Loyalty, Research, and Prison Education

I’m in Dallas, Texas for the the National Conference for Higher Education in Prison. Today I’ll be presenting a paper from a larger project on loyalty and social science research methods which draws on an argument I first encountered in Peter Levine’s work. Here’s a link to the PowerPoint of my talk.

It is fairly typical for those who work in college prison education to have arrived at this work through exposure to extraordinary classes of incarcerated students. That’s certainly the case for me: the students in my first class six years ago were so inspiring that I’ve kept doing it ever since. In that sense, we are motivated by loyalty. This may make us good teachers, organizers, and activists. But there’s some question whether it makes us good researchers.

When we publish we are sometimes asked to fill out a conflict of interest form. A typical conflict of interest disclosure for social science journals will ask for potentially biasing obligations we may have incurred through financial incentives, but also about potential bias from non-financial relationship, including personal relationships with students and programs we have helped to build:

The authors whose names are listed immediately below certify that they have NO affiliations with or involvement in any organization or entity with any financial interest (such as honoraria; educational grants; participation in speakers’ bureaus; membership, employment, consultancies, stock ownership, or other equity interest; and expert testimony or patent-licensing arrangements), or non-financial interest (such as personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge or beliefs) in the subject matter or materials discussed in this manuscript.

This Elsevier form is a typical one. It’s quite short compared to similar disclosure forms that people in​ government are asked to fill out. In addition to the obvious sorts of things–such as climate change skepticism funded by a coal mining company–the form asks us to share our “personal or professional relationships, affiliations, knowledge, or beliefs.” There are, I think, two kinds of implications for such disclosures:

  1. Mere knowledge of my “conflicts” is sufficient to warn the reader that my research may be biased.
  2. The sources of conflict go well beyond my paycheck, to encompass my friendships, my preexisting beliefs, and ultimately my loyalties.

The evidence seems to clearly suggest that (1) is false: we are not very good at discounting the assertions of experts even when we know they may be biased. (For instance, we do not sufficiently doubt a mechanic when we know that he may prefer an expensive fix partly because he stands to profit from it.)

But we think the implications of (2) are important for social scientists to consider.  Our affiliations, friendships, and loyalties ultimately dictate the choices we make as researchers, our commitments and priors as we approach evidence, and provide something like a “stopping rule,” whereby we keep researching until we find evidence to fit these preferences. (See literature on motivated reasoning & skepticism, and perhaps also cultural cognition.) Thus we are potentially “conflicted” or “biased” by the very relationships that motivate our scholarship

Consider what this can mean:

  • Education researchers usually enter the field with various preferred policy outcomes (perhaps related to race, gender, poverty, and unionization, but sometimes also preferred teaching environment). They know their work will be used by activists on both sides of various policy questions, and insofar as they continue to work in these areas they tend to want that to happen, whether it’s to promote universal pre-K programs, charter schools and vouchers, or protect collective bargaining and teacher tenure.
  • Medical researchers typically have culturally-specific loyalties to fitness and health–which can cause them to overstate the risks of overweight and obese bodies, as well as overstating the prospects for weight-loss.
  • Political scientists are usually well aware of the prospects for partisan bias–while ignoring their deeper affiliations to their own nation-state’s constitutional norms, such as judicial independence or bicameral legislature. Meanwhile political theorists often have a fundamental political orientation that guides them, like liberalism, conservatism, or even participatory–rather than merely representative–democracy.

I don’t think this kind of loyalty is biasing, though I’m happy to report it when required. In fact, I think it’s a kind of methodological superpower. Peter Levine expanded on this theme in a recent blog post, “Loyalty in Intellectual Work:”

“I’ve noticed that sometimes people expect me to endorse the underlying “theory of change” of a given field very strongly and are disappointed when I won’t. I usually cannot say that a given strategy or premise is the best one available, because I don’t really believe that. Instead, I think that a field or movement turns into what people make of it. So I see myself as a member who wants to make the movement as good as it can be, not as an independent scholar who has judged the movement and found it superior to others.”

Levine is a member in good standing of at least nine different scholarly communities and social movements, and as far as I can tell he has produced and disseminated useful scholarship in each. Yet he claims to have little attachment to the specific accounts of the world to which those communities seem to cling. This is only possibly because he rejects the cognitivist view of the joint endeavor: his loyalty is to the people, not the ideas.

