Category: UNC

Comments on the Last Post

Two colleagues had responses to my post on the curriculum reform currently in proces at UNC.

First, from Chris Lundberg, in the Communications Department, who thinks he may be the source for my (stolen) list of the primary goals of university education in our information saturated age:

“I think I might be the unattributed source for the formula!

The only thing that I’d add to what you already wrote here is to disassociate capacities from skills. Here’s an abbreviated version of my schtick (though you’ve heard it before).

The university is subject to disruption for a number of reasons: folks don’t understand the mission; the content we teach is not responsive to the needs that students have beyond Carolina, and lots of folks have a legitimate argument to teach information and skills.

One of the ways we talked about this in the conversation we had awhile back was to ask “what are the things that can’t be outsourced?”—either to another mode of learning information or skills, or, in the case of the job market, to someone behind a computer screen somewhere else. So the formulation that we’d talked about was something like If you can learn content remotely, the vocation organized around that content that is highly likely to be outsourced.

So the case for the university also has to be a case about what is unique about the mode of instruction. That’s the thing about capacities. They aren’t just about something that you learn as content, they are also the kinds of things that you have to do and receive feedback on in the presence of other folks. Writing, Speaking, reasoning together, framing arguments, etc.

The information/content part of education doesn’t make a case for the uniqueness of the university—the Internet is real good at delivering information. You don’t need a library card anymore to access the repository of the world’s information. What you need is to learn how to effectively search, pick, and put together a case for what that information is useful. The capacity for sorting and seeing connections in information is the thing. (see the “neat formula”)

Skills (or as the folks in the corporate sector call them now, competencies) are defined by the ability to know how to perform a given task in a given context. Their usefulness is bounded measuring (typically a behavior_) against the demands of that context. A capacity, OTOH is a trans-contextual ability (set of habits of inquiry and thought, ways of deliberating, etc.) that works across multiple contexts. For example, the biology text my dad used was horribly misinformed about genetic expression (they didn’t know about epigenetics, micro RNA, etc.). What was valuable about his biology class (dad was a biotech entrepreneur) was that he learned how to engage the content: what was a legitimate scientific argument; what made a study good; how to do observational research; a facility for the vocabulary, etc. That set of capacities for thinking about science benefitted him even if the content did not. A capacity is something like the condition of possibility for learning content—think Aristotle on dunamis here—not unlike a faculty in its function, but unlike a faculty because it is the result of learning a specific style or mode of thought and engagement. Where faculties are arguably innate, capacities are teachable (constrained by the innate presence of faculties). That, by the way, is what makes it hard to outsource capacity based learning either in terms of the mode of learning (harder to do lab research online) and in terms of the vocation (you can’t acquire it as effectively as you might in the context of a face-to-face learning community).

So, a big part of the sell, at least in my opinion, should be about framing capacities as the socially, politically, and economically impactful “middle” ground between information and skills—and therefore justifying both the university and Gen Ed as an element of a liberal arts curriculum.”

Second, from my colleague in the English Department, Jane Danielewicz, who puts some flesh on the bones of “active learning” and weighs in issues of assessment:

“If we relinquish our grip on teaching primarily content, then we must also develop new methods of assessment.  Our standard tests are content focused.  To assess competencies, students must be asked to demonstrate those competencies.  Our methods of assessment will need to evaluate students’ performances rather than their ability to regurgitate content knowledge.

We should be asking students to write in genres that are recognizable to audiences in various real world settings.  We should also strive to provide real occasions where a student can demonstrate their competencies to an audience, starting with an audience of their peers and moving out from there.  For example, students can present posters or conference papers at a min-conference (held during the exam period).

Assessment can be tied to the genre is question.  E.g. for the conference presentation (and we all know what makes a good or bad conference presentation–and should work to convey that knowledge to students), students can be assessed on how well they performed the research, made an argument, supplied evidence, and communicated (orally and visually).

Yes, classes will need to be redesigned to encourage active learning, immersive classroom environments, process-based instruction, problem-oriented class content, and appropriate assessment methods.  Many faculty are already moving in these directions, teaching in ways that develop students’ competencies.  Faculty organizations such as the Center for Faculty Excellence are (and have been) providing instruction and support for active learning, experiential learning, and collaborative learning practices.  Some of our students have built web-sites, started non-profit organizations (grounded in research about an issue), written family histories, presented at national conferences, and published in peer-reviewed journals.  We will be sorely disappointing our very action-oriented student body if we retrench and insist on a coverage model of GenEd.”



What Should—and Can—the University Teach?

