On the lessons of history

Here’s a transcript of the concluding remarks I made today, at the end of my last world history class for the semester. My students are non-history majors who will not be taking many more history courses (if at all). And yet I hope they came to understand the importance of learning history and what lessons it has to offer us in the current political and social climate.

Olaudah_Equiano_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15399

I began this course with the story of Olaudah Equiano, the 18th-century freed slave who wrote a best-selling memoir of his experience in the Atlantic Slave Trade. I made the case then that the story of slavery, and therefore of prejudice, exploitation of the weak, colonialism, and racism, is one that is very much relevant to our world today. I chose to open our course on world history that way, because I wanted to demonstrate that there’s a real value to studying world history. In other words, I wanted to give all of you, who were taking this course as part of a mandatory core-curriculum, a good reason to be here.

Last year, a student in this class wrote in his evaluation of the course that using Equiano’s example was inappropriate, because by so doing I essentially argued that there were racial inequalities and tensions in our society, and that this – the mere statement about racial inequality – was not based on any evidence and represented political bias. Now, surely we can argue about the reasons for race problems in American and other societies, but as a historian and a teacher, I have the duty not only to show that they exist, but to speak up against racism, which, as I’ve argued repeatedly throughout the semester, has absolutely nothing to do with political views. Racism, just like misogyny or homophobia, is always wrong, and I will always speak against it, even at the cost of making some students uncomfortable, because one lesson we should learn from history is that you should, in fact, feel uncomfortable if you still possess medieval social views in 2015.

And, if we need a reminder that Equiano’s story is still very much relevant, we need to look no further than our own supreme court. Yesterday, at a hearing about an affirmative action case brought against the University of Texas-Austin, one of the judges had the following to say: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well. One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.” Then he added: “I’m just not impressed by the fact the University of Texas may have fewer [blacks]. Maybe it ought to have fewer. I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.” This is a US Supreme Court judge in 2015. So yes, we still have some lessons to learn from Equiano.

Most of you will not end up studying history in college, or as history teachers, museum curators, or historians. But the value of studying history – and the humanities in general – goes well beyond the profession of history. Indeed, the difference between the business or nursing major who has not taken courses in the humanities and social sciences, and the one who has, is the difference between a college graduate with a professional degree, and an educated person.

The first may be very good at his or her job. He or she may get a wonderful job offer straight out of college, and even go to a fancy private graduate program for a master’s degree. But the uneducated or narrowly educated professional will likely be quite useless when it comes to any other area. I can’t even tell you how many excellent lawyers, doctors, or business people I’ve met who were at the top of their game, but sounded like someone who barely graduated middle school when they tried discussing social or political issues.

At times, I looked at my partner in conversation and wanted to ask: “really, and you have a degree from that school?” Over the years I’ve learned, however, that the explanation is very simple: If you treat college as solely a professional experience, if you come to it closed-minded, if you decide to be offended every time you hear an idea that contradicts your most fundamental beliefs instead of learning something from it or engaging your professor, and if you refrain from exploring the rich array of electives in the humanities and social sciences our university, and many others, offer – you will end up just like those people: those attracted by populist and empty social and political rhetoric not grounded in evidence, those who do not accept science, and those who espouse racist ideas, the application of which could endanger the mere foundations of our society. Lamentably, there’s a growing number of people, in this country and elsewhere, who choose ignorance over reason, who speak in the name of liberty and democracy, yet effectively support ISIS’s recruiting efforts by demonstrating how intolerant our society is to others who aren’t like us. Those people may have gone to college, but they are not, by any standard, educated.

So, through numerous historical examples, from ancient Rome to Han China, from the Black Death to pre-Columbian America, from the Renaissance to the Ming-Qing transition, from the Atlantic Slave Trade to the French Revolution, and from Nazi Germany to the Cold War, I demonstrated time and again why history matters, why we need to know it well – not because it repeats itself, as the cliché goes – but rather because it makes us worldly individuals who understand how the world works, who can easily reject political nonsense, and who realize what might be the consequences of certain actions on society and the world at large.

History is never detached from social and political implications. As balanced as I’ve tried to be in this course, I surely managed to annoy some of you. Although I had no particular interest in making any of you feel uncomfortable, I believe that disagreeing with your professor from time to time is part of a healthy learning process. Some of you chose to take me up on my offer and talk to me personally about my interpretation of history, how I presented things in class, and why you had a different take on them. I applaud those of you who did that. For the rest of you, I’d say you should always learn the topic in question well and argue with your professor when you have a disagreement. As long as you are respectful and know your stuff, most teachers would appreciate the intellectual challenge. I surely do.

Finally, I’d like to encourage all of you to take another history course, and more humanities courses in general. Most programs have some room for electives, and you should take advantage of that. You may think that taking such courses won’t teach you anything tangible (except perhaps writing), but in the long run they will make you an attractive job candidate, a better professional, and a more engaging citizen and member of our society.

 

Looking for an easy A? Don’t take my class

BSU ClassI understand the desire to find easy classes. The possibility of a decent grade without having to put in too much work is quite appealing. The temptation to find an easy class increases when looking for courses outside of one’s major, whether they are general electives or core curriculum classes. I too had those moments when I sought (and chose) easy classes. But, even as an undergraduate, I was honest with myself: An easy A means less learning. There’s no way to spin it. Taking a class that does not teach much or does not require you to come to class or read a book is the equivalent of shopping for groceries, paying for the items in your shopping cart, and leaving some of them at the supermarket. Only your education is a much more expensive product than a bag of chips.

