Hope in dark times

Today was the second class meeting of the course I regularly teach, Information Literacy & Research. It was also the first class meeting after the white supremacist march & terrorist attack in Charlottesville.

My regular lesson plan for day 2 of class fills the whole period, so I was unsure whether or how to address the events in Charlottesville. So I told them that I was conflicted about whether to talk specifically about it, but that I think the regularly scheduled lesson addresses some of the reasons those people think it’s ok to hold the views they do. And then I hit play.

After the video, I made the comments I usually make to introduce it: in the weeks to come, I will be asking them to challenge some of the assumptions they hold and some of the sources they rely on, so I like to open the semester by critiquing the assumptions I was trained to hold and the institution I represent. Then I asked what they thought – and several students were willing to speak up, which always excites me.

After a bit, when the discussion came around to a good point, I asked them to take out their phones and see if they could find demographic information about the race of students and faculty at our university. I’ve written about this exercise before, and in the past at this point, I would ask for a volunteer to come up front to pull up the data they found, then spent a little time evaluating that site. This time through, I skipped that part – I asked students to share the numbers they found, asked what they thought, then introduced them to the campus office that tracks student data. Here, it’s the department of Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment, but every campus has this data, possibly under different headings. The estimates students found about the racial breakdown of undergraduates was pretty close to accurate (53% white, 36% Black/African American, 4.6% Latinx), but the estimates found for faculty were a bit off – one student found that 11% of our faculty were Black/African American, when in reality, according to the latest official Fact Book, that number is only 7.3% (and 81.5% white).

As usual, one student said they were surprised by the numbers, particularly for the students, because they thought the percentage of non-white students was higher. That provided an opening to talk about perception bias briefly.

Another student raised the issue that the video laid out a lot of problems, but didn’t provide a solution. What are they supposed to do? Good question. We’ll talk more about that through the semester.

Another student then tried to introduce a critique of the video, that it only showed one side… Which provided an opening to talk about logical fallacies and considering the purpose of a work. Sometimes there aren’t two balanced sides deserving of equal consideration. As you do research, you need to be open in gathering resources to find out what sides are represented in the published research, but sometimes there is an answer that is more correct. I illustrated this with the research on climate change – somewhere around 97% of published scientific research on this supports the claim that humans are contributing to climate change, but because journalists seek out someone to present “the other side,” a lot of people have a skewed understanding of the actual state of the field. Which led in to some consideration of evaluating sources – who is funding the research, how does it fit within the larger context of research in the field, etc? I didn’t come out and say there isn’t really a valid “other side” to this critique of the whiteness of the curriculum, but I hope some of them read through the lines already. Upcoming lessons will reinforce the need to have a more inclusive curriculum, include more perspectives in their research, and think critically about the underlying motivations and power dynamics of those making competing claims. Yes, we will be talking about hegemony and how that gets reproduced.

In terms of the purpose of the piece, if your goal is to open a dialog on a particular problem, do you really need to present all sides, or just introduce a problem? Of course, we’ll come back around to this, as well. The final paper in this class is not what most students are familiar with as a basic research paper – instead, they will write a research proposal. In the past, a lot of students have had a hard time wrapping their head around this idea – that they’re just introducing a problem that needs more research, not proposing any conclusions yet.

I think it’s worth noting that the student who pointed out that the video only presented one side didn’t seem resistant to the ideas in the video – in the context of their other comments, it felt like they were trying to critically evaluate the piece, not argue for some other side. The idea of presenting “both sides” is so normalized that it stands out when a video doesn’t do that.

How well this lesson goes always depends on a whole bunch of factors, including how I’m feeling that day, how willing the students are to talk in class, what else is going on in the world… Today felt like one of the best times I’ve done this lesson. I’m really excited to have a group of students who are willing to talk and to question the material. And working with a great group of students always gives me hope.

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