I’m not a cheerleader, but I play one in the classroom

A fully credentialed, experienced university professor, I shouldn’t have to play the role of cheerleader in my online classrooms. After all, I respect that my students are adults who freely choose my classes knowing that they are responsible for whether or not they ultimately succeed. It shouldn’t be my job to stand on the sidelines urging them into the game and then on again to victory when their energy ebbs. But the simple fact is that if I don’t encourage and nudge, an unacceptable number will, in the proper lingo, “fail to persist.”

The ease and invisibility with which online students can casually peel off and blow away is one of the greatest challenges of online classes, at least with undergraduate general education courses. So while I never explicitly signed up for the pom pom and ponytail route, because I want more students to succeed, I gamely make the effort anyway, by:

  • beginning the semester with a warm up assignment that pushes them to connect to their deepest motives for taking my course
  • proactively reaching out very early in the term to fading students to voice my concern and confidence in their ability to succeed
  • including encouragement even in incidental email messages to individual students, e.g., “looking forward to seeing more of your good work!”
  • sending group messages and virtual “badges” congratulating those who’ve remained plugged in. I also share some of my own struggles and strategies with finding life/work balance and invite them to share their own in group discussion
  • signing off with simple, positive messages even in casual news items, e.g., “What a pleasure to work with such smart, capable students!”

It isn’t just cheap flattery. Only rarely do I genuinely doubt a student’s basic capacity to do this mid-level undergraduate work. Rather, like a coach, I’m urging them to access their own wellspring of passion and initiative, to push through the sheer tedium, boredom, isolation and distraction that can make online classes especially rough going for so many.

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Yes, I sometimes feel a little silly and resentful during my most rah-rah moments. This really isn’t what I had in mind all those years ago as I wrestled with my comps and navigated my dissertation defense. But as a university professor in the here and now of 2017, it feels increasingly urgent to me that my students recognize and access their own basic wherewithal. And they certainly can’t fulfill their intellectual promise if they don’t learn to show up in the service of their own goals and commitments. I will be a cheerleader, then, not because I think that’s my job — it is not — but because it’s the only way I know to get the job done.

The online teacher as Wizard of Oz: embodiment and social justice

Women have fought hard to get their corporeal lives recognized in the workplace. Whether it’s been about maternity leave, decent bathrooms, or breastfeeding rooms, progress has been frustratingly slow and limited. It’s a sad irony, then, that so many feminists now find ourselves working in the virtual realm. Where do questions about women’s embodied realities go when workers may only rarely visit the institutions that employ them? And what about the other implications of disembodied teaching? Are online teachers exempt from the usual varieties of bias — e.g., racism and sexism — given that students and colleagues may never even see them? Is there a place in online ed for instructors who care about their corporeal identities and responsibilities?

Sure, there all sorts of little ways to inject a semblance of physical presence into online classes, for example, video material and still images of instructors and students. And we can assign work that requires real life engagement so that students must brush up against other bodies and objects at museums, lectures, or one-on-one interviews. Such fixes may soften the edge of unreality that online classes can have. But disembodiment in online ed is, nonetheless, a real and incalculable loss for individuals and institutions, as it is with online shopping and dating. It’s part of the very steep price we pay for this convenient modality.

Isn’t it a shame, for example, that workplaces may be feeling less pressure to increase equity in physical surroundings when there is still so much work to be done? When I helped create a gender neutral bathroom in a science building, I got a clear view of the barriers to basic access that still exist. With students and teachers increasingly shifting to online, will institutions feel such pressure ease? If I didn’t spend lots of time at my university, how quickly would I forget the disparity in facilities across disciplines and colleges — luxury on one side and crumbling stairways on the other? Is the much vaunted universal access provided by online ed to be coupled with less attention to access and equity on our physical campuses?

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And what about the impact our mundane physical presence has on one another? As the only woman professor in my department in the mid 90s, I viscerally understood that the sheer fact of my being there affected students, colleagues and the institution’s ethical self-perception. Of course this proximity wasn’t an unmitigated love fest — there were predictable slights and struggles that left scars — but what if I’d been teaching invisibly?