As a professor, I am not one of those who gives out easy As, because I truly believe that rigorous, meaningful learning requires effort, hard work, and yes, some moments of frustration. I’m very open about my approach, and discuss it with students the first day: I will do everything to help you succeed, I will provide tips and meet with you as many times as you need, I will give feedback on your written work, I will teach you a lot of new and cool stuff, and I will even bump your grade up if you had a rough start but worked your way to up throughout the semester. But, you will work for that A. How hard? That depends on your skills and background, but at least statistically, not too hard. It turns out I don’t give out fewer As than other professors. In fact, the statistics I’ve seen suggest that “hard” professors don’t give out fewer As than those popularly perceived as “easy.”

At the end, it comes down to your approach to college: If you are here to learn a profession and everything else not part of your major is a nuisance to you, by all means look for the easy A courses whenever you can. Your GPA will likely be higher, and you will have more time to focus on what matters to you. You may end up not a very good professional (because good professionals are always broadly educated and can do more than just their job), and you will be missing out on great educational opportunities, but that is your choice to make. If you are that student, you should not take my (or any other somewhat challenging) class. If, however, you are here to learn; if you like intellectual challenges and still want good grades; if you understand that core curriculum classes are an opportunity; and if your approach to any unrelated course is “I already have to do this, why not make the most of it?”, you should definitely take my courses.

So, take a moment to reflect on the type of experience you are seeking while in college. Then, make choices that are right for you.

5 reasons to add a minor in the humanities or social sciences

The library at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

It is that time of year when students – at my university and elsewhere – are beginning to register for spring semester courses. This also makes it a good time to reconsider one’s program of study and choice of major/minor. I’ve written before about the virtues of a social science and humanities majors (see also here). On the Facebook page, I’ve also provided links to studies that corroborate my argument. Still, if you are pursuing a professional major – from nursing through business to fashion design – you may want to consider adding a minor in the humanities or social sciences for several reasons.

    1. The humanities and social sciences teach you how to write. Employers are constantly complaining that the writing skills of applicants they receive for entry level positions is unimpressive, to say the least. One manager at a finance firm in downtown Indianapolis told me recently he had received 200 resumes for one position, only to throw out 190 of them for their abhorrent level of English. While your professional major may train you well in one area, upper-division electives in history, English, or political science will require a level of research and writing that is likely to elevate your written (and oral) expression skills.
    2. The humanities and social sciences teach you how to think creatively. While some employers want loyal soldiers who aren’t too independent and won’t “rock the boat,” many would prefer those who can come up with “out of the box” solutions to problems. There’s no better way to develop such skills than studying the very areas that have for centuries been the cradle of human creativity.
    3. The humanities and social sciences demonstrate that you have the curiosity to learn. Because most of those areas do not lead to a professional career outside of teaching (at least not without graduate training), they indicate to employers that you are generally interested in things beyond the immediate knowledge required to perform your job.
    4. The humanities and social sciences will make you stand out above the other candidates. You are majoring in business? Marketing? Public relations? Good for you. There are hundreds like you competing for each job. What makes you so special? Why would anyone want to pick your resume out of a huge pile? While there are many ways to stand out (internships, study abroad, etc.), adding a minor in an area not directly related to what you are studying can considerably improve your chances. Think of it from the perspective of the employer: If you could only interview one candidate, would you want to speak to the business major, or to the business major who also took 2 years of French and minored in history?
    5. The humanities and social sciences make you an interesting person to talk to. While you will likely be really good at your job, most places hiring realize they will be spending much time with you as a person, not just a professional. No one wants to hire boring, unidimensional people. Rather, many companies and businesses prefer to work with worldly individuals who can carry a conversation on a wide range of topics unrelated directly to their business. Having a minor (or another major!) in a humanities or social science area indicates you are potentially such a person. The knowledge you will gain studying those areas will also help you impress those you talk to when interviewing.

 

On Creativity, Politics, and Ignorance: What to Expect from Your College Professors

I consider myself a decent teacher. Students’ evaluation of my courses are overall positive. Here and there, students protest against what they believe is my liberal bias in teaching, lack of respect for religion, or my contempt for conservative ideas and media outlets. Such claims are preposterous (with the exception of my treatment of Fox News, for their mostly false reporting rather than their politics), but they always make me wonder what might have made my students feel uncomfortable. Was it my insistence on discussing slavery, race issues, gay rights, feminism, evolution, or global warming? Perhaps. I certainly agree that one should always strive to present different opinions in class (including ones he/she disapproves of), and that I for sure can do a better job at it. And yet, some of the issues that bothered my students had little to do with my teaching style and more with their coming to class unprepared. By this I mean unprepared mentally, for the type of thinking and learning college requires you to do.

So, for those of you arriving in college within a few weeks, here are some things to consider. This will be most useful for those taking large intro, gen-ed classes like the one I teach (HIST 150):

1. You will need to read every week, and probably more than you have ever done. You will need to understand what you are reading, not just memorize it. You will be expected to comprehend the meaning of a text, to make connections, see the “big picture” of events or ideas, and be able to explain long-term consequences. In my classes, the students who do that (as opposed to memorizing dates and names as high school would have you do) are far more successful.

