The F-Word and Its Importance to Learning

Let me be clear before I begin: this is not a post where I bash students. This is a post where I express my befuddlement of student decision-making.

Some context: I teach a 300-level Educational Psychology course. It is required for the major and minor in Education and counts toward the Psychology major and minor. It is designed to be taken after 2 foundational education courses and one in-school practicum. I’ve taught this class (and a more rigorous version of it for graduate students) approximately 14-17 times over the last 3 academic years. It is indeed the course I teach most often. It is therefore the course for which I’ve received the most course evaluations. My average rating for this class is a 4.6 out of 5 (my average for other courses that aren’t as content heavy is a 4.9 out of 5).

The course is usually at capacity with a small wait list. I often have 25 students in the class, save the last two times I taught it where I had about 17 students in each class. The mean and median grade in the course is always a B+…except for the last two times I taught it. These last two experiences were also different than the prior 12-15 experiences because sophomores (as opposed to juniors) constituted the majority of the student demographic.

Educational Psychology, like most of my courses, is all about skill development. Thinking skills and writing skills. More specifically, it is about interpreting the content and expressing your interpretation in a comprehensible and supported fashion. My tag line for the course is “If you sell it, I can buy it.” The students come to understand that all I want them to do is adequately defend their beliefs. This involves a high level of metacognitive thinking, reasoning, analysis, and synthesis. It is the final two that trip them up. Students are so used to summarizing and describing, they have little experience with analyzing and synthesizing. They have been asked to share their opinions often, but they have not been asked to justify them in a scholarly manner. I therefore repeat the following phrase many times throughout the course: “I don’t care what you think. I care why you think it”.

The assessments of the course are designed to measure their increasing cognitive skills. They are required to write reflections on course readings 5 times during the course (they choose which times) within which they synthesize 2 readings. The syllabus clearly states that these reflections are not a place to give their opinions of the readings. On the contrary, they are a place where they should discuss why  different theories [mis]align with one another. They have a hard time differentiating this from comparing and contrasting. The reflections total 10% of their final grade.

Other assessments include a 2-day/4 hour classroom observation of another college course where students must figure out how theories translate to pedagogical practice. They are asked to identify where they see theories ‘in action’ and analyze why a professor makes the pedagogical decisions they do. This assignment is worth 25% of their grade and occurs two thirds of the way through the course.

Students are also alphabetically assigned to a small group (2-3) that presents an assigned reading for the day. The readings are theoretical reviews and are as short as 4 pages. Presentations last 45 minutes. This assignment is worth 10% of their grade and is the assignment on which they do the best.

There is a final essay and a final exam for the course, each worth 25% of their grade. The essay is a persuasive essay in which students must advocate for or against a particular learning theory for a specific age group based upon their developmental capabilities. They are required to support their argument with 2 empirical articles. It is a 5-7 page paper due on the last day of class.

The final exam is short essay (1 page per question) and contains 10 questions, each with different point values. Students are to choose 4 questions to answer. If they choose the four lowest valued questions and get them correct, their maximum score is 50 points or a letter grade of C. If they choose the four most difficult questions and get them right, their maximum score is 100 or a letter grade of A. They have 4 hours to take the closed-note exam. It is designed to be done in 1 hour.

Phew. I say all of that because it is necessary context to understand the purpose of this post. This most recent time I taught the course, I had 4 students drop the class. Now, two of them dropped for medical reasons and went home for the remainder of the term. One dropped one third of the way through the course because he was failing and decided he didn’t need the class for his minor and saw no reason to get a low grade when it was unnecessary. A fourth dropped 85% of the way through the course because she didn’t want the low grade to lower her GPA. She plans to retake the class next fall. Two more students came to my office to tell me they too were considering dropping the course, but I managed to put the course in perspective and they stayed enrolled.

What is stunning to me in this scenario are two things: 1) students even considering dropping a course as a viable academic option and 2) students dropping a course when they still have 55-65% of their grade unaccounted for.

