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.

Deep Revision or “Why It’s Fun to Play in the Sand”

The Tibetan monks who spend weeks stooped over elaborate sand paintings, perfecting each razor line of crystals, only to suddenly sweep it all away, know what they are dong. Their casual destruction reminds us that our projects, along with life itself, are provisional, like waves rising and falling in the sea. Why then is revision such a difficult skill to teach and such a challenge to fully embrace?

We’ve probably all played the revision game with students, and maybe with ourselves, in which requests for real transformation are diluted into mere tweaking. A submitted work, because it has been submitted, can feel essentially done, even if it was only initially intended to be a first draft. My experience with undergraduates in writing intensive general education courses, in college writing courses, and even with graduate students, is that actual revision is an attitudinal orientation most don’t achieve. My focus here, then, is not on particular strategies for revision — there are many brilliant, readily available ones out there — but on the deeper power of revision per se. My aim is indirectly practical, though, since a great obstacle to fully engaged revision is a lack of will. It’s hard to get too excited about revising when the only apparent payoff is a slightly better grade on a paper that no one will probably ever read again.

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I flesh out a more expansive notion of revision by imagining the difference between making a marble bust and a sandcastle. Eventually, the bust will be declared finished, for all sorts of reasons, including time and material constraints. At some point, further chipping away seems more destructive than creative. There is, then, a more or less natural limit, inherent in the activity itself. With sand as medium, though, the completion point is more arbitrary. I call it a day because of sunburn, or hunger, or because the tide is nipping at my ankles. Sandcastles are fun precisely because of the abundance of material, the low stakes, and the intrinsic and endless revisability of the whole endeavor.

A comparison between digital and film photography also enriches my sense of what revision might be. As anyone who’s done both kinds of photography knows, the difference is much more interesting than one of mere technological means. As when working with marble, part of the joy of film shooting is connected to its material limits. The discipline forced on the photographer by the nature and cost of the film and processing hones artistic vision and technically mastery. On the other hand, the nearly magical flexibility of digital, of being able to instantly and recklessly shoot a zillion frames, is also a creative boon. Although these activities look alike — one is just sculpting or taking pictures — there are interesting distinctions, and ones that mirror academic work.

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Except for some intentionally-focused writing courses — creative writing comes to mind — many instructors suggest that the term papers or other class projects are products meant to result from skills and knowledge gained during the semester. The paper becomes, then, a kind of artifact of the class experience, not unlike a lumpy ashtray made in a junior high shop class. It’s different, though, when, instead, the paper is seen as a kind of excuse for deeply engaging in the processes of revision and reflective thinking. Then, the final “product” matters but primarily as a gauge and heuristic for facilitating careful reading and thoughtful reflection. I could see this more clearly when I realized that many people run in organized marathons not just to achieve the obvious goal but for the rigorous training motivation the race provides.

Just as some especially fit people can successfully complete marathons without really being transformed by weeks or months of training, so too some skillful students can submit technically fabulous term papers, relative to their peers, without stretching themselves intellectually. By focusing on the process rather than the product, then, I am then more likely to help both the best and worst students improve. It’s not that the product doesn’t matter — it is, of course, part of how we measure the effectiveness of the process — but when it becomes the overriding focus, the opportunity to develop an ethos of revision can be missed.

I say “ethos” here, rather than “skill,” because I think the true power of revision isn’t just that it can help students become better academic writers, readers, and thinkers. Rather, the critical self-reflection required for genuine revision is connected to the deeper self-scrutiny associate with living an authentic, examined life. Asking questions of one’s paper — Why did I think that? Could my claim here be wrong? Am I actually saying what I mean? Did I misrepresent that author’s point? — can become a portal into considering one’s way of orienting to others and to the world. In other words, academic revision can become a point of access to the delicious ongoing revisability of our very selves.

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Black Flies, Dragons, and Student Emails

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Being able to connect with students through email is a godsend, but this magical medium can easily become abusive. While some students’ emails are unremarkable when taken individually, the impact of a string of them quickly becomes unbearable. Another type of unwelcome student email lands in one big nasty surprise, a stinkbomb of fully articulated negativity. While the potential agony of dealing with student emails isn’t new, the intensity of the problem is greater in the online world where this may be our only form of one-on-one communication.