If you are in a professional major that teaches a narrow set of skills, your core classes are your only chance at developing critical thinking, creativity, and strong writing skills. Come to them with the aim of taking as much as you can from the experience, not as a burden.

2. Politically sensitive issues are fair game in college. collegeclassYou are no longer in high school, and your professors have no reason to steer away from topics that might make you or your parents uncomfortable. That includes discussing religion too. Such issues aren’t presented in class to alter what you think but rather to help you understand why you think it. A professor may say something really provocative or even outright offensive about one of your core values. Don’t be put off by this. Instead, take the challenge and try to think if you have the knowledge and tools to argue with your professor. If you don’t, you may need to do some reading.

3. All religions are treated equally and critically. That’s how we do things in academia. The late eminent historian Patricia Crone explained why we should adopt such an approach:

Historians and social scientists must write as atheists: whether or not they have religious beliefs, they must suspend all convictions of a non-empirical kind when they work, no religious or ideological beliefs being allowed to impinge on scholarly or scientific research. All invocations of the supernatural have to be disallowed. This is one of the ground-rules of modem science, but even without going into the nature of scientific thought, it should be obvious that every religion must be treated as a man-made phenomenon for the simple reason that there are so many of them. Logic dictates that like phenomena be treated alike. It is impossible to treat all religions as true in the sense of given by supernatural authority, because they contradict each other, disagreeing even over the number and nature of the supernatural authorities involved; however, it is perfectly possible to treat them all as products of the human mind evolved in response to problems in the here and now. 

This is not to say that they are necessarily false. It may well be that the human mind has hit upon the truth in supernatural no less than natural matters, so that this religion or that, or this part of one religion and that part of another, is true in the sense of corresponding to a supernatural reality beyond us. But this is not a scientific question because it is not amenable to empirical proof; it is a matter of belief. Nor is it a historical question because it is irrelevant: ideas generate action when they are believed regardless of whether they are true or not in our opinion.

(Patricia Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies: Anatomy of the Pre-Modern World (London: One World Publications, 2003), 141.

This is the approach to religions your professors will likely take, whether you study history, sociology, anthropology, or philosophy. It does not imply that historians (or scholars in general) need to be atheists, only that they need to write and teach as such. This should not intimidate you. Your professor will never tell you what to believe, but would only ask you make that a personal matter, recognizing that without empirical evidence for such events as the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, Jesus’ walking on water, or Muhammad’s communications with the angel Gabriel, we as scholars must treat such stories as fantasies. For us, Abraham probably never existed, King David ruled over a small kingdom and not greater Israel, Jesus was a charismatic leader but not the son of God, and Muhammad was not a prophet. You as a student may believe in what you wish, and no one should ever contest that. I have my beliefs too. But it will be significantly harder for you in college if you do not develop the ability to separate the personal you from the professional, academic you, that is able to criticize all religions, including your own, and does not assume that one truth is universal simply because the texts you believe in tell you so.

And one more thing. Last year I made a claim in class that modern religions always project an idea back to the founding of the faith to give it credibility. I gave several examples from different traditions (such as ISIS and its depiction of the “original” Islam),Militant Islamist fighters parade on military vehicles along the streets of northern Raqqa province but the one that triggered a lot of anger from the class was the claim that opposition to abortions in the US is a modern phenomenon, that it was never an issue until the 20th century (i.e. people got abortions before but no one talked about it), and that the idea that life begins with conception does not appear in the bible (it doesn’t, at least not explicitly, though some interpret certain passages as such). Now, I understand why such a statement might anger you if you grew up in a certain religious context. But try to take yourselves outside of that context, I told my students. Try to grapple with my actual argument. Some tried, and some did that more successfully than others. And some students were outright offended. If that is you, prepare to be offended for the next four years.

4. Professors are here to help you understand the difference between opinion and fact. Not every statement you make is a valid opinion simply because it is preceded by “in my opinion.” You can be wrong, and you can be ignorant, and you can make claims that are factually incorrect. Our job is to help you take your views and justify them based on facts and solid research. While that at times would lead you to change your mind, that isn’t the main purpose of academic study. Nothing wrong with changing your mind though. I’m 38 years old and I still change my views on all sorts of things all the time. I let credible evidence guide me, instead of manipulating it to fit my views.

1-FeminismPosterSubmission-2For example, if you believe that humans are not responsible for global warming or that there is no such thing (over 95% of scientists believe humans are responsible for global warming); that all living things did not evolve from primordial organisms over billions of years (evolution is a core theory of modern science, which even the Catholic Church now accepts); that the Holocaust never happened (it did, and it was well documented by the Nazis themselves); that vaccinations can cause autism (there’s now conclusive evidence that they don’t); that homosexuality is a choice (it isn’t; a plethora of studies show it to be an outcome of various biological, genetic, and other factors the individual does not control; and attraction to the same sex is found among other animals too); that feminism is women’s radical conspiracy to rule men (it really only means equality); or that African-Americans and Latinos are not disadvantaged in the workforce (there are quite compelling reports on this, see here and here), you are not opinionated or conservative or presenting an alternate point of view. You are outright wrong, and it is perfectly fine for your professors to point that out to you. There’s credible, scientifically or statistically based evidence to refute any of the claims I just listed. You can of course contend that you don’t accept scientific theory (and the alternative is?) and that statistics are biased (they sometimes are, so you need to read credible sources). But making such claims won’t make you any less wrong, and in fact would invoke the question what the hell are you doing in college.