I know many people will read this and say it is my fault as the teacher that students are dropping. I disagree both on a personal level but more so on a pedagogical level. I contacted the students two months before the course began, shared the syllabus and communicated the level of rigor of a 300-level course, especially for sophomores. I shared with them my focus on skills, not content. I gave tips for how to prepare for the course. I provided all rubrics for all assignments before the course even began. Most of all, I gave clear instructions in a multiple of ways, many times. I answered every email inquiry within 12 hours and met with students before and after class to help craft outlines for assignments and to provide tips on how to read course texts. I also give extensive feedback on all assignments.

All teachers want their students to do well and I am no different. But I also want my students to progress and actually acquire some skills they didn’t have before my course. I am less concerned with their final grade and more concerned with their final cognitive state. I monitor their progression via their reflections and pop quizzes (which 50% of do not count against students). I attend to their comments in class and their questions. I alter my daily lesson plans to address the gaps I see in their reflections.

I am therefore stunned when a student comes to me expressing a desire to withdraw from a course before they’ve given themselves a chance to develop. This is especially ironic in a course about the learning process. While they clearly articulate their need to develop self-regulatory learning strategies, they are so in fear of failure, they do not give themselves that opportunity. It would’ve never occurred to me to drop a class in college. Once I was enrolled, I was committed. If I was not doing well in a course, I redoubled my efforts and if that didn’t work (and trust me, there were times it didn’t), I reconciled myself with the fact that I was not going to receive an A, A- or B+. While I of course blamed the professor for their alleged poor teaching/poor instructions/lack of feedback, it never occurred to me to do anything other than complete the course.

I certainly would not drop a course when 2/3 of my points were still available. I like to think I have more confidence in myself than to quit 30% of the way into a process. But then again, I’ve always viewed learning as a process. I am not sure my students view it the same way.

A process involves change over time. It requires adaption and reflexivity. A process is concerned with growth instead of the outcome. While I kept a keen eye on my GPA, I always measured my success by how much I determined I’d learned. And my learning was not restricted to content. In most cases, it was learning about my strengths and weaknesses as a student. I developed strategies and coping mechanisms when the content was a bit beyond me (hello, statistics!). If I ended up with a B- in a course (what’s up, Intro Psych?!?!), I was proud of myself for figuring out how to get that grade instead of the C- I might have earned if I didn’t adjust my study skills.

There has been a lot of chatter circling social media about the value of failure. Indeed, in my Ed Psych course we spend time discussing that very matter within the context of fixed versus growth mindsets and self-regulatory learning. We address it again during our discussion of motivation and self-efficacy. The students understand the importance of experiencing failure to cognitive growth. But they have a hard time feeling it.

While only 1 student has ever truly failed this course (students view a B- or C as failing), I don’t want to be the professor who facilitates this type of experiential learning, but I see the value in it. Failure is where you experience growth. It is when you assess your decisions and their effect on the outcomes. It is when you learn how and of whom to ask questions. It is when you force yourself to be honest about who you are and what you are capable of doing. One must go through failure to develop the skills to get passed it.

I am concerned we’ve established a system that facilitates students walking around it.

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The Pitfalls and Privilege of Pass/Fail

I’ve never left a faculty meeting more incensed than I did today. For over 2 hours, the faculty body at my College nitpicked over the smallest things such as the presence or absence of 1 additional faculty member on the College writing committee/international programs committee/advancement committee/honor council. The primary reason for these amendments to a 1-year piloted proposal was that faculty should not risk losing their voice. What’s more is that we must ensure that every academic division has equal voice in these committees. God forbid the staff or even worse, the students, have more to say than us. For that reason, we must invoke 2 hours of conversation about 5 faculty slots on 4 College committees.

I stayed through those tedious conversations and did not actually get upset until the final bullet point on the agenda: should students be limited to 6 Pass/Fail courses?

pass fail

Now let’s take first things first. I have NO IDEA why students are allowed to take more than ONE course pass/fail. Who goes to college and doesn’t want to be assessed? But I will get to that in a second. Two primary arguments in support of UNLIMITED pass/fail were: a) what if the student is experiencing mental or physical health issues and can’t meet course requirements? b) it encourages students to explore different academic disciplines without the risk of a low grade affecting their GPA.