Of course, in the online realm some symptoms of racism, sexism, xenophobia can be mitigated. Without casual hallway conversations, one is less likely to be looked up and down by a student and told “you’re smarter than you look,” or to be asked for a date by a senior colleague who will oversee one’s tenure case. On the other hand, when one appears only in the virtual world, casual prejudice need not be reckoned with either, not by our colleagues, our institutions or ourselves.

But how disembodied are we really, even in the virtual classroom? Do students do much reading between the lines based on our pictures, language use, and even the disciplines we represent? What assumptions do they make about their teachers’ race, sex, age, nationality, etc., when such characteristics are not obvious? How do students interpret teachers’ embodiment clues in the online environment? How do they fill in the yawning embodiment gaps left by our constructed online presence?

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I’ve considered adding more still images of and details about myself to provide a greater sense of physical presence, but I’ve got mixed feelings. Students would, I guess, develop a clearer picture of me as (probably) a white, cisgender, middle-aged, able-bodied female. But while this might deepen the connection some students feel to me, it is complicated. Wouldn’t I, for example, be capitalizing on an implicit bond with white students? I don’t want to unwittingly reproduce white privilege, but I don’t want to misrepresent myself either, or leave my students utterly at sea about who I am.

The insidiousness of this is brought home to me when I pay attention to the assumptions I make about others’ embodied existence. I’ve been surprised more than once, for example, — and startled by the fact of my surprise — when a student’s apparently white face did not match what I had interpreted to be a black-sounding name. And I was recently jarred to see a Japanese-American face on a podcaster I’ve listened to for years. Only the mismatch I felt at seeing his face forced me to acknowledge my initial expectation that he was a white Californian.

In short, this erosion of embodied presence has consequences for social justice, as well as for individual experiences of difference, prejudice and privilege. This loss is a really big deal that mustn’t be prettied up and glossed over. But nor should we imagine the online environment as totally beyond the usual influences of embodiment. Even if a teacher were to aim for a purely disembodied persona — and what a bad idea! — would students just fill in the blanks with stereotypes? Could it be that, paradoxically, we bloodless online teachers are at an even greater risk of tolerating or reinforcing such pernicious biases?

Are online teachers lazy sellouts?

More than a few people who hear I’m teaching online think I’m a lazy sellout. No one says so directly, of course. Instead, they emit the same squealing “ohhhhh” I heard so often when I first got a super short haircut, a vaguely sympathetic noise meant to buy them time to formulate a more or less polite reply:

-“Really? Good for you! I teach x, so, of course, I can’t teach online, but great! Really.” Translation: Online ed may be fine for some lesser subjects, but not for very deep and important ones.

-“Oh? Do you just love being able to work in your pajamas whenever you feel like it?” No translation necessary.

-“Good for you. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a Luddite….still clinging to the old chalk!” Translation: Traditional is better. It denotes taste and quality in educational methods as surely as in vinyl records or heavy stainless steel toasters.

-“Hmmm, Wow! Well, we certainly are getting a lot of pressure from the top to shift to online, aren’t we?” Translation: The only compelling reasons to teach online are the institutional sticks and carrots which you, apparently, were not strong or principled enough to resist.

Because I know that some online classes really are inferior, cheaply-made products that instructors get lured or duped into peddling, I don’t get too defensive when such left handed comments are directed at me.
Too often, online courses are hawked by institutions for the wrong reasons, offered by the wrong instructors, and foisted onto the wrong students. And while there are obviously quality control issues with face-to-face classes as well, online education is more susceptible. It is right and healthy, then, that professors remain guarded about the insidious intrusion and seductive opportunity of online ed.

But it is also almost certainly sensible and healthy for many institutions to responsibly develop online ed, with faculty leading the way, of course. Do we instructors who are critical of online education actually imagine a return to all face-to-face campuses? Of course, the online tail should not be wagging the academic dog. Online ed should be appreciated as a modality of education proper to be created primarily by, well, educators. But what if talented, experienced classroom instructors are unwilling to get first-hand online experience? How effectively can seasoned faculty guide our institutions if we are not, ourselves, hands on practitioners?

