Filed under Musings

Haunting Bias

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article offers a great analogy: “Many of us are ready to accept that placebos can work in general, just not on us. A similar dynamic exists with implicit biases.” And yes, I think that’s probably true for many, but what about those of us who have taken the time to attend seminars, take self-assessments, learn more about others and intentionally tried to break down our own biases? I ask because sometimes I feel overly conscious of my potential for bias as a result  of all of the emphasis on implicit bias. I fluctuate, sometimes I fall into old or new bias and then later, upon reflecting on some conversation or thought I think, “oh my… how could I?” and then! sometimes, not always, I get hyper sensitive. It feels like everything could stem from bias and in these moments I think I over correct or withdraw. So, sometimes, I wish there were better ways of combating implicit biases among faculty and students– instead of mandatory (or voluntary) training, I wish there were more university sanctioned opportunities for fun and engaging cultural exchange. And, not just traveling abroad, but cultural exchange right here on campus. I often think back to the library project sponsored a few years ago where you could “check out” people and learn more about their life experience. I feel like that kind of activity is more effective, really helps us change, rather than simply being more aware of the biases we hold. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit down to coffee, lunch, dinner or a drink with someone you wouldn’t have except for wanting to know something more about someone else? Those experiences were so easy to come by when I was an undergrad, but now with family, work, class, etc. they don’t come as easy and they feel more awkward since I have to seek them out. It’s hard enough finding people who share similar experiences–I mean people to commiserate with about being a new mom, balancing work and school, etc!

I’m starting to feel like we’re over prescribing the we way people should be, should think, should act and in doing so, probably self-censoring too much. Isn’t there a better way? Instead of trying to teach us how to reflect, can’t we create experiences that foster self-reflection organically? David Gooblar, the author of the article I mentioned above suggests that the classroom can provide such an experience and I tend to agree, but is it enough? I would like to see us foster more opportunities to really connect as a community. It’s a lot to ask and to find the time, I feel like we have to give up some of our pursuit of individual success (work, class, and other things that keep us so busy).

Laptops in Class

Every time I attend class, I notice everyone’s different ways of multi-tasking. Some doodle, maybe to expend energy, some browse the internet looking for more information on (or fact checking) whatever we’re talking about, some work on other things while they listen, some shop–maybe akin to doodling, I check my e-mail and my text messages (gotta make sure work is moving along and there isn’t a baby crisis), some very-focused and at-peace individuals sit listening without engaging any other media/entertainment/focus outlet– I’m always in awe of this group, at least during our class it seems like they have achieved some kind of enlightenment.

I would not have thought to write about this subject until I ran across “Don’t Insult Your Class by Banning Laptops” in the opinion section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. In response to the idea that laptops and other forms of tech tend to distract from a lecture, Mathew Numer explains, ” I’ve studied the effects of technology on university students, and I have found that it not only improves learning, it increases my students’ critical thinking abilities.” I guess I can see how that might be true! Aren’t we more likely to think critically when we have an outlet for following down paths of thought or checking our theories and assumption in real time? And, that outlet is really needed when there isn’t time for everyone to engage in conversation. Numer suggests that students should be insulted by a ban on laptops in class– after all, we’re not children. And, he further suggests ways that laptops can help enhance the classroom, much of which we have experienced in our GRAD 5104 class. Thanks Abram. Thank Dean DePauw.

All in all, I tend to agree with Numer. Students have to learn how to manage themselves in class and if we ban laptops or other items (a long time ago, one of my professors tried to ban newspapers in class), how will they learn? By the time they are in grad school or a staff meeting, they will need to know how to stay engaged and will need a good understanding of how others perceive their use of technology during class or in a meeting.

Experiential Learning

I have always thought that the work of academics should be more applied and that researchers should work to ensure that their work has some practical meaning that is accessible to those who are able to use their conclusions. I think NSF has driven us to be more applied by requiring researchers to facilitate broader impacts and university centers, like the one I work for, and others help disseminate an apply university research. That said,  I think every faculty member conducting research should be responsible for assisting in the dissemination and application of their research.  In a way, this responsibility is linked to many of the faculty responsibilities we talked about in our first few classes.