EXCUSE ME?????  As a psychologist, I am appalled we think we should encourage students with proven mental or physical illness to remain in college instead of taking a medical leave of absence and focusing on their health. This type of implicit expectation makes students who do choose to prioritize their health feel lesser than students who ‘tough it out’. As a result, we’ve seen the increase of college students with mental health diagnoses—especially anxiety disorders—rapidly increase over the last few years. We’ve consequently seen an increase in suicides and suicide attempts. We are so heavily invested in the culture of achievement that we are telling students to ignore their health needs and to help you do so, we will lower the standards for you just so you can ‘pass’ this course.

And yes. Taking a course pass/fail is indeed lowering the standards for that student. We are in essence saying that if you master 60% of the content (or 65%–whatever the cut off is for a D), that is good enough for you to receive college credit toward a Bachelor’s degree. In what vocation are you allowed to do just 60% of your job duties and still receive a pay check? What teacher begins a course hoping that students get 60% of the content? In what world is 60% proficiency acceptable?

I will tell you what world: the world of the privileged. The world where there is a perpetual and unyielding safety net. The world where there are no consequences associated with any decisions because someone else is there to either mitigate risk or assume it for them. Coming to college is in itself a risky decision. You are moving away from your family and your home and striking out on a new adventure full of social, emotional and academic challenges. Every course for which students sign up is a risk. No one but the professor knows the demands of that course and what it will take to be successful. It is not the faculty’s job to mitigate student risk. It is our job to ensure we provide them with the tools necessary to manage risk. If you enroll in Organic Chemistry because you were awesome in chemistry in high school, then you are knowingly making a decision to enroll in a course in which you may not earn an A. You are not entitled to an A. It is not my job to give you an A. You earn what you earn. And if you earn a D, deal with the consequences of it.

My next concern is with the cognitive concomitants of pass/fail. Any educational or social psychologist familiar with role theory understands the importance of expectations and accountability in the construction of a role. The message we are sending with unlimited pass/fails is that we don’t expect much of you in your role of student and we will in fact, give you the same reward for taking this course as someone who is being evaluated and held to higher standards. We are therefore failing to properly teach the rights, duties, obligations, and expectations of their social role in a college context. Empirical research suggests that being held accountable for one’s role behaviors is correlated with higher effort, higher intrinsic motivation to learn, an incremental view of intelligence, and more collaborative behaviors. To say it more simply, when students are not held accountable, they don’t invest in their learning. And for a school charging 55k a year, we are certainly encouraging a financial investment.

Lastly, the driving force behind my outrage is how this particular policy disadvantages marginalized groups lacking the social capital to effectively use it. Students who take a lot of courses pass/fail are those who don’t understand the long term consequences of a transcript with 4 courses without grades. Students from highly educated families have parents who tell them the pitfalls of not having a GPA or not being able to represent your competency through course grades. Students from families whose parents may not have attended college, who don’t know how higher education functions, or who’ve never had to produce an academic transcript for employment do not automatically know how to effectively use pass/fail options. When students come to me proposing to take a course pass/fail, I am sure to ask the following questions: How can a prospective employer evaluate your job readiness when all you have is a listing of courses with credit allocations beside it? How do they know your differential proficiencies in the discipline when your 200 level courses have the same outcome as your 400 level courses?  How will you be able to relay your achievement when a 90% is being interpreted as a 60%?

What’s more is the social perception of students who take classes pass/fail. I strongly believe that marginalized students enacting this option will be viewed differently than wealthy and/or white and/or legacy students doing the same. If I, as a 20 year old black girl, presented a transcript to prospective PhD programs with a lot of pass/fail courses, I would have been perceived as not having confidence in my abilities, not having a strong skill set, or afraid of failure. My white friends on the other hand would be perceived as academically venturesome, courageous, and smart in their decision to mitigate risk.

I was outraged that this dichotomy was not voiced at the faculty meeting. Where was the representation of marginalized students’ voices? Where were the faculty speaking on behalf of the students who are in my office in tears saying ‘I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to take courses pass/fail’? Faculty were instead concerned with ‘punishing’ students for taking a course outside of their comfort zone. They were also concerned with ‘students who are managing anxiety issues and wouldn’t be allowed to count a pass/fail course in their graduation credits’. Or my favorite, ‘the logistics of how much work it will take to track how many pass/fail courses a student has taken.’

