Monday, November 12, 2007

Additional details in U. Delaware indoctrination case 

The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber link; temp link) writes a lament of the suspended diversity residence-life education program at the University of Delaware. Defending these programs as helping to "broaden students' cultural awareness and diminish negative perceptions of others", the program is an attempt to mimic classroom methods.
Residence-life officials there first discussed a "curricular approach" more than a decade ago. Ultimately they developed a detailed plan for promoting citizenship ("understanding how your thoughts, values, beliefs, and actions affect the people with whom you live") among some 7,000 dorm residents.

In a 2006 article in About Campus magazine, Kathleen G. Kerr and James Tweedy, Delaware's director and associate director of residence life, respectively, described their program's evolution. Previously, they wrote, though the university "knew motivating students to attend programming by providing pizza increased attendance, we did not know whether or how that programming affected learning."

And so they developed an educational framework that included 28 "competencies" for students (residents were asked to demonstrate the ability to "self-reflect" as freshmen, for example, and the "reciprocal nature of community" as juniors). Resident assistants used sequenced lesson plans as guides for group discussions and one-on-one meetings with students. Assessments of the program's effectiveness relied on students' own reflections, surveys, and interviews. "We find ourselves on an entirely new playing field," Ms. Kerr and Mr. Tweedy wrote of the program, "with fresh enthusiasm and fresh mistakes."

Some of those mistakes were big ones, according to several students and resident assistants who say they disliked the program long before FIRE's letter.

Bill Rivers, a sophomore, says the sessions delved too deeply into students' heads. In one session during his freshman year, a resident assistant read statements about abortion, gay marriage, and affirmative action. After each one, students were supposed to stand against one of two walls, under signs that said "Agree" or "Disagree." There was no middle ground.

The article notes that residential life programs believe "their job is to promote citizenship and tolerance." The question is that a classroom and a dorm room are different places on the average campus. You wouldn't be able to say that about a military academy, but those joining a public university might have some reasonable expectation of privacy in their out-of-classroom experiences. And if it is part of the educational experience, what is the plan for extending this educational mission to the student who is non-residential?

The article has the audacity to contend that schools that don't do this are cowards:
Politics aside, the uproar at Delaware is also a debate about comfort. In an era when colleges may view students as customers to keep happy, how many are willing to make their students uncomfortable in the name of learning, even for a few minutes?
If that's a legitimate argument, you've just argued for grade inflation everywhere. Teaching in general is asking someone to learn something that the student wants to do as little as possible. The goal is to persuade the student that what you have to teach is important; it is a poor economics professor who looks at his students and says "you need my class to get into your business major, so suffer through this you poor buggers."

If it is a part of the university's educational mission, such programs belong as part of the university's proper curriculum, and use trained educators rather than RAs who might be caught between their jobs and a hard place. Instructors might have more skill in differentiating, as FIRE president Greg Lukianoff puts it, "between institutional values and having people subscribe to particular political beliefs."

FIRE's catalog of information about Delaware is here.