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A Plea to Faculty in Fall, 2017

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I’ve argued that universities have deep resources to re-teach to society the importance of civil discourse among opposing viewpoints in a shared search for the truth (see here). Indeed, I believe they have a unique responsibility at this moment in history to act vigorously on this part of their societal role.

It occurs to me that, in every university class I have ever experienced, the course material presents alternative viewpoints on each topic. In science classes, for example, it is common to introduce current understanding of a phenomenon by illustrating the evolution of ideas as discoveries evolved over the decades. Students learn that what was accepted as truth at one point of time was overturned by the march of scientific progress. Usually, at moments of paradigm shifts, there were strong conflicts within the field. Exposing students to those conflicts and how they were resolved – first, with confrontation of opposing theories and then with resolution through new findings – is an important lesson.

In humanities courses, making interpretative judgments about textual or visual material are part of the learning process. The success of a single text in generating multiple interpretations is a testament to its richness, but students need to learn to dissect and debate alternative interpretations. Articulating the evidence for alternative interpretations is a key skill.

In social science courses, alternative theories that explain political, social, and economic behavior are the meat of the disciplines. Classes teach these alternative theories and debate their utility to explain “ground truth.” Learning the relative strengths and weaknesses of alternative theories is knowledge needed to “do” social science.

So what do faculty have to offer in a society where all visual and print media are displaying people shouting and roughing up each other over opposing viewpoints? How could classroom experiences teach skills that might help our students learn to be leaders in a world of strongly conflicting views?

Very minor tweaks to courses could have students engage the opposing viewpoints in the course material in an active way. These classroom exercises would teach exactly what the academy excels at – debate discourse that focuses on opposing ideas not opposing actors, that identifies the key ideas of the viewpoints that conflict, that requires evidence to be presented, and that requires the actors to honestly admit when they have no evidence to refute an argument.

Some of the students who come to us this fall have not witnessed, to any important degree, this type of discourse. It is not being generated by our current society in sufficient volume. We need to show them how it’s done.

Each of our classes could illustrate these norms of confrontation of opposing viewpoints. Involving the students actively in simulating these dialogues might act as a small step forward in our students learning the skills of civil discourse and honest shared dialogue in a common search for the truth.

Universities need to do all they can to model the behavior of civil discourse about conflicting ideas. But institutions are really just collections of individuals. All of us at Georgetown have a stake in this.

A Unique Responsibility of Universities

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There are features of academia so essential to its nature that those within it sometimes fail to appreciate their importance.

Almost every attribute of a university is designed to engage dialectical interchanges — formal arguments sequentially presented in a “cooperative conflict” with shared goals of seeking truth. Sometimes the iterations of the argument take place slowly, with one book challenging the interpretations of another book published years earlier. Sometimes the dialogue happens more rapidly, in professional meetings with scholars face-to-face presenting alternative viewpoints.

Universities thrive on intellectual conflicts. However, the conflicts are governed by strong, but unwritten norms. First, the conflicts are not conflicts between persons but conflicts between ideas. Arguments are totally focused on alternative pieces of evidence that lead to different conclusions. Ad hominem arguments are simply not seen as valid and indeed lead to reduced credibility of those who forward them. Second, much of the interchange is focused on whether the actors are addressing the most important question and limiting the facts to that question. It is inappropriate and unwise to change the question in the middle of an argument. Third, while opinion and value judgments are inevitable in human discourse, the standard of interchange is use of objective evidence. The actors are required to submit their evidence for all to review. The more objective, replicable, and sound, the evidence is, the more influential is their argument. Hence, it is common for academics to avoid expressing their emotion-based opinions without an explicit disclaimer. Fourth, in many fields there are norms that require academics faced with new evidence to change their conclusions. Careful scholars using the scientific method explicitly state that their current knowledge is really the current state of the field, which they hope will become more and more sophisticated and insightful over time. All scholarship, in some way, has a goal of overturning earlier understanding by presenting new evidence to support new conclusions. Fifth, the intellectual dialectic needs multiple parties in the discourse. Hence, academics actively seek out those who see things differently. Without understanding a different theory of the case, one doesn’t know what evidence needs to be assembled to refute it. Hence, the debates and discourses are mutually beneficial to the opposing parties, in order to make more robust their own viewpoints or to provide new insights that are better descriptors of the truth.