So what can we argue about? Last semester, a student argued that I’m showing a liberal bias Eric-Garner-Killedbecause I claimed that there are racial tensions and inequalities between whites and blacks in America. Again, I’m not sure why stating a fact makes me a biased professor.
We can have different views on what causes racial inequalities, who is to blame for them, and what needs to be done to minimize them (or if there’s a need to do that). All such discussion falls into the realm of opinions. Claiming the issue does not exist is ignorance. Your professor has not only the right, but also the duty, to point out things you don’t know in hope that you would want to look further into them and form your views. Naturally, it isn’t always easy to argue with your teachers, since they have years of schooling and research behind them, and you are just a beginner. But that, my friends, is the essence of the challenge of college.

Come prepared to question everything you know, everything you believe in. Accept the challenge, embrace it, let it take you to wonderful places. Students who manage to do that, who do their research and aren’t afraid to argue with their professors, are ultimately those who have the most rewarding college experience.

 

 

No, you don't NEED to study that

I teach freshmen every semester. A lot of them. In fact, in my world history course (HIST150: The West in the World), at least 80% of the 210 students are freshmen. Since I constantly encourage students to meet with me, I have had numerous discussions with students about their choice of major (or lack thereof), plans for the future, and career aspirations. What I have been hearing in one-on-one meetings reflects the consistent results I’ve seen in surveys I’ve conducted in my world history classes in the last 2 years. By now I’ve surveyed over 500 Ball State students, among whom more than half believe they need to pursue a practical major, and that they would have majored in the humanities or social sciences if they knew it could lead them to the career they wanted (see more here).

So, as another academic year is about to begin, it’s time to once again debunk some of the assumptions students come to college with. In short: You can get any career you want from pretty much any major if you focus on the right skills, so go with your heart, not with what some stupid “worst college majors list” you found online, or with what one uncle who has never been to college, told you to do.

1. What you study does not matter. It’s all about skills.

Beyond job-specific skills, most employers hiring college grads today are looking for a very similar set of skills across different professions: Writing by far tops the list (I’ve discussed this before here, and see my online writing guide for more), along with critical thinking, the ability to read, understand, and analyze a large body of evidence/literature/documents and present the results coherently and concisely (otherwise called: research skills), problem solving (also related to research), and digital literacy (and by this I mean more than just using MS Word or Facebook – think editing photos and videos, maintaining websites, etc.). In addition, employers do not want to hire provincial mindsets – people who have never left their home town or state or the midwest and know very little about the greater world – but rather seek curious, worldly individuals who have experienced other cultures in some form. Thus knowing foreign languages gives you a big advantage, even if your career does not require it.

What major should you choose then? One that does a good job training you in all those skills, and one that also requires (or leaves enough time for) studying at least one foreign language. Research shows – quite compellingly – that the humanities and social sciences (and some sciences too) do a far better job in training students for the job market than professional schools or business school (see the evidence here , here and here, as well as under the articles section). If income is what concerns you (and it should, at least to some degree), you may also be surprised to find that research has shown that while business and other professional majors make more money than humanities and social science majors the first few years after college, in the long run, and especially among those who attended graduate school, humanities and social science (and hard-science) majors end up earning more and having more employment opportunities (see here for the evidence).

 

2. The liberal arts open the door for the best graduate programs.

In the surveys I conducted among my students, over 70% claimed they have no shot at attending a top graduate program.

Yale Law School

The building that houses the law school at Yale University. Better work on those key skills if you want a shot at top grad schools like this one!

Well, there’s nothing you can do to worsen your chances of being admitted to a really good graduate program than studying something too specific, like in a professional program. That is because, while such a program opens some doors (nursing to become a nurse, etc.), it closes many others by not training you in a broad range of skills. Graduate schools – the key to earning more and finding a rewarding career – look for the very same skills I mentioned above. The competition is tough, especially for the better programs that would also fund you (I got my Ph.D. at Princeton without paying a dime; in fact, Princeton paid me to go there), so you want to build and develop as many of those skills as you possibly can during your time in college.

3. Pre-this, pre-that, pre-nothing!

There’s a misconception among students that if they want to attend a specific graduate program, they definitely need to major in an area directly related to that program, or at least to attend some pre-something program. By this logic, to get an MBA one definitely needs a business degree; to attend law school one needs to be pre-law; to be a speech therapist (which requires a master’s degree) one needs to study that in college too; to be a teacher one must go through the standard teacher training that leaves little room for taking any electives; and to go to medical school, one has to be pre-med.

Sounds about right? Think again. The best MBA programs in the country recruit most of their students not from business schools or other professional programs, but rather from the humanities, social sciences (with emphasis on economics), and sciences. Law schools couldn’t care less if you were pre-law, but would never take you if you don’t possess most of the skills I listed above. In fact, according to the American Bar Association, areas like history, English, philosophy, and political science are considered among the more traditional majors preparing students for law school. No matter what you major in, the emphasis, its website claims, should always be on “taking advantage of opportunities to develop your research and writing skills.”