On this approach, any active scholarly endeavor that is attached to, or feeds into, a political project on behalf of a group of people needs to hold its middle range theories relatively lightly. Our loyalties are to communities of practice and inquiry rather than to the reigning theory of etiology and efficacy that the community holds.

To me, this feels familiar. Prison education has a reigning theory of efficacy: the decreased recidivism rates of our incarcerated students. But there’s good reason to hold this view a bit lightly: our loyalty to incarcerated students themselves. If a particular theory of the efficacy of prison education is disproven, I don’t suddenly lose interest in working with prisoners. Indeed, I hope this happens frequently and rapidly in any field I participate in, because theories imply methods, and using the wrong method means we’re being ineffective.

Therefore, even though the body of evidence for prison education looks quite strong, it is not unassailable. We should anticipate that some of the most famous causal claims will come under fire, and we shouldn’t worry: we should seek new theories and work to clarify the old ones. Our loyalty is to the national community of incarcerated student scholars, not to the particular vision of education spelled out in the Three-State Recidivism Study or the RAND Study. I’d even willingly rethink the claims that Daniel Levine and I made in our own contribution to this literature given the right kind of evidence. Nor is our loyalty to particular students: the project of improving prison education nationally and ending mass incarceration has to take precedence over our loyalty to the men and women who are currently benefiting from the Second Chance Pell experiment, since this small group can make or break the program for the country.

Yet this is still a bias of sorts: we’ll always going to be looking for research that humanizes prisoners (thankfully, they are in fact our fellow human beings, so we’re unlikely to be in error there) and reduces our reliance on incarceration. If a strategy doesn’t work, we’re more likely to ask whether it can be tweaked or fixed than to abandon it.

And there’s good evidence that this is an important feature of social science research. One can evince a generic loyalty to a community of people affected by an overarching problem, but who are presented with conflicting narratives for resolving that problem. The researcher can then help adjudicate these explanations and theories of change. For instance, Kristie Dotson’s paper, “How is this paper philosophy?” proposes that disciplinary norms in philosophy departments and journals be altered to make room for work like hers by and in service of diverse practitioners. And in explaining her work, she celebrates the communities to which she belongs for inspiring it:

“I use philosophy to help support, generate and defend research, advocacy and activism that might change the current plight of Black people in the US, particularly promoting better conditions for Black cis- and trans* women, girls and gender non-conforming people. In other words, I am a Black feminist professional philosopher working in the service of Black feminist agendas.” (Philosop-her interview)

Loyalty to a community is not loyalty to a specific theory of change or efficacy, and in fact loyalty can motivate dissent from reigning theories in favor of alternatives. In prison education in particular, I think we need to worry about the sheepskin effect and the signaling theory of education: most of the college wage premium comes from completing school, rather than bit-by-bit along the way. That’s surprising: most skills are learned incrementally, and are beneficial in that incremental way. College, it seems, is all or nothing. Half or even 90% of a college degree does very little to increase your income, while finishing that last course makes a big difference.

Our anxiety should be that college seems to serve more as a signal of ability and conscientiousness than as training in necessary skills. The difference between someone who has a bachelor’s degree and someone who has 117 credits is quite small, in terms of knowledge. But the person who is unable or unwilling to finish his degree must have some incapacity or impediment. The degree is a signal that those elements are missing. Employers are paying for smart and hardworking staff, and a college degree is a reliable signal of those qualities. And indeed in college campuses throughout the country we see evidence that this is true: no one thinks that a cheater or a plagiarist is “only cheating himself,” they worry that he has an unfair advantage. The grade matters more than the work, it seems, which is also why students seek out “easy As” and rejoice when class is canceled. And many students readily engage in “cramming” for exams knowing that they will not retain the material in the long-term. (I owe these examples to Bryan Caplan, though they now seem almost too obvious to attribute.)

In this sense, then, we have to worry that prison education will, like education outside of prison, create a meritocratic hierarchy among prisoners. Rather than humanizing those behind the fence, it may sometimes have the effect of selecting a chosen few, “the exceptions.” So we should be willing to hold the various theories of education lightly.

