Monday, March 6, 2017

Comments on diversity - from an academic's perspective

Comments on diversity – from an academic’s perspective
John Janovy, Jr.
Beginning in the fall of 1966, I started teaching large introductory courses in biology. My sections varied from 110 to 362 students, and I taught these kinds of classes for 46 years. Going back through my records, I estimate that the total number of students involved was about 16,000, although it may have been higher. Early in my career I started giving a few points for students who filled out a simple questionnaire, came by my office, and carried on a five-minute conversation (which often lasted much longer than that). The criterion for getting those few points was that I needed to be able to recognize these individuals, by name, on campus outside of class. I started having these visits because of the number of letters of recommendation I was being asked to write, and it seemed like I needed to at least know who these people were and why they were taking my class. I ended up giving those points to about half of them, or up to 7,000 or 8,000. I also ended up knowing quite a few of them by name, for various reasons, even though they did not come by for the interview and points. I still communicate with a few of those ~16,000 former students.
Among these thousands were people who had gone to high school (or equivalent) in at least 12 different nations, spoke at least that many languages (among them), and had traveled to 62 different nations, including those the US government later considered terrorist-harboring states. These students were of pretty much of all shapes, sizes, and colors, academic strengths, interests, clothing styles, religious affiliations, sexual orientations (insofar as I knew), and a broad range of ages (from a 17-year old high school senior taking college classes, to a 72-year old non-traditional student). They came from high schools of all sizes and sophistication levels in Nebraska and elsewhere in the nation, including parochial schools, public schools, and small schools in Nebraska Sandhills towns. Some were home schooled. Some had children of their own. At least a few were immigrants whose parents’ first language was not English. One was a refugee from a war-torn African nation. Their majors included the full range of those offered by my institution.
Among the athletes were football players (at least three of whom ended up in the NFL and one on the cover of Sports Illustrated), volleyball players (at least two on national championship teams and one Olympian), gymnasts of both genders, a few female (and one male) basketball players, swimmers, track athletes, golfers, bowlers, and rifle team members. I filled out numerous grade and progress reports on these athletes; it’s pretty obvious to me why certain students might not be eligible to play in a bowl game or compete in conference or national championships. In my experience, academically the athletes as a group were quite representative of the general student population.
Among my former students, I know of three who are now deceased but there may be more. Among those who I keep in contact with, their current situations range from very successful physicians, including those who teach in med schools, to college profs and administrators (at least one vice chancellor), dentists, public school teachers, several different kinds of health care professionals (nurses, dental hygiene, physical therapy, radiology), attorneys, housewives unemployed outside the home, ranchers, and professional artists. I’d be very surprised if the range of occupations was not far greater than those I know about, although because I am a biologist, a lot of my students ended up in the health professions.   
My interactions with these students ranged from recruiting them into my lab for research, recruiting them into my Cedar Point Biological Station course, to helping them with vocabulary for hours, and during multiple visits, to hiring them for editorial work, to wondering who they were and why they were not taking advantage of the help offers, to writing them numerous recommendation letters—scholarships, professional schools, etc. In three cases, in my office, I felt like I had to keep a student engaged in conversation until he/she calmed down enough so that I was convinced he/she was not self-destructive.
All three of those cases were in my last month of teaching, April, 2011, and the course was BIOS 103, Organismic Biology. All three of those students who sat in my office in April, 2011, were doing just fine; I blame their mental state—obsessed with performance and the “correct” answers—on George W. Bush, No Child Left Behind, and the experience of growing up in a high stakes standardized testing environment. I was not quick enough at the time to check on where these kids went to high school; had I done that, I might have been able to add parochial or private school pressure to the mix of factors that evidently created such stress. I do remember, however, the day one of our teaching assistants made the comment in seminar, with a sort of “what the hell has happened?” look on her face, that this particular freshman class was the first one that had never known any educational environment other than that produced by NCLB.