Speech therapy and other such professional programs? Go to the website of the master’s program you are hoping to attend one day (see here for Ball State’s). You will notice that all you need is a college degree, but that degree does not have to be in the same area. Want to teach? There are numerous opportunities to pursue teaching after college without going through the standard training. Nothing wrong with that, though. I was an education major myself. But, if the only reason you are enrolled in a teachers’ program is because you want to teach and deep inside wish you could study something else, you should know that you have options. Teach for America is one of them, but there are others. And pre-med? True, medical schools require you to take a sequence of science and math courses known collectively as pre-med. But pre-med isn’t a major, and you don’t have to be a biology, chemistry, or math major either. You can take those courses and pursue a history or English degree. Medical schools in fact prefer candidates with backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences, as they wish to train doctors who can also connect with their patients, not just know the science behind things. So no, your choice of major does not need to be dictated by the professional school you hope to attend 4 years from now.

4. Get some hands-on experience.

immersiveClassroom experience isn’t enough nowadays, and the best first jobs after college typically come from your own networking, not from applying to job ads. You want to find time to get real world experience while still in school, one that would help you build a professional network from which a job might potentially come one day: internships, meaningful student jobs (research/library, not dining), opportunities on campus that involve connections with the greater community (at Ball State, we have Immersive Learning), and study abroad. You can do all of these from most majors, but some would be less flexible with their programs, would not approve courses taken elsewhere so easily, and would leave you little time for this sort of real-world exploration. One thing I love about humanities and social science majors is that they are very flexible (about half the courses are electives), and leave ample time to take courses outside your program.

5. Double major, or add a minor or two.

This is especially important for business, journalism, tcomm, and other majors where students dream of a glamorous career but then have to compete in a job market flooded with people like them, many of whom come from better schools. In other words, your chances of running a major corporation or being a TV news or sports anchor with only a Ball State degree in that area are slim to none. Sure, there’s that one famous dude who made it. But for every one like him, there are thousands who ended up with mediocre careers who cannot even afford to repay their student loans. Want a real shot at that career? Focus on the skills I mention above, and add another major or a minor or two to show people looking at your transcript and resume that you are different, that you have the “edge” over other candidates. Think about it: If you had to hire a reporter for a newspaper and had two candidates, one with a journalism degree and the other who was a double major in journalism and French, who would you likely take?
 
These are just a few points to think about as you enter the wonderful world of college. It is always a good idea to talk to someone more experienced before making career decisions. If you are an incoming freshman at Ball State, feel free to get in touch with me as the semester begins. I would be happy to sit with you and talk about making the career choices that are right for you.

Research (again) Values Humanities and Social Science Degrees

Many students come to college not knowing what they want to study, or not sure that their true passion could be translated into a practical career (who hires historians or linguists or anthropologists, right?). So they either consult one of many stupid articles that claim to tell them what are the best (or worst) college majors and which always recommend professional degrees over liberal arts ones. Or, they take advice from their parents and other family members. That advice, however, is often grounded in parents’ unfounded perceptions about good vs. bad major choices. Thus many students end up in business school because they want to start a business and make money…

As a professional historian, I choose to be guided by research-based evidence rather than vague notions of success and failure. And evidence, time and again, suggests that liberal arts/social sciences/humanities majors are the ones to eventually launch successful careers in the most promising industries. I’ve written about this before on this page (see the articles section). And now, for all the freshmen who will soon have to choose a major, here is another piece of evidence. This time, it is provided by the British Council, a very serious organization that has looked at data from over 30 countries. If you still want to study business or fashion design or tourism or any other professional degree after reading this, we should talk.

educational-pathways-of-leaders-infographic

 

Read the full report here.

Don't just break the glass ceiling. Shatter it.

This week, I talked with my students about opportunities for women, why women face more challenges in building meaningful careers, and what we can all do to change that. Here’s a transcript of what I said in class.

I concluded last week by saying that women tend to struggle more with making plans for the future, with dreaming of something big. I’d like to address this specific point today. Allow me to share with you some information, statistics that show that on quite a few parameters women lag behind men just because they are women. First we have the obvious wage gap, where nationally and in Indiana women make less money then men: in Indiana women make 73 cents for every dollar a man makes just because they are women. Women also tend to be poorer than men, and even poorer when we look only at African-American or Latino women.

Wage Gap Map

Wage gap in the US, men vs. women

Indiana wage gap data

Wage gap data for Indiana

The situation does not improve if we consider child care. Here’s a table of the percentage of 4 year olds enrolled in state pre-Ks. It’s 0% in Indiana because Indiana simply does not have such a program (it does not fund pre-K programs, which are all run privately), but in 40 out 50 states less than half of the 4-year olds get preschool funded by the state.

State-payed pre-Ks

A list of percentage of 4-year olds attending state-sponsored pre-Ks per state in the US

I’m sure some of you probably think: what’s it to me? I’m only in college, I don’t have a 4-year old and I won’t have to worry about this any time soon. But I think that you should think about it because private pre-schools are expensive (they run anywhere from 7 to 20k a year), so many families can’t afford to send their children there, or can only send them there part time, which inevitably means one of the parents has to give up on his/her career. In too many cases, it would be the woman who gives up on her career, because the man is the primary breadwinner anyway, the one who makes more money.

Another area in which women are particularly disadvantaged is maternity leave. The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not have mandatory paid maternity.

