Limbo

Limbo

Forgive the infrequent posting of late; I’ve got a good excuse: I’m fresh off my honeymoon. Candace and I took a trip to the Bahamas after our beach wedding (nine days ago) in Tybee Island, Ga, where we celebrated with family and a few close friends. Back now, I’ve spent the morning on our quiet campus, earnestly planning for my next class (a new installment of Oulipo that begins a week from today) and plugging away at ongoing research projects, including my ongoing study of the effects of disappearing the university’s writing-intensive course requirement as part of the curriculum overhaul we put in place about two years ago.

To the latter: my initial analysis of enrollment data (performed last summer) suggested that the removal of the WI requirement has led to a slight but statistically significant drop-off in enrollment in historically writing-intensive courses, in turn leading to a decrease in students’ exposure to intentional writing instruction in the disciplines. Just now I put in a request to our institutional research office for updated and expanded enrollment data, hoping to get a clearer picture of the impact of WI’s going bye-bye. I’ve also started to code the transcripts of the interviews I did with several of my colleagues this past spring. The most surprising result so far? Three of the twelve folks I interviewed mentioned, without prompting, the connection between critical reading and disciplinary writing. Despite the undeniable link between the two skills, I didn’t think that I would have seen that link feature so prominently in interviews about disciplinary writing instruction.

To the former: I’m excited about playing with some constraints and constructions I’ve never used before in class. In addition to some classic favorites, like the n+7 algorithm and Canada Dry (e.g.: “He slavered, ‘have wit, and oddly parley,’ ponderously.”), as well as my own mathematical constraints based on finite-state automata, I’m going to get the students to play with Boolean theater, homosyntaxis (e.g.: “They wrote, ‘be energy, but quickly quiz,’ quixotically.”), and intersectional literature, a new constraint of my own devising in which two classic works of fiction are collided and the constituent parts in common stirred together. And I can’t resist: I’m going to open the term with a rousing round of Read one, write two, which should serve as a good ice-breaker. This class should keep me entertained. I’ll post samples of student writing as we go, always with permission, of course.

Meanwhile, I’m off to get some reading done. Candace and I made it about two-thirds of the way through Taiye Selasi’s riveting Ghana Must Go (which we’re reading for the Western North Carolina Post-Colonial Reading Group meeting in a few weeks), but I’ve yet to get started on Stanilas Dehaene’s Consciousness and the Brain, which I’m also reading for a faculty learning circle that meets for the first time in a week or so…and I should probably start my rereading of Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual so I can stay ahead of my Oulipo peeps.

Oh, one more thing…a political update!: UNC President Margaret Spellings has finally come out with a definite statement on the system’s stance on HB2. Namely, the university will NOT enforce the law’s requirement that transgender people use the bathroom of the gender assigned to them at birth. Um…yay…? I’d like to think that this pronouncement is the result of a heartfelt belief that trans folks are worthy of respect and equitable treatment, but it’s hard not to think that Spellings and the UNC Board of Governors are simply responding to the federal government’s threat to withhold a substantial amount of funding.

 

What does an ideal Honors student look like?

What does an ideal Honors student look like?

Today my colleague Nichola and I ran the half-day workshop on teaching in the Honors Program that we’d been planning for a few weeks now. We had a great group of people signed up, a good balance between those who’ve taught in the program before and those who haven’t but are interested in learning more about doing so. There were several good discussions, surrounding everything from grading in Honors (is there grade inflation? If so, what does it signal? and will inflated grades harm untenured-but-tenure-track faculty?) to criteria for Honors admission (how might we achieve the appropriate balance of traditional measures of academic excellence, such as high school GPA and standardized test scores, and less cut-and-dried metrics, like writing samples and performance in interviews?).

The most animated discussion, however, concerned the nature of Honors students: what characteristics, in our view, ought an outstanding Honors student to have? In fact, Nichola asked precisely this question, getting each participant to jot down the qualities their ideal Honors student would possess. You’d best believe I did some analysis of these data!

My 14 colleagues and I (Nichola didn’t take part in the exercise) offered 75 individual attributes between us (for an average of exactly 5 per person), often in the form of a single word (e.g., “respectful” or “bright”) but just as often in the form of a more complicated phrase (e.g., “motivation to learn for learning’s sake”). I compiled these and attempted to group them into disjoint categories; happily, only one of the attributes (namely “able to work independently on challenging problems”) did I deem sufficiently complex to warrant its inclusion in two categories (namely, the “challenging oneself” and “self-direction” categories).

