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Balancing Deep Expertise with Broad Social Responsibility

US and world events of the past two weeks painfully brought to our consciousness the urgency of making higher education scholarship and curricula much more directly relevant to our lives and concerns, and more importantly to the lives and concerns of our students. This year, we crossed the one degree Celsius increase over pre-industrial temperature levels, taking us into “uncharted territory at a frightening speed,” according to Michel Jarraud, World Meteorological Organization. This year, we saw the largest mass movement of people fleeing war and destruction seen since World War II. Close to 60 million people have been displaced from their homes, some forcibly, with nearly a third seeking refuge in other countries. The number and rate of population displacement has dramatically increased over the past few months as is dramatically visualized by Lucify, and the rate continues to rise. We have increasingly witnessed the globalization and banalization of conflicts, war, and destruction, leading Pope Francis to refer to it as the “piecemeal World War III.” At the national level, we have witnessed repeated incidents of brutality against African American youth and a resulting outrage of communities as captured by the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, the persistent inequity in education and the persistent experience of racial segregation by students across the country sparked protests of minority students demanding to be heard, respected, and adequately served by their institution, and prompted the Million Student March movement, demanding access and affordability for all.

These and similar news stories can feel overwhelming and beyond our control. It can be very tempting to brush them aside and carry on with our planned and familiar activities. We have, after all, tightly scheduled syllabi to follow, research projects and deliverables for which we are accountable, and a very special area of expertise for which we are hired. On the other hand, the challenges and events are of a magnitude that cannot be ignored. How can we expect our students to be fully present and engaged if they are consumed by issues and concerns of a much larger scale than the topic of the current lecture? How do we expect our graduates to care about society and the world when we only model monodisciplinary isolated thinking? How do we equip our students with the capacity to affect the future they will face when we only demonstrate how we can isolate from the present? How do we expect our graduates to be empathetic and ethical team players when we persistently ignore their anxieties, feelings, and hurts? In an interview at the 2010 Gov 2.0 summit, Dr. Liz Coleman, former President of Bennington College, insists on the importance for faculty to balance between their role as experts and their role as citizens. Being an expert does not exempt us from also being an active member of society. She states “The vitality of an education is one that constantly leads us to reexamine the dynamic between the extent to which we lead a personal life and the extent to which we lead a public life. Our obligation in education is to make these two dimensions enormously powerful and the dynamic between them very lively.” This is such an enormous charge that grounds education in the lived reality for us and for our students.

Our students know us mostly as learned mono-disciplinary experts, who engage them in that particular discipline. It is our duty to also engage them in our role as citizens who are open to learning, ready to take responsibility, and passionate about affecting our world. The two roles do not have to be exclusive or insulated from each other; in fact, as technology makes knowledge freely accessible and ubiquitous, faculty are freed to take on more of the role of mentors and guides without sacrificing the role of knowledge “dispensers”. For the education we bring to our students to be relevant and vital, we must constantly re-examine our syllabi, our curricula, our pedagogy, and the dynamic in our classrooms and labs. Interestingly, Dr. Holloway, the Yale College Dean summarizes students’ demands in this way: “It’s no single thing. It’s all of these things. Then you also add the fact that, for so many of them, there are too few courses that resonate with their personal lives. This is not to say that everything we teach has to be personal, but when none of what we teach reflects your experience, that’s a problem.”

Students around the country have spoken and acted. We need to hear their call, follow their lead, and work by their side to make sense of the whirlwind of events and take on the role of active citizens. How do begin to do that?

To use Dr. Coleman’s characterization the first step is to re-examine the dynamics of what we are doing, irrespective of our discipline.
  1. Is there space in our interaction with our students where we, students and faculty, are present as public citizens rather than just students and faculty?
  2. Is there a place in our syllabus and course delivery where we integrate the academic material with the lived world? The use of data visualization by Lucify of the refugee crisis is one reminder that all disciplines have a role to play.
  3. Do our offerings and requirements enable every student to build a curriculum and experience that resonates with their lives and interests?
  4. Does our research portfolio reflect the nature and urgency of the issues we face today?
  5. Is the academic institution taking its leadership role in setting an agenda for a better world?
    1. These are not light questions, but how relevant are we if we do not begin to address them now?

      1. educational transformation
      2. equity and inclusion
      3. faculty role
      4. social responsibility

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