vote

Today is election day in the U.S. On college campuses across the country we see a direct connection between the purposes of universities and active and engaged citizenship, as many campuses serve as polling places, and many semester-long student, faculty, and university initiatives to increase knowledge of and participation in our democratic process today bear fruit. But even though a day like today clearly reminds of this connection, today also reminds us that this connection is not meant to be a one-time event, every four years. Our universities do have obligations to contribute to a healthy, functioning democracy, and to prepare students to become active citizens and knowledgeable leaders and participants in our democracy. While these obligations are met in many ways across the campus, nowhere is this role fulfilled more directly and effectively than in service learning.

Secretary of Education John B. King recently noted a need for a, "broader definition of civic duty.... I ask teachers and principals and superintendents to help your students learn to be problem solvers who can grapple with challenging issues, such as how to improve their schools, homelessness, air and water pollution, or the tensions between police and communities of color."

Thus, we see the need for one's education to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of our communities and our national society codified in our national discourse, from the top down, in ways perhaps unprecedented in our history of education. While these purposes may have been imbedded in our educational system at some point long ago, we see now a renewed focus and urgency, as the challenges presented by globalization, wealth and income inequality, systemic racism and oppression, mass incarceration, and climate change are recognized as the existential threats they are.

Yet at this time of renewed focus and conviction, we are faced with a decline in the civic knowledge of of our incoming freshmen. Heather Loewecke, a senior manager at Global Learning Beyond School, notes in a recent blog on the website Education Week, that Only 24 percent of high school seniors scored proficient or higher on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. What's more, a college education isn't necessarily rectifying the deficiency. Loewecke also points out that "a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy poll reflected that American adults know very little about the US government, with the majority of respondents unable to answer basic questions. For example, only 26 percent of respondents could correctly identify all three branches of the government."

In a way these disparities between our goals for civic education and our results mirror, or perhaps are just another indicator of, the myriad social inequities we now face. Either way, the situation is cast into stark relief on a day like today, when what seems to be a high-functioning democracy is observed in the bustling and frenetic energy of a presidential election day on college campuses nationwide. And while the spectacle and pageantry of Election Day can fill even the most cynical among us with a certain sense of hope, we must hold fast and remember the difficult challenges that lay ahead once the confetti settles. Today is a time to participate, but also a time for we as educators to recommit ourselves to the civic education of our students, and to fully teaching the critical skills in thinking, communicating, reasoning, and problem solving such an education entails.

-Jeremy Tuman

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This fall Xavier's first-year students are reading Aimee Phan's We Should Never Meet, a collection of short stories tied together thematically and with some common characters. The stories deal with the experiences of Vietnamese people during what America calls the Vietnam War, in the 1960's and 70's, as well during the immediate aftermath, in the 1980's, when children orphaned by the war (and often fathered by American soldiers) attempted to forge lives in southern California.

The students read this book as part of the Freshman Seminar course, a required, one-credit-hour course, whose objectives include introducing first-year students to Xavier's mission of contributing to a more just and humane society. The course has much in common with other required, first-year seminars at other schools around the country, including many other liberal arts schools and HBCUs. But with Xavier being the nation's only historically black, Catholic school, Xavier's version may be more particularly tied to the school's historical mission.

The common reading is a major feature of the course, and the course also includes a service-learning component, in which students are asked to consider the meaning and relevance of the mission through engaging in community actions and addressing social needs, needs that fairness and justice might otherwise negate. Thus, students are asked to consider the meanings of justice, fairness, humanity, through multiple perspectives, including their own, those their various communities, and, perhaps most difficultly, those of the characters in the short stories.

While in the past the common readings have been works of nonfiction, some memoir and some third-person, last year was the first time a novel was offered as a common reading (Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones) and this year marks the first time a collection of short stories has been used. Drawing thematic connections between the readings and community needs addressed by service-learning is always a challenge in the course, both for the students and the teachers. But drawing connections between our experiences in, and perceptions of, our communities and the experiences of fictional characters in short stories set in and around the Vietnam War proves exceptionally challenging.

The first, and maybe most basic, common theme to point to is the shared humanity of us all, which gets neglected, overlooked, devalued in both war-torn times and places, and in communities where systemic unfairness and injustice exists. The characters in the book are marginalized, segregated, cast away, thought of as "others" and as not our problem, much in the way Americans living in pockets of deep, multigenerational poverty are. Both groups are seen at times as hopeless and irredeemable, without inherent worthiness, and in some cases individual actions confirm and reinforce these perceptions. The book's presentation of a young, male character in Los Angeles, Vinh, as a mostly unrepentant violent criminal is especially complicating for readers as they attempt to situate him within a highly oppressive and marginalizing context.

But these same aspects of the text, which make it so challenging for readers, and for students and teachers in this course, also prove its biggest strengths. The characters are absolutely other-ized, seen as outsiders, rejected not just by American society but within traditional Vietnamese culture as well. Their individual actions do not and cannot change that. Their actions cannot be completely removed from the characters' segregated contexts, nor can the characters be excused from, or relieved of, all personal responsibility, life choices, accountability.