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When students began to routinely communicate with me by email, it seemed odd and even a little cheeky. I recall, too, being thrown off my game when they started to arrive in class with only electronic versions of the assigned readings. I didn’t adapt to these changes because I fell slowly in love with them, or even because I coolly learned to identify their advantages. I took to them the way I took to cilantro and new car styles. For better and worse, through some combination of repeated exposure and peer pressure, they gradually came to feel normal and necessary.

On a tv drama I watch set in the 1920s, a maid is horrified to learn that her new job requires her to use a telephone. The new technology intimidates her and, because she’s never really used it, it also strikes her as a silly luxury. So too with online ed, we are being pulled into a future that many of us did not ask for. And while it’s sensible for some instructors to avoid online classes altogether, and also critical that traditional education be properly nourished, none of us can avoid how online modalities are changing education as such. After all, even the lives of those who resisted the telephone to their dying day were ultimately transformed by the shiny new gadget, whether they liked it or not.

Are online classes the fast food of higher ed?

Famous quotes remind us that education is an almost sacred endeavor meant to transform individuals and society, and not merely to reproduce the status quo. When we teachers sit in classrooms generating sparks and watching fires take hold, it’s easy enough to believe in education’s awesome power. Maybe we also get to overhear a student’s conversation about their internship at the youth center, or see “end campus rape” buttons on their tattered backpack. In person, there may be lots of signs demonstrating a student’s commitment to the life, culture and values associated with higher education. Is it possible that online classes are inherently less transformative precisely because of how neatly they fit into students’ lives?

I’m sure that college redrew the lines of my own life largely because of how it disrupted me, intellectually, psychologically, and physically. When my eighteenth summer ended, I packed up my underwear, tennis racket, and paperback thesaurus, and headed off to a new life. The ostensible locus of the move was, of course, books and classes, and many of my courses were excellent, but it was being uprooted and tenuously replanted that rocked my world. If, instead, I had taken Intermediate French at my hometown community college, would I have become friends with a biracial Algerian? And what if I’d taken the class online instead, from the privacy of my suburban Midwestern home? Though I did not, as it happened, study French for long, my love of language and my cultural curiosity took deep root in my college years.

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Of course, online classes are so wildly popular precisely because they fit within students’ existing lives and habits. And this creates access for critical populations, employed parents, those charged with elder care, hungry minds in prisons or on military bases. On the other hand, this seamless fit into students’ lives softens education’s potential to shake things up, to provide students not merely with credits or certificates, but to crack open their very worldview. In this respect, then, online ed skews conservative, which is, perhaps why so many political conservatives are enamored of it. After all, how often does an online class result in Junior hanging out with her new hippie friends on the quad? Instead, she may well remain plugged into a full-time job, tapping out online discussion posts in hermetic isolation. She “makes time” for the class as best she can, squeezing it into the few remaining nooks and crannies of an already structured life.

Obviously, the right online course at the right time can point a student in a new direction. But I think online classes are more likely to really matter if we actively cultivate their disruptive potential in some ways even as we dutifully supply convenience in others. For example, why not foreground the advantages and disadvantages of online ed in our syllabi, early lectures, discussions, or other material? What if we help students ponder the price they may be paying for convenient learning? This will be anathema in institutions that are defensive about the legitimacy of online ed, but if we are confident in its value, as I am, then we can be forthright about its weaknesses.

And what if we also refuse to make classes too convenient? One of my new students shared her decision to take all online classes this term because she knew she would be on the road for several weeks. I explained that, while my class is asynchronous, it is not self-paced. It is, rather, “a loosely choreographed group experience,” not so very different from a face-to-face class in terms of its requirement for consistent “attendance.” In short, I resisted her assumption that online education is meant to be squeezed into one’s schedule as an elective afterthought.

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Like many contemporary college students — especially those with demanding work lives — she saw education as a discrete experience to be molded around her existing life rather than as a journey meant to upend it. For lots of good and bad reasons, college classes are often seen as a mere credential, or as a luxury, to be pursued in one’s leisure. My student’s pushback helped me articulate how and why I value shared group learning. For example, in discussions, students must grapple with the same issues at a similar place in their developing intellectual arc. And my many communications with students as a single group reinforces the notion that we are connected and accountable to real others.

