Category Archives: academia

Civic Studies at Tufts

In this summer’s issue of Jumbo Magazine (which is sent to prospective Tufts students), I say that Tufts offers “the best mix of experiential [opportunities], like internships and service learning, with academic rigor about civic engagement.”

In this public forum, I should apologize for my competitive claim. If other campuses do more or better than we do, that is good news. But I can elaborate on what I meant.

Virtually every US college or university offers experiential civic education, in the form of student-led groups, service placements and internships, and projects assigned in courses.

Meanwhile, all colleges and universities offer courses relevant to being an effective and responsible citizen, from “Intro to American Government” in political science to courses on specific social issues, to courses that help one to understand cultural identities and differences. Indeed, the liberal arts curriculum as a whole is civic education, if it is done well. (It can be civic mis-education, if it is done very badly.)

However, there is typically a gap between students’ civic experiences and the curriculum. When they are engaged in civic activities, students–like all human beings–usually interact with finite numbers of other individuals within voluntary groups and networks, formal organizations, or enterprises. As individuals and collectively in these groups, they make value-judgments: What counts as a problem? What would be a good outcome? They create and enforce (or undermine and revise) norms that influence their collective behavior. They work together in various ways, producing products and outcomes. And they face characteristic challenges. Some people may slack off, some may misinterpret the purpose of the group, some may mistreat others, and so on.

These issues are addressed in the curriculum, but in a scattered way and not as a major focus. One can learn about ethical judgments in philosophy, about free-rider problems in economics, and about voting procedures in political science. But a student would be hard pressed to identify these relevant aspects of many different courses from various disciplines and put them together.

Hence the Civic Studies Major at Tufts. Our introductory and capstone courses and the electives (including internships) are specifically designed to address the problems of acting together in voluntary groups. These problems have practical significance, and one can learn how to manage them from practical experience. But these problems are also intellectually complex, and one can learn from theory, history, and empirical studies. Our aspiration is put those forms of knowledge together.

See also civic education and the science of association.

how to keep political science in touch with politics

On the last day of the American Political Science Association’s Institute for Civically Engaged Research (ICER), Rogers Smith visited. As APSA president, he had played a major role in launching and inspiring ICER. Rogers offered original and thoughtful remarks to this year’s cohort. Some of what he said reminded me of his APSA Presidential Address, which is available on YouTube.

In that address, Rogers defines civically engaged research as “research done through respectful partnerships with social groups, organizations, and governmental bodies in ways that shape both our research questions and our investigations and answers.” Civically engaged research is not fieldwork or other qualitative or quantitative research about communities.

He justifies civically engaged research as a way of keeping in touch with important trends and movements in the real world:

While there are dangers, we modern political scientists have probably done too little civically engaged research, not too much. The work we have done has also been skewed toward groups with which researchers have strong ideological affinities. Though such rapport can be productive, as a discipline, we must learn from all segments of our societies. If more of us had been attending to the diversity of Black organizers in the 1960s, to anxious fundamentalists as well as assertive LGBTQ advocates in the 1970s, and to angry farm and factory workers in the early 21st century, we might have perceived sooner many major changes in American politics. And if more of us had actively worked with these groups to help them address their concerns and helped them in ethically defensible ways, then Black communities, conservative religious groups, gay activists, and workers and farmers might feel less suspicion and disdain toward academics than many do in the US today. The same may be true in other regions of the world. Intellectual honestly means I can’t guarantee that more civically eengaged research would have helped in these ways, but I know we didn’t do much, and in the light of where we are today, it is worth trying to do more.

I would add two points from my own perspective.

First, there is value in engaged research with (and not only about) right-wing communities and dominant communities. But this does not mean that individual scholars are obliged to conduct such research.

In practice, a disproportionate number of civically engaged social scientists identify with oppressed groups outside the academy, and that is why they feel compelled (as well as motivated) to work with these groups. Often scholars of color, they offer profound insights about the communities that they both study and belong to. No one should expect them to study right-wing whites (unless they want to). Instead, they offer insights from the perspective of the oppressed. For instance, I presume that scholars who are closely engaged with Asian-Pacific Islander groups knew about burgeoning anti-Asian hate well before it made headlines.

Yet we have much to learn from research conducted with conservative and/or demographically dominant groups. Years ago, I visited a prominent land-grant university to meet with the faculty who practiced “community-based” research. This university is located in a largely white and rural part of its state, but the faculty were driving to the nearest big city to do their engaged scholarship in urban neighborhoods that they admired more than their own geographical community. I thought that research about and with neighbors was a gap that should somehow be filled.

Second, the idea that an academic discipline must engage with movements and institutions challenges its self-understanding as a science.