In other words, the characters cannot be put into an easy box, or used to simplistically support some ideological bent or political agenda. The issues are more complex. The problems are more complex. In this way these fictional characters are made real, as their complexity, and the complexity of their situations, mirrors that of the people in our communities and the problems they face.

There is unfairness, injustice, and inhumanity in our society. Those at the bottom of our socioeconomic systems face oppression that must be met and fought against by all those who wish to live in a more just and humane society. Recognizing the humanity of others is a beginning, whether in fictional characters of a foreign culture or in our own backyards.  A beginning, but certainly not an end.

-Jeremy Tuman

As many of us in Freshman Seminar begin planning our service learning projects for the spring, it's important to remember that part of the purpose of service learning is to further the academic goals of the course. Keeping the two aspects of service learning in mind, meanigful community action and integration of the course's curricular goals, helps to establish a strong purpose for the project and helps distinguish the project from community service. With this aim in mind, this might be a good time to take another look at what the academic goals of Freshman Seminar are:

  • To critically examine the interdisciplinary theme of social justice in relation to a liberal education;
  • To cultivate an understanding of self in relation to community;
  • To invest in Xavier’s mission to promote a more just and humane society;
  • To enhance your writing, reading, and speaking skills;
  • To develop competency in technological applications used on campus.

The first three goals here speak the most to service learning, although the last two can certainly be furthered through a good project as well. But while goals 2 and 3 seem to lend themselves naturally to service learning, I think it's the first goal that really offers the most opportunity. It's this idea of a critical examination that will most distinguish this experience from service experiences the students may have had in high school and through church groups. In fact I see as a worthy aim of service learning to simply convince students that there is a difference. The difference, of course, lies in how we apporach the social issues we choose to address, how we present them, how we discuss them, what we learn about them. Add to this critical examination of social justice the aspect of its relation to a liberal education, and many more avenues are opened to explore: Are endeavors such as these built into how we conceive of the purpose of a liberal education? From where does this idea come? From when? From whom?

One measure of success might be the degree to which our students become aware of ideas like these. But perhaps a better measure is the degree to which our students internalize these ideas, how much they buy in, how much their perspective changes from one in which they see the value of giving back and doing their part, to one in which they understand and empathize with those they help. Freshmen entering their second semesters often know everything, but what they know is that some people need more help than others and that helping them helps only them. Often what they don't know is why some need more help, how helping them helps us all, and why it's our responsibility to do so.

Jeremy Tuman

In discussing what social problems my Freshman Seminar class might like to address for their service learning project, the class leaned heavily toward wanting to do something about crime in New Orleans, particularly the amount of violent crime, which struck them on an emotional level that left some of them unable to articulate much beyond anger. "It's just terrible," they said, "and it gets worse and worse all the time and nobody can seem to do anything about it." These reactions struck me in a number of ways, at once similar to the shocked, grief-stricken reactions of victim's families that we've grown too accustomed to seeing in the news, and at the same time far removed from academic literature on the subject by economists, psychologists, and criminologists, that often frame our discussions and study of violent crime and its effects. What's most apparent is that these students feel compelled to address this problem, not from a distance of helping out the communities of the less fortunate, but from the perspective of wanting to help their own communities, because the pain of communities ripped apart by violent crime is in fact their own pain.

The discussion then must turn to what causes young people to turn to lives of crime and violence and what can be done to stem these causes. Lack of viable economic opportunity and lack of education are commonly cited by students and experts alike as causes, and of course the two are related. Economists tell us that even a 5% increase in high school graduation rates can save the country billions of dollars in costs of crime, considering the costs of incarceration, policing, and adjudicating, along with the costs of property lost. Figures like these seem cold, and don't seem to sufficiently target the problem in a way that might issue a stronger call to action. Yet in the face of raw emotions such as those expressed by my students, figures like these sometimes offer the only level of clear thought available. If it seems like absolutely nothing can be done to stop this problem, then perhaps through education, tied to economic opportunity, is the only clear path.

There's a harrowing scene in chapter 1 of this year's common read, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, in which young, shaloq-weilding Taliban "enforcers" beat a woman in the street for appearing in public without a proper chadri, the full-length garment that covers the head and face. This and other descriptions of the Taliban in the early parts of the book bring to mind images of an oppressive totalitarian regime more similar to 1984 or Farenheit 451 than to the free society in which most of our freshmen have grown up. That is, these images should remind students of the vast gulf between life in the U.S. and that in a strange, far-away place halfway around the globe. Unfortunately, these images instead bring to mind other images that happen to be saturating the news at the start of the semester: those of heavily armed and armored police confronting protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. Timing here proves to be everything, as a poll of my Freshman Seminar students on what they feel are our most pressing social problems reveals police brutality, racial profiling, and racial bias in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems at the top of the list. And with numbers like 1 in 12 black males age 18-64 spending time in prison, compared to 1 in 87 whites, blacks overall incarcerated at a rate of 6 times that of whites, and blacks comprising 40% of the total prison population, while making up 12% of the U.S. population, it's easy to see why our students are concerned.