Interestingly (to me, at least), this still left me with 27 categories, several (8) of which contained a single attribute and several more (another 8) of which contain two. Though this gives me a pretty messy data set, I hesitate to aggregate them any further, lest I conflate clearly distinct concepts or descriptors, like “respectful,” “humility,” and “kind.” I did, however, lump together a few “habits of mind,” each of which, namely “common sense,” “scientific understanding,” “think critically,” “objective,” and “logical,” appeared once each. While I acknowledge the thickness of these terms and the ZFG stance I’m taking in putting them in the same place, it simplifies the data a liiiittle bit.

Below are the categories I came up with, given in order from most-often mentioned, “curiosity,” to least (the numbers given after the category name correspond to the identifiers assigned randomly to each respondent):

  1. Curious: 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
  2. Open-minded : 1, 2, 3, 12, 13, 14
  3. Passionate about learning: 1, 2, 3, 10, 14
  4. Intelligent: 5, 8, 10, 12, 13
  5. Willing to be challenged: 1, 4, 8, 12
  6. Engaged/purposeful: 2, 5, 13, 14
  7. Strong habits of mind: 7, 11, 14, 15
  8. Good communication skills: 8, 14, 15
  9. Community member: 2, 10, 11
  10. Conscientious: 5, 6, 9
  11. Ambitious: 8, 9, 11
  12. Empathetic: 14, 15
  13. Reflective: 1, 14
  14. Self-directed: 8, 13
  15. Resilient: 2, 14
  16. Positive: 2, 9
  17. Responsible: 2, 7
  18. Passionate: 7, 9
  19. Innovative: 6, 12
  20. Respectful: 7
  21. Kind: 9
  22. Outspoken: 1
  23. Emotionally mature: 9
  24. Good leader: 10
  25. Big-picture oriented: 13
  26. Humble: 2
  27. Collaborator: 2

This list gives us some idea of the traits folks are looking for, considered individually: curiosity, open-mindedness, a passion for learning, and intelligence are most highly prized. To get a better sense of the interaction between these attributes, we can create a concept map (mathematically, a graph) showing relationships between these traits by linking any two that are mentioned by a single person.

HonorsStudentAttributesAnalysis

Some care must be taken in interpreting this graph: the number of edges out of a given node doesn’t represent the number of persons mentioning that node’s attribute; rather, as I just mentioned, an edge between two nodes indicates that one person mentioned both of the attributes those nodes represent. Two edges between a pair of nodes indicate that two persons mentioned both of the corresponding attributes, etc. Thus we expect to see the greatest density around those attributes that are mentioned both frequently and frequently in conjunction with one another. Unsurprisingly, the greatest density is achieved around our top vote-getters, curious, open-minded, and passionate about learning. Strongly related to these are engaged/purposeful and good communication skills.

I appreciate this exercise for the insight it gives me into my colleagues’ vision for the program: before we can talk about what the program should look like and what opportunities it should provide, we need to first know what kind of students we want it to serve. It appears we’re looking for curious, open-minded individuals who are intelligent, purposeful, and passionate about learning, and who can articulate their ideas well.

Now to go get ’em! There was pretty widespread agreement among the workshop participants that in reviewing Honors Program applications traditional measures like high school GPA should be given considerably less weight, and all were in favor of scrapping standardized test scores entirely. There was almost unanimous support for replacing résumé-padding lists of AP courses and community service with more in-depth interrogations of single stand-out courses and single meaningful volunteer commitments. These are changes I intend to make in the online application this coming year, in conjunction with the introduction of some sort of interview process.

Next steps in program administration? Finishing up my program assessment for the spring, cleaning up the Honors website, orienting my new assistant (who will begin on June 1), and polishing off that article on the workshop assignment I’m working on with Samuel. You know. The usual.

HB2 update: my provost, unsurprisingly, is hesitant to comment on the university’s official response to the ongoing litigious crossfire between the State of North Carolina and the US Department of Justice. Go figure. More news at eleven.

Equally forthcoming, but disingenuously so, was the UNC system itself, who released a short statement yesterday regarding the false dilemma:

University of North Carolina leaders offered the following comments today after a special meeting of the UNC Board of Governors to consult with legal counsel regarding legal actions regarding federal nondiscrimination law and the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (HB2):

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Lou Bissette said:

The purpose of today’s Board meeting was to consult with our attorneys concerning the pending litigation involving the Department of Justice. We support all the actions President Spellings has taken thus far in leading the University and responding to HB2. The Board appreciates and values her ongoing leadership. As she said yesterday, the University is in a difficult position — caught in the middle between state and federal law. We are committed to resolving the legal issues in the University’s favor as quickly as possible. In the meantime, we are going to continue to focus on our primary mission of educating students.

