NPR Survey on Trigger Warnings

Speaking of trigger warnings, a colleague passed along a survey put together by and education reporter at NPR named Meg Anderson. She writes:

We are doing some informal research at colleges nationwide on the use of “trigger warnings” – a disclaimer to students that upcoming material could have adverse effects for students.

She invited my colleague to share the survey with “faculty and staff in your department who teach students directly,” and gave me permission to do the same. If you’re interested, click HERE for the survey. It takes less than a minute unless you’re a really, really slow reader. If you’d like to know more/say more, you can contact her at

Non-Measurable Mondays: The Promise of Measurables and the Illusion of Competence

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly feature for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

One of the many stories of Socrates involved the notion that he claimed he “knew nothing” while the gods claimed he was “the wisest person in the world.” “But how could this be,” he asked, “since wisdom is a sort of knowledge?” He took this as a riddle, and if the gods give you a riddle, by gum, you’d better solve it. Perhaps you know the story (Plato’s Apology, sections 20d-23b), but the great lesson he learned was that wisdom is a special sort of knowledge: it is knowing what one knows, and knowing what one doesn’t know. It is understanding the shore between one’s knowledge and one’s ignorance, and recognizing that all too often, that which appears to be sure, confident, complete knowledge, is but the illusion of knowledge: a competence in some things, but an incomplete competence.

Before I go on, I would like to start my first Non-Measurable Monday to thank our previous authors: Phil, Dave, Erica, Kristen, and Jennifer, NMM has been more successful and beautiful than I had dared hope. Indeed, what we’ve seen are just the smallest of samplings of that which goes “unmeasured.” The deep and complex lives of our students, their successes, challenges, and failures, and the relationship between professor and student, and student and student, is our subject matter. Data can paint a picture: it can create a model that allows for a rational analysis of what education and success are. But these models are, thus far, fantastically thin in comparison to the richness and depth of the world they strive to model. For the next few Non-Measurable Monday posts, we’re going to look at the notion of data itself: its promise, its hope, and its limitations.

Today’s post is a meta post. It may seem excessively academic or pretentious, but I believe that a look at the history of science, its successes, hopes, and severe limitations, can teach us something valuable about how we deal with data.

For me, one of the most astonishing and captivating stories has been the story of the history of science, because it is the story of the best forms of knowledge, confidently advancing and growing, facing the limitations of their measurements without ever knowing it.


Non-Measurable Mondays: “I Wronged a Student and I Learned a Lesson,” by Jennifer Asimow

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly series for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

The 10-day period that begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends on Yom Kippur is commonly called the “Days of Awe” and is the time of year when the Jewish people the world over consider their actions over the past year and plan to make amends for wrongdoing.  We ask for forgiveness from those we have wronged, and to forgive others for wronging us.  This period of atonement asks us to take a reflective moment and consider our trespasses as well as those who have trespassed against us.  We must repent our sins against other people before Yom Kippur and repent our sins against G-d on Yom Kippur through fasting and prayer. Traditionally we ask for forgiveness three times as required by Jewish law, however forgiveness is a not a given.  We cannot expect forgiveness.  We can only ask for it.

This brings me to my story of forgiveness, and my story of lessons learned.

A few years back I wronged one of my students.  Asa (not her real name) was one of those students who arrived early on the first day of class, notebook and textbook in hand, ready and waiting to get the learning started.  Each week, she was the first to arrive, participated like a champ, and was an exemplary student in all ways but one.  She never turned in any assignments.

I handled this by the Applied Sciences book; I communicated my concerns via face-to-face conversations. I emailed her my concerns after first focusing on her accomplishments in terms of participation, attendance and support of her classmates.  I asked her if there was anything I could do to further support her.  She apologized and told me she would get it together.

At midterm she was still failing and another serious conversation took place.  At week 13 I sent her yet another email telling her that if she did not get her work in she would not pass the course.

During week 16, I met with each student individually to discuss their final grades.  I sat at the large desk in the front of the room and students sat toward the back near the classroom laboratory.  I pulled names out of a hat and called each student up one-by-one.  Asa was 3rd to last.  She came up to my desk with a big, expectant smile on her face and sat down facing me.  I pulled out her grade report and proceeded to tell her that she did not pass the class.