So, what is my take-home relative to the human resources that walk into the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s front door every year by the thousands? I have some reflections and impressions to share, reflections and impressions that may have some relevance to the coup that took place on January 20, 2017, the leader of which is now working very hard to alter the United States of America’s fundamental character into something resembling an under-developed, illiterate, intellectually-impoverished, obedient, pathologically nationalistic, state on a downward spiral toward government-induced willful ignorance, fiscal collapse, military defeat. I hope I’m wrong in my predictions, but nothing I’ve seen so far, especially relative to public education policy embraced by the new administration, assures me that is the case. We’ll see.
JJ’s Take-homes (may not match your impressions if those impressions are formed through ignorance, especially willful ignorance):
(1) You cannot predict much of anything from what someone looks like, what they are wearing, where they went to high school, their sexual orientation, their religious affiliations, or any other trait, although their ability to read and answer multiple choice questions, especially if they have already been given both the questions and the answers, is not as great these days as it was in the 1970s and 80s. Again, I blame No Child Left Behind and the Bush White House’s infatuation with standardized testing and punishment for failure or inadequacy. On the plus side, however, NCLB certainly provided lots of employment opportunities for statisticians.
(2) You can sort of predict a person’s future success from how well, and how easily, they converse, read, and write. Of all the students who seemed to speak with confidence, who seemed unafraid of me, and who both read and wrote well, those students seemed to achieve their immediate and near-future goals pretty easily. Those near-future goals were generally professional schools or grad school.
(3) The right-wing “pundits” who decry safe spaces at colleges, accuse faculty members of warping young minds into bleeding-heart liberals, blame the nation’s ills on multi-cultural awareness, ask for political party affiliation of profs, and are ready to purge American higher education of tenured humanities scholars, those so-called “pundits” are simply full of shit. These guys are not pundits; they are willfully ill-informed brainwasher wannabes, picking anecdotes and generalizing them to reinforce their followers’ biases, prejudices and fears. The vast and overwhelming majority of college students just want to satisfy graduation requirements, minimize their debts, keep their parents happy, get decent grades, and eventually find employment. Some of them obviously want to get laid. More than half these students, however, are at least somewhat concerned about inappropriate physical contact.
(4) In my entire career, I have never seen any instance in which a person’s sexual orientation was a problem for one of my classes, or for society as a whole. Among those 16,000 students, somewhere between 500 and 1000 were likely LGBT; I never knew which ones. I also have worked professionally with people from several different nations (some of which ended up on the US terrorism watch list), from many different areas within higher education (the arts, humanities, business, basic and applied sciences, administration, staff [including custodians], and alumni organizations) and never once, in my 46-year career, has sexual orientation or significant other relationships affected our ability to do the business at hand.
What I have seen affect careers, however, is pathological insecurity, narcissism, and an obsession with reputation on the part of administrators. In other words, people who cannot bring themselves to focus on the institution’s basic missions of teaching, research, and service, and do not understand the available resources, but instead must demonstrate their power, often through stretching of ethical standards and bullying of subordinates, are significantly more of a problem for society than are people pursuing their private lives in ways that have no bearing on how we as a society actually function. The only people I have known to be damaged by LGBT status are the LGBT people themselves, and such damage has been a result of discrimination and violence against them.
(5) I have known people who have functioned to teach critical thinking, transferable skills like writing and data analysis, meaningful professional behavior (usually by example), and appreciation as well as [attempted!] understanding of the arts and humanities, but who would have been summarily fired because of administrator capriciousness had they not been protected by tenure. In other words, they were doing exactly what higher education is supposed to be doing to sustain what some of us call “American exceptionalism,” but for some reason made a middle manager uncomfortable, or weren’t doing their job in an area of expertise that middle manager thought was important. In general, middle managers either make or break an organization; capriciousness, narcissism, and self-importance are traits sure to inhibit accomplishment of a unit’s mission, whether that unit be an infantry patrol, an academic department, or a nation.
The current evolution toward untenured adjuncts, especially in the humanities and social sciences, is not good for American higher education and because American higher education has been a real source of strength for the country, it’s not good for the nation. “It” in this case is, of course, the business model in which certification, content delivery, and unit production (graduate) per unit expense (dollar) supersede quality and intellectual diversity. In this case, those pursuing the business model as a management strategy have mistakenly equated certification with quality; those pursuing this strategy are simply wrong. The adjuncts themselves, often appreciative of any kind of an academic income, are major victims of this strategy because so many of them should be tenured profs instead of temps.