To that end, I think higher education should be more experiential. I envision a future where students and faculty spend less time and resources on class-room teaching and learning and more time working together to bring meaningful change through research and its application. For example, I think students who have the opportunity to work with the Center for Housing Research get to apply what they have learned in their course work, develop specific skills to meet the needs of our project sponsors, understand how to analyze and interpret data so that it is usable by our clients and even take it a step further, helping our clients figure out how to apply our findings. From what I understand, this experience is all too rare.

I agree with Carlos F. Mantilla P. (from our class) — he wrote in a recent blog post that internships are “kind of necessary.”  And I further agree that ideally, something akin to internships, but longer, more involved and professor-led would be included in every semester and every degree program. My vision is that students would be involved in faculty research throughout their time in college until they begin their own research as Masters or Doctoral students. Just for discussion’s sake here is a possible trajectory.

1st year undergraduate students are all involved in data collection. Think about how much data we could collect if we mobilized our entire undergraduate population!! As part of a housing conditions study in James City County we trained undergraduate students at William and Mary to collect data about housing conditions. The students drove by and assessed the condition of almost 20,000 houses. You can read more about it here. As a part of the experience, these student should read the research proposal for the research  to which they are contributing and be required to check back in on the research throughout their time in college.

2nd year undergraduates can choose to continue to participate in the same study or begin data collection in a new study. Or, if they have already committed to a major, they should begin working with a faculty adviser and contributing to his or her research.

3rd year undergraduates must be contributing to research in their major field.

4th and 5th year undergraduates continue with their in-major research and one of their final degree requirements should be making efforts to disseminate and apply the research they have been working on in an internship-like setting.

I think such a trajectory would help students better prepare for jobs and for further higher education. And, when students go on to be practitioners, they are better able to seek out and apply relevant research, so that eventually we have researchers and practitioners working together. Researchers working to disseminate and apply their work and practitioners seeking out research and working to ensure that their work employs the most recent and relevant knowledge available.

Mission for Me in Higher Ed

Mission statements became really important to me when I learned what they are supposed to mean and do for non-profits. Ever since then, I’ve taken them pretty seriously. I use the mission of the Virginia Center for Housing Research as a guide in my work and I use the mission statements of other organizations to assess their work. That said, they’re up for interpretation so there is always ambiguity and their meaning may change even though their composition does not.

I’ve attended two universities as a full-time student: American University and Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech is a state school. American in a private school and a non-profit organization. Before today, I’d never looked at the mission statement for either and maybe I didn’t need to. I chose these Universities because I knew what they were about–they made it clear through their websites, promotional materials, and most importantly, their programmatic offerings– and then they influenced me, probably drew me in a bit deeper over all those years. Here’s what I’m getting at… both American and Virginia Tech are service oriented and so am I. And in my singular experience, both Universities live their missions.

You can find American’s mission here. They call it “Statement of Common Purpose, American University’s Mission”– I think the combination of purpose and mission allows it to be longer than a traditional mission statement. American says that it has a unique ability to “turn ideas into action and action into service.” And after providing some background information cuts to the chase: “The central commitment of American University is to the development of thoughtful, responsible human beings in the context of a challenging yet supportive academic community.”

Virginia Tech’s mission statement is clear and concise. There’s also a “Statement of Purpose,” but they didn’t bury their mission statement in it for the reader to find/identify. Relative to American, Virginia Tech gets more specific about how it will serve “the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community.” Tech says is will “expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.” The “economic competitiveness” bit strikes me particularly, because it shows that Virginia Tech subscribes to a less than universal ideology.

I had expected both missions to be pretty vanilla, something everyone could accept and get behind, but that’s not necessarily the case! I took another, closer look to AU’s mission. Did it have the same flavor? Did it subscribe to an ideology too, taking what could be interpreted as a political stance? And indeed it did, through its “commitment to social justice.”

From my perspective these two ideological leanings make relative sense. AU has a very liberal, leftist history and it comes through in the beliefs of faculty and many students. Tech’s history has a more conservative bent, and although service is one of it’s three pillars, the three are more equally balanced than at AU where service felt more central. Again, this is my interpretation and colored in part by my experience at each school.