  • Perhaps prison education is valuable because it enhances signals of employability, reducing the stigma of incarceration.
  • Perhaps prison education works to connect high status faculty with low status prisoners, and that association passes along cultural capital.
  • Perhaps prison education works by identifying and raising the profile of certain organic intellectuals among people who are incarcerated. Or perhaps it simply allows the Du Bois’s Talented Tenth to rise.
  • Perhaps education is a human right and we should ignore efficacy evidence for prison education.
  • Perhaps prison education in the humanities and liberal arts teaches students important self-regulation and conflict resolution skills.
  • Perhaps prison education provides important opportunities for deliberation over fundamental values which can lead to effective reprobation and rehabilitation of the moral injuries of a crime.
  • Perhaps prison education is a part of a larger process of reframing people who are incarcerated through the lens of deficits to seeing them as assets to their community.
  • Perhaps the soul knows no bars, and prison education is an important corrective to our overly punitive system of mass incarceration.

Loyalty requires to keep exploring these alternatives rather than rest easy with the RAND study. We’re better researchers because of it.

The Future of K-12 Education (IF Discussion Guide)

The 20-page discussion guide, The Future of K-12 Education, was published by Interactivity Foundation and edited by Adolf Gundersen; based on discussions facilitated by Gunderson, Dennis Boyer, Sue Goodney Lea, and Zeus Yiamouyiannis. This guide provides five policy perspectives regarding learning and the nature of education. From IF, “The discussion report on the Future of K-12 Education grew out of a longer-term project discussion in 2006-2008 that produced an initial set of more conceptual or theoretical possibilities for education in general. These possibilities were eventually re-rafted to make them somewhat more practical or policy oriented. And the revised possibilities were then tested in four additional public discussion series in the fall of 2010. Overall, six different discussion panels (meeting in four regions of the country) and seven IF facilitators/fellows contributed to the development of this report.” This report is available in Spanish and can be found on IF’s site here.

Below is an excerpt of the guide, which can be downloaded as a PDF for free from IF’s site here.

From the introduction…

Purpose and Origin of This Report
You are here because you’re interested in discussing the future of K-12 education. The materials in this Citizen Discussion Report will help you do so in a way that is exploratory, rather than competitive or argumentative. The more exploratory your discussion, the more likely you will leave thinking about K-12 education as a social concern and about how public policy might respond to it. You will also be better equipped to make more informed choices as a citizen.

This report has two main parts: a short list of possible questions and answers about K-12 education policy, followed by five public-policy responses. The information is designed to help launch your discussion. It will serve as a point of departure for your discussion, not as a map of what’s already been “discovered” through expert study or what’s been agreed on by influential groups. It will also help keep your discussion exploratory, as it provides general possibilities rather than final answers.

The descriptions you will find here examine a variety of perspectives on K-12 education policy, while maintaining the idea that there are always more to consider. Because they are general, or conceptual, there should guide you in examining the “big questions”, while helping you avoid technical arguments over details. They invite you to develop them further or come up with entirely new ones of your own.

Who Developed the Report
This report is a product of the Interactivity Foundations (IF), a nonpartisan public-interest foundation that was established to promote citizen discussions like the one you are about to have. One of IF’s roles is to produce discussion materials like this report.

Typically, IF reports result from a series of discussions that unfold over the course of a year and half. They are organized and conducted by a single IF fellow, who also edits and collects the material in the form of a report. In this case, an IF discussion project produced an initial set of possibilities, which were then re-drafted and tested in four additional discussion series during the fall of 2010. In all, six discussion panels (meeting in four regions of the country) and seven IF facilitators had a hand in this report.

Generally, participants in IF projects are selected for their ability to think creatively and constructively about the chosen area of concern. Discussion panelists are then divided into two groups: one of expert-specialists; the other of citizen-generalists.  The advantage of having two groups is that the resulting discussion report will draw on different and complementary skills. The expert-specialists contribute professional or special knowledge; the citizen-generalists contribute their life experiences and general insight. When they come together at the end of a project, each group’s thinking enriches the other’s.

Another important feature of the IF process is that IF panels meet “in sanctuary”, meaning panelists are guaranteed confidentially from start to finish. This way, they are not expected or obligated to assert their authority, defend a particular constituency or organization, or avoid probing questions or mistakes. They are free to think and speak openly and creatively. This also means that those who discuss IF reports are free to focus on the ideas presented rather than the personalities or backgrounds of the authors.

In other OF projects, discussion panels are free in another important sense; they make selections or decisions through a deliberative process of exploration and convergence rather than consensus or compromise. Panels can take their time exploring and developing a wide range of possibilities. Convergence occurs as panelists agree on a range of possibilities that they believe are worthy of public discussion rather than ones they personally or collectively endorse. In addition, throughout the sanctuary discussion process, any single panelist can keep alive a particular possibility simply by asking that it be preserved. This procedure helps ensure that the panels achieve their goal of developing a series of contrasting possibilities, rather than a single set of recommendations or conclusions.

