appeal. He doesn’t employ the careful words of a politician. He is so appealingly unprepared. So refreshingly ignorant. So disarmingly half-baked.

[NOTE: We all love to criticize politicians when they quibble about what the meaning of ‘is’ is, (and our frustration is not unfounded) but at the same time the solution is not to completely abandon any effort to speak carefully, thoughtfully, seriously.]

But the durability of Trump’s appeal creates a conundrum for many Republicans. For decades, some of us have argued that the liberal stereotype of Republicans as extreme, dim and intolerant is inaccurate and unfair. But here is a candidate for president who fully embodies the liberal stereotype of Republicanswho thinks this is the way a conservative should sound —- and has found support from a committed plurality of the party.

[NOTE: Trumpism creates a ‘conundrum’ for all Americans, certainly more immediately for Republican Americans.  Trump is not the way traditional conservative American leaders sound, but some conservatives have for too long exploited (with an assist from Fox News) precisely this approach to framing conflicts, leadership and politics…so, we need to insist on the moderates with that party, with the support of moderates across the spectrum, to stand up to this caricature and parody of American democracy, to both model the skills they have ‘learned to hone their voices in defense of their values’ and to do so as the best remedy for Trumpism.]

If the worst enemies of conservatism were to construct a Frankenstein figure that represents the worst elements of right-wing politics, Donald Trump would be it. But it is Republicans who are giving him life. And the damage is already deep.

Gerson is a Washington Post Writers Group columnist. He can be reached

If you find this type of analysis valuable, you might want to read JS Mill’s On Liberty, since that text is the most famous and powerful defense of freedom in terms directly relevant to this conversation.