UNC President Margaret Spellings added:

The University of North Carolina is about providing high-quality educational opportunities to all. We depend on federal funding to help provide this access. In fact, more than 138,000 of our students — representing all 100 North Carolina counties and all UNC institutions — receive some type of federal aid. Because of this, we take the legal questions surrounding HB2 and the related lawsuits seriously. We intend to remain in close communication with state and federal officials to underscore our shared interest in resolving these difficult issues as quickly as possible so that we can refocus our efforts on educating students.

I have an easy solution: tell the State and its governor where they can stick it and get on the right side of history. This is getting ridiculous.

Riches and rags

Riches and rags

I am rich.

I am rich for respect for the dozens of outstanding students whom we graduated two days ago. I am rich for the experiences I’ve shared with them these past four (and sometimes more) years, for the poems and prose we’ve written together and for the problems and puzzles we’ve solved; for the discussions we’ve had on sensitive subjects from food access to criminal justice and the programs we’ve started and strengthened.

I am rich for the pride I could share with my students’ parents, families, and friends, as I met them after Saturday’s commencement ceremonies: the love and support these people gave to my students was evident, and the pride they had for my students’ accomplishments matched my own. I am truly blessed to do what I do for a living.

I am rich for the honor of sharing the commencement stage on Saturday morning with local leaders in civil rights, art and art education, and journalistic excellence. I am rich for the privilege of celebrating the teaching talent of one of my university’s most incredible teachers, a woman whose intelligence, candor, and humility I’ve admired since I came here eleven years ago.

I am rich for the wonderful family I am soon to marry into, for the love they have for one another and for me, and for the time we had to share a delicious meal with one another on Saturday afternoon before we returned to our separate busy days. And I am rich for the physical health I enjoy, the health that enabled me to cap off an hour of yardwork after that lunch but before racing off to my next appointment, a wedding ceremony where I officiated at the marriage of two former students who honored me by asking me to share in their day. (I snapped the picture at the top of this post while walking from my office to our campus’s botanical gardens, where the wedding was held.)

I am rich, indeed!

But I can’t lie back and rest on my riches like a dragon on his hoard. Not when there’s so much yet to do.

I wrote all of the above except for the last brief paragraph on Saturday evening (though I’ve changed the reference to the day to avoid confusion), and since that time I feel that much has happened that’s worth commenting on. For now I’ll leave aside the minutiae of my conversations today with my colleagues on this coming year’s Honors Program Advisory Committee and with my colleague who’s helping me run a workshop on Honors pedagogy this coming Thursday. It’s not that these issues aren’t important; rather, I’ve written at length about many of them somewhat recently and I’ve no doubt I’ll give each issue significant space in this forum in the coming months.

More pressing is the existential issue raised today by the legal actions taken by the State of North Carolina and the US Department of Justice. Not hours after NC Governor Pat McCrory asked the federal court to rule in defense of the now-notorious House Bill 2, the DoJ fired back with a promise of legal action against the state, including a threatened revocation of federal funding for education. Indeed, the University of North Carolina system is specifically named as a defendant in the Justice Department’s suit, and billions of dollars in monies slated for scholarships, research grants, teacher development programs, etc., could be pulled from the state as the suit moves forward.

I should be able to make it for a few months with a smaller (or…*gulp*…absent) paycheck or without a stipend for helping to plan a workshop or perform my program’s assessment, but what about those in the university system less privileged than I am? What about that first-generation student whose continued enrollment depends on federal financial aid? The graduate student whose teaching assistantship is funded by federal dollars? The contingent faculty member whose three positions at three different institutions all will be cut if those institutions’ wells run dry? All of these folks are members of communities much more vulnerable than my own.

I’ve just sent an email to my provost and the university’s general counsel asking when we might receive more and more detailed information on the potential impact of these legal proceedings on our campus in particular. I’m curious to see how our community responds.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

(P.S.: to my knowledge, UNC President Margaret Spellings has yet to respond to today’s legal jousting.)

UPDATE. Not minutes after posting this initially, Spellings released the following statement to the UNC community:

Earlier this afternoon, the University responded to the U.S. Department of Justice’s letter dated May 4 by again underscoring the UNC system’s commitment to full compliance with federal non-discrimination laws and inviting greater dialogue with the Department to resolve concerns it has expressed about HB2.

Our first responsibility as a University is to serve our students, faculty, and staff and provide a welcoming and safe place for all. The University takes its obligation to comply with federal non-discrimination laws very seriously. We also must adhere to laws duly enacted by the State’s General Assembly and Governor, however. HB2 remains the law of the state, and the University has no independent power to change that legal reality.