The cumulative drip-drip-drip abuse of repetitious, trivial emails is as easy to underestimate as biting black flies. As pests go, they are pretty small, and they so closely resemble the mundane housefly that, at least in the first moments, it’s hard to work up much aversion. Then one perfect summer day you’re at Michigan’s north shore, blithely spreading out your Wonder Woman beach towel, and here they come. Tiny, dense vibrating bodies thud into your bare arms and neck, your exposed torso, as you realize they aren’t stinging you so much as absconding with bits of skin. It’s the doggedness of the collective that wears you down rather than any one fly.

Similarly there’s the student who sends a stream of individually innocuous messages sprinkled with anodyne queries, questions clearly answered in the syllabus and assignment instructions. When the first harmless question arrives — and it is often before the semester even begins — the teacher doesn’t recognize it as the portent of a plague. She replies quickly and thoughtfully to this motivated new student, eager to demonstrate her values as a committed, student-centered, generally awesome teacher and human being. But an occasional student will then fall happily into the habit of emailing repeatedly, both because it’s so easy — like using Siri or the Amazon Echo — and because their high school adviser assured them that asking their professors lots of questions was a great way of “demonstrating interest and engagement.”

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The student as dragon, by contrast, rouses at midterm with a L-O-N-G message that includes gruesome details about her recent stomach flu, and tales of travel woes associated with her cousin’s long distance wedding. Oh, and there’s a plea for special dispensation about an assignment. In quick sympathetic response, the teacher accommodates. A little extra time? Sure. When the student then confidently gallops past this extended deadline and sends yet another lengthy plea, the teacher gently declines, citing concerns of fair play for all, etc. The student’s reply, which arrives instantly and in flames, is peppered with ALL CAPS and exclamation points!!! She is outraged by your insensitivity and, besides, your class is terrible (other students think this too!!!) and she can’t believe the university hired you in the first place!!!

The potential for such abuse has probably been heightened by the fact that many students have come of age understanding college education to be a consumer good. Their browser bookmark for my class is likely nested between tabs for Amazon and Zappos, and pounding out faceless customer complaints and reviews is second nature. Bad enough that many students and their families see us primarily in customer service terms, but many of us have, sometimes astutely, come to see ourselves this way too. It makes sense given how many university administrations — not to mention regional and national politicians — have nurtured the education-as-commodity view. An unhappy consequence is that we wind up encouraging unreasonable student expectations. It’s an especially brutal double bind for adjuncts whose livelihood hangs in the balance of what has become, in part, a salesperson of the month contest.

In my earliest online classes my mild case of guilt probably made the general email issues even worse. Because I was so deeply oriented toward face-to-face conversation, I struggled to accept that the normal online methods of connecting could be good enough, so I sometimes overcompensated. I’m sure there are still times that I contribute to a student’s inflated sense of entitlement. I grimace as he returns again and again to the complimentary snack bar when he may not even realize he’s taking more free peanuts than he should.

And though my very human desire for validation is only one tiny facet of this issue, I pay attention to its unintended impact, recognizing that it’s actually a little selfish. After all, how healthy is it for students to be confirmed in their expectation for lightening fast replies to trivial questions? And while I continue to offer compassionate, flexible responses to their tales of woe, I can be direct to a fault about the ultimate limits. I am also quick to decisively call out any rude or abusive replies from them. I make these efforts even when I really just want to envelop them in warm fuzzies during their crises, or when I would rather take the easier route of pretending that an abusive message wasn’t really that bad. But it serves no one’s best interest for me to give the flies and dragons further encouragement to feast on my meager flesh.

Fake News, Willful Ignorance and Critical Thinking

Against the much maligned backdrop of contemporary higher education a bright light has been trained on the problem of fake news. Critical thinking is hot right now, suddenly spoken of as an urgent necessity rather than an abstract or faraway good. Those of us who’ve long been worried about folks’ capacity for basic reasoning and factual discrimination are justified in feeling newly energized. It has been confirmed, we are told, that many Americans cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction. Democracy is in danger and we must commit to developing students’ critical thinking skills with renewed vigor.