And here’s where the ambiguity and room for interpretation is great: I get to make these missions my own and live them how they make sense to me.  What’s more, I get to take some of the AU “social justice” mission with me and carry it through in my work at Virginia Tech. And while I focus on the “community development” bit of the Virginia Tech mission, I get the importance of the “economic competitiveness” piece and benefit from it. I’m thinking of the resources I have access to and Tech’s reputation that I benefit from. Further, I try to inject the economic competitiveness piece into my work to benefit the people I serve.

All in all, the depth of both missions, their reach and persistence as they live on through faculty and alumni is a really cool thing to think about. It’s crazy how much a short statement can mean when it’s a reflection of your life, past present and future.

 

 

 

 

 

Existing Housing Stock TO Green Affordable Housing and BACK TO the Open Market

In the area where I live, communities are growing more conscience and concerned about energy conservation and efficiency. Some local governments are making important investments in the housing stock by offering incentives for homeowners to get energy audits and retrofit their homes for energy efficiency. Nonetheless, many homeowners remain wary of the process. It takes a homeowner with an unusual knowledge of green building practices, an unusual commitment to the environment, and/or unusual faith in technologies to dive right in and “green” their home.

Relying on homeowners to take the initiative cannot be the only strategy for “greening” the existing housing stock, so here’s an idea. Transfer some existing housing into affordable housing and retrofit them for energy efficiency at the same time. The affordability restrictions don’t have to remain forever. Ideally, they wouldn’t. The “greened” housing could cycle back into the market and municipalities can focus on “greening” additional properties. The key is retrofit them while they’re in your control.

I was inspired by Boulder, CO. Boulder has growth restrictions which have caused the price of housing to rise faster that it might have otherwise. So, Boulder adopted inclusionary zoning policies to ensure that low, moderate, and middle income folks can afford to live in the city. What’s unique is that Boulder allows developers to fulfill their affordable housing requirements by renovating existing homes and selling them to a qualifying family or turning them into affordable rental properties. They didn’t want to contradict their growth restrictions.

With Boulder, Co and Burlington, VT as my inspiration, here are some details of my policy idea (notable details, like logical incentive structures for every step are not totally worked out yet, but bear with me… they will probably be different for each community anyway):

  1. Establish a community land trust or something that would serve the same function. The community land trust should be flexible, with graduated goals for the amount of housing in the trust. Homes in the trust don’t have to stay there forever, in fact my idea will only work if homes cycle out of the trust while new homes are acquired.
  2. Establish some affordable housing development requirement.
  3. Now, give developers some options: develop affordable housing, donate housing to the land trust, and/or renovate housing already in the  land trust. Cash would be the less fancy, but sometimes more efficienct option. (You can add all kinds of nuances like, if the developer’s planned development is already “green” beyond code requirements, you can acknowledge the intrinsic affordability of  “greenness” and count that toward meeting the affordable housing development requirement!)
  4. Renovations must be “green” and adhere to strict minimum building performance requirements.
  5. Give residents of land trust homes incentives to make additional green improvements. Give them a list of qualifying improvements and the requirements for the work, then demonstrate the value you place on those improvements by giving them more equity stake in the house. (This step has some important educational value.)
  6. Once a trust property has been “greened” to your high standard, it is more affordable to live in (it’s more energy efficient, more durable, and offers a healthier indoor environment) and more valuable, so let it be sold out of the trust.
  7. Acquire a new property in it’s place and let it be “greened!”
  8. Keep the cycle going! After all, you have an unusual knowledge of green building practices, an unusual commitment to the environment, and/or unusual faith in technologies! You gotta be the one to invest in this process. Experience in “green” homes is probably the only thing that will convince your average homeowner/buyer to go “green”.

There are the basics. To clarify (in case it wasn’t obvious), the “you” I am speaking to are communities as wholes (all you invested citizens),  local governments, and their partners that might be able implement some fashion of this idea.

Ensure affordable housing and “green” your community’s housing stock AT THE SAME TIME! What do you think?