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is currently attempting to develop a substantially new “general education” curriculum.  GenEd, as it is known at Carolina, is the broad “liberal arts” part of a student’s college career; it is a set of requirements separate from the more specialized course of study that is the “major.”

Anyone even remotely connected to universities knows that changing the curriculum always insures lots of Sturm and Drang, gnashing of teeth, and ferocious denunciations.  Much of this is driven by self-interest; any change, necessarily, will benefit some people more than others.  At a time when students are abandoning the humanities (particularly) and the social sciences (to some extent) as “majors,” the health of those departments depends, more than in the past, on enrollment in their “GenEd” classes.  Thus, any curricular change that seems to funnel fewer students toward those classes is viewed as a threat.  Of course, an oppositional stance taken on that ground pushes the (presumably) primary responsibility of the university to serve the educational needs of its students to the back seat, displaced by internal turf battles.

But there is a legitimate, larger issue here—and that’s what I would like to address.  What does a student in 2019 need to know?  And how does our current understanding of how to answer that question relate to the “liberal arts” as traditionally understood?  At a time when respect for the liberal arts in the wider culture seems at an all-time low, how can their continued centrality to university education not only be protected, but (more importantly) justified or even expanded?

My sense is that practitioners of the liberal arts are having a hard time making the shift from a “coverage” model to one that focuses on “skills” or “capacities.”  Yes, all the proponents of the liberal arts can talk the talk about how they teach students to “think critically” and “to communicate effectively.”  So, all of us in the humanities (at least) have, to that extent, adopted skills talk—even where we fear that it turns our departments into training grounds for would-be administrators of the neoliberal world out there.  But, in our heart of hearts, many of us are really committed to the “content” of our classes, not to the skills that, as by-products, study of that content might transmit.

But, please, think of our poor students! The vast universe of knowledge that the modern research university has created means, as any conscientious scholar knows, that one can spend a lifetime studying Milton and his 17th century context without ever getting to the bottom.  Great work if you can get it.  And isn’t it wonderful that universities (and, by extension, our society) sees fit to fund someone to be a life-long Milton devotee?  But it is futile to think our undergrads, in two short years before they assume a major, are going to master Etruscan pottery, Yoruba mythology, EU politics, the demographics of drug addiction, the works of James Joyce, and the principles of relativity.  The standard way of approaching (ducking?) this conundrum has been “survey courses.”  The “if this is Tuesday, it must by John Donne” approach.

Any teacher who has ever read the set of exams written by students at the end of those survey classes knows what the research also tells us.  They are close to useless.  They are simply disorienting—and fly through the material at a speed that does not generate anything remotely like real comprehension.  The way people learn—and, again, the research is completely clear on this point—is by taking time with something, by getting down and dirty with the details, followed by synthesizing what is learned by doing something with it.  Active learning it is called—and, not to put too fine a point on it, faculty who despise it as some fashionable buzz-word are equivalent to climate change deniers.  They are resolutely, despite their claim to be scholars and researchers, refusing to credit the best research out there on how people learn.

Back to our poor student.  Not only has she been subjected to survey classes, but she has been pushed (by curricular requirements) to take a smorgasbord of them, with no effort to make the various dishes relate or talk to one another.  Each course (not to mention each department) is its own fiefdom, existing in splendid isolation from all the rest.  The end result: students have a smattering of ill-digested knowledge about a bunch of different things, with no sense of why they should know these things as opposed to other possible ones, and with no overarching sense of how this all fits together, or a clear sense of what their education has actually given them.  If we wanted to create confusion, if that was our intended outcome, we could hardly have done better.

The “content” approach in my view, then, leads to confusion for the students and tokenism in the curriculum.  We simply cannot deliver a meaningful encounter with the content of our multiple disciplines during GenEd. So the question becomes: what can we do that is meaningful in the GenEd curriculum?  After all, we could scrap GenEd altogether and do as the Brits do: just have students take courses in their chosen majors during their college years.  Like most American educators, I think the British model a bad mistake.  But that does mean I have to offer a coherent and compelling account of what GenEd can do—and the best way to insure it does what it aims for.

The answer, I believe, is to define what we want our students to be able to do as thinkers and writers.  Here’s a neat formula I stole from someone (unfortunately, I cannot remember my source).  We want a student in 2019 to 1) learn how to access information; 2) learn how to assess the information she has accessed; and 3) know how to use that information to solve specific problems and to make a presentation about it to various audiences in order to communicate various things to those audiences.  I take number 3 very expansively to include (crucially) understanding (through having some experience of) the fact that members of your audience come from very different backgrounds, with very different assumptions about what matters. Thus, effective communication relies heavily on being able (to adapt Kant’s formula) “empathize with the viewpoint of the other,” while effective problem solving relies on being able to work with others. Assessing information (#2 on my list) involves understanding that there are various methods of assessment/evaluation.  Judging the features of a text or a lab experiment in terms of its technical components and the success with which they have been deployed is different than judging its ethical implications.