In these circumstances, the University is truly caught in the middle.

As the Attorney General alluded to in her press conference today, we have been in regular contact with the Department about ways to constructively resolve its inquiry into HB2 and the University’s compliance with federal civil rights laws. Even though the Justice Department has chosen to file an action in federal court, we intend to continue to engage with further discussions with them on this issue.

We plan to review the Department’s complaint, and in consultation with our Board of Governors and legal counsel tomorrow (Tuesday, May 10) during a special meeting of the Board, to determine next steps.

We will continue to keep constituencies apprised as new information becomes available.

I hope that our BoG and our President get on the right side of history right quick.

Forward

Forward

This morning I had the honor of attending another commencement rehearsal breakfast, a twice-a-year tradition at our school at which the achievements of graduating seniors are celebrated before they’re herded like sheep to the quad and told what’ll go down at graduation ceremonies the next day. Though a personal errand across town prevented me from staying and reading the names of this year’s recipients of Distinction as a University Scholar (signalling successful completion of the Honors Program requirements), I stayed for about forty minutes and chatted with many of our soon-to-be grads.

I’m gonna miss these kids! This crop is “my class” of Honors students, the students who entered the program the same year that I took over as Director. As hard as I try to not play favorites, I have a special affection for this group. They’re bright, they’re hard-working, and sometimes, as well as I think I know them, they can still surprise me.

For instance, one of the quietest students in my 478 class submitted a sprawling response to my prompt for an end-of-semester reflection, a piece in which I ask the students to look back on their service-learning experience, on the interdisciplinary education they’ve received in the Honors Program, and on our class’s consideration of global citizenship to answer the question: what next? What obligations do we have as global citizens?

Though I ask the students to craft a coherent narrative that brings all of these ideas together naturally and organically, most students’ responses are lightly-polished lists of bullet points…

  • Service-learning experience
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Global citizenship

…with a smattering of oblique references to course readings thrown in for good measure. Quincy’s reflection was far-ranging, more than twice as long as most of his peers’, bringing in ideas from several courses he’d taken (including a couple he took during his first year at the university) and from nearly every reading we’d done.

And his reflection was subtle and deep, and daring, treading boldly into areas like happiness, discomfort, personal identity, and evolutionary psychology.

In every class I think about happiness. In my many animal ecology classes I thought about the capacity of happiness in nonhuman creatures, the evolution of emotion, and the role that it plays in the success of a species and an ecosystem. In Humanities 214 I thought about the people of the desert in the Muqaddimah and how they found happiness in the harshest of environments. In my Universe Through a Telescope class I pondered the strange way that learning about the universe and its immensity was simultaneously fascinating and deeply saddening for me

Our senior capstone class inspired my ponderings further. Our discussions about discrimination and acceptance made me consider the role of happiness in those concepts. It took me so long to realize that so many of the issues I had with people or negative sentiments I associated with them were based on my own insecurities and dissatisfactions. Thinking about this made me realize that understanding oneself and one’s emotions is an integral part of being a global citizen. While there are many reasons for hate and discrimination, I believe that happiness (or lack thereof) is a major contributing factor.

Quiet as he was, I feel I didn’t get to know Quincy well this term, but having read his reflection I feel I can safely say he’s ready to move forward from our school and do well in the world.

Meanwhile, I’ve decided I’m going to move ahead with some changes to the 478 curriculum the next time I teach it (likely in Spring 2017). I’m dropping the number of readings (yet to be determined, but likely to include Alexander, Chambers, and a well-chosen work of post-colonial fiction), freeing up more time for discussion on each. I’m going to require, rather than merely recommend, that students coordinate their presentations on the reading they’ve chosen to focus on. I’m going to offer richer opportunities for reflection on ongoing service learning. And, mostly excitingly to me, I’m going to ramp up the multimodality, bringing maker materials to every class and encouraging participation through drawing, sculpting, building, making, making it easier, I hope, for the quieter students, like Quincy, to actively engage in class. I want every class meeting to dance, to reflect the dynamism of ideas the students bring.