At this point it is natural for you to wonder why I did not stand up and say these very things. I was close. So close, I did stand up. So close that a senior colleague sitting behind me asked what I was going to say and then suggested I ‘not say anything because this really only affects about 5% of the student body who actually take 8 or more courses pass/fail.’

Translation: those 5% are not worth this discussion.

That sentiment is what caused me to walk out. Her comment reinforced what I already knew to be true: anything I said would fall on deaf ears. If there is one thing I’ve learned in 3 years of these meetings is that voices are only heard when people consent to listen.

 

The Inevitability of Guilt When Teaching Social Justice

I just finished reading and grading 24 ten-page reflexive essays for my Urban Education course. The reflexive essay was a final essay where students were asked to discuss how they changed throughout the course; more specifically, how their thinking changed. I asked them to analyze not only how, but also why. What provoked this change? And more importantly, why does it matter?

This assignment proved difficult for them because most of them have never been asked to write ten pages about themselves that was not an autobiography. Indeed I cautioned them against telling me stories about their own schooling in contrast to the urban schools that were the case studies of our readings, documentaries and course discussions.

I also told them they could not write about capital—cultural, social, financial or navigational. Not only do they not have the sociological background to truly understand the nuanced ways in which these constructs operate, they also needed to be challenged to see beyond the obvious. Yes, your parents’ money, connections and knowledge of the education system afforded you opportunities many students do not have. I do not care to hear that narrative again. What I want to hear is how my students are thinking about themselves in relation to issues of privilege and power in a stratified system.

And that is what I got (for the most part).

First, I want to express my pride in my students. They grappled with challenging and novel material coupled with the reality of spending many hours a week working at a community center in low income neighborhoods. They had to take the public bus (for many of them this was their first time on public transportation), complete an application for social services (e.g., food stamps, cash assistance, childcare, etc) and develop a program proposal to give their community center that met the center’s needs (instead of what my students perceived the center needed). All the while, they watched documentaries chronicling the school to prison pipeline, read academic articles chock full of statistics about gentrification (i.e. urban renewal) and school segregation, and listened to a podcast about gang violence in Chicago public schools. Every day they came to class prepared (okay, maybe not all of them were prepared every day), participated in class discussion and asked deep and difficult questions about the future of urban schooling in a system that sets poor students up to fail. I could not be prouder of their investment in, and commitment to, the course.

I am therefore not surprised that so many of their reflexive essays focused on their own privilege and how the recognition of their privilege positions them to affect social change.

What did surprise me was that despite their burgeoning understanding of their own unearned racial, economic and sexual entitlements, they still view themselves as outsiders powerless to influence change.

I did not notice this trend in their writing until in the second to last paper I graded, a student pointed out that she could have written a paper arguing for how someone with power and privilege can create change, but she did not because *‘good intentions do not create sustainable results.’

After pausing for a moment, I thought back and realized that not a single student wrote about how they could use their privilege to create change. In fact, most of them expressed sentiments of hopelessness and defeatism after taking this course and learning of the systemic problems sustaining the cycle of poverty. Many replaced their prior desire to teach in urban schools (one student titled his paper “Why I Won’t Teach”) or join TFA with a new goal of teaching in private schools because they recognize they do not possess the proper ‘background’ to truly relate to the students. Every student spoke of culturally relevant teachers and warm demander pedagogy as the ray of sunshine and strand of hope in urban schools. Yet, only one student acknowledged that despite the status with which she was born, she would do her best to become an educator who knows her students, lives in the community with her students and builds long lasting relationships with students and their families.

In class, I made a point to explicitly say ‘I am not here to encourage anyone to be a classroom teacher. I am also not here to discourage anyone from being a classroom teacher. I am here to inform you about the history and context of urban public schooling. For those who want to teach, I implore you to teach where you will be most effective.’

