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Conflicting values

Themes/tags: Grinnell, rants, diversity, writing to learn

Warning! I am using this musing to think through some complex topics, and am expressing some extreme opinions openly. Some readers may find those opinions offensive.

Recently, I’ve been struggling with a situation in which two of my primary values [1] seem to be coming into conflict. What are those values? One is that I care deeply about the principle that the faculty has primary responsibility for the academic program at Grinnell. The other is that I value diversity and want to do what I can to support not only the broad concepts of diversity and inclusion at Grinnell, but also the experiences of individual students from underrepresented groups.

At first, it felt strange to me that these two values came into conflict [2]. Certainly, in designing and redesigning both the curriculum in CS and the teaching methodologies in CS, issues of diversity and inclusion are always on our mind. But then I realized that there are certainly a wide variety of ways in which more traditional or less reflective curricular decisions can have a huge impact. For example, the whole situation at Reed suggests a clear conflict between the two values.

But that particular conflict is not what is keeping me up at night [3]. So let me tell you the Grinnell-specific issue, which is less public and very different, but which I find equally problematic. It seems best to start with the background, which I’ll report in a primarily temporal narrative.

A few years ago, when President Kington exercised the nuclear option on Grinnell’s partnership with the Posse Foundation, a number of staff members were in the unenviable position of trying to quickly create new programming to address the loss of Posse and to provide better support for students from underrepresented groups on campus [4].

One of the ideas proposed was that we have a common reading on diversity for incoming students. So the idea was pitched to the Tutorial and Advising Committee, which is supposed to be the primary body responsible for College-wide aspects of the academic program for incoming students. The Committee rejected the suggestion. And that should have been the end of the matter, or at least a temporary end to the matter [5].

But the Dean’s office decided on a different approach. I’d phrase it as If the committee won’t approve our idea, we’ll just do it on our own. [6] So the Dean’s office decided that we should have a common reading. I will admit that I raised objections at the time. I was told, Don’t worry; we’re treating this as something clearly separate from the academic program.

And that’s where I thought things stood.

But then this past fall, as I was giving my standard Why you should attend Scholars’ Convocation speech, I heard a very different interpretation. In that speech, I normally say something like,

Other than Tutorial and Self-Gov, you have no common intellectual heritage. You can’t even agree on what Self-Gov means. And, while I had thought that every Tutorial at least taught that you should consider your audience when writing, my past students have told me that they didn’t learn that in Tutorial. So let’s make Convo our common intellectual heritage.

In response, a number of students asked something like, But Sam, doesn’t the common reading serve our common intellectual heritage?

My first reaction to all of this was not positive [7]. Think about it. The students see one common aspect of Grinnell’s curriculum and it’s an aspect that the faculty is not involved in. In fact, my experience is that the faculty aren’t even broadly informed about the decision. There’s something wrong with that. Because of these concerned, I was tempted to write an essay entitled Usurping faculty responsibilities or Usurping the faculty’s primary responsibility. But I respect the colleagues in student affairs who choose the readings and I wanted to let my subconscious work through the ideas.

I’m glad I waited. In the time since, I’ve heard, and also accept, that we have to make some significant changes to Grinnell if we want to be a place that is appropriately inclusive. It’s clear that the common reading plays an important role in helping move Grinnell forward [8].

So how do I balance those two values? That is, how can I simultaneously support a common reading about diversity and also insist upon the primacy of the faculty in shaping the curriculum? More importantly, how can the College as a whole do so?

I’d love to say that I’m comfortable leaving things as they are. But I’m not. Unfortunately, the way the College has approached the common reading feels like one in a series of steps designed to take aspects of the curriculum out of the hands of the faculty [9].

I don’t think that the problem is impossible to resolve. There are a number of things we could do. It may be, for example, that others do not share my concerns. I have been known to be in the minority on many faculty votes. More importantly, large numbers of faculty members, myself included, highly respect our student affairs staff. It may be that we would prefer to delegate the choice of book to them. But that should be a decision that the faculty, not the administration, make. For a curricular matter of this import, we need a full faculty discussion [10].

Will that discussion happen in the coming year? I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

[1] Or priorities, belief structures, something similar.

[2] Of course, experience our curriculum from a position of power and as someone who primarily identifies with majority groups. Those who experience our curriculum differently may not feel the same.

[3] I am still trying to work through how I feel about the Reed issue. My knowledge on the various issues surrounding that curriculum is incomplete enough that I don’t feel it appropriate to comment at this moment. I may muse on it in more in the future.

[4] We had needed to provide better support for those students in any case. But the abrupt termination meant that we had to provide immediate evidence that we were doing something.

[5] The way things often work at Grinnell is that when a suggestion fails, you go back and consider the criticisms, find ways to refine or improve it, and ask again. It’s probably a more time-consuming process than it should be, but it often produces better results.

[6] Note that this is an example of higher-level power dynamics in play. The Dean’s office gets to override faculty. Faculty members don’t get to override administrators. For example, as a faculty member, I don’t get to say I’m going to offer a class at this time the Registrar rejected or Even though you said we can’t search for a tenure-track faculty member, I’m going to or even I’m holding an event in JRC 101; Campus Catering charges significantly more than a competitor would charge; I’ll use a competitor.

[7] That’s an understatement.

[8] Believe it or not, but one of the first suggestions I wrote in response to our draft assurance agreement was about Section 3.B.4., The education offered by the institution recognizes the human and cultural diversity of the world in which students live and work. I wrote,I’m surprised that the common reading is not mentioned in this section. That strikes me as a particularly powerful way in which we promote human and cultural diversity in our educational program."

[9] It appears that there are others, both public and not so public.

[10] The discussion can certainly be shaped by the recommendations of a faculty committee or a faculty/staff committee. However, given that the Tutorial and Advising Committee passed on that opportunity, I’m not sure what the appropriate group would be. Perhaps the Council on Diversity and Inclusion. Perhaps Curriculum Committee.

Version 1.0 of 2018-04-18.