In order to work toward social justice, we must first identify where social injustice exists. And with disparities based on race, gender, class, ethnicity existing across the spectrum of our social systems, from education to health care to employment to criminal justice, identifying injustice is as easy now as at any point in our history, and, unfortunately, as easy as idetifying it under systems like the Taliban. But while these gaps are easy to see, to those who simply wish to open their eyes, they also remain equally difficult to address, to reconcile, to alleviate, to end. For every pious organization out on the streets fighting to alleviate suffering, to mend communities, to help people, there are powerful historical realities, political forces, and financial interests at work to keep the status quo in place, to keep reality fixed and unchangeable.

A discussion of life under the Taliban is a perfectly suitable way to begin a dialogue with students about the society in which we are preparing them to inhabit roles of leadership, our own society. And as we move toward our service learning projects in the sping, it's worth remebering the underlying imbalances at the heart of any attempt to help improve our community. Ultimately, if our service is effective, then we will have eliminated the very need for our services. Those being "served" will inhabit their rightful place as equals in our society, wanting for nothing that others have only because of the conditions of their birth. This type of transformation, both of our society and within the mindset our students, can never come solely from doing, but through thinking as well. Hence, the learning in service learning. Learning comes through teaching, and fortunately for them, that is what we are here to do.

J. Tuman

A funny thing happened on the web yesterday. Many of the most popular sites went dark, either blocking access to their content entirely or making symbolic gestures of protest. Visitors to Wikipedia were directed to contact their Congressional representatives about certain pending legislation, but Wikipedia's actual articles were unavailable. It was in fact the largest online protest in history. And it wasn't just online; people were marching in the streets in New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Seattle.

These stunts were designed to broaden awareness of SOPA and PIPA. Apparently, it worked. I was contacted by a couple of professors here at Xavier who wanted to know what it's all about. They were surprised when they couldn't access Wikipedia.

So, I thought I'd offer this brief primer. SOPA — That's the Student Oral Proficiency Assessment right?

Wrong. SOPA is actually the Stop Online Piracy Act. PIPA is the Protect Intellectual Property Act. SOPA is a bill in the House; PIPA's in the Senate. These measures have support from the entertainment industry but are generally opposed by the internet industry. Think of it as Hollywood versus Silicon Valley. However, this is not just a "Clash of the Titans." The consensus amongst advocates of free speech and the open internet is that SOPA/PIPA are highly problematic.

As writer Brian Barrett explains,

SOPA is an anti-piracy bill working its way through Congress that would grant content creators extraordinary power over the internet which would go almost comedically unchecked to the point of potentially creating an "Internet Blacklist" while exacting a huge cost from nearly every site you use daily and potentially disappearing your entire digital life while still managing to be both unnecessary and ineffective but stands a shockingly good chance of passing unless we do something about it.

That's the case against SOPA in a nutshell. Here's a short video that makes the same case:

For more facts, consider CNET's list of frequently asked questions.

See also: A typically strident statement from The Pirate Bay.

How do things stand after the protests of January 18? According to Forbes, SOPA is "unlikely to recover, at least in its present form." President Obama has all but indicated he'll use his veto power to stop the legislation. An alternative bill, OPEN, has been introduced in the House. Meanwhile, protests continue. With as much as has been invested in this legislation so far, you can bet the fight isn't over. Anyone who uses the internet should be concerned and stay informed.

Twitter Pickles

Do you have any stereotypes in mind about users of social media? If popular culture is any indication, the common view would seem to be that people who use Facebook, Twitter and the like are narcissistic, superficial, self-involved, self-important and just plain silly. And of course, it's mainly the younger generation that is perceived as having a social media problem. The consequences for public life, for an educated and engaged citizenry, would seem to be quite dire.

Do we view our students this way?

If so, it might be worth taking a look at the Pew Internet & American Life Project's recent report, Social networking sites and our lives.

Among the findings, there is evidence that many may find surprising. For example, social media users are more "politically engaged" than the general population.

Furthermore:

There is no evidence that [social networking site] users, including those who use Facebook, are any more likely than others to cocoon themselves in social networks of like-minded and similar people, as some have feared.

This is the first national survey of its kind, and worth a quick look — if you don't mind challenging those amusing stereotypes.

PS: If you're interested in this sort of thing, you might want to check out the "Social Media, Social Justice" panel at Rising Tide 6.

Here's an excellent video that's must-viewing for anyone who uses tools like, say, Google, in research or teaching. The phenomenon described is also something to be aware of as our students use these tools for class research. The overall consequences for civil society seem potentially significant as well.

The speaker, Eli Pariser, is one of the brains behind MoveOn.org, and he's got a new book out called, appropriately enough, The Filter Bubble.