Maternity leave, US vs. the World

This is how we compare to other countries in maternity leave

In that it lags behind many developing countries as well, and even behind ISIS (the Islamic State), which offers generous paid maternity leaves to its women. Although federal law does provide for three months of unpaid maternity leave, very few women take advantage of this. Why? First, because the law that provides for this leave has so many exceptions that in effect about 40% of parents in the US are not covered by it. And second, because most women (and their families) cannot afford to be without pay for 3 months, and they definitely cannot afford to pay their employer for their health insurance while they are away. Yes, you actually have to pay your employer for the right to take time off to have a baby. Makes sense, doesn’t it? The connection between having paid maternity and women’s ability to pursue ambitious careers and have families at the same time is quite evident. Whether you think states or countries should fund maternity leaves, the fact is that the lack of it puts women at a considerable disadvantage compared to men, and leaves many women who aren’t wealthy or high-middle class with the unfair choice of career vs. motherhood.

Now let’s look at access to reproductive health, or in general, health services for women. My favorite example is Planned Parenthood. This network of clinics has gotten poor rep for performing abortions, but actually abortions account for only 3% of what they do.

Planned Parenthood chart

Income and operations of Planned Parenthood: Abortions account for only 3% of what they do.

Each time a clinic is closed, women who are poor and on Medicaid – the majority of their clients – are deprived of life-saving services and the ability to plan when to have children, and therefore have less control over their overall health. In other words, the onslaught in recent years on clinics that allegedly or openly perform abortions has led, in many communities, to the deteriorating overall health of women. The connection between being healthy and successful is quite evident I think.

Even if you are not directly affected by everything I’ve mentioned so far, think carefully about the educational system in which you were raised: In typical classrooms, boys speak up more than girls. Teachers and school counselors – even women – encourage boys more than girls to participate, invest in schoolwork, apply to top colleges, and pursue meaningful, fulfilling careers. More than once I have talked to female students who were at the top of their class in high school and their advisers recommended they apply to that large state university, whereas guys from their high school who were not nearly as good were directed to private, elite universities out of state. And the trend continues in college and in real life: female students don’t participate as much as men do in class even if they are the majority. Any professor who teaches smaller classes than this one will tell you this right away. A recent study has found that in political gatherings, such as town hall meetings with candidates, women, even if they are the majority of participants, speak much less than men, and their questions get a far less detailed answer from the candidate than the men’s.

Personally, I have seen those male-female discrepancies in my work too. As many of you already know, I often talk to my students about their dreams and aspirations. I’ve discussed this issue with hundreds of students over the years, and the statistics are quite grim: of the students who indicated they knew what they wanted to do after college, men outnumbered women by a ratio of 5:1, and their plans were almost always more ambitious. My impression is that men tend to slightly overestimate their abilities, while women to considerably underestimate them.

This is the outcome of the structural inherent discrimination of women built into our society through institutions, and laws, and yes, religions too, almost always created by men. The good thing? We can change that. All of us, everyone sitting in this room, men and women. Just by being here you have been given a wonderful chance to make something of yourselves, to succeed beyond your imagination, to shatter, not just break, that glass ceiling and show the world that a woman who comes from a small town in Indiana or a mid-size Midwestern city can go to a top graduate school, has a shot in the greater world outside of this place, and can be not the person working for the lawyer or doctor or manager, but rather the lawyer, doctor, or manager.

You have to start believing, you need to be more ambitious about your dreams, and if you can’t do it on your own, ask for help, find the mentor who will take you there. It’s not going to be easy, because many of the women sitting here have been brought up to believe that getting that ordinary decent job after college is the best they can do because it’s better than what others in their family or community have done, that their ambitions can not extend beyond earning $30k or $40k a year and having a family. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way, if that’s honestly what you really want. But I would like to believe most women sitting here would want to do something greater than this (and still have a family), if given the chance.

Don’t wait for anyone to give you the chance. Take it. Fight our society’s structural inequalities that leave women behind. Choose the right major for you, have the right people on your side, do well in school, train yourselves in as many skills as possible, from writing to a foreign language and advanced proficiency with computers, apply to the best graduate programs and attend them, seek the best jobs, be socially and politically active, and vote for candidates who support women, regardless of their sex or political party. You don’t have to wait till you are finished with college to make a difference. In fact, there’s a burning issue that’s affecting every one of you – and men too – right now, on this campus, and on every other college campus in America.

Next week, I shall be discussing that burning issue that we all should be doing something about. Follow this page for more to come.

 

The letter that changed my life

Today in class I talked to my students about dreams, the need to have ambitious goals, even such that they themselves do not believe they could achieve, and about setting out to realize them. The unfortunate reality is that 74% of my students do not believe they can go to any program they want. I’m not sure why, or who told them they can’t. Maybe it was their parents, or other family members, or teachers and counselors in high school, or friends, or the media that constantly shows only people of certain backgrounds in those fancy jobs or universities, or maybe the fact that the vision they have of a place like Princeton is not from real life, but from a movie like Transformers 2 (I saw it being filmed there, by the way). But I’m real enough, I told them; I went to Princeton, for 5 years, for free. And I’m not better than any of them.

Then, I shared this letter. It’s my acceptance letter to Princeton from 2004. It is a letter that changed my life. “Anyone sitting in this room,” I told them, “deserves to get a letter like that one day. It may not be from an Ivy League school, but it will open up an opportunity you never thought you could have.”

admission letter princeton 2004

Where are the activists?