In a simple model of science, facts result from good methods and data. You needn’t engage with planets or atoms in order to understand how they work; you can observe them or otherwise collect data about them. Within pockets, a similar approach to social science works well enough. You needn’t engage in a given election to crunch voting data and generate valid and useful findings about the election. But the human world is different from nature in two relevant ways–it is shot through with values, and it is influenced by intentional human agency.

Social scientists can choose to study many topics. Which questions to focus on is fundamentally a value-judgment, an assessment of what counts as an important issue or problem. Individual scholars are entitled to form their own opinions about priorities, but we are always wiser when we reason about values with other people. If our ears are open, we can learn about new injustices, new opportunities, and even new rights that we did not see before. In that sense, staying in touch–yet always critical–is essential for setting a wise research agenda about the human world.

Society is also unpredictable in a particular way. Human beings are aware of current trends and patterns. They can use their understanding of how things are going to make things look different in the future. They can invent, and no one can foresee a true invention until it arises.

Often, social scientists identify the central tendency in data, but data always come from the past. While we observe society, participants are busy working to disrupt it. History involves ruptures as well as continuities, and statistical social science is relatively badly suited to understanding the breaks. Sometimes, we can see substantial change coming better when we are closer to the action.

On a spectrum from a physicist who studies the eternal laws of the universe to a newspaper reporter who writes what happened yesterday and what it portends for tomorrow, a political scientist stands somewhere in between. History has long arcs but also many contingencies.

As Rogers Smith notes, the behavioral revolution has transformed political science. It presumes that political behavior has regularities that can be understood in a detached way. I believe that behavioral social science has yielded important insights. Yet this research reflects the Zeitgeist; it does not stand outside of history.

Today’s mainstream model of voters and democratic institutions is rather jaundiced. Data show that people lack the motivation and capacity to make well-informed judgements about public issues. But these data come from recent decades, when many organizations and institutions that inform and organize people’s thinking have become old and weak. If it were true that human beings never want reliable information about matters distant to their own private interests, then it would have been impossible to build professional journalism, or civic education in public schools–or even robust political parties that generate social analysis. While those institutions were being built up, the academic discussion of democracy was quite optimistic. (See: Dewey, John.) Now that those same institutions are in decline, the empirical evidence suggests that voters are incapable of forming thoughtful and independent opinions. This whole research paradigm reflects its context, and the context can change. But change requires engagement.

See also: don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic; why political science dismissed Trump and political theory predicted him, revisited; methods for engaged research; civically engaged research in political science #APSA2019; we should be debating the big social and political paradigms; Participatory Action Research as Civic Studies.

the weirdness of the higher ed marketplace

Princeton has $2.86 million in endowment per student, which would yield about $140k per year in interest for every undergraduate. Princeton could charge no tuition if its goal were to maximize accessibility. On the other hand, Princeton received 32,000 applications last year, so it could easily fill a highly-qualified class with people who could pay its full tuition price–or much more than that–if the university’s goal were to maximize tuition income. Princeton could also double or triple its size or create a new campus in another state or country if it wanted to maximize both accessibility and revenue.

Of course, a university sees itself as doing more than providing education. It also generates research, arts and culture, public service, etc. Every dollar that it collects from a student can go to those other purposes. But any endowment money that it spends on those other purposes could have gone to financial aid.

Meanwhile, prospective students also want a bundle of things, including prestige. Prestige comes with selectivity and sticker-price. Imagine you have a choice between paying the basic in-state tuition at UW-Madison ($10,725) or the same amount to Stanford after receiving financial aid. Stanford might look like a better deal, since its tuition sticker price is $55,473. It seems like you are being given $44k. However, it is unlikely that the marginal cost per student at Stanford is really 5.5 times higher than the cost at UW-Madison. More likely, Stanford knows it can charge a base tuition of $55k because many families will pay that much; and asking for less would be leaving cash on the table. Stanford with financial aid is arguably a better deal than UW-Madison’s full price, not because Stanford offers a better (or more costly) education in the classroom but because attending a college that is extremely selective and expensive looks better.

In short, the demand curve rises with price. The more other people pay for a given college, the more valuable it is to you, holding your own costs and the quality of the education constant.

It sounds as if college is a Veblen good, one that rises in perceived value the more it costs. But that logic does not exactly apply. If a college that regularly turns away 94% of its applicants decided to fill its seats with people who could pay full price, it would look less academically selective (as well as less diverse), and it would become less desirable. Many of the people who could pay to attend would now try to go elsewhere. In other words, if you pay full price, you are better off the more of your fellow students do not. Financial aid demonstrates that the college is selecting on criteria other than wealth. This is not typical of a Veblen good, which looks more desirable if only rich people buy it.