It is funny how students latch on to certain things. My students were clearly affected by Gloria Ladson-Billings’ theory of culturally relevant teachers and her discussion of the achievement debt. They almost all recalled statistics from the introduction of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. And every student quoted Allan Johnson’s writing on privilege. They also took to heart my advice to teach where you will be most effective. But they seem to have forgotten the many times I described teacher preparation programs that specifically train you in culturally relevant pedagogy. social justice

This is what I want to believe happened: they forgot. They tuned out at that point. This is the explanation I’d like to have for their insistence that despite their privileged positions they can do nothing to help those less privileged. The person in me wants to believe that my students—my smart, funny, warm hearted students—are not hiding in their privilege, using it as a reason for why they can’t truly understand the problems and will therefore do more harm than good in any urban school.

But alas, the teacher in me sees with keen eyes. I see which quotes they chose; I see their diction when speaking about black and Hispanic youth as ‘they’; I see the word guilt 81 times across 24 papers (yes, I counted); I see the juxtaposition of their descriptors of private school with the words used by Kozol in Savage Inequalities; I see their struggle to find their entry point into a system with which they have no experience. With which they feel no connection.

They feel no connection.

Not to the students whose lives are so different than their own. Not to the teachers whose daily struggle to find textbooks has never been experienced by their teacher-relatives in private schools. Not to me who (in the words of one student) “had experiences in her primary and secondary education that led her to first become passionate about the subject and then become a scholar of it.”

They feel guilt. And shame. And social obligation (three papers were about this). They acknowledge that in their privileged positions they have the luxury of feigned ignorance. In fact, one student wrote:

“Discovering so many hidden truths in this class has been like parting the clouds, and finally allowing the shadow of privilege to be cast by direct sunlight. When I choose to stay in the shade of ignorance and obliviousness, my privilege is not apparent and cannot bring me the anguish caused by unjust advantages I don’t feel that I deserve; in the shade, I benefit from Johnson’s ‘luxury of obliviousness’ (2006, p.22). When the sun of reality shines upon me, I remember that my privilege is always present, even when I do not see it or feel its effects.”

They know that what they’ve been doing is wrong, yet they have no solutions for how to do anything differently. One of my favorite passages from a student was:

“In third world countries there is a concept called ‘poorism’. This is where tour companies take tourists into slums and walk them through the slum, let them take pictures of the hungry disheveled kids, and maybe they even take the local form of transportation. These companies give tourists a glimpse of poverty so that they can return home and exclaim to all their friends that they know poverty, how it changed who they are, and then they can share that picture of a cute African child. However, two months later, they are back to where they started…I don’t want this class to be poorism in America for me.”

I don’t know how to make this class not be poorism for them. I am unsure of how to create an emotional connection between students and the text. But quotes like these leave me certain that I’ve created a cognitive connection and perhaps, for now, that’s all I can ask of 19 year olds. And of myself.

 

 *Note: Permission was asked of all students throughout the course to use quotes from their papers in this blog and in any future research.

On Teaching White Teachers to Teach [Other] Students

blurredlines1Teach where you will be most effective.

I say this sentence at least once per 3-5 hour class with my Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) students. I say this while looking around the room at their white/privileged/middle and upper class faces. I say this in department meetings to my white/privileged/upper class colleagues in the teacher preparation program. I say this to undermine the implicit message that those who ‘have’ should share with those ‘in need’. I exclaim this to explicitly reject the old narrative of the white teacher savior coming to help them. You know the story. You can probably recite it word for word. It goes like this:

*push play on Bone Thugs in Harmony*

The poor/urban/at-risk black/Hispanic/immigrant kids are in danger. They live in a gang infested neighborhood in single parent households with barely literate hardworking mothers trying to make up for the fact that dad/brother/uncle is in prison and you yourself are a (soon-to-be) pregnant teenager. Then, out of nowhere, the unqualified second career substitute teacher arrives in your not-enough-desk-having classroom with her (because it’s almost always a woman who can nurture us the ways our mothers can’t despite centuries of being the mammy) blond/brown hair, blue/green/grey eyes, thin yet athletic stature and radiant smile.