Ball State die in protest, 12/9/14

In late 2012, students at my former institution, Emory University, walked out of classes one day at 12 noon to participate in a rally in front of the administration building. Joining faculty and staff, they protested against cuts to certain departments and programs, announced a few days earlier by the dean of the college of arts and sciences. The gathering outside the building soon led to a sit-in on the 4th floor of the building, right outside the president’s office. Demanding to speak with him, the protesters, now primarily students, remained in the hallway for 6 hours until allowed to see the president. Although the students’ actions achieved little – the cuts were implemented as planned – they reflected student activism of a type rarely seen on some college campuses, like the one I teach at. In fact, in the six years I have been teaching, at 3 different universities in 3 states, this was the only case of meaningful, bold student action I have seen that transcended the world of social media, until the recent die-in protests against the decision not to indict the officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

There was no lack of causes to protest against: from funding cuts to humanities and arts programs while senior administrators continued to make over half a million dollars a year, to social causes like recognition of same-sex student couples, ban of guns on campuses, or even national and international crises, student activists should have had their hands full. And yet, the students I’ve taught rarely walked out of classrooms, demonstrated vociferously on campus, occupied the office of a dean or president for hours or the main quad with tents for days, or clashed with the police that came to evacuate them. Admittedly, activism that takes on a more moderate tone can yield equally significant results. Take, for example, the wonderful work of Emory’s Sexual Assault Peer Advocates, a group that has raised awareness for rape culture among students and the university’s administration, and supported sexual assault survivors. But despite such noteworthy and admirable efforts, today’s college students, even those participating in student government and campus groups, pale when compared to the activists who demonstrated against the war in Vietnam all over college campuses in America in the 1970s.

The recent die-ins, even here at Ball State, serve as a reminder of the potential power of student protests. Through large rallies, sit- and die-ins, and various groups and clubs, students can really change the world. So why haven’t they been doing just that? The question defies a simple answer. Perhaps students nowadays are weary of the possibility a potential employer would Google them and find out they were troublemakers, a strange approach given that many employers would (I hope) prefer people who care over those who are indifferent. Perhaps the false perception that activism through social media alone can effect change has prevented many from encamping outside the administration building.

And then there’s the socio-economic question: Although within the general population we have seen people of all walks of life demonstrate and protest (in Ferguson, in New York, and elsewhere), it appears student activists are far more vocal on campuses of elite universities than they are at universities such as mine. This isn’t too surprising. The burden of day-to-day survival leaves no room or time for social and political activism. It is no doubt easier to speak about oppression when one is free of worrying about tuition costs, replacing an old computer, buying a winter coat, or a car that won’t start in the morning. Such concerns are daily realities for many of my students. Submerged by school work and the need to support themselves through mediocre, low-paying jobs, many are simply too occupied to care enough about the world around them. Growing up in small towns and mid-size cities in the midwest, my students are more likely to be concerned about the prospects of finding a decent job and paying back student loans than about ongoing crises in the Middle East or Ukraine or here at home. Those who pick professional majors that train them for a specific vocation (of the type one once upon a time did not need a college degree for) are not likely to develop a global social and political awareness, because they will not be taking courses where such issues are ever discussed. For them, terms like the Islamic State, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the Keystone Pipeline, the Occupy Wall Street movement, or the recent calls for racial equality in this country will remain mostly theoretical concepts they are not likely to fully understand or care about. And so they would have no reason to act.

More disturbing, however, is the relative apathy students in my campus feel toward issues that directly affect them. Sexual assault is a case in point. It is a real problem on our campus, as it is elsewhere, attested even by the university’s own annual crime report, which, assuming only 5% of cases on college campuses get reported, puts Ball State at around the national average; and by the fact that I, a relatively new professor, already know 9 female students who are sexual assault survivors. One would expect that such a problem, which affects the entire student body directly and concerns it more than the situation in the Middle East or even in Ferguson, would lead to significant action on behalf of student leaders, one that would be seen, heard, felt, and reported on non-campus media. In reality, however, efforts so far have amounted to a campaign launched by the Student Government Association, at the center of which was a rather anemic and poorly worded pledge statement students were asked to sign (poorly worded as it talks about “nonconsensual sex” but fails to call it what it is – rape – calls survivors “victims”, and ends with the empty statement that “preserving evidence requires timely reporting”).

In my classes, I have talked repeatedly about this issue. Hundreds have heard me speak about it. A few dedicated students have taken me up on my offer to help them launch a more vigorous initiative to fight rape culture on campus, and time will tell if their endeavors amount to something. I hope they do. But the majority of my students have so far been oblivious to this issue, even though statistically a quarter of their female friends will soon be, or have already been, the subjects of rape or attempted rape. Thus a photo mocking my presentation on sexual assault last semester, posted on the pro-rape-culture Twitter page BSUFessions, received many more views than the video and transcript of my presentation combined, and went viral among students via Snapchat. For those who found my presentation funny, or for the thousands following that Twitter page, rape only happens in dark alleys and women are assaulted because they get drunk or dress like sluts. Bold activism, anyone? Forget about that. If such an issue won’t get our students to act, we cannot expect some violation of human rights taking place in a foreign country to. So where are the activists, you ask? Who knows. I haven’t seen them on my campus recently.

 

Ten Tips for a Successful New Semester

brackensnowEspecially for the new year, and as we all return to campus from winter break and once again transition from home and family to school and work, I thought I’d offer a few tips that would make everyone’s life a little easier. I won’t tell you to come to class, read whatever your professor assigns, or study for tests. These are obvious preconditions for success, and any reasonable student understands the connection between not fulfilling them and low academic performance. Here I’d like to focus on those little and often overlooked issues, which can be addressed with relatively little effort, and yet could make a big difference for you. So, if your last semester wasn’t as great as you had wanted it to be, if you are still in your first year of college and trying to figure things out, or if you are about to start college next year and are a bit concerned about the future, this list is for you.