She fell apart.

My initial reaction was shock.  Why didn’t she know that she failed the course?  I thought I was clear.  I told her several times that she was not going to pass. I thought she understood.  I fumbled around, not sure what to say or how to handle her tears.  The students who were still waiting to meet with me were staring at us. I said something like, “Well, good luck to you,” and dismissed her haphazardly as it was dawning on me that this was perhaps the lowest point in my teaching career. I knew that what had happened was akin to a public shaming and I was destroyed by it.

I thought about calling or emailing her, but one day turned into two, a week turned into a month, a month turned into a semester and before I knew it, 2 years had passed.  I never stopped thinking about that interaction, how humiliated Asa was and how I made it so much worse.

Fast forward 2 years.

This summer I received an email from Asa.  She wanted to talk about school and her career and could we make an appointment to meet?  I replied immediately and we scheduled a time for 2 days hence.  I thought long and hard about what I wanted to say to her and how I wanted to make things right.  I planned a big speech, complete with excuses for my behavior and a whole lot of nonsense about my reaction to her reaction.

When she walked into my office, I was so happy to see her looking well and happy.  She gave me a big hug and we sat down.  Right away, I told her that I wanted to apologize to her for my behavior on the last day of our class, and especially for speaking to her about her final grade with other students in the room.  I said I was sorry, and I asked for forgiveness.  She in turn, apologized to me for not doing her part to improve her grade, for not paying attention to my efforts at communicating with her, and for generally just messing up an entire semester of college.

All this time, I knew I owed her an apology and all this time, she thought she owed me one.

I told her that I learned a valuable lesson on that day.  I learned that privacy is a right, not a luxury.  I learned that students might say they understand when you are telling them something very important, but they don’t always.  I learned that letting someone walk away from me when they are upset because of something I have done is unacceptable.  I learned that after 18 years of college teaching, I can still learn valuable lessons about my teaching practice, students, and human interactions that will make me a better practitioner and a more humane person.

Asa had forgiven me two years prior to my request.  She had let it go when she left the building while I carried it until this past summer.  The most important lesson I learned on that day and during the months that followed is that waiting to apologize and ask for forgiveness only adds to one’s burden. So in the spirit of the “Days of Awe” apologize sooner rather than later and forgive somebody who has wronged you. The weight of both will slip right off of your shoulders.

Jennifer Asimow is a Professor of Child Development at Harold Washington College.

Non-Measurable Mondays: “The Summer School Method,” by Kristin Bivens

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly feature for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

As an elementary school student, one of my favorite films was Summer School. In the movie, Mark Harmon, the resident high school physical education teacher, gets snagged to teach summer school in the moments immediately after the regular school year ends. Threatened because he is pre-tenure, he acquiesces and teaches a classroom full of students at the oceanfront during the summer.

An Internet Movie Database (imdb) contributor summarizes the plot like this:

A high-school gym teacher has big plans for the summer, but is forced to cancel them to teach a “bonehead” English class for misfit goof-off students. Fortunately, his unconventional brand of teaching fun field trips begins to connect with them, and even inspires ardor in some.

In the YouTube clip, you can see the title, “Now That’s Teaching.” Instead of the final grades, based on pre- and post-test assessments, Harmon’s character, the affable Mr. Shoop, argues for what I have dubbed, “The Summer School Method.” Instead of the result, Mr. Shoop argues on behalf of his students for the progress they have made, not the final grade or score.

In other words, Mr. Shoop advocates for the journey of learning, not the destination. The learning that isn’t measured as the mark (pun intended) of learning. I overheard a colleague explain, in a different way, The Summer School Method. She expertly used pre-tests and quizzes to show a student to not be dejected because they weren’t going to pass the class.

She took the time to show the student how the destination (a grade) can’t represent the learning and improvement they had made in an ENG 98 classroom. If you want to encourage our students, who need developmental education at exasperating rates, use The Summer School Method: measure student success on improvement, not just final grades.  

And, for Shoop’s sake, recognize you can’t measure learning with the methods we deploy. If you want learning wrapped up in a scantron and scored in a machine, you might not be as interested in facilitating learning in your classroom as you think. And, please think.