She is nervous because she’s never been around people like this but she is smiling. She smiles because she feels empowered. She is doing her part to make this world better by teaching these kids. She doesn’t have license or endorsement number one. She doesn’t have even 50 hours of classroom experience in a state that requires 600. In essence, she doesn’t have a clue. But there Michelle Pfieffer and Hillary Swank are to save us from our dangerous minds to help us become freedom writers.

I pass.

In one of my graduate courses I spend two weeks with MATs right before they graduate helping them understand the nuances of instructional differentiation. Until that class, they’ve been taught to differentiate based upon student ability. But I help them understand they must differentiate based upon student….everything. We spend a day each on language, income, sexuality, homelessness, delinquency, and race (among other variables). The race day is of course the most uncomfortable day because for my mostly white teacher candidates, they’ve never had to confront the intersection of their identity with those of their students.

In my first year I learned that texts do a much better job of articulating the intricacies of interracial interactions than I ever could. My passion, which on every other topical day is motivating, is frightening for them. Perhaps because the word ‘race’ primes my blackness whereas all of the other course topics can be swept under the rug of my professordom because I do not wear my socioeconomic status, sexuality, address, or criminal record on my face. Or perhaps because I am a real-life, in your face, counterargument to colorblindness.

To get past their hesitancy, I found an article that is particularly powerful as they are forced to label themselves instead of their students. In 2005 Nora Hyland published an article entitled Being a Good Teacher of Black Students? White Teachers and Unintentional Racism. In this summary of a qualitative study, she describes four teachers who embody the ways most white teachers approach their role in a classroom of [other] students. Each teacher was represented by a guiding principle: A good teacher of Black students is a helper; A good teacher of students of color is assimilated; A good teacher of students of color is an intercultural communicator; A good teacher of students of color is a radical.

Though the principles alone can’t possible relay the (un?)intentional racism embedded in their teaching practices, we can highlight how their word choices serve to subjugate the [other] student as a being in need of help, whose goal should be to fit in despite not mastering the language of power and behaving in deviant, radical ways.

Sigh…this story, like so many stories in our education system is old and tiresome. Instead of trying to undo a lifetime worth of educational experiences through which my MATs were made to learn and live this narrative, I teach them another story. One where [other] students excel in the classroom despite being of no consequence to educational leaders and policy makers.

In this story, classroom teachers are effective because they know their students. They are not interloping do-gooders on a spring break trip to build wells in a foreign country. They do not step into a classroom with the mindset of me and them. They do not see themselves as helpers or cultural brokers. They are not afraid of their students because of how they dress or speak. They do not hide behind district policies as a reason for not visiting students’ homes.

They do not need to do any of this. In fact, it never occurs to them to do any of this. Because these teachers are them. They live in the neighborhoods where their students live. They shop, eat and pray at the same establishments frequented by their students’ families. They understand (though may not adopt) students’ choice of clothing, music, and slang. They track down parents anyway they can, recognizing and respecting that parents’ life contexts may be different than their own.

I am not saying effective teachers of [other] students must share backgrounds with their students; but they must share the present. You do not have to look like your students to know them or love them; but you must understand your students to teach them.

Every year I welcome a new cohort of MATs who’ve chosen this profession to ‘help children learn’. I always want to ask them: which children?

 

 

 

Lifting as I Climb: Supporting Students of Color at a Predominately White Institution

we rise

 

 

At the end of every academic year, I like to sit down with 2-3 students of color with whom I’ve established a relationship during the course of the year. Most often, these are students who have not been in my classes but whom I know through other mediums. I have lunch with each of them to hear about their year and their summer plans. I do this for multiple reasons. First, I want the students to know that I truly do care about their experiences and am a source of support/guidance if they ever need me. Next, I do this because I am truly curious about what exactly students of color do on a campus where they are outnumbered 9:1 by their white classmates. What organizations and clubs are they a part of? How does it feel to be in classes where your voice represents an entire demographic? (though I can speak to that myself) How does it feel not being included on skiing, hiking, and camping trips, not because you are not invited, but because you do not share the interests of your classmates? Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I want to know what is [not] working for them. How can they be better supported socially, emotionally, and academically? How can I, as a junior faculty member, helps students of color succeed at our predominately white institution (PWI)?