As Frank Bruni amusingly postulated, a college could win the prestige sweepstakes by deciding that no one was qualified for admissions. Bruni imagines the day when Stanford finally admits zero applicants:

At first blush, Stanford’s decision would seem to jeopardize its fund-raising. The thousands of rejected applicants included hundreds of children of alumni who’d donated lavishly over the years. …

But over recent years, Stanford administrators noticed that as the school rejected more and more comers, it received bigger and bigger donations, its endowment rising in tandem with its exclusivity, its luster a magnet for Silicon Valley lucre.

In fact just 12 hours after the university’s rejection of all comers, an alumnus stepped forward with a financial gift prodigious enough for Stanford to begin construction on its long-planned Center for Social Justice, a first-ever collaboration of Renzo Piano and Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the pedestrian bridge that will connect it to the student napping meadows.

One of the anomalies that Bruni is pointing to is that people who attended a college in the past now underwrite it voluntarily with their donations. Usually, you pay in order to obtain a good. Here, you get the good and then you pay for others to get it–in part so that it can be withheld from as many applicants as possible, thus raising its value even more on your own resume.

These are strange incentives ….

navigating the disciplines

In a year of virtual orientations, I made a video to help inform Tufts undergraduates who may be thinking about what disciplines to explore as they choose courses and–later on–majors. I addressed “civically engaged” students: those who want to improve their communities, nations, and the world and are trying to decide what academic disciplines might help them to do that.

My presentation is not argumentative or judgmental in the sense that I advocate some disciplines over others. But I do impose an organizational scheme with classifications and generalizations that would probably be controversial. For example, I say what I think a “science” is and why the social sciences are scientific. I acknowledge that these definitions are personal and contentious, but they might make the video interesting for some people beyond Tufts.

my thoughts for students as we move online

Like many other universities, Tufts has decided to close physically for the semester and switch to online education. I am sure my colleagues across the country are discussing this shift with their students as they meet for the last time this week–or virtually, if students have already dispersed.

This is what I’m saying. The text is “open source” in case anyone wants to copy some of it, although I’m sure my colleagues will want to say different things or make similar points better.

First, I am disappointed that we will not meet again in person. I thought the conversations were fascinating and compelling. I have been impressed by your commitment and intellectual and emotional investment.

For my part, I was committed to continuously improving the class. We recently made a shift to more small-group discussions, and I would have sought to make more such changes. My goal would have been to end the semester very strong, better than we began it. It frustrates me to have to move into a kind of triage mode.

But we need to do the best we can. The point is to give you the best learning experience possible under the circumstances, which will vary from person to person and over time. Of course, that’s always supposed to be the point. A college class is not a transaction, with you doing what the professor wants in order to get a grade. It’s always supposed to be a joint creation with the objective of learning. Now we’ll really have to accomplish that together.

Usually, students want predictability. A syllabus nowadays looks almost like a contract: you do this, I will do that, and the results are guaranteed. I don’t think we can be predictable this semester. Who knows how many of us (if any) will be directly affected by the disease? Or whether videoconferencing platforms will hold up under the strain? On the bright side, I assume that professors and teachers will invent successful new strategies that will go viral. We don’t know now how we’ll teach and learn in April.

In the absence of predictability, we need communication. It’s your responsibility to share feedback and ideas with me–especially since we will not be meeting face-to-face. I can’t know what you are experiencing or how you assess the course unless you tell me.

I assume that your circumstances and responses will vary. Some may find it hard–for practical and/or emotional reasons–to participate in various ways. But some may be bored and frustrated that they’re not learning enough during one of only eight semesters of a conventional undergraduate education. I need to hear from you, wherever you stand.

I cannot customize perfectly because I have more than 50 students and more than 20 advisees, plus other responsibilities beyond teaching. However, we can differentiate the experience to some extent. We can add optional activities for students who want more and make accommodations for those who are struggling to keep up.

As always, assigning grades is an inevitable task, and I’m not saying that everyone will get an A because of the circumstances. Still, I am hoping that, even more than usual, we can put the assignment of grades somewhat aside and focus on maximizing the learning for everyone. Your responsibility is not only to try to learn but also, to the extent possible, to help others to learn. Those are the two overarching criteria of assessment. We will succeed if we co-produce this class and fail if we give up on it.

With all that being said, my current plan is to form you into groups of 4-5, with changing membership each time. Those groups will hold videoconferences during each of the scheduled class times. I will provide detailed discussion questions with suggested allocations of time for each topic. Each group will write succinct overview notes on a shared document. I will comment substantively on that document when I see places to weigh in. Individual writing assignments will remain the same as on the syllabus.

Now and throughout the semester, suggestions and critiques of this plan are not only welcome, but expected.