Tag Archives: students

It’s Not All About Me

“Our students come first.”

That’s what it says on page five of George Mason University’s Strategic Plan. As one of the authors of that document back in 2014, I’m always happy when this simple sentence is deployed to explain a new policy or rule. And I’m equally unhappy when we, too often in my view, make rules and policies that are grounded in the revenue needs of our various academic units rather than what’s good for our students.

Because the internal contest for revenue that drives so much of our decision making makes me crazy, it’s useful to be reminded, by students, that they come first. They are under such pressure and face so many problems–excessive debt, an unpredictable job market, political disunity at home, a looming climate disaster everywhere. We owe them more than just an excellent course. What we do as educators transcends the syllabus.

And it’s good to be reminded, by students, that it’s not all about me.

Those who know me know that I’m a person of very strong political opinions and that I’m very passionate, and sometimes even a little intolerant (if I’m honest), on certain issues relating to individual rights, climate change, and the twinned issues of equity in access, not just in higher education, but in our society generally.

My students will tell you, I hope, that I also keep all of those opinions to myself in the classroom. This is an issue with lots of strong feelings on both sides — professors shouldn’t be afraid to express their political and social views in class/professors should keep those views to themselves. I get why some of my colleagues bring their views into the classroom and I don’t condemn them for that. I just don’t teach that way. That’s just me.

But I still have those strong opinions and the events of the past 12 months have just made me even more committed to what I believe.

When one of my former students came to see me back in late November to ask for letters of recommendation for graduate school, I asked the obvious question: “What have you been doing since you graduated two years ago?” As it turns out, he had been very engaged in the recent election, working for a congressional candidate who I had really, really hoped would lose (she didn’t). A part of me wanted to scream, “How could you possibly work for someone like her?”

Fortunately, I remembered, it’s not all about me.

So, I wrote him glowing letters — he was, after all, an excellent student and a nice person — and I’m happy to say he was admitted to several excellent graduate programs.

Just today I received a phone call from the executive director of a local NGO seeking a reference on a former student — one of my favorite students of the past several years. She began the call by explaining the mission of her organization and it was clear immediately that their goals and beliefs are antithetical to mine. Really antithetical. A part of me wanted to call my student right away and scream, “How could you possibly work for such an organization?”

Fortunately, I remembered, it’s not all about me.

So, I gave her the excellent recommendation she deserved — she is, after all, a wonderful person and was one of the best students I’ve taught in the past several years. I suspect, given the tenor of the call, that she’s their first choice and I hope she gets the job.

These two students have done exactly what we hope our students will do. Get a good education, and then apply what they’ve learned to launch themselves onto career paths that they’ve chosen for themselves. In short, the system worked. I’m proud of them both, even if I might wish they had political or social views aligned with mine.

As we head into tomorrow’s change of presidential administrations, I’m going to try hard to remember the lessons I’ve learned from these students, namely, that just because I disagree with your position on issues I care passionately about, the odds are really good that you are a fine person, doing the right thing according to your own lights. We just don’t agree.

If we can all remember that it’s about all of us, then maybe, just maybe, it won’t be quite as I fear it will be. And so, on his last day in office, I’ll let President Obama have the last word:

“Sometimes I get mad and frustrated like everybody else does, but at my core, I think we’re going to be OK.”

Trails, Paths, and Digital Literacy

Yesterday I had the good fortune to be the keynote speaker at the Winter Symposium on Digital Literacy in Higher Education at the University of Rhode Island. It was incredibly energizing to spend a day and a half with a diverse group of educators across disciplines, all of them committed to the idea that improving our students’ (and our colleagues’) digital literacy.


Of course, there are few more amorphous topics than digital literacy, which made my task as keynote speaker challenging, to say the least. A quick survey of the literature yields almost as many definitions of the concept as there are authors who write about it.

Do we mean the ability to use digital technologies to accomplish a particular task? Or does it mean just being able to navigate the wilds of the Internet without being taken in by the false information floating around out there? Or does it mean being able to create digital objects, code something useful, or develop visualizations of large corpora of texts?

To help those assembled to try to find a way forward, I drew on my experiences on the Appalachian Trail, America’s oldest and still most iconic long distance hiking trail. Of late I’ve been mesmerized by Robert Moor’s On Trails (2016). Moor writes in ways I can only dream about, and in his first pages I found the quotation that I think helps us make our way through the echoing vastness of the Internet.

To put it as simply as possible, a path is a way of making sense of the world. There are infinite ways to cross a landscape; the options are overwhelming, and pitfalls abound. The function of a path is to reduce this teeming chaos into an intelligible line.” (14)

If we think about digital literacy more as choosing a path through the mountains and less like trying to sail across the open ocean, then I think we have a chance to find a way forward as educators and as scholars.

Of course, paths impose their own tyranny. Early into their hikes, long distance hikers find themselves less and less willing to leave the path marked out for them by others. Ask anyone who has through hiked the Appalachian Trail and they’ll tell you that “Blue Blazer” is a term of derision, because it connotes that long distance hiker who leaves the white blazes of the AT for side trail short cuts with blue blazes on the trees and rocks.

Despite the risk of being labeled a Blue Blazer, I think we have to admit that there are too many options, too many platforms, too many apps, too many new ways to navigate the Internet. If we accept this premise, then instead of trying to define or to teach something called “digital literacy,” we can instead decide “I’ll just do this,” or, “I’ll just teach my students that.” And not anything else.

Do we do them or ourselves a disservice by ignoring so much? My answer is no. Too often we forget that our students are with us for only a short time in what we (and they) hope are long and productive lives. Instead of teaching them everything they need to know about things digital, it strikes me as more than enough to teach them a few useful skills, a few useful ways of knowing. We need to give them the tools to find their own paths, and we need to model the willingness to reject the notion that to be competent means always being able to do more and more. Sometimes enough is plenty.

Just a little over 100 years ago, Benton MacKaye stood in a fire tower in Vermont and gazed out over the beauty of the Green Mountains. It was there that he first dreamed up a thing he later christened the Appalachian Trail. MacKaye’s mantra for those hiking on the trail he created was “Walk, see, and see what you see.” To put it another way, stop, look around, what can I see/learn here.

Stopping is a risk, because in doing so, the Internet will swoosh past us. But that’s ok. Really.