Good news first: the wonderful upperclass students of color took it upon themselves to mentor freshmen students of color. This year, my institution had a record number of self-identified ethnic minorities, and in response, the upperclassmen mobilized to ensure these students did not feel the sense of abandonment and isolation they experienced in their freshmen year. Their attempts yielded mixed outcomes. Some freshmen responded very well to the concept of having a mentor. In fact, I know of one duo who were nearly inseparable all year despite the fact that one was a black senior from outside of Chicago and the other a freshman from Zambia by way of Houston. But I also know of another duo who did not click despite the multiple efforts of a black female upperclassmen from Chicago to engage a black female freshman from Louisiana.

In a way I was relieved to hear of the pushback some upperclassmen experienced from freshmen of color. I was relieved because I too experienced similar resistance and was baffled as to why some students, particularly women of color, were so reticent to accept my help. In an effort to understand the mind of an 18-year-old, I asked one of my mentees from last year why a particular student was so hostile to me. She looked at me and laughed and said “Do you really not know?”  I responded “No, I really don’t. She is so rude to me and I can’t figure out why.”  Pulling herself together, my mentee said “Because she’s threatened”.

I was stunned. It never occurred to me that at 27 years old, with skin the same color as hers, hair the same texture and style as hers, and family living in the same region as hers, that my student would be threatened by me. I pushed my mentee to expound and in the end, what she said makes perfect sense. Students of color do not want to underperform in front of those whom occupy similar social spaces.

Let me elaborate. Social Learning and Self-efficacy theories explain this best. We are most influenced–and motivated–by those whom we deem similar to ourselves. It follows then that we are also most threatened by those same people, who because of their physical appearance and family history, might have particular insight into our experience. In short, the opinions of in-group members matter much  more than the opinions of out-group members.

Yes, this could indeed be the case. I think group membership is especially salient in contexts when induction into a group seems unlikely. For example, when you are living in a state 1000 miles from home whose primary selling point is the great outdoors, and you’ve never left your home state or been outside after the street lights came on, finding like-minded people is a daunting task. So when you do, their acceptance of you is that much more important. There are no safety friends (or faculty) on whom to rely in case you are not chosen. There is no secondary (or primary in this case) historically black Greek fraternity or sorority in whose process you could participate. There are no sports teams whose rules are even remotely familiar to you (I am reminded of my first experiences learning about Crew upon matriculation at Dartmouth). There are no student organizations whose sociopolitical agenda is akin to your own. If you are not one of the dynamic people who can carve a space for themselves in any social group, it is all or nothing. So you [re]act out of fear. You aggressively assert yourself  in the hopes that this strategy will earn respect: the scholarly version of street credibility.

But street cred matters little in the halls of Academe. It does not earn you As, write you letters of recommendation, or even ensure friendships. What it does is make certain you don’t ask for help when needed. Or be open to advice from more knowledgeable others. Or be given the same opportunities to learn less defensive students obtain.

I wonder from whence this defensiveness originates. I know in the African-American community, pride is very much alive and well. It has been both a catalyst for political change and a barrier to educational advancement. It is one of the many things I admire about my community, but also one of the things that terrifies me about our future.

I am similarly scared for my students who wear their pride like a cloak of invisibility. They throw it on hoping that its presence will hide them from nosy faculty members known to ask too many questions. They huddle beneath it thinking themselves impervious to external threats of academic failure and social ostracism.

But this is not a fictional story and no one else’s sacrifice can save you.

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I met with the Faculty of Color Caucus today and expressed my concern that our students of color were not receiving the support they needed to be successful. And with 40 more students of color in the incoming freshmen class, this problem is sure to deepen as well as widen. A senior (faculty) woman of color stated her befuddlement that in all her years at the college, rarely have students of color even taken her classes, nonetheless come to her for guidance. I responded: so we go to them.

And we will. We have a plan. We are committed to their success. I just hope they are as well.