If you are interested in further information about the process used to develop IF reports or IF’s work in general, we invited you to consult our website at interactivityfoundation.org

The PDF version of this report is available for download here

About the Interactivity Foundation
The Interactivity Foundation is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that works to enhance the process and expand the scope of our public discussions through facilitated small-group discussion of multiple and contrasting possibilities. The Foundation does not engage in political advocacy for itself, any other organization or group, or on behalf of any of the policy possibilities described in its discussion guidebooks. For more information, see the Foundation’s website at www.interactivityfoundation.org.

Follow on Twitter: @IFTalks.

Resource Link: www.interactivityfoundation.org/discussions/future-of-k-12-education/

“Expanding College Opportunity in Our Nation’s Prisons”

For more than five years now, “expanding college opportunity in [one of] our nation’s prisons” has been my part time job, and it’s been my full-time job for the past year, since the JCI Scholars Program partnered with the University of Baltimore to offer courses towards a Bachelor’s degree in Community Studies and Civic Engagement as a part of the US Department of Education’s Second Chance Pell Experimental Sites Initiative.

I visited the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor last week to participate on a panel with this title. I learned a lot from my co-panelists Erin Castro and Fred Patrick, but each of us were asked to prepare answers to the questions below so I thought I’d share those answers here.

If you had to describe the current relationship between higher education and prisons in one phrase, what would it be?

“Low hanging fruit:” College in prisons is the easiest and most obvious of a host of criminal justice reforms that we absolutely must be making and for which there is bipartisan support. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in the US, at a rate more than seven times higher than the global average. We’re not seven times more violent or larcenous than the rest of the world–perhaps we are seven times more racist, but even that isn’t clear any longer–so we need to fix this over-incarceration crisis. But for the time being, educating the people we incarcerate is almost literally the least we can do.

There is an eternal tension in higher education between the liberal arts and practical arts. Prison education programs often face this same tension. Based on your experiences, how has this divide manifested in prison education programs? Are there certain curricula that tend to receive broader support? How has this influenced your own work?

In the background here is that we don’t stop punishing people when they are released from prison. We continue to subject returning citizens to legal discrimination in employment, merely because of their status as previously-incarcerated.

There’s certainly good evidence that starting one’s own business is a good way to avoid employment discrimination. But most small businesses fail, and returning citizens face problems with raising startup capital that are just as onerous as their problems finding a job. 

In general, you can think of entrepreneurship as evidence that the ordinary labor market is absorbing workers too slowly: there is not sufficient labor market absorption for those currently unemployed, so they must instead go out and start small businesses of their own, taking considerably more risk with high rates of failure. We have not found meaningful work for many men and women, and we’re not willing to suspend our biases, and so we ask them instead to make their own.

Still, even in that context I see the liberal arts degree as superior. I think the data suggest that even for people who want a vocation, a liberal arts degree is the best investment. I’m partial to the philosophy major, myself: employment prospects and pay are better for the modal philosophy major than for the modal business administration major, because the liberal arts are techniques for problem solving, clear communication, and understanding difficult texts and situations. To achieve that, students need to learn to read hard books and write long papers for demanding professors.

Of course, the liberal arts are also–literally–techniques for freedom and for free people. So they’ve got that going for them, too, which is nice.

What are some of the ways in which prisoner education programs help prisoners identify and pursue educational opportunities upon reentry?

In some sense I think colleges have mastered a lot of the fundamentals of reentry because they are already basically institutions of ENTRY: colleges are pretty good at taking high school students and turning them into workers, and they’re also pretty good at preparing people who are accustomed to being dependents to live more independent lives. 

Our program at the University of Baltimore was built from the ground up with the ideal of having students transition from inside to outside while finishing their degree. Thus they’ll be able to use what is already a good transitional space, the university, to help accomplish that other kind of transition: reentry and return.

The audience today is full of current and future educators that may be considering how they can get involved with a prison education program. As you reflect on your own experiences, are there moments that stand out to you as particularly informative for those in the audience?

I started teaching a philosophy class and ended up running a program. There’s tremendous unmet demand among those 2.3 million incarcerated men and women for a college education. Be patient and persistent, recognizing the work comes before your ego, and find and cultivate collaborators.

We also have a lot of people here interested in research and policies that can shape prison education programs. What are the types of research questions the next generation of researchers should consider?