I think we can, if careful and self-conscious, make significant progress toward achieving the three goals stated above during the first two years of college.  I think success requires that we de-fetishize content; that we design our classes to develop the identified skills; and that we re-design our classes to make sure we are achieving them.  Assessment will come in many different varieties, each geared to evaluating students’ performances of the competencies rather than to regurgitation of content knowledge. We should be asking students to “perform” their skills, which involves (partly) the presentation of knowledge acquired through reading, research and hands-on experience, in a variety of genres for different kinds of audiences.  The quality of their performances will be the first indication of whether or not we are being pedagogically successful.

I will confess real impatience with teacher/scholars who resist all “assessment” as a dirty word.  Somehow we are supposed to magically know that we are actually teaching our students something, when (in the old curriculum) all we really knew was that the students had checked off the requisite boxes, gotten a grade, and been passed on.  It is no secret that universities have neglected the arts and sciences of pedagogy over the years—and there is no excuse for it.  If we claim to be teaching our students, we need 1) to state clearly and precisely what it is we claim to be teaching them; 2) to do the work necessary to ascertain that we are actually succeeding; and 3) revise our methods when they are not getting the job done.

Necessarily, courses will still have “content”—and that content matters a lot!  The capacities will be taught through a semester-long engagement with some specific subject matter.  In my ideal university, the person we hire to teach medieval literature, or the history and beliefs of Buddhism, or astronomy, is someone who, in their heart of hearts, believes life is less worth living if you don’t know about their subject of expertise.  They convey that enthusiasm and conviction when they teach their classes—and gain a reputation on campus that attracts students because it is known that Professor X makes Subject Y come alive.  But Professor X also has to know, on another level, that the vast majority of her students are not going to make Subject Y their life work and that even a vaster majority of the human race will lead worthy lives knowing nothing whatsoever of Subject Y.  So we are asking our professor to also—and consciously—design her class to develop some specified capacity.  In other words, her class should model a way of thinking, and require students to put that model into practice.

The proposed new curriculum at Chapel Hill moves from the “coverage” model to one focused on skills or capacities.  I think that means we are moving from something we cannot possibly achieve to something we can, perhaps, do.  I also think the new curriculum has the distinct advantage of trying to specify those skills and capacities.  And it challenges our faculty to craft their classes with care in order to inculcate those capacities in our students.  It is a feature, not a bug, in my eyes that many of our classes will need to be modified.  The point of change is change.  Doing the same old same old is not an improvement—and I, for one, think the need for improvement is evident.

Is the new curriculum perfect?  Of course not.  We cannot know with any certainty exactly how it will play out.  The definition of the capacities and the most effective ways of transmitting them to students will have to be honed and reformed through the crucible of practice.  Any successful institution needs to fight calcification tooth and nail, continually revising itself at it moves along, with an eye firmly on the goals that motivate its practices. The tendency of institutions to stagnate, to do something because that’s the way it has always been done and how it currently distributes its resources and rewards, is all too familiar—and depressing. Change is upsetting and, as I said at the outset, some will benefit more than others from change.

In fact, I think the proposed curriculum protects the arts, humanities, and social sciences at a time when they are particularly vulnerable. I also think the liberal arts will suffer if they stick resolutely to old models that do not respond to larger cultural shifts.  We cannot resist or even speak to those shifts if we don’t find a way of meeting our students—who come to college now with a set of needs and objectives that represent their own response to new societal pressures—at least halfway.  We also must recognize that students will, inevitably (within the “elective” system that dates back to the 1880s) make their own decisions about what courses to take.  Thus we must articulate clear rationales for them to take the various courses that will be available within the GenEd curriculum.  What I like about the new curriculum is the way that it calls us to our task as educators, asking us to identify what we believe passionately our students need to learn, and placing the responsibility that our students get there in our hands.

The Sam Saga

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt resigned yesterday—and took the remnants of the campus’s Confederate monument out the door with her.

While the UNC system’s Board of Governor’s met in an emergency session to discuss “Chapel Hill leadership,” Folt stole a march on them, announcing her resignation and her order for the removal of the toppled statue’s still-standing pedestal to an undisclosed location, before the Board’s meeting ended.

