Posted in December 2017

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.

Housing Assistance for Faculty and Staff

As the Town of Blacksburg updates it’s comprehensive plan, I’ve been having lots of discussions about the need for more affordable housing in town and nearby. Often the town talks about housing for graduate students, staff and junior faculty as being a need and priority. The town also values affordable student housing. Inevitably, these discussions lead to folks to ask, why do we have a housing affordability problem? Why is housing so expensive and why can’t some people afford to live in town? Part of the answer is a high demand and a small supply of housing. Another part of the answer is low wages paid to staff and some faculty at the university.  Median gross rent (rent plus utilities) is $887/month in Montgomery County according to the latest American Community Survey estimates. In order to comfortably afford the median rent, a household needs to have an annual income of about $42,576. The median gross rent in Blacksburg is higher, $998/month. A household would need an income of $47,904 annually to comfortably afford $998 per month. The university pays nearly half, 44%, of it’s employees, less than $50,000 per year. 395 employees earn less than $25,000 annually. Some workers could not afford the County median rent if they shared the cost with someone making same amount of money. The lowest paid workers would be living well below the U.S. poverty line if they are a single-earner household with any dependents. You can find this pay information in the Richmond Times Dispatch “2016-2017 salaries of Virginia state employees” database.

So, what is the University’s responsibility? Certainly to pay a living wage, but if need be, could they provide a housing benefit?

George Mason has developed rental housing for faculty and staff in response to high housing costs in Fairfax County. ‘Masonvale” has 157 rental units with below-market rents which the University offers to faculty, staff and county municipal employees for up to three years. The idea is that Masonvale provides “stepping stone” housing  for new employees who may not be able to afford housing in Fairfax County until they have been working in their position for a number of years. The housing is basically a recruitment tool and assumes that those taking advantage of this benefit will be earning a living wage/salary and have enough saved for a security deposit or down payment within a few years. You can read more in this Urban Land Institute case study.

Other universities offer housing benefits in the form of down-payment assistance. The university of Chicago “provides up to $10,000 in down payment assistance and up to $2,400 in rental assistance to eligible employees who move to one of the communities surrounding campus depending on home or rental location.” The University of Chicago’s housing benefit is probably one of the oldest housing benefits for  university employees and was born out of an effort to gentrify the surrounding neighborhood when crime rates discouraged student applications, but other universities are offering similar benefits. Here are some more examples: Temple, the University of Colorado, and the University of Kentucky. UK’s benefit seems most earnestly aimed at helping employee who earn lower wages to buy a home which is really important because homeownership is the primary way households built wealth in the US.

So, conclusions: Housing benefits can help universities recruit employees and help increase employee quality of life, thereby helping the university retain employees. As of yet, Virginia Tech does not offer any such benefit, but maybe something is in the works?!? Afterall, it seems exploitative to pay some employees so little that they must commute from West Virginia in order to access housing and even then, they are likely still financially strained.

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.

Housing Insecurity Among Students: Part 2

In my previous post I promised to return to the subject of college student homelessness and discuss what can and is being done to help college students who experience or are at risk for homelessness.

As a faculty member and PhD student at Virginia Tech, I wanted to see if I could find out about our University’s efforts first. Although I feel confident that the Dean of Students Office would offer help if a student made his or her challenges known, not much regarding resources is available online. In a 2013 VT News article about the 209 Manna Ministry, a food bank near campus for students experiencing food insecurity, the Dean of Students, Tom Brown, was quoted: “Occasionally, about once a year or so, we will identify a homeless student.” So, maybe student homelessness is too rare to have specific resources dedicated to this challenge, however I imagine that student homelessness is similar to homelessness at-large– it’s hard to identify and count people experiencing homelessness, so the most important thing is to make resources available, well publicized, and to the degree possible, reduce the stigma around accepting those resources. And, the 209 Manna Ministry, might be an excellent place to do just that!– food banks and other places providing food for people experiencing homelessness are often program intake points. A more recent article in the Roanoke times reports that the food bank serves about 12 students a week and has more than 50 students registered on its permanent role, about 10% of whom come to the pantry seeking items for their children. Based on the number of students served by the Manna Ministry and on the number of self-reporting students experiencing homelessness nation-wide, most colleges should probably have a well-publicized “Single Point of Contact” for students experiencing homelessness or other kinds of housing insecurity.

A single point of contact is one of the strategies recommended in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) resource, “Addressing Housing Insecurity and Living Costs in Higher Education: A Guidebook for Colleges and Universities.” The report discusses 13 high-level strategies for serving students who are experiencing housing insecurity, some of which seem like easy-to-implement, primarily administrative actions:

  • Proactive, systematic outreach;
  • Connect students with benefits, coordinating aid and partnering with other organizations that offer services to people experiencing homelessness;
  • Allow students to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits on campus– I can’t find evidence online that you can use SNAP/EBT anywhere on campus at Virginia Tech.

Other solutions seem to be more complicated or require additional funding, but would make a big difference for students who are are at-risk for homelessness or already experiencing homelessness. Here are the last few strategies recommended by HUD PD&R:

  • Ensure that financial aid is provided in time for students to secure housing (pay security deposits, etc)
  • Provide emergency housing and housing during breaks for students who need it
  • Provide emergency aid and microgrants (think emergency heating assistance)
  • Provide financial literacy classes/programming and
  • Coordinate/provide childcare.

All-in-all, a little could go a long way for a student at-risk for homelessness. Just one of these strategies might help them avoid homelessness all together, which can save them (and their children) from a host of consequences stemming from homelessness and involuntary mobility.