One of my most vivid memories of a classroom display of this was when I co-taught a course with a colleague with whom I disagreed. We chose to display these disagreements in front the class. It worked to wake up the class, who, I guessed, had never witnessed such a display. We argued the alternative points of two approaches, with point-counterpoint. We continued the debate over class episodes. We chose to structure the discussion to illustrate the points above. We explicitly identified the question on which we disagreed; we went through the steps of logic. We ended by noting the absence of information that led to our current disagreement, and what further scholarship was needed to clear it up – in essence, “What evidence would it take to change your mind?”

We live in a world where day-to-day discourse on opposing viewpoints contains few of the properties of the intellectual dialectic described above. Popular media display multiple actors shouting over one another. There is little listening and much talking. There is no feature that suggests that the speakers share a goal of seeking understanding, but rather they are proselytizing pre-specified canons of their ideology.

So, I don’t think universities should be shy at this moment in history. We have real contributions to make to society. We offer calm, thoughtful, evidence-based exchanges of differing viewpoints as a vehicle of communion in seeking the truth. This is increasingly in short supply, but it seems that the demand for this is growing.

“Groupiness” in Scholarship

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The cultures of scholarship are highly variable across the disciplines. Some fields are filled with single scholars doing their work in isolation. Others consist of large teams, with separate roles for each member or for different universities in cross-university consortia. Recent reading, talking to employers, and watching events in the science research sector, have made me think about whether we’re preparing our graduate students for both kinds of scholarship.

Some years ago the National Academies of Engineering issued a grand challenges report. The purpose of the report was to focus attention of the field on complicated unsolved problems like making solar energy economical, restoring and improving urban infrastructure, and providing universal access to clean water. Most all of those activities are taking place within teams that are focusing on different problems. As I mentioned in an earlier post the social science community was recently asked to develop a team-oriented research culture in order to increase its impact on society. The National Endowment for the Humanities has a collaborative grant program. The National Endowment of the Arts seeks to fund groups working across different arts fields. The National Institutes of Health have programs in translational research; the National Science Foundation is using the notion of convergence research. In short, most funding agencies for scholarship are attempting to promote group work.

Even in disciplines where individual work remains the basic building block of disciplines, after completion of our graduate programs, our students may find themselves working in teams. Outside of academia, the world of work is often organized in groups of colleagues pursuing a common goal. Increasingly, both our Masters’ and PhD graduates will work in organizations that are organized about teams fulfilling a goal of the organization.

With this in mind, I began to wonder how often our graduate programs expose our students to group work, where collaboration, listening, and adjudicating divisions of labor are experienced. One great benefit of working in groups is at the idea generation phase where the evidence is clear that different life experiences and talents produce better outcomes in diverse groups. Another benefit can occur in producing a written or visual product, when multiple people, all seeking to make the product better, can teach each other the value of multiple minds.

I’ve seen joint seminars that collaborate in writing proposals, simulating research grant proposals. Some programs offer “consulting” experiences, where clients outside the university present unsolved problems for their organizations and the class proposes solutions.

As I look at how the world of science and the humanities is evolving, it seems likely that our graduates need preparation for team-oriented work in their areas of expertise.

What more can we do to help them prepare for that world?

Faculty Service

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Tenure-line faculty at US universities have multiple duties. They are key drivers of the curriculum design and instruction, they are core to the research and scholarship produced by the institution, and they provide key service as part of the shared governance process of the university.

Service incorporates membership on unit-level committees on student curricular processes, faculty merit review, etc., as well as university committees evaluating new initiatives. There is previous research that found a positive link between service to one’s university and commitment to that institution. That is, there seems to be a virtuous cycle when faculty contribute their time to making the institution better. Service also incorporates activities in support of one’s professional affiliation, often through membership on local, regional, or national committees of a professional organization. There has also been some commentary that the role of service varies over a typical academic’s career, with more attention to service and perhaps more fulfillment from service later in one’s career.