“Quality” in education equates to a broad understanding of arts and literature, possession of transferable skills, ability to work with diverse populations, ability to read and write well, ability to analyze complex situations and documents, and personal, psychological, and emotional self-confidence. It is not the mission of an American university to produce people “trained for a job;” it is the mission to produce people with the above traits who are also able to do not only one job, but their next job, another person’s job, and the next job after that. Reading, writing, and an ability to understand quantitative issues are essential in this regard, and those are the traits that university can and should focus on. They are also the traits that are taught most successfully through breadth of experience.
(6) The United States has thrived because it has been a nation of freely-expressed creativity in the arts and sciences. Richard Florida’s books (The Rise of the Creative Class and others) laid out the basic thesis that tolerant societies are, or can become, richer, more innovative, and economically healthier than intolerant ones. His theories were focused mainly on urban areas, and over the past decade or so have been validated in some cases but not in others. You can’t turn Podunk, Nebraska, into Silicone Valley just by appreciating rap music whether you listen to it or not, and ignoring the fact that some folks are gay. But the visual arts, music, good libraries, and diverse entertainment venues all enrich our lives immeasurably. You may work hard all day, but when your kid plays in the school orchestra, you go listen and come away from the experience feeling like your time on Planet Earth has suddenly become more important, more enjoyable, and richer.
The tolerance principle applies to human talent across nationalities and ethnic groups. Here is the biology lesson: statistically speaking, a child born into a Syrian refugee family is just as likely as one born into a Texas Southern Baptist preacher’s family to be LGBT, to be a superb musician, to be able to write poetry or stories that bring tears to your eyes, to become an engineer, or to wreak havoc with his or her personal behavior. However, what happens once that child exits the womb determines how, or whether, those innate traits are expressed. Culture can, and does, strongly influence our lives from the hour we’re born until the moment we die. The real question, when dealing with human diversity, is whether the individual characteristics that you personally find objectionable really are damaging to the society that supports you. If the answer is no, it’s time to be tolerant. Skin color, ethnicity, religious preference (including none), sexual orientation, art, music, and literature are not problems for societies as a whole unless the members of those societies make them a problem. If you need a history lesson, do a Google search using the word “Holocaust.”
(7) Finally, because of those questionnaires, I know that a large number of my ~16,000 former students attended parochial schools, and that probably 60% of them were Catholic. Others came from places like Lincoln Christian and Lincoln Lutheran; many of them wore crosses; and many were involved in church-related volunteer or youth-group activities. I have been yelled at from the back of a large auditorium (Henzlik Hall) because we’d arrived at the evolution section of BIOS 101, and I’ve had extended written correspondence with a student who wanted to help me accept Jesus as my personal savior. One semester I had to miss a class, and as a substitute exercise, asked my students for a 250-word essay on the subject of evolution. A surprising number of those essays, posted on our course management software site for my BIOS 101 section, began with the words “In our family, we would not be allowed to talk about evolution . . .” (or something to that effect). Given that at the time—pre-climate-change rhetoric—evolution was sort of a litmus test for basic scientific literacy, that kind of response was a mild shock. The fact that more than one or two wrote it, out of the ~250 who did the exercise, was sobering.
I’m not going to blame religion for all our nation’s willful ignorance ills, but I do believe that religion must share a chunk of the responsibility, especially in those denominations where obedience, judgement of others based on their personal traits, and intolerance are the norm. As part of my research for a writing project (Comes the Millennium: A Look at the Burgeoning Hysteria, Religious Mania, and Anti-intellectualism as the Millennium Approaches, 1996, St. Martin’s Press, published under the pseudonym “Jack Blake”), I studied religion for a full year. I spent an enormous amount of time in various libraries, seriously reading both primary and secondary literature on Christianity, including its history.
