Wednesday, December 1, 2010
not even Winter.
I have to say, there are some days in late October and November when all the world seems defined by gloom. My visual life, and a little time to put words and images together, leads to a wider perspective. Not everything will be frozen forever, and beyond the moments when all is, are promises of warmth trending upwards once again.
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
It happened again last week. It became clear to me once again that academic bullying is alive and well at UVM. "Well, faculty have an authority that may be perceived as bullying when used with passion and a certain kind of intent" you might say. "That's the way certain faculty are. They believe themselves to be unquestioned authorities in their field. Their role is to deliver their expert knowledge to their students and their students' role is to take it in and learn it!"
I understand this. Believe me. I wasn't a department chair for five years for nothing. But there's a line that can be transgressed that separates normal, non-punitive authoritarian behavior from punitive, accusatory, and demeaning authoritarian behavior. We all know faculty who are puffed up on themselves, full of self referential commentary, who might also be quite good as teachers. They might even have a tad bit of self-awareness, occasionally poking fun at their puffoonary. I'm not talking about these people, the normal academic authoritarians.
I'm talking about the faculty members who inspire fear, masters and mistresses of the put down, purveyors of the "how dare you question my methods" view of the student/teacher relationship. Faculty members who go beyond normal levels of faculty authoritarianism to another place - the place of academic bully. Faculty members whose classes are filled with students who've learned the survival game of never question anything, agree totally with whatever's being put forth, sit silent and nod in feigned agreement, or come to class overprepared for a random call to answer. (I know, that latter point is maybe what some teacher's want, but taken in the context of all the rest of the academic bully's behavior, it is way out of line as a teaching strategy.)
A major problem with the academic bully is the victims often have no reasonable recourse. Department Chairs are usually powerless to do much more than offer a rebuke. Save sexual misconduct, faculty seem to have, unfortunately, unlimited license in terms of appropriate professorial behavior in their classrooms and offices, even in the internet email to students. Students are generally in a powerless position. If a department has a policy for perceived professorial misconduct, usually the first step is for the student to go back to the abuser and try to have a discussion about the incident - usually alone. Not many students elect to take that option. Some choose to go to a Dean, but Deans often pass the matter back to Department Chairs.
Academic bullying is a dirty secret of universities. Universities would prefer their multiple publics to believe that every class is peopled by faculty and students who care about each other and their curriculum and who are excited about the daily pursuit of knowledge. But students know differently. Secrets such as these fester and boil and rot the reputations of institutions from the inside out. They turn students away from participating in the great good that can be had in provocative academic environments. The dirty secret needs to come into the light of day.
Cases of academic abuse need to be defined, and dealt with from a position of authority and power. Students need a place of recourse other than the office of the perpetrator. Definitions of abuse need to be clear. Conditions of assistance and conditions of sanction need to be clearly stated and understood by all members of the academic community.
For a start, I'd offer the following definition of academic bullying, adapted from the harassment policy of a local school district.
Academic Bullying and Harassment means an incident or incidents of verbal, written, visual, or physical conduct...that have the purpose or effect of demeaning a student and objectively and substantially undermining and detracting from or interfering with a student’s educational performance or access to school resources or creating an objectively intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.
Short of rational process, I might also suggest a series of articles on the subject by the local campus newspaper. If not able to be addressed head on, perhaps a series of vignettes would serve the purpose of putting the university community on notice that such behavior diminishes our ability to live out Our Common Ground statement and will not be tolerated at the University of Vermont.
Friday, October 15, 2010
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
I had flown to Montgomery with an interfaith group of ministers and parishioners from Syracuse, New York where I was learning to be an urban teacher. It had been a tumultuous week in the South and I was far enough distant in age from my parents to finally take the risk and do something big to act out my evolving social consciousness, an action I knew they would not condone. I only joined the last day of the march. But my presence was welcomed by those that had walked the 54 risky miles from Selma. My presence was not welcomed by some others of those along the way into the city who decorated the route with an occasional Confederate Flag and called us names and shouted at us to go home where we belonged. We were well protected by national guardsman on the edges of the march and seasoned parade marshalls who helped us close ranks to gain some distance from angry onlookers. I expected to hear what I heard then. I knew I was safe as long as I stayed with the crowd.
I did not expect to hear what I heard yesterday as the United States House of Representatives passed the most important piece of health care legislation since medicare was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson on July 30, 1965. Racial and homophobic slurs were thrown at John Lewis, Andre Carson, Barney Frank, James Clyburn and other Democrats who decided to walk through Tea Party protesters at the Capital building rather than enter through another entrance.
How far have we come? And how far have we to go? Why, as King said, when the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, do such actions inspire such hateful reactions? Surely the passage of this health care bill is another act of civil justice for thousands of citizens of this country. And yet we have the specter of hundreds of adults emulating the very behavior we legislate against in our schools. Bullying. Overt bullying, modeled and taught and sanctioned seemingly by one of our two political parties, with no one from the minions standing up and saying, "stop."