I recently came across an interesting piece that combines data from self-reports of 4,400 faculty at 13 research universities, based on the COACHE survey of faculty. About a quarter were assistant professors, a third were associates, and the rest were full professors.

There was a fairly consistent pattern of results, with the associate professors less satisfied than assistant or full professors with the amount of committee work, time spent on those tasks, the attractiveness of the assignments, the equity of assignments, and other aspects of service work. The associates were most likely to report less satisfaction with juggling the demands of teaching, research, and service.

The discussion in the paper noted a common tendency in research universities to shield assistant professors from service obligations, as well as a commensurate increase in service work performed by associates. At the same time, the analysis showed that full professors are more satisfied with their balancing teaching, research, and service. A clear question is whether the associate rank is shouldering a disproportionate share of the administrative duties.

The use of associate professors in burdensome administrative roles is something that Georgetown is trying to reduce, in order to provide an environment for their continued scholarly growth.

Georgetown faculty have participated in two editions of the COACHE survey. In the 2014 version of the Georgetown survey, we noticed a pattern of lower career satisfaction on average among associate professors, and that led us to probe what underlay the findings. As a result of faculty focus groups, we mounted a faculty-led effort to improve the clarity of promotion criteria from associate to full. We also mounted a program that encouraged new mentoring of associate professors.

However, we haven’t actively addressed service obligations of the professoriate at Georgetown. The analyses from other universities has made us more sensitive to the service side of the associate professors’ lives. I’d be interested in the community’s reaction to this issue.

Gathering of the Tribe: The Annual Professional Meeting

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Summers are traditional times for some (certainly not all) professional organizations to have their annual meetings. The meetings have a common format, with presentations made by scholars grouped into thematic sessions. Often a designated discussant is asked to critique one or more presentations, pointing out weaknesses that might be repaired in the next version of the work.

Having just come back from such an event, I find myself reflecting on their value.

For everyone attending such sessions, there are glimpses of what’s new in the field. Many presentations are incremental to the work presented in last year’s conference, but there are usually undeniably novel presentations, which generate some buzz. Sometimes these present real challenges to the field’s accepted knowledge. Such presentations generate arguments that sometimes break out in the discussion after presentations (or later in dinners and more casual gatherings). Academic fields thrive on conflicting viewpoints and debate.

The meetings are glimpses into the future. Many fields are facing multi-year delays in the publication of scholarly results, based on clogged peer review and editorial processes. The only way to keep up to date with a field is by attending such meetings. They are the setting where new work is first displayed. Three years later one sees the peer-reviewed final products, but by that time other developments have already taken place. These conferences disperse the key ingredients to update our class syllabi in order to give our students the most current knowledge in a field.

In thriving and growing fields, the attendees are disproportionately young scholars. It is they who dominate many of the sessions, seeking feedback on their efforts to push the field forward. There is nothing quite like orally presenting your work for real-time peer review.

There’s generally a lot of informal mentoring that occurs in these settings. They are one of the few arenas where those new to the field encounter those with much more experience, but without the complication of working in the same organization. Honest discussions and interchanges seem to be permitted more in these meetings.

Another real benefit of such conferences is reinforcement of one’s professional identity. Those working in relatively small professions may find themselves the only staff member interested in a set of issues within their organization. They can find themselves isolated, too frequently challenged to justify the legitimacy of their interests. The annual conference becomes a time to reenergize professional commitment by interacting with others who share those interests.

This socialization feature of an annual conference is especially important to emerging cross-disciplinary fields. By definition, interdisciplinary fields combine scholars from multiple traditional disciplines. Over the years, when traditional disciplines accept and incorporate such groups, the original professional organization tends to grow and revitalize itself. Those that are hostile to interdisciplinary add-ons sometimes face a challenge of renewing themselves. When an interdisciplinary field has their own conferences, they often use them to build out the field more fully.

Professional development needs contact with other professionals. Advancing one’s work requires knowledge of the cutting edge developments in the field. Assurance that we are presenting our students the latest developments in the field demands that we know those developments. Professional conferences are valuable tools to achieve these goals.

A Follow Up to Examining Academic Analytics Data for Georgetown Faculty Curricula Vitae

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Some months ago, a post described a review of Academic Analytics data for Georgetown faculty.