The GED test was once an important distinction, but it was basically devalued because it came to be associated with returning citizens, which is why they decided to raise the standards (to make it much more difficult and specifically to lower the pass rate) in 2014. Will something similar happen with our programs? Can we prevent that? 

Another important question has to do with selection effects. How much are we just finding the men and women who would have gone to university, if we didn’t live in a mass incarceration society? How much are we actually changing lives, adding value,” or changing the course of these men’s lives?

There’s very good reason–as Erin Castro reminded us during the panel–to look past the recidivism question: “We don’t evaluate a University of Michigan degree based on how likely its graduates are to later become incarcerated.” And while I do think that the recidivism statistics are awesome trump cards for the public policy debate, I would like to see my own program evaluated on other metrics, like student satisfaction, just as programs on the outside are evaluated.

Given the change in administration, should we be concerned about the future of the Second Chance Pell pilot program?

Of course we should be concerned! Yet Betsy DeVos has not, to my knowledge, commented on the Second Chance Pell experiment. It’s notable that she is also primarily devoted to school choice in K-12, which is literally modeled on Pell, a grant program that supplies school choice for higher education.

If this becomes a partisan issue, I don’t expect it to survive. But I’d like to think it won’t become partisan, that there’s still enough bipartisan support for this because it’s such low-hanging fruit, because the evidence makes it common-sense. If you’re committed to small government, you like prison education. If you’re committed to social justice, you like prison education. What else can you think of that the Koch brothers agree with George Soros about?

C@rds in Common: Learning about the Commons Through Play

Because the practices of commoning fly in the face of market culture, they are frequently misunderstood.  What is this process of committed collaboration toward shared goals? people may wonder.  How does it work, especially when many industries want to privatize control of the resource or prevent competition via commoning?

Matthieu Rhéaume, a commoner and game designer who lives Montreal, decided that a card game could be a great vehicle for introducing people to the commons.  The result of his efforts is “C@rds in Common:  A Game of Political Collaboration.”  “I see playfulness as a sense-making tool,” Matthieu told me.  “People can play casually and be surprised by the meta-learning [about the commons] that results.”

It all began at the World Social Forum (WSF) conference in Montreal in August 2016. Rhéaume decided to use the opportunity to synthesize viewpoints about the commons from a group of 50 participants and use the results to develop the card game.  He persuaded the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and Gazibo, both based in France, to support development of the game. Fifty commoners more or less co-created the game with the help of several colleagues.  (The process is described here.)

As a game designer, Rhéaume realized that successful, fun games must embody a certain “procedural rhetoric” and reward storytelling. He had enjoyed playing “Magic: The Gathering,” a popular multiplayer card game, and wondered what that game would feel like if it were collaborative.

At the WSF, Rhéaume asked participants to share their own insights about the commons by submitting suggested cards in six categories. The first four categories consist of “commoners cards” featuring  “resources,” “action cards,” “project cards” and “attitude cards.”  Two other types of cards -- “Oppressive Forces” cards with black backs – give the game its kick by applying  “negative effects” to the “Political Arena” of play.  The two negative effects are “enclosures” and “crises,” to which commoners must collectively organize and respond in time.

read more

Equity in School Forums: An Interview with John Landesman

The 14-page article, Equity in School Forums: An Interview with John Landesman (2016)was written by Carolyne Abdullah, Christopher Karpowitz, and Chad Raphael, and published in the Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 12: Iss. 2. In the article, the authors interview Landesman of Everyday Democracy to share his experience working to address the barriers within the Montgomery County Study Circles Program, which he helped to coordinate. Landesman clarifies the importance between equality and equity; and how these play out when designing a process to effective address the power dynamics that arise within school spaces between admin, faculty, parents, and students.

Read an excerpt of the article below and find the PDF available for download on the Journal of Public Deliberation site here.

From the article…

For adults and youth, American public schools are a major entryway to public engagement. Not only are public schools charged with preparing students for civic life, but they are the custodians of parents’ educational and economic aspirations for their children, often the largest recipients of taxpayer funding in a community, neighborhood hubs that host public meetings and events, and institutions that are formally accountable to the community through school boards, parent teacher associations, and other public forums. Schools need active support from their communities to approve school bonds, attract donations, enlist mentors and volunteers, approve (or at least accept) curriculum reforms, engage parents in supporting their children’s learning, and address social problems such as academic achievement gaps among students of different racial and income backgrounds, bullying, and gangs. Yet, like other institutions of democracy, public school governance is often dominated by the voices of politicians and policy makers, professionals (administrators and teachers), and privileged citizens (parents of higher socio-economic status) (Nabatchi & Leighninger, 2015).