In a way, then, though I appreciate online ed’s convenience, I also aim to cultivate reasonable inconvenience. We often come to value something, after all, by carving out an honored spot for it in our lives. This is a premise of spiritual practice, of course, and helps explain why there are temples and mosques and churches. And it’s why I keep a tidy writing desk and work regular hours even when I am directly accountable to no one. The value work has in my life, then, is established and maintained partly through the space and time I create for it. It is like the difference between thoughtfully cooking dinner at home or grabbing fast food at the last minute and gobbling it down in the car. Can we, I wonder, acknowledge and respect our students’ need for convenience without becoming McTeachers?

Alternative facts, fake news, and the anguish of the “objective” teacher

Lists now circulate that ostensibly tag the most ideological, agenda-driven professors among us, those who are “too politically correct,” or “too liberal.” But even before we entered this newest chapter of politically-driven teacher intimidation, thoughtful instructors have felt compelled to police themselves in service to some vague ideal of objectivity. Some of the pedagogical questions are pretty obvious, say, how to fairly grade essay exams, while others connect to the most basic course content, including the readings we choose (and avoid), and the terms we use to frame lectures and discussions. At every turn we are invited and compelled to consider questions about objectivity.

Like lots of liberal arts teachers, when students ask if I want them to do objective research or “just” express their opinion, I help them analyze what’s implied and assumed in such a falsely dichotomous question. We can, then, usually quickly agree that common thought is unhelpfully dualistic, since there is, in reality, often a continuum of more and less reasonable positions one might take, rather than either/or fact or opinion. And perhaps most importantly in our era of “alternative facts” and “fake news” — what we used to simply call lies and propaganda — we can see how having the mere shape of objectivity — as, say, pro/con style debates do — may do little to preserve genuine objectivity, and may even subvert it.

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The simplistic courtroom-like scenario in which alternative sides are “presented,” and from which students are supposed to “choose,” has done great damage to both journalism and education. The dramatic fallout of this cartoonish model emerged recently as reporters and editors were rightly criticized for engaging in “false equivalency,” that is, for giving “equal time” even to views and voices that were unserious and patently false. Pouring from the mouth of this clownish caricature of objectivity, ridiculous positions and falsehoods take on a patina of substance and legitimacy that they have not earned. We see it, for example, when public school science teachers are forced to present biblical “creation science” neutrally, right alongside Darwinian evolution by natural selection. An ad hoc, pseudoscientific myth is considered in the same breath as a well vetted, empirically supported, powerful explanatory framework. Ironically, the quest for, or pretense of, objectivity is precisely what may undermine genuine objectivity.

University instructors, who, in this climate of rabid, ultra-conservative anti-intellectualism, are increasingly afraid of losing their jobs, are in a tight spot. We are all reminded of why tenure matters as instructors agonize over how to frame a “controversial” issue — maybe better to avoid it altogether? — even when they know that the designation of “controversial” is itself a political intrusion into their pedagogy. And, of course, the resulting present-all-views approach is a disservice to students and an insult to professorial expertise. Issues, theories, arguments, facts and phenomena about which professors are legitimate authorities are reduced to interchangeable consumer goods from which the student is supposed to be encouraged to “choose.” While there often is, of course, room for reasonable disagreement about interpretations and implications, and while it is ennobling to help students develop such tolerance, facilitating shallow debate among falsely equivalent options encourages intellectual and ethical laziness. And, worse, it suggests that practicing intellectual tolerance and civil discourse is much easier and less consequential than it actually is, that it is more or less like picking out a new sweater at the mall.

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Though the notion of objectivity being used to beat instructors (and journalists) into line by the radical right is simplistic, falsely dichotomous and dangerous, some instructors actually take pride in their pursuit of it. They congratulate themselves in their quest for a supposedly scientific disinterest, boasting of how they hide their passion for social justice so that they don’t “influence” students. But what are the consequences of this recklessly misguided relativism? Students may learn that even values that are foundational to the notion of an authentic university as such — tolerance, equality, democracy and respect — are just side dishes on a buffet that also includes white supremacy, fascism, and censorship, not to mention “alternative facts” of all sorts.