I avoided other religions, including both monotheistic and polytheistic, for three reasons: first, because the volume of literature was just so staggering; second, because “evolution” seemed to be such an anathema to good old American southern-type Christian denominations, including the ones I was sort of familiar with; and third, my ignorance of Judaism and Islam, not to even mention polytheistic ones such as Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, and tribal religions in the Americas and Africa  (to quote from an Internet source) was so vast that I was simply not equipped to get into the literature and deal with it in a scholarly way. The Christianity part was tough enough, but at least I felt like I was in somewhat familiar territory, having gone to Presbyterian churches since childhood, worn out my copy of Egermeier’s Bible Stories, a gift for my seventh birthday, read all of Karen Armstrong’s and Elain Pagel’s books, read David Chidester’s Global History of Christianity, and routinely consulting my copy of Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible.
So in my opinion your qualifications for voting in a nation so heavily dependent on science and technology are established largely by your church. If you came out of that church believing that the planet is ~10,000 years old and that the Genesis origin myth is literal fact, you are not well educated enough to assess the political positions on any issue involving science, technology, energy, and the environment. If you came out of that church believing that homosexuality is a sinful life-style choice and that gay marriage will destroy society, you are not well educated enough about human biology and diversity to help solve our nation’s problems. If you came out of that church believing (and acting in accordance with that belief) that women are not fit for the same roles in society as men, you are not well educated enough to help solve our nation’s problems.

So what is the take-home from all this commentary? The answer is relatively simple: humanity’s problems, and by extension any nation’s, state’s, or city’s problems, cannot be solved to everyone’s satisfaction. These problems can, however, be alleviated when we know their origin, collect data on various attempts to solve them, and are rational about their actual impact on the quality of human life in general. Thus what disturbs you personally is, in the larger scheme of things, inconsequential unless that disturbing factor is also making life difficult, shorter, and more unpleasant and constrained, for many others.
A growing income gap between rich and poor is a good example of a consequential problem and history has shown us repeatedly that this problem is a major one for any nation. Lack of educational opportunity is also a consequential problem, especially when that lack is unevenly distributed among a population. A nation simply cannot function with an ignorant and unskilled population. Or rather, a nation simply cannot function in a way that allows its citizens relative freedom and a rich cultural life under such conditions. Totalitarian states demonstrate this principle beautifully. Finally, equality of opportunity and equality under the law are essential elements of a nation, state, or town in which the quality of human life is relatively high. Again, totalitarian states beautifully demonstrate this principle by withholding such equality from segments of their populations.
As I read my local newspaper, the books my local library provides, and the magazines, mostly with well-documented stories, delivered by my local postman, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that our current president, Donald Trump, and his hand-picked team of small-minded wackos, are all working overtime to generate inequality of opportunity, inequality under the law, inequality and indeed diminished quality of education, diminished quality of the common environment, and an irrational focus on so-called problems that have little impact on our national health. This irrational focus, a good example being wholesale deportation, has every chance of having a major negative impact on our nation’s economic health.
And why is this current administration so focused on these acts? The only answer I can give, and it’s an answer derived from interacting with those thousands of people over the past half-century, is that we have chosen to put an emotionally insecure, under-educated, bully in a position of enormous power over our lives. Like bullies in general, Mr. Trump and his appointees are focusing their destructive efforts on the most vulnerable aspects of our society. The choice to give those kinds of bullies that kind of power, ladies and gentlemen, was a big time mistake.
So it’s now time to be observant, rational, and analytical instead of emotional about the United States of America. It’s time to ask whether legislation and executive orders actually strengthen the nation, or weaken it by reducing equality of opportunity and equality under the law. It’s really time to ask whether pronouncements from the White House have any substantial basis supported by data, published research, or matters of public record. If the answer is “no,” as it so often seems to be nowadays, then you have my personal assurance that nobody, and I do mean nobody, even your friends, will harm you if you admit that whatever you are being told has no basis in fact and act accordingly. Do not be afraid of knowledge; do be afraid of demagogues and pathological liars. And be especially afraid of your own prejudices when they lie to you, from inside your mind, about what the world is really like.

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