In Maryland, the Montgomery County Public School system offers a hopeful example of how public dialogue can improve school governance. John Landesman, a Senior Associate at Everyday Democracy, coordinates the Montgomery County Public Schools Study Circles Program. The program engages parents, students, staff, and administrators in dialogue to address racial and ethnic barriers to parent involvement and student achievement in this multilingual, multi-ethnic school district. These dialogues have helped to build trust and collaboration, and increased involvement by parents of color, as well diminishing differences in achievement among students from more and less advantaged backgrounds (Childress, Doyle, and Thomas, 2009; Orland, 2007; Fagotto & Fung, 2009).

In this interview, Landesman explains how Everyday Democracy thinks about equity and equality, and how the organization integrated equity considerations throughout the process of organizing study-circle dialogues in Montgomery County, including recruiting and retaining diverse participants, forming agendas, facilitation, small group discussions in affinity groups of less-powerful participants as well as mixed groups, evaluation, and implementation of plans. The techniques discussed here can be adopted or adapted to forums on schooling and many other issues.

Equity and Equality
Abdullah, Karpowitz, and Raphael (AKR): Some people working in dialogue and deliberation have argued that instead of practicing equality by treating people 1 Abdullah et al.: Equity in School Forums: An Interview with John Landesman similarly, we should strive for equity by treating participants differently in order to create conditions that achieve fair discussion and decisions. Do you see this distinction between equal and equitable treatment as useful to our field and in your own work?

Landesman: I do see a distinction. There’s a picture that we often use in our presentations of three boys trying to look over a fence at a baseball game (see Figure 1). In the first panel, which shows equal treatment, each boy is standing on a box that is the same height. The tall boy can see the game over the fence, the middle boy can barely see, and the shortest boy can’t see at all. In the next panel, which shows equity, the tall boy’s box has been given to the little boy, so now all three of them can see the game. The idea is that everyone needs something different to participate in whatever they’re doing. But to me, this feels like the wrong question. The question should be, “What is the goal of the dialogue, and who needs to be in the room to make the dialogue effective?” If the goal is to have a variety of perspectives deliberating together, then organizers need to think about how to recruit for those different perspectives. If there are people who need something different to be part of it, but having their voice will make the deliberation more effective, then organizers have to use different strategies to get them there.

Think of successful companies like Coca-Cola. Their goal is to sell more of their products. They don’t just develop their product and then say, “OK everyone, come get it.” They spend a lot of time and resources thinking about how to get different kinds of people to buy their products. If the goal of deliberation is to have a richer understanding of an issue based on all the different perspectives that are in the community, than we need to spend time thinking about how to ensure that we get all those perspectives in the room.

In my experience, organizing for diverse perspectives is often an afterthought. Organizers plan the way they always have, and then say, “How do we get Latino participants or low-income folks, or people who have different political perspectives?” That never works, because all we’re doing is adding an extra strategy to what’s already been put in place. Successful organizing starts by asking, “What is the goal of the dialogue, and who needs to be in the room to reach that goal?” Then every piece of the organizing—whether it’s the outreach, the facilitation, the setup once you get there, where it’s located—all of those things are driven by who you want in the room and what perspectives you need to hear to make your dialogue effective. That’s a very different way of looking at it than saying, “We’re going to do it the way we’ve always done it, and now we’re going to develop a strategy to get to these so-called marginalized people.”

This is an excerpt of the article, which can be downloaded in full from the Journal of Public Deliberation here.

About the Journal of Public Deliberation
Journal of Public DeliberationSpearheaded by the Deliberative Democracy Consortium in collaboration with the International Association of Public Participation, the principal objective of Journal of Public Deliberation (JPD) is to synthesize the research, opinion, projects, experiments and experiences of academics and practitioners in the emerging multi-disciplinary field and political movement called by some “deliberative democracy.” By doing this, we hope to help improve future research endeavors in this field and aid in the transformation of modern representative democracy into a more citizen friendly form.

Follow the Deliberative Democracy Consortium on Twitter: @delibdem

Follow the International Association of Public Participation [US] on Twitter: @IAP2USA

Resource Link: www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol12/iss2/art12/

Better Late Than Never: Recent Review of my 2010 Book

Warning: This post is about a scholarly review of a pretty technical book.