Genuine objectivity is much messier and diffuse than we typically acknowledge, emerging only in broader context, against historical and social backdrops that include more and less powerful voices. Across their educational careers, fortunate students will have heard from passionate professors representing a broad range of reasonable disagreement, with some more apparently “ideological” than others. This is not a problem. My lone teacher’s voice is merely one of many in the cacophony of perspectives competing for their attention, a din that includes the shriek of the “alternative” media. When universities succeed, students emerge from the whole experience having mastered the language of facts and reasons, and with a developed sense of accountability to reality. They will be more appreciative of the empathy and open-mindedness required to grapple with multiple perspectives, but not because I’ve presented them with an intellectual tasting platter.

So, while it is an obvious disservice to reactively “penalize students for their opinions,” it is also a travesty to cultivate or politely tolerate the expression of views that are unmoored from reason and reality. And it only deepens the insult to the student’s intelligence and to the teacher’s mission when educators deliver such shallow fare in the name of objectivity and tolerance, as the radical right has defined it. Sure, we may feel more secure about our jobs as we neutrally fan out an array of options before our students — again, tenure matters — but our vocational integrity may well be the price we pay. We are, then, not merely consenting to a worldview in which up means down and war means peace, we are also actively recreating a perverse, anti-democratic social order.

In Praise of the Lowly Multiple Choice Quiz

One of my online students had to take my ten-question multiple choice syllabus quiz 17 times before getting all the answers correct. Seventeen. She must have cursed me as she whackamoled her way through it, changing one answer only to have another pop up as incorrect. Such a quiz can feel tedious and maddening, I know, but I’m not ashamed to admit that the objective quiz has recently reentered my life and stolen a little piece of my pedagogical heart.

I liked taking rote quizzes when I was a kid. The challenge was clear and, unless the questions were badly formed, I could count on being rewarded with a puzzle-solving jolt of satisfaction. As a young teacher with a kazillion students, I relied on multiple choice quizzes as a matter of sanity, but later denounced them as a lazy, reductionist substitute for real education. Despite their shortcomings, though, I’ve regained some respect for objective quizzes, especially in the online realm. The multiple choice syllabus quiz, for example, because of its clear purpose, ease of implementation, and hefty payoff has been recalled to active duty.

One of the main benefits, of course, has to do with encouraging good reading. Having trained in a discipline that prizes close reading, I’m fetishy about it. And I don’t mind publicly grumping about how the conflation of skimming with reading, always a problem, has only worsened. Multiple choice questions don’t teach students to read well so much as help them quickly see when they are not already reading well. When the document at issue is as simple as the course syllabus, their own deficits in genuine reading — for example, reading that includes comprehension — can leap out in brilliant, irritating clarity.

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The multiple choice quiz, then, is a humble litmus test. In contrast to short answer or essay questions, there’s no fudging, which is critical when the aim is to cultivate scrupulous honesty about whether one has really read. And, at the same time, the syllabus quiz helps to seal a contract: “By having succeeded at this quiz, I acknowledge my understanding and acceptance of the terms therein.” And, perhaps most importantly, the pact implicitly includes an acknowledgement of what is to count as good reading. It is not to be a skittering, impressionistic fly-over, but, rather, a deep dive that sharpens the senses.

Quizzes are attractive in other ways, too, of course. For one thing, the online multiple choice quiz is graded automatically and immediately. Ideally, students who miss questions are quickly pushed back to the text with new, more specific questions and greater focus. Though, of course, perfect scores don’t mean they have mastered the material — that requires higher order activities too — the quizzes fill an important gap. And when questions are carefully constructed with conceptual objectives in mind, students can’t easily complete them by hunting piecemeal through the readings. For example, they need to understand the purpose of class discussions in order to reliably answer my syllabus quiz question about it.