A philosopher by training, I’m grumpier than many about the ubiquity of poor thinking skills. In fact, some years ago my grief over anti-intellectualism and the disregard of science, facts and common sense drove me to a crisis of faith that impacted my scholarship, teaching, and sense of place in the world. The persistence of racism, embarrassingly literal strains of religious fundamentalism, and climate change denial were among the bullies that pushed me to reappraise my naive confidence in reason, facts and intellectual self-scrutiny. Shortly after 9/11, during a period of sorrow and brittle fury, several tentative conclusions took shape in the jingoistic, anti-Muslim, anti-gay miasma that surrounded me.

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For one thing, I noticed that many who failed to distinguish between this or that fact also couldn’t appreciate the more general differences between fact and fiction. Addressing the problem, then, wouldn’t merely require adding information so as to improve a discrete skill — like teaching someone to identify a Bobolink, say — but would require the awareness and development of at least a few basic points about the stubbornness of reality and of our accountability to it. I also had to accept that many who systematically blurred fact with fiction, and logic with wishful thinking, did so quite happily. They were, then, unmoved by arguments that assumed that they did or should care about being accurate or reasonable. Their blithe disregard makes sense given how often we are rewarded for the size of our enthusiasm rather than the defensibility of our positions. One’s football team wins and one’s political candidate comes to power in the midst of a righteous, passionate, confirming din.

When it comes to sports teams and rock stars it’s easy enough to appreciate that emotional forces will be more determinative than rational ones. But what if our beliefs about most things are determined to some extent by how holding those beliefs makes us feel? To paraphrase William James, what if we are inclined to believe that which makes us feel good? And what if this isn’t so much an individual failure — people going astray — but reflects something of our nature? If we are such deeply affective creatures, then emotions must be front and center as we address the problem of fake news and critical thinking.

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If students’ orientation to reason and facts is nested so intimately into their psychological and social selves, then it’s not enough to think of critical thinking as a mere skill. In fact, I’ve come to think of it as like learning a new language. It is open ended, often tentative and halting, and progresses in fits and starts. Further, the greatest strides occur through immersion into a culture where the contextual relevance, including concrete rewards and penalties associated with mastering it, emerge. Of course, most native English-speaking U.S. students who study another language in school never really learn it, just as they may never really learn critical thinking, even from courses focused on precisely that.

The capacity for critical thinking is also like second language fluency in that many who claim to value it do not, not really, and may not even know that they don’t. There’s an unfortunate circularity here in that being able to identify the bad consequences of poor thinking relies on the very reasoning skill and ethos that is missing in the first place. The problem, then, isn’t just a lack of critical thinking skills, but a lack of sufficient critical thinking skills to even recognize the initial lack. Similarly, poor language speakers often overestimate their ability precisely because their poor skills blind them to their missteps. Adding more lessons in logic, or new lists of vocabulary words, important as this may be, is unlikely to effectively combat this vortex of ignorance, especially since its swirls are invisible to many who are drowning in it.

All this to say that, while learning discrete critical thinking skills is important — just as learning to conjugate verbs is helpful — genuine leaps of ability probably can’t occur without serious attention to underlying emotional and social motivations. Apparently, we are creatures who must sometimes be jolted into noticing and caring about the size and shape of our own ignorance. I am reminded that those yanked from Plato’s cave did not rejoice in the harsh daylight, but were initially pained. The fundamental danger of fake news, then, may not result primarily from a deficit of intellectual skill — though, of course, this matters — but a lack of will. With this hypothesis in mind, I try to focus as much on helping students want to think better as on improving thinking skills. As I explore in an upcoming post, I’m trying to work with them to more viscerally connect intellectual mastery with their personal and professional goals. Though, as we know, thinking patiently and well can bring its own satisfaction, its pleasures and rewards can be lost — to all of us — in the bright lights and deafening roar of a self-satisfied crowd.