1. Find a mentor. It can be a professor in your department or someone you have taken a random class with in an area you are not likely to study again, it doesn’t actually matter. I have emphasized this many times and it still tops my list. If you don’t have at least one professor with whom you are particularly close, a teacher you can talk to about everything, not just academics, it is probably time to find one (or more). Having even one professor on your side will positively and significantly transform your college and post-college career. Finding the right person and building a long-lasting and meaningful relationship takes time, so get to it right away.

2. Connect with your professors. Don’t be just a name or a number on a class roster. This is important not only for the purpose of finding mentors, but also so your teachers get to know you, even on a superficial level, and even if it’s a gen-ed/core curriculum class of 200+ students. Let your professors know what’s going on in your life, especially if you believe personal issues may affect your academic performance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but do so before a test/major assignment, and not after you have already gotten the bad grade. Demonstrate you are serious in words and in effort, and when the time comes to decide on final grades your professor will likely be more considerate of your situation.

3. See your advisor(s) at least once a year, even briefly, especially if your advisor is a professor within your major (students who are double majors typically have 2). Showing you are serious about being on track to graduation will make your advisor/department more willing to help you out if something goes wrong. If you feel your advisor isn’t too helpful, don’t hesitate to ask to be switched over to a different person, especially if you’ve already connected with another professor in your department who is willing to advise you.

4. Read the syllabus, carefully. The syllabus is a contract between you and your professor. By taking his/her class, you agree to the terms set forth in the syllabus, so make sure you know what you are allowed and not allowed to do, what the course requirements are, and what you need to do to get the grade you want. Not all syllabi are as thorough in detail as they should be, so ask questions when you aren’t sure. And please, before you email your professor with a question, read the syllabus again. You would not believe how many emails I get every semester about issues that are clearly explained on the syllabus, which the asking student has clearly not read. Remember that the time it takes a professor to respond to such superfluous queries is time that could have been invested in helping you succeed.

5. Read emails, especially from your professors. Many professors send out updates on a weekly/bi-weekly basis. Please respect the time it takes the professor to write them by reading their messages. Those emails often include important information you need to know. Some professors have stopped responding to emails containing questions about issues already explained in prior emails. Others (like me) still respond, but with great frustration. It isn’t really that hard: check your school email at least once a day, make sure you don’t skip messages from your teachers, and reply when a response is called for. As a student, not replying to a professor’s email is not only rude; it is counter-productive. You do want your professors to think highly of you after all, no?

6. When emailing your professor, write a letter, not a text message. A formal letter begins with Dear Mr./Ms./Dr./Prof., (find out if your professor has a doctorate or not, it really isn’t that hard) and ends with All the best or Best or Sincerely or even Thank you. Most professors wouldn’t mind an email starting with Hello or Hi, and some would allow you to call them by their first name, but few would find an email that reads like a text message (“so what do we have to read for next week?” or “I couldn’t come to class today can you tell me what I missed?”), and contains one or two sentences without punctuation, appropriate. Your professors may be very friendly, but they aren’t your friends yet. Be polite and respectful, and use your correspondence with them to practice for the real world, where even one such lousy email could sabotage your chance of getting that job you really want.

7. Mind your grammar (and style and punctuation too). When you write, whether an email or an essay, use correct English, not colloquial expressions, common abbreviations (lmao, lol, etc.), slang, or emoticons. If you aren’t sure how to use English grammar properly, get help. While language problems are somewhat excusable for foreign students, there’s nothing that makes a professor depreciate a student more than an email containing gross errors that clearly demonstrate subpar command of one’s native language (for example, I should of worked harder instead of I should have worked harder)

8. Show up for scheduled meetings with your professors. Always, and on time. If you can’t make an appointment, let your prof know as soon as you can, and preferably at least a day before. Professors keep a very busy schedule. Some teach hundreds of students a semester. If you fail to show up for a meeting, you are not only being inconsiderate of your professor’s time, but also of your classmates, one of whom could have had the chance to meet with your professor instead. A “no show” is in a way the equivalent of not replying to an email: it portrays you as an irresponsible person, which means fewer opportunities for stellar letters of recommendation down the road. In such a competitive world, why would you risk that?

9. Disagree with your professors, but know your stuff. College is about helping you develop your own views, your own voice. If you plan to spend four years in college in silence without saying anything meaningful or even controversial in class, you will be wasting your time. So learn the issues well (because most likely, your prof does know what he/she is talking about), come up with solid arguments, and don’t shy away from a good debate. While many students fear disagreeing with their teachers might hurt their grade, most professors would in fact welcome a good debate that demonstrates the student has put in some effort to learn the issue at stake.

10. Don’t withdraw. Unless you have exhausted all other options, including getting help via tutoring, talking to your professor, and discussing your options with your advisor, do not withdraw from a class. Doing so will likely make things worse for you: You will have another class to take (or you will have to repeat the same course), and there will be a W on your transcript, which indicates to potential employers and grad school admissions people that you are a quitter. While having one or two Ws on your transcript early on in your college career will probably not hurt you too badly, you have to bear in mind that no one wants to hire people who give up when facing challenges. A decision to withdraw from a class should therefore be taken very seriously.

Have other tips to share? Post your comments here or on the Facebook page.