Campus work crews had dismantled the pedestal and hauled it away by midnight last night.

Good on her.

The Chancellor has now committed her own act of civil disobedience.  I wonder if there will be calls to prosecute her.  To the best of my knowledge, the law that forbade removal of monuments did not specify the sanctions for those who broke it.  The Gordian knot of the statue was always there to be undone by Folt; it always seemed it would be a trade of her breaking the law in return for losing her job.  She waited a long time–perhaps until the very last moment–to take that step.  But surely there will be those on the right who think her losing her job is not punishment enough.

Now is not the time, it seems to me, to repine over what could or should have been.  Instead, we should accept where things currently stand and, as a campus, stand braced to fight back against any retaliatory actions coming from the BOG.  Reviling the BOG or speculating about what it has or will do is also not very useful in my view.  But we should be clear that BOG is not in our corner and that its actions must be carefully monitored and steadily resisted.

In the meantime, all honor is due to Maya Little and her many allies.  They forced the issue.  Resolute action triumphed over dithering.  What a lovely, perfectly expressive, word: dithering.

A Parable

In 1948, Congress was working on a bill to reinstate the draft.  At first, there was a proposal to introduce Universal Military Training.  New York pacifists, including A. J. Muste and Bayard Rustin (who had been raised a Quaker), mobilized to oppose mandatory military service.  They allied themselves with A. Philip Randolph, who had a different object in mind: the desegregation of the US military.  Randolph found a Republican ally, Grant Reynolds, an African-American who held office in Governor Thomas Dewey’s administration in New York.  During Congressional hearings on the proposed draft law, Randolph told members of Congress that there would be massive non-compliance among blacks if the military was not integrated.  Specifically, young black men would not register for the draft.

Randolph was no stranger to the power of threatened mass action.  In 1941, he told FDR there would be a march on Washington by blacks if the president did not issue an executive order against discrimination in federal hiring practices—and by contractors getting federal dollars.  At issue were the companies already producing war materials prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Roosevelt took the threat seriously, issued the order, and Randolph called off the march.

In 1948, the draft bill passed in June, and–for interesting and complicated reasons I will perhaps try to outline in a future post—Harry Truman issued his famous executive order desegregating the military in July.

Randolph immediately cancelled his call for non-compliance with the new draft law.  Muste and Rustin, true to their pacifist principles, broke with Randolph at this point.  They wanted to go ahead with resistance to the draft.

I am going to ruin this parable by explaining in terms undoubtedly too stark the four lessons I derive from it.

  1. There is always someone to your left.  No matter what course of action one proposes or undertakes, there will always be some who claim it is not radical enough.  The same is probably true on the right as well.  One’s commitment, one’s toughness, one’s willingness to go the full nine yards will always be called into question by someone, playing a game of one-upmanship, claiming to be truer to the cause, more principled, and more morally pure.


  1. Those in power will often (maybe always) over-estimate the strength and (most crucially) the unity of those they oppress. In truth, Randolph’s threat of massive non-compliance was mostly a bluff.  He had neither the standing with blacks across America or the organizational and communications wherewithal to have actually delivered a very substantial boycott.  But to white Congressmen and Harry Truman, people with just about no knowledge of blacks or black America, Randolph’s threat was credible.  We just had the same exact thing happen at UNC.  The grad students threatened a grade strike. Realistically, about 200 grad students at most (out of over 3000), would have participated.  But the administration thought of the grad students as a unified bloc, wildly overestimating the threat the proposed grade strike posed.  It almost makes you think that, to the powerful, all underlings look alike—in the old clichéd way that whites can’t tell Asians apart, or blacks for that matter.


  1. But this overestimation of cohesion among one’s enemies can go the other way as well. Corey Robin has been banging away on this theme since Trump’s election: the left consistently stands in awe and terror at the right’s power and effectiveness.  My post on Silent Sam places some hope in a schism in the North Carolina state Republican Party.  I must admit that here I am wary.  We (the left) keep looking for signs of fracture on the right, with stories of voters who are going to abandon Bush or Trump or whomever when they stand for re-election.  Just as we keep pointing to lines that Trump will cross that will lead congressional Republicans to throw him under the bus.  Of course, the opposite has been the case.  It is Democrats who are the squabbling, disunified party, while Republicans demonstrate again and again that they put party loyalty (and its benefit of retaining power) above all else.  This unity of American overlords is very impressive indeed.  Think back to the 2008 recession when the business men of Main Street were royally screwed by the frauds of Wall Street.  But they closed ranks despite their being fleeced.  SO: I can hope for weakness in the right’s ranks, but I ain’t holding my breath.