Gauging learning isn’t just about tests and post-tests or mid-term and final grades.

Some things are immeasurable.

Some processes are tacit and cannot be articulated.

It is shortsighted to think we can measure all that we know. It is a mistake to think everything we teach can be measured. It is a disservice to our students to demean the learning process into something that privileges a dysfunctional system.

I would advocate using The Summer School Method to gauge student learning as a method that recognizes that learning is a complex, dynamic process that cannot be easily distilled into a letter grade, as Dave’s, Phil’s, and Erica’s posts have shown.

The lives our students live are complex and dynamic, too. Using The Summer School Method recognizes this–it privileges the process and not just the outcome. In the end, our students still need to meet the requirements to pass a class, and I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t.

However, by using a different framework to assess student learning, we might be able to make better use of the measurements that we do take.

Kristin Bivens is a Professor of English at Harold Washington College.

Non-Measurable Mondays (Wednesday Edition): “Owning Her Education,” by Erica McCormack

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly feature for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

As one of the vice-chairs of the Assessment Committee, I believe in assessing the student learning outcomes that are measurable to help us better understand student learning, but I am grateful to have an opportunity to reflect on the non-measurable yet vital lessons that our students learn and that we learn from them.

A couple years ago, I had an international student in one of my interdisciplinary Humanities courses (I won’t specify the country or her name). She had been a medical doctor before moving to the US and was working hard to complete an AS degree at HWC and planning to apply to a physician assistant program or something similar. She struggled with her English, but it was always an active struggle. She was incredibly diligent, using the Writing Lab and other campus resources to submit impeccable work throughout the semester.

Months after our class ended, I received an email from her stating “I have learned a lot of interesting things from the course,” and “I am applying what I have learned to my life.” Those kinds of comments are always nice to receive; however, this was no generic thank-you email. Specifically, she went on to explain how our class discussion of a particular poem made her realize “I have the right to be happy, loved and respected.” I could not ask for a better outcome for each of my students than to truly learn that lesson, but it’s certainly not something I would want to try and measure.

The poem that inspired this insight was “I Cannot Remember All the Times” by Jo Carson (you can read it here, pages 51-52: My student shared with me, in that email, that the poem detailed “exactly what happened” to her. When I read that, I was devastated and felt horrible that I didn’t suspect at all what she was enduring at home when she left our class each day that semester.

She explained that after her husband brought her to the US, he discouraged her from pursuing her educational goals (telling her to work in a nail salon instead of pursuing her medical education) and became physically abusive. When she called the police, she said they didn’t do anything. She said that after her husband choked her, she moved out but was “unsure about the divorce” until she read and contemplated the Carson poem in the context of our class discussion.

She expressed gratitude for the thoughtful comments she heard from her classmates about the poem and said that for the first time, instead of worrying that she would be judged for “betraying” her husband, she felt supported by her community, even though her classmates had no idea that when they were speaking about the poem, she felt that they were speaking to her. She said, “Now I understand that he is not going to change his behavior. Everything will happen the same if I come back…I want a better life for myself. I think I have the right to be happy, loved and respected. I want to go to school and finish my education.”

That phrase “my education” means so much to me because I can only imagine the strength that it took for her to assert power over her education and her life simultaneously. For most of us in Education, it is natural to link these together, but we sometimes overlook how much it takes for our students to achieve this self-determination and how powerfully the classroom environment can contribute to these efforts.

She concluded, “What I have learned from your class and the poems make me stronger.” I know that the strength came entirely from her, but I am grateful that our curriculum could provide her with an impetus to make a decision that she had considered in different ways for some time.

As an aside…This just reinforces for me that each of our students deserves to pursue their education, not a one-size-fits-all prescription. I’m beyond proud and gratified to work with colleagues and students who are committed to helping one another do this every day, and I hope that our larger institutional administration does not force us into the role of abusive spouse, dictating to our diverse communities which jobs their residents are allowed to pursue by denying them access to the full array of college programs within their community. Instead, I hope we can be true to our mission and support every student as they define and pursue whatever constitutes their version of “my education.”

Erica McCormack is a Professor of Fine Arts and Humanities at Harold Washington College

Non-Measurable Mondays: “The Saved Voicemail,