After collegially reviewing data and methods with Academic Analytics, we concluded that most of the discrepancies between information collected from faculty CVs and Academic Analytics’ data were the product of the type of work covered and collected by Academic Analytics, timing issues relating to faculty hiring, and date ranges associated with certain Academic Analytics data. It is clear to me that Academic Analytics does a good job of collecting and making available the data that it purports to collect, and that the data largely are accurate. For that reason Academic Analytics can be a useful tool for universities, and it has the potential to become even more useful as it expands the nature and types of data it collects. Importantly, the results reported in my prior blog represented Georgetown’s attempt to completely replicate scholarly performance data as they appear on faculty members’ CVs. Academic Analytics, of course, neither claims nor seeks to address every data element that appears in faculty CVs, and instead aims to build a comparative scholarly performance matrix across all research universities. That difference in aim and purpose largely accounts for many of the discrepancies reported in my prior blog. We continue to believe that Academic Analytics’ data are valuable and important.

Talking (and listening) to the Other, Next Edition

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Some months ago I wrote a post that argued the importance of face-to-face conversations with those who are very different from ourselves. With such conversations we can see “the other” not merely as an opposing ideology or a threatening culture or race, but as a human being.

Each of us has had life experiences that have shaped our worldview. Some of these have shaped our conception of our own life possibilities. Others have provided us our beliefs about the desirable attributes of our country. Still others have shaped our sense of what is fair and of the relative importance of the individual and his/her group.

Interacting with someone with very different life experiences who has very different basic beliefs can help us understand them (and ourselves) better. Sometimes we can even imagine how we might think differently, had we experienced what they had experienced.

Last year, members the Provost’s Committee for Diversity took on the project of designing and mounting student dialogues across different race/ethnicity groups. They seem to have been quite useful, especially for those students whose past life experiences robbed them of the opportunity of exposure to different ways of thinking.

The events of the past year, in my mind, have only reinforced the view that more of us could profit from such dialogue.

In that regard, I am increasingly heartened by grassroots efforts around the country to construct effective environments to have such dialogues. Some are real neighborhood or community efforts, created by those formerly not involved in such activities. These initiatives have ambitions to build up a culture of greater understanding from the bottom up – first, building stronger communities on these issues, and then gradually affecting the whole society. Paralleling this are quiet efforts going on behind closed doors by elected officials who find the toxic environment in city councils, legislatures, and government agencies contrary to their motivations to serve the American public.

I wonder whether, at this moment, universities have a unique responsibility to learn from these efforts and expand their reach. Of course, at Georgetown we are fortunate to have a multi-decade set of experiences and rich human resources that have propelled our inter-group dialogues forward. This raises this question: What could Georgetown do practically to further our country’s ability to foster such dialogue?

When two people of highly conflicting viewpoints want to listen and talk to one another, what are the necessary ground rules?

How do we listen to viewpoints that are viscerally opposed to ours, in a search for understanding those beliefs?

There is a common belief that those who hold minority opinions (or believe that their opinions are in the minority) disproportionately hold back, failing to honestly report their beliefs in presence of the majority. How do we present our own beliefs to another who opposes them without fear of rebuke?

How do we build an environment in which all sides feel free to express their real beliefs in one-on-one interaction?

Given the high emotions that seem to accompany all beliefs these days, it might be useful to first discuss methods rather than content. For those who are working on these dialogues, what have they learned as more people seek the experience of talking to those who view the world very differently? How can these grassroots efforts be expanded to involve more and more people?

In Praise of Colleagues

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I recently experienced the death of a close colleague. We had co-authored a few papers and books over the years, and her passing makes me reflect on how fortunate I was to be able to work with her.

My musings led me to think more broadly about the rich relationships that are possible in academia and how important they are to the common enterprise of education and scholarship we pursue.

The scholarly life of academics is often rather hidden from students, who form too many of their impressions of academic life from classroom performances of instructors. Much new research on the impact of higher education on students has shown that working jointly on research with faculty Is a powerful accelerator to lasting value of learning. Having colleagues who show us all how to do this, and involve multiple faculty in such opportunities make us all better,

Further, faculty in the same field who are giving of their time are precious resources at various points in a research project. At the very beginning when we’re selecting the next question to address or the next creation to make, a common issue is how risky a project should be attempted. Big important breakthrough products usually start out with great uncertainty. Projects that are the next logical small increment generally have higher odds of completion but lower impact. Having a good colleague to help assess risk of success and failure is valuable.