Cover of 'Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism.'The pace of academic work can sometimes seem tectonic. There’s a reason scholars tend to have a hard time appreciating what news editors mean by “timely.” For a philosopher, an argument about Plato that was published after the year 2000 is downright recent.

Keeping that in mind, I’m pleased to share with you the book review that has just been published of my first book, released in 2010, Rawls, Dewey, and Constructivism. It’s the first review of that book to come out in any of the major American philosophy journals, believe it or not. The book wasn’t ignored, I’m happy to say, having been reviewed very positively in 2011 in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. But, the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society is a top notch outlet for one of my deep philosophical interests, namely American philosophy.

Photo of the cover of the Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society.

The best news about the review that has just come out is not any glowing language about my book. The tone of the review is very matter of fact and balanced. The fantastic thing is the quality of this review.

A good review has to tell you in some precise detail about the aims, structure, and substance of the book to be reviewed. It also should raise notes about both what were some strengths in the project and what could either be improved or extended in future work. In his review, Torjus Midtgarden of the University of Bergen has seriously inspired me in a highly unusual way. He’s made me want to return to the study of the subject of my dissertation.

View of a sunset through a rear view mirror.Most people finish their dissertations and don’t want to look back. Not only did I look back in the years after defending it, but I did the traditional thing some choose to do and developed elements of it further, ultimately putting the revised project out as a book. When you’ve gone through that step, you’re even less motivated to want to return to it. You’d think so, anyway.

Dr. Midtgarden was even handed, though generous in offering a thorough and precise understanding of the aims of my project. He also invited some thought and response about his comments on it that were pointed, but fair and intellectually provocative.

Thumbnail image of the review.How cool is that? I am grateful to Professor Midtgarden and plan to stew on his interesting comments and suggestions for some time. Here’s his review.

Why Some Progress Is Slow for Accessibility

“What’s with that?” a student asked me. Our classroom this semester was on the third floor of Barker Hall at the University of Kentucky. The flights are tall and there is no elevator. “How is that allowed?”

The young woman was asking about accessibility. It’s 2016. Don’t campus buildings have to be accessible?

This is a photo of a modern staircase designed with ramps running zig zag up the diagonals of the staircase.

New construction can incorporate accessibility features beautifully, as part of the design, and while not making accommodations around back by the trash can. You can walk or roll with your loved ones to the other floor.

A sidewalk that ends in grass.Before moving to Lexington, I advocated for certain accessibility issues at the University of Mississippi. In the process, I learned a lot about what people say when you push on such issues. There were many disappointing responses at times, the most upsetting of which was being ignored for nearly a year. That’s another story.

The experience in Mississippi revealed to me some interesting challenges to consider even when an organization means to do its best to make a social space maximally accessible.

If you want to advocate for change, critical thinking textbooks will tell you, you have to understand your opposition and address it head on. Finding the weakest arguments that oppose your mission and laughing at them won’t convince people who disagree with you. Identifying the smartest things people say in their defense and responding to those might.

How many buildings are on a university campus? It will vary significantly, but let’s imagine that there are 200 at a major research university. If the campus has been around a long time, many of the buildings will have been built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some will be historic buildings. Others in need of repair. Some will be priorities and others won’t.

Classroom space tends to be at a premium in most institutions. When all of the most commonly used spaces have been taken up, you look for further spots not yet in use. My courses were added far later than is usual this past summer, so they were located in classroom space still available. It so happens that that means Barker Hall.

Barker hall today.Barker Hall is historic, built in 1901. The first photo of it is how it looks now, although it is actually surrounded by construction of the new student center at present. The next photo showcases what we mean when we call it historic.

So why isn’t it accessible?

  1. Making spaces accessible as you build them is cheaper than retroactively. So, it’s more expensive than making other, perhaps more spacious new buildings accessible.
  2. Historic photo of Barker Hall.Making historic buildings accessible generally adds cost, because it is desirable to preserve the beauty of historic buildings, while retrofitting. It’s harder, so it costs more.
  3. It probably is not the only remaining space that needs retrofitting.
  4. Money is always limited and judgments are made all-things-considered about where to spend it.
  5. Without many people calling for Barker to change, it won’t any time soon. Though, there may be plans in the works to update it at some point.

But wait, “Isn’t it the law?!”

  1. No, it’s not technically the law that every space has to be accessible to every person. The law says that institutions like mine have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for people who need them. That means that if any of us had a broken ankle or if a student who uses a mobility device were to have added the course, the university would have had to find some solution to move the class meetings.