  1. To use a dubious, even hateful, metaphor: a loaded gun pointed in the enemy’s direction is 50x more powerful than a fired gun. Once the gun is fired, the worst you can do is now known.  And when that worst is a lot less than it was estimated as, you (the holder of the gun) have basically lost.  Much better to take that gun which was pointing at your foe and slowly put it back in a holster where it remains visible.  Power hinted at but not deployed is often your best weapon.  Randolph knew that.  Of course, when you undoubtedly have the power to win, there does come a time to grab the spoils, to achieve your objectives.  Again, the Republicans of the past eighteen years have shown us how that works.  They have been grabbing and grabbing, while they defy anyone to stop them.  But until you have done the “precinct work,” the hard slog of organizing and of counting (whipping) votes and participation, so that you know that you have at least a reasonable chance of winning, best not to bring your forces onto the field.  Feeble gestures just reinforce the arrogance of the foe.  (There are exceptions to everything.  Politics is a messy business, with no “laws” that determine outcomes.  The Easter 1916 rebels knew they would lose; their gambit was that martyrdom would galvanize a future success.  And they were not wrong, even if they couldn’t have scripted or predicted the English ineptitude that led to independence a mere five years later.)



“On the first day for complying with the conscription law, Rustin and several placard-carrying pickets congregated outside a Harlem registration center shouting for men not to register.  Similar picket lines formed in Philadelphia, Boston, and a number of other cities.  Rustin wrote to Selma Platt in Kansas about ‘the terrific responses we got all over the East,’ with coverage by lots of radio stations and the daily press, and he was pleased that so far there was no evidence that the government was going to ‘crack down.’  But if federal district attorneys were laying low, the New York City police were not.  Rustin was arrested for disorderly conduct and spent fifteen days in jail.  By the time he was released in late September [1948], it was hard for him to deny the obvious: the combination of Truman’s executive order and Randolph’s public acceptance of it had taken out of Rustin’s resistance movement whatever small head of steam it had.

If the resistance movement was in reality dead, the harsh feelings were very much alive.  In mid-October, perturbed over some of the comments that Rustin and others had made about them, Randolph and Reynolds issued a stinging rebuttal accusing Rustin and Muste of using the military campaign as ‘a front for ulterior purposes’ and engaging in ‘unethical tactics.’  Rustin, they implied, was trying to snatch a defeat from victory.  The support for resistance was so weak, they claimed, that continuing the civil disobedience campaign would only have discredited the method.  ‘Gandhi in India and South Africa never engaged in mock heroics,’ they said.  Over the next several months, Muste [and others, but not Rustin] wrote back and forth with Randolph, trying to repair relationships and clarify their respective positions.  But there was no doubt that for a time, the ties between Randolph’s civil rights camp and the Gandhian pacifists were badly frayed.

As for Rustin, afterward he felt miserable about how he had behaved in the waning stages of the campaign.  ‘It was two years before I dared see Mr. Randolph again, after having done such a terrible thing,’ he recalled.  When he did finally visit Randolph to repair the breach, ‘I was so nervous I was shaking, waiting for his wrath to descend upon me.’ But Randolph had by then put the conflict behind him and was happy to have their working relationship restored.

Whatever the personal feelings it aroused, the campaign to desegregate the military raised a host of issues about strategy, tactics, and goals.  When was compromise a choice with integrity, and when did it represent a betrayal of principle?  When did one seize the victory at hand, and when did one opt to keep the troops roused for victories not yet imminent?  How did two sets of activists and two social movements with overlapping but distinct goals work together with integrity in a coalition? Which was more important: an institutional change that led to equal treatment of black and white or a movement that placed peace and nonviolence above other goals?  Was the objective to create widening circles of resistance or to achieve a concrete reform that pointed in the direction of justice?  The tensions embedded in these questions would confront Rusting and other American radicals with painful dilemmas again and again in the next two decades.”

From John D’Emilio’s Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin [NY: Free Press, 2003, 158-160.]

I highly recommend this superb biography of Rustin.  There is nothing even remotely as good written about Randolph, who remains a curiously unreachable subject, a very private man whom no writer, so far, seems to have gotten a handle on.  That he did not hold a grudge against Rustin is characteristic of Randolph, who seems to have been able to work with just about anyone he felt could advance the cause, and who showed an almost complete (and saintly in my opinion) indifference to his own standing in the movement.  He seems to have been just about as ego-less as it is possible for anyone to be—which may be why writing a biography of him has proved so difficult.