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Of course, objective quizzes bring some pain. It takes me forever to create a decent, fair objective quiz up front. But the automatic quality of their implementation seems magical later, during the harried weeks of the semester. And because the quiz takes care of itself, I can better focus on authentically connecting with students, and may even use poor or excellent quiz scores as a springboard for reaching out to them.

Though quizzes have been abused by indifferent or overwhelmed teachers, they’ve also been unfairly maligned. Like blood glucose strips, they function as a quick gauge of where things stand. While more holistic, contextual assignments are critical both for gaining and demonstrating real learning, flexible, open-ended questions also invite us to rationalize, deflect and otherwise pretend. My syllabus may be no more interesting or challenging than the text-filled side of a cereal box, but this is why an objective quiz about it can be so powerful. It’s a clear statement at the very outset of my class, not merely of the difference between “A” and “C” work, but of what reading itself is going to mean.

Do Students Have a Fixed Mindset about the Growth Mindset?

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Like lots of teachers these days, I insist that my students watch a video in which Carol Dweck argues for the virtues of a growth mindset. Her basic claim is that those who believe, say, that math or language ability is a natural talent, something you’ve either got or don’t, are less likely to push through obstacles to learning. Though last semester’s students seemed interested, I knew my plan had gone awry when nearly all of them matter of factly claimed to already possess a growth mindset, as if it were a trendy gewgaw they’d acquired ages ago.

Of course, I don’t believe them. If Dweck is even sort of correct, then more than a few of my students implicitly conceive of themselves in intellectually essentialist terms. The majority, for example, routinely describe themselves as “not a math person,” a dead giveaway. But it’s not as if they’re straight up lying either. Claiming a growth mindset seems to function as shorthand for, “I’m willing to work hard in your class, Teacher!” And because the Protestant work ethic — combined with a belief in original sin, I suppose — is so deeply engrained in many, copping to a fixed mindset must feel like confessing to a deep character flaw. Paradoxically, then, plenty of students have a fixed mindset about a growth mindset: you’ve either got it or you don’t, and if you don’t, what a loser you are!

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It surprises me now that I was ever surprised by how students flocked to the growth mindset label. I mean it’s not as if I was asking them to consider a neutral bit of self-knowledge. Rather, it was a request that they demonstrate vulnerability in a new, unfamiliar environment. My aim had been to set the scene for greater thoughtfulness about education at the outset of the semester. Adrienne Rich’s “Claiming an Education” and a Michelle Obama speech were also on the menu, both of which beautifully flesh out connections between education, personal transformation, and social justice.

Before they slipped into their usual student groove, I wanted to urge deeper thinking about their own power and responsibility for learning. When they came up against a challenging reading or essay question, I hoped to inspire confidence that they could power through to success. But much of the transformative potential of the growth mindset framework is based on learners’ willingness and capacity to see themselves as empowered agents and, of course, some are reluctant. Many of my students, for example, come from underprepared groups in which admitting weakness has probably not been rewarded. Some have, quite understandably, learned that their job is to fake it til they make it.

Keeping this in mind helps me think through my new plan for introducing Dweck’s mindset material. When classes start this week, I think I’ll try to openly self-reflect about the learner I’ve been over the years, to share that, like most academics, I implicitly identified as a “smart one” and so, as Dweck describes, quickly abandoned paths that challenged that self-perception. With some embarrassment, I recall dropping classes in art and astronomy when I didn’t quickly do as well as a “talented person” should. Perhaps modeling honest self-reflection will embolden my students do likewise.

But I also know that such frankness may be interpreted as an admission of incompetence. Like many women academics, I’ve been well steeped in the lesson that I must prove myself as exceptional, and students learn to see women teachers in such terms as well. Now, as a women’s studies professor, I sometimes feel it’s my task to vindicate my entire discipline! Yes, we are intellectually capable and, yes, these are real college courses.

Still, maybe being caught in these double binds of expectation and insecurity can help me better appreciate the complicated motives of and pressures on my students. I can better see, perhaps, that asking them to ruthlessly scrutinize their own intellectual strategies and histories is a big deal. Though it is regarded almost as a law of nature in white bourgeois spiritual circles that vulnerability is a strength — thanks Brené Brown! — it is not so evidently true anywhere else.