Suzy Weiss, We Don’t Want You in Our Classes

Given the recent uproar about Suzy Weiss , I of course need to write about college admissions processes. People are angry and bitter because Suzy—who had great GPA and SAT scores—was not admitted to 4 prestigious schools. Other people are angry because in her frustration about rejection, Suzy said she didn’t get in because she did not help schools meet their diversity quota.

Now, let’s start with the fact that Suzy thinks she should have gotten in solely off her ‘objective’ summative measures of achievement and her ‘hard work over the past four years’. Suzy and her father must be living under a rock beneath their 700k home. For the last 2 decades truly objective and empirical research has been done that reveals the biased nature of the SAT but more so, its lack of predictive validity. I won’t bore you with citations and references, but this information is easily found if you know how to use any scholarly database. The reason why so many colleges are moving away from heavy reliance on GPA and test scores is because frankly, they mean NOTHING in relation to future academic success in college. A correlation of .3 and a low Beta coefficient ensure that admissions offices are looking at better indicators of college success, like qualitative and behavioral characteristics of applicants. Your academic skills (e.g., time management, organization, help-seeking), self-efficacy, motivation to learn, perception of self, long-term goals, initiative, and honesty HAVE been demonstrated to be predictors of college achievement (again, search any scholarly database for these studies). It makes sense then that colleges are now searching for applicants whose transcripts, letters of rec, and personal statements indicate these qualities, not how well you can memorize information and employ test-taking strategies.

Suzy’s GPA is not an indicator of academic prowess. It may in fact be an indicator that Suzy took easy classes to boost her GPA, or that Suzy’s AP coursework was less than rigorous, or that Suzy went to a private school with grade inflation or grading curves. Or maybe Suzy is bright and did not seek opportunities to challenge herself. When there are ceiling effects in a data set, any person with a brain thinks: this assessment may not be a good one. And what is her GPA out of? A 5.0? a 4.5? What was Suzy’s class rank? Was she #1 or #45? I graduated high school with a 4.2/4.5 GPA and I was barely in the top 10% of my class. These isolated numbers mean nothing without context in which to interpret. And even with that context, again—it has very little to do with the context of college. ‘Rigorous’ classes in high school often bear no resemblance to college courses. Expectations are different, class sizes are different, the amount of support/guidance is different, the social environment is different. Success in one has very little relation to success in the other.

The fact that Suzy felt entitled to acceptance letters is representative of her ignorance. Does she not know that numerically, the odds of her being accepted into a top tier college are significantly lower than they would’ve been 10 years ago?  To maintain the quality of education, Ivy League schools have not increased their class size (and I agree with this decision) despite a surge in applicants. My own alma mater had 22k applicants for a freshmen class of 1000. Harvard admitted a record low 5.8% of their 35k applicants. Brown and Yale received 29k applicants, Cornell got 40k, Penn 31k, Columbia 33k, and Princeton 26k. Suzy, you are ONE person among tens of thousands. What makes you better than the next person who also has a 4.5 GPA and an even higher SAT score? What makes you better than the person with a 3.7 GPA, 1900 SAT, and 3 internships? Perhaps you should’ve been doing something to add some depth to your application instead of turning your nose at people who actually did something in high school besides watch tv and quit every activity you ever joined (and you can blame your parents for ‘giving up on parenting’. Perhaps you should write them a letter). While you were out running the streets and coming in the house hoping to not wake your parents up, other high schoolers were exploring their interests and pursuing opportunities to develop into a well-rounded individual. A person who can excel in a holistic admissions processes instead of an academic process.

So no, Suzy, diversity is not more important than test scores but it is equally as important. ‘Wearing a headdress’ and sleeping with someone of the same sex is not how your competition received acceptance letters. They got their letters despite having darker skin and living in a society where they can’t even marry the person they love. Some of them got in despite not having parents who can afford tutors, test prep classes, and for their child to roam the streets unsupervised. They got in despite competing against the likes of you who have been given (and taken for granted) academic opportunities their schools, districts, or states may not have offered. They got in because frankly, they are better than you.

you suck

See, these students would never have made the rude, elitist, entitled, disrespectful comments you made. These people are humble and open to new experiences. These people are compassionate and understanding of difference. These people are the ones we professors want in our classes.

These people are the ones with college acceptance letters.