So many changes! I feel now is a good time for change, for change is in the air around us, and it’s more than the explosion of spring. For instance, our university is on the verge of adopting a new strategic plan, several months in the making. Though the details aren’t yet public, we know that this polestar piece focuses on four primary goals (also called “strategic directions” by our Chancellor, who presented the plan at the faculty senate meeting I attended yesterday): (1) academic excellence/rigor, (2) student success, (3) community engagement, and (4) organizational capacity. I understand that this sort of document is vague-by-design, a flexible framework, a skeleton onto which bits of meat and muscle will be plopped in the months and years to come…

…yet I can’t help but think of these goals as so airy and uncontroversial as to be meaningless. I mean, what university doesn’t want to achieve student success through academic excellence while bolstering and building up its capacity to do this? The only point that strikes me as at all daring, and therefore meaningful, is (3), and I single this one out because historically we’ve not done a good job at establishing connections with the community. Everything else…? Well, I’d hate to think that we need to remind ourselves to offer excellent learning opportunities to our students or to prepare them to succeed after graduation.

In any case, details TBD. Ultimately, the faculty senate will be the body charged with implementing the plan, and its members proffered a unanimous endorsement in the form of a “sense of the senate” resolution at their meeting yesterday. No breathless, sweat-faced hallelujahs, but no mutters or grumbles either.

One more tale of forward motion, and I’ll call it a day. I closed my last post by vowing “to stay ever cognizant of the privileges and powers promotion [to the rank of full professor] grants to me, and to redouble my efforts in advocating for educational access for all students and equitable treatment of all educators.” To that last point: I talked for a bit yesterday with my colleague Doreen, who, after serving three consecutive one-year contracts at our school, was recently given a three-year contract, giving her a bit more job security and therefore the freedom to commit herself to more meaningful work. “I want to make a serious effort to act and advocate on behalf of contingent faculty,” I told her. “I don’t want to be one of those tenured faculty who just wrings his hands and moans, ‘if only I could help, but that’s the way it is!'” She let me know about her own efforts to bring contingent faculty at our school together, and about the drop-jawed reaction of some tenured folks on hearing of the issues the adjuncts and lecturers face regularly. (“It can’t happen here!” “Well, it happens here.”) I asked her to share more about these conditions, when she gets a chance.

I suspect that the first thing I need to do is educate myself about the issues, both locally and globally. Various organizations (like Faculty Forward) offer resources for learning more about challenges facing part-time faculty (did you know that 22% of part-time faculty live below the poverty line, compared to only 2% for full-time faculty? or that 25% of part-time faculty receive some sort of public assistance like Medicaid, TANF/SNAP benefits, or Earned Income Tax Credits? This and much more here), but I suspect I’ll learn more about the situation on the ground if I ask my contingent faculty friends to share their own stories. I’ve already invited some of them, including Doreen (who, incidentally, will be teaching the sole section of HON 478 in the fall!), to write guest pieces here.

For now, there’s laundry to fold and hummus to make, and I’ve got to get in touch with one more reference for the finalist in my search for a new Honors Program Assistant. Forward, ever forward…

Tiny bubbles

Tiny bubbles

Yesterday morning my Honors 478 students became the ninth section of their course (and sixth led by me) to put on a workshop on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion in a modern multicultural society. Every iteration offers a different take on these topics. Some have chosen to focus on one aspect of personal identity (e.g., race), interrogating that aspect in various contexts and examining its interplay with equity, power, and privilege. Others have deconstructed identity into finer parts, considering several aspects but each less fully than if it had the stage to itself. I was curious to see what direction my students would head in, especially after Samuel’s students presented a new take on the project last week.

My students did not disappoint: in their very well-attended workshop, rather than deconstructing identity into its constituent parts, and rather than tackling diversity-related issues head-on, they chose instead to guide participants through a series of interactive exercises designed to help foster constructive conversation and dialogue with broader groups of interlocutors, getting folks to pop the “bubbles” they often find themselves forced into by Facebook algorithms and homogeneous social circles full of like-minded friends. One activity helped drive home the difference between sympathy and empathy while another helped us to cultivate mindful listening skills. Another challenged us to consider various kinds of service to the community: what’s the difference between charity and volunteering, and when does volunteering cross the line into service learning? And in any case, what party or parties are served? Several students references the course readings, crediting Chambers’s Whose reality counts? with helping them to adopt others’ perspectives and Alexander’s The new Jim Crow with helping them to recognize systemic inequalities.

This summer my colleague Samuel and I will continue to work on our article detailing the workshop activity, with the goal of wrapping it up and submitting it by the summer’s end.

In other news: yesterday I was delighted to learn that I have been recommended for promotion to full professor, appointment pending the approval of our campus’s Chancellor and the school’s Board of Trustees. I can’t imagine achieving this distinction without the tireless help of incredible students, brilliant colleagues, and loving and supportive family and friends. My thanks to all for helping me to make it this far. As I enjoy passing this personal milestone, I promise to stay ever cognizant of the privileges and powers promotion grants to me, and to redouble my efforts in advocating for educational access for all students and equitable treatment of all educators.