This is a very scary time in the brief history of our democracy. Frogs die rather than escape when water in which they swim is slowly heated degree by degree to the boiling point. The political climate in this country is becoming more and more toxic for democracy, degree by degree, slur by slur. The legislative branch of our federal government is broken. I feel like a frog in a country where the air around me is becoming increasingly poisoned and pieces of my world are dying.
It makes me wonder how many of those Tea Party shouters, or even their elected representatives, had good teachers and successful school experiences? I wonder how many were ever with teachers who thought much about their learning? I wonder what their schools were like? I wonder where they learned that it was okay to behave like that. That it's okay to send faxes of trees with noosed ropes hanging from their branches to the majority whip of the United States House of Representatives and other minority members of congress.
Universal Design for Learning, for all its good points, does not directly address issues of classroom climate. Much is inferred from the application of UDL principles, but UDL is contentless when it comes to relationship building as a pre-condition to learning. UDL, for all its good points, does not directly ask that faculty teach students how to recognize and deal with difference - differences in opinion, differences in gender, differences in ethnicity, differences in intellectual preparation, differences in prior knowledge. I wonder if it should? Is UDL merely a set of strategies to enhance the metabolism of learning in educational settings? Or is it also a set of strategies that embraces openly and explicitly that the teaching/learning dynamic that UDL promotes is also a moral framework that asserts that the right of every student's learning to be respected. I would like to suggest that UDL is a moral framework that accedes to every learner the right to be recognized and heard and challenged and yes, pushed in a learning environment that nourishes and extends their humanity, never ever diminishing it before their peers or anyone else.
UDL is but one link in this particular universe, the moral universe of the classroom. A second and equally necessary link is the diversity that exists within the classroom itself, the diversity of natural human differences that invite the presence of UDL strategies. There are other links, I'm sure. But let me end here by asserting that our work is moral work and the outcome of this work is just - as in "justice" - learning. It is my hope that as a result of the work we are doing, the children of our students will never learn to bully from watching their Moms and Dads bullying people with whom they have a disagreement. It is my hope that those Moms and Dads would have learned when they were in college that they were smart enough, that their voices would be heard, and that they were important contributors to a learning community in which everyone was better off for the presence of each one. Maybe we can make Representation, Expression, and Engagement operational principles for just learning. I know it's a stretch, but maybe???
Monday, January 11, 2010
We donate when we can. My wife and I have donated more to you than to any president ever before. My donation, this time around, is an idea.
I've been thinking a lot recently about the corruption in Congress. The dollars that pour into the treasuries of congressmen and senators in exchange for votes that go a certain way. Not that it's all that clear cut, I understand. I also wonder the degree to which you have had to compromise your own values with regards to this as well. We heard a little bit about it during the campaign in terms of certain donations to the campaign.
I come from a state that respects the idea of values. Vermont. We're tiny compared to other states, perhaps we can afford to use the value of a Vermont product as one way we sell ourselves commercially just because of the scale of our operation. But I'm also thinking that millions of people voted for you because of what you represented value-wise to the American people, Democrats and cross-over Independents alike. None of what I'm saying here is new.
What may be new, however, is where this confluence of ideas takes me. You are now caught in a very ugly game of politics that you have to play in order to get things done. I imagine it has to stick in your craw, every moment of every day you face the results of special interests stealing the virtue of real debate, the grounds upon which our democratic process rises or falls. This has to give you pause given the heat you've taken from members of your own party over so many principled stands you've taken on the major issues of your administration - the economic bail outs, Guantanamo, single-payer health care, the health care government option, the car companies, and on and on.
Have you or Plouffe or Stewart (not John!) or any one else in the administration even thought about what might happen if you, our sitting president, decided to start a third party movement by yourself based on the values you brought into the campaign? That idea hit me last week and won't let go.
It's probably too early in your administration to do this for sure, but as we get to the next election, God willing we get there, it might put a very interesting twist into the political process. I'm certain you could raise ample money via the internet thus freeing yourself from the monied lobbies; I'm fairly certain you'd get the young back into the fold; it would be an uphill battle for sure but I also think you'd attract good people from both sides of the isle who like you are troubled by the selling out of the legislative branch of our federal government.
I think the system of checks and balances is broken, I think congress is dysfunctional, and I'm thinking a strong third party movement might be the answer to bring the necessary heat to the political process presently construed to effect significant change. I can't think of anyone with more power or credibility to lead it than yourself. You'd need long coat-tails for sure but every paradigm shift has to start somewhere. I thought your election might be the shift we needed but the Republican stonewall built with millions of dollars from individuals and corporations who stood to profit from the status quo took care of that.
Just something to think about. I think the idea might gain some traction. Not exactly hair-brained, admittedly, but "out there" for sure.
Hope you get this and read it. Or even that someone gets it and reads it.
And decides to pass it on.
Image from http://openesf.net/projects/esf-activists-news-network/blog/2008/02/