This last point is delicate, though. How would it make you feel if 30 other people had a change to their meeting location for a semester because of you? It’s something that couldn’t help but make someone feel singled out. Maybe the first classroom was conveniently located for certain people. Barker Hall is a hop away from Patterson Office Tower, where my office is. So, in the end, this answer is not terribly satisfying.

My point here is not that I think it’s fine to have inaccessible buildings. Hell, the window unit air conditioners made it hard to hear each other in August, a problem for people with hearing impairments, not to mention anyone trying to engage in a classroom discussion.

Man holding his ear because he can't hear the speaker.

No, this professional baseball team executive has nothing to do with the story here, except that he’s struggling to hear someone, as I often did this semester.

So, at some point I’ll gently start to ask questions about what the structure is here for decisions and initiatives regarding accessibility. It was refreshing, I must say, to hear disdain in the student’s voice. I heard passion and initiative in it. You can’t change much for the better without high expectations. At the same time, the challenges are real even when good people are trying to do many things right with limited resources.

Next semester, I’ll be teaching on the second floor of a building with several elevators. And central air.

Follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

The Risks of Public Engagement, Part I

Dr. Shane RalstonI and others may well be guilty of romanticizing public philosophy. Fellow Dewey scholar and a prolific writer, Shane Ralston, has published a warning for people interested in engaging in public philosophy. In “On the Perils of Public Philosophy,” Ralston rightly recognizes both that there is a resurgence in the movement for publicly engaged philosophy and that too few call attention to its risks.

He explains that “Public philosophers are often criticized, bullied, harassed and even threatened and, unfortunately, some respond in kind when communicating their ideas in the public sphere.” He’s right. In Oxford, MS, while I was working at the University of Mississippi, I was thoroughly harassed by someone who made me feel ill. I won’t go into the details of it, but being publicly engaged has not been easy. People who disagree with you sometimes do so to a degree motivating enough to be threatening.

David - The Death of Socrates

I have reason to believe that this person sent two students to my office with a video camera for a “gotcha” kind of harassing interview. They were surprised when I sat them down to schedule a time to meet up formally. They didn’t show up for that.

Other people have written me with insults. One man, in a single email, called me a eunuch, a gelding, and effeminate. He clearly has strong feelings about gender and opinions. That sort of thing I can laugh off. The person who told me he was meeting with my Chancellor the next day was clearly trying to intimidate me. I was then an untenured assistant professor.

People will be mean. They will be unbelievably uncivil. One said that I should spend more time in the classroom than in the opinion pages.

Ralston is right that we don’t hear enough about the unpleasant side of public engagement.

So, why on Earth do we do it?

First of all, we should remember that it’s no surprise to be criticized or insulted for engaging with people about philosophical issues. Plato noted in his cave metaphor that the philosophers who have seen the light outside the cave have an obligation to go back down in there to help free the others. He did not think that they would welcome this liberation, he explained. If any philosopher “tried to loose another [prisoner in the cave] and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death… No question.”

Plato’s Socrates recognized that people will resist teachers and liberators. The folks in the cave are habituated to that setting. They believe that they have interests there. It’s unpleasant to be turned toward the light. People will be upset. Some might try to kill you.

I see that I have yet to make the case for public engagement. My point so far is that when we do it, we must do so with understanding of dangers. It’s like a battle medic. You head into dangerous territory to save people, not to injure anyone. Nevertheless, you can be targeted and hurt in the process. The part that makes it all the more difficult is that in Plato’s metaphor, it’s those whom you’re trying to save who resist and want you dead. Given that, why think we even have an obligation to them?

Here another line from the Republic is motivating for me. Plato’s Socrates says that the “greatest punishment for those unwilling to rule is to be led by those who are worse.”

Puppet master's hands and strings.If you’re unwilling to fight for the truth and for the liberation of people’s minds, you have chosen to be ruled by ignorance and whatever shadows on the wall the powerful puppet masters choose.

If we are going to mean what we do in love of wisdom, we must do so with our greatest hopes in mind. It isn’t that we should believe that they will be achieved. The point is that if we don’t try, we choose to be doomed to follow ignorance and injustice.

Now we have the greatest need I have witnessed in my lifetime to engage publicly in reasoned, vigorous debate about what is right. There will be risks to doing so. Socrates was killed. It is incredibly unlikely that philosophy professors today could face such risks, but it is not impossible. This is all the more reason why it is important to mean it when we say with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

You can follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.