At some point in every research project I ever was involved in, there were unexpected and troubling intermediate outcomes — puzzles that made no sense. At a certain point, thinking through the puzzles more and more was a dead end. However, having a colleague listen to your narration of the issues often illuminates new ways of “getting unstuck.” My experience is that oftentimes the new insight came magically merely from the retelling of the issues. What I needed was a knowledgeable listener, who asked a few questions.

Similar experiences occur at the stage of drafting descriptions of the research. All writers get stuck, and colleagues who are willing to read lousy first drafts are treasures. Such relationships depend on great trust because all the weaknesses of the writer are exposed. A colleague who can provide insightful and supportive suggestions is of priceless value.

One of my best memories of learning from colleagues stems from joint teaching activities, especially when the skill sets of the colleagues were complementary to mine. I never exited such an experience without rethinking my own contribution to the class. Several research ideas from such joint teaching led to wonderful collaborations.

Perhaps most important in these kinds of supportive behaviors is the fact that they generate a virtuous cycle. One colleague helps another in one of the ways above; soon the generosity is reciprocated. Intellectual support generates more intellectual support.

So this is a post in praise of caring colleagues. Those of you who enjoy such benefits, it’s worth thanking those who provide them from time to time. My memories of my colleague who died are filled with such sentiments.

Respondent Burden Among Students

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Every year a host of requests for surveys of Georgetown students arise. Some are from external researchers and university consortia, studying attitudes and behaviors of interest to them. Others come from within, from student organizations curious about their impact, from faculty with research questions, and from staff seeking “customer” reactions.

Each of these surveys seeks precious time from the students. Each of the surveys requires support from those University offices having contact information for students. With the proliferation of surveys comes “survey fatigue.” And with fatigue comes declining response rates. These, in turn, can produce questionable survey results.

Survey research has scientific bases. Small variations in question wording can have big effects on answers. The order of questions can affect answers. The sponsorship of the survey can affect who is disposed to participate. Although surveys merely appear to be sets of questions, and “everybody knows how to ask questions,” surveys are not for amateurs. Bad surveys often yield useless results.

To reconcile these competing interests, last year the University adopted a student survey policy. This policy aims to balance the benefit of survey information with the burden that surveys impose on our students. To achieve this balance, this policy manages and limits the number of University-sponsored surveys that students are invited to take. It coordinates the timing of surveys to maximize their effectiveness. It also promotes good survey design and sound survey practices. Finally, this policy ensures that student surveys benefit the University as a whole.

The Georgetown University student survey policy mandates the following:

  • Anyone seeking to survey 100 or more Georgetown University students must apply to the Office of Assessment & Decision Support (OADS) for permission to administer the survey. Applicants can include administrators, faculty and students within Georgetown, as well as any organizations outside the University. Applicants are strongly encouraged to submit their applications at least 3 months in advance of the proposed survey launch date. The online application form can be accessed by clicking here.
  • All applications to survey Georgetown students will be referred to the Student Survey Oversight Group, which must review and approve any new student survey. Appointed by the provost, members of this group will consider the new survey in light of existing surveys to minimize any duplication and avoid scheduling conflicts. They will review the survey’s design and methodology (e.g., sampling, incentives) to ensure alignment with best practices. They will also verify that the survey complies with FERPA requirements and meets the IRB’s approval, which must be obtained separately. Finally, this group will consider whether the new survey’s findings are likely to serve the broader interests and priorities of the University.
  • The oversight group may approve the new survey; it may approve the survey with conditions attached; or it may decline to approve the survey. Where approved, the principal investigator works with OADS to construct a schedule for the survey. The student survey calendar is available by clicking here.
  • For approved survey proposals, the Office of Assessment & Decision Support will provide student contact information (usually email addresses) required for the new survey. Unless there are compelling reasons to employ a census, the list of students should be produced using a randomly drawn sample. The principal investigator will work with OADS to determine the target population and the minimal sample size needed to yield statistically significant results. Note that no other office may provide this list of student email addresses without the consent of OADS. The principal investigator must be willing to share the survey data and findings with OADS.

Through this policy we seek to reserve the time of students only to the most important measurements and to maximize the benefits of student surveys to the whole university.

An Update on Building an Institute for Racial Justice

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In February, 2016, President DeGioia announced a variety of steps that Georgetown was to undertake to address the US society’s legacy of slavery and Georgetown’s history of the sale of enslaved persons.

He named a working group of faculty, staff, and students from all three Georgetown campuses. In addition to building a new department of African-American Studies, located in Georgetown College, the group was charged with assessing the best way forward for a Georgetown Institute for Racial Justice, an institute that was a university-wide entity to coordinate existing scholarship in the area and catalyze new scholarship and related activities. The Institute, ideally, would have strong ties with the Center on Research on the Study of Slavery and its Legacies. The working group submitted its report to the president at the end of the academic year, summarizing months of work by devoted members. He approved the report, permitting the next steps in building the Institute.

The group had met with scores of faculty around the university to inform itself about interests in a possible new institute. In essence, the question was posed, “What attributes of an Institute for Racial Justice would make you excited about working with the Institute?” From these meetings, the group met many colleagues, on all three campuses, whose work is related to racial justice. There was real enthusiasm that Georgetown, at this moment in history, could build a uniquely impactful center of scholarship and community outreach.

From the meetings with faculty throughout the university, the working group identified multiple areas for potential activities of the Institute:

Disparities and Inequality (e.g., health, education, income, housing, employment)
What are the sources and dimensions of enduring racial disparities in areas, such as health, education, income, housing and employment? How should we understand the impact of family structures and environmental conditions on social and political outcomes? What are the long-term trends and future projections that define racial inequality in the United States? The working group met with many faculty who are actively tackling these questions.

Advancing Social Structures (e.g., legal, governmental, education systems, medicine, policy) What legal or political structures perpetuate injustice along racial lines? What proven solutions seem to work in areas such as education and medicine to alleviate the power of race as a determinant to community trajectories? How might areas such as banking and voting regulations be transformed to enable full participation in markets and elections? The working group found much activity in this area, notably, active scholarship, educational programs, and outreach activities on prisoners and justice system inequities.

Diasporic Conversations (e.g., immigration, reparation, inclusion/exclusion, assimilation) To what degree is the U.S. experience of race a national, a continental, or even a global phenomenon? How do cognate ways of perceiving and structuring the world, such as ethnicity and gender, intersect with the past and present? Under what conditions do other social groups and structures around the world, such as religion, become “racialized”? How can we understand and analyze the monumental cultural products of the African American experience and their connections to the struggle for justice?

Finally, the working group came to the conclusion that the Institute for Racial Justice could be a major institution in Georgetown’s outreach to the DC community. Faculty engaged in scholarly work that focuses on D.C., including health equity, arts, and legal work, were hopeful that the center would convene faculty in ways that would inspire new research collaborations that could have real practical impact on Washington, D.C. This could lead to cross-field collaborations for those interested in health, education, housing, and legal justice. Such a focus is completely consistent with the strategic goals of enhancing the service of Georgetown to the betterment of its local community. Further, Georgetown has a tradition of exploring challenging social issues from multiple perspectives and through multiple traditions, including arts, performance, and media. The center could support this work in several ways, including taking advantage of our D.C. location by hosting visiting performers. There seems to be great promise that Georgetown could develop a distinctive program in this area.

Finally, the group formed an alliance with those working on the Center for the Study of Slavery and Its Legacies, created as part of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation. Both groups believe that the efforts should be coordinated, and we are working cooperatively in forming the two entities.

In the coming months we will launch a search process (university-wide) for tenure-line faculty who will be joint appointments between the Institute for Racial Justice and an educational unit within the University. Next year a speaker series will host prominent scholars working in areas related to Institute.

This is a very exciting time at Georgetown. We have much work to do, but many of us sense that we can create a uniquely valuable resource for the university, the city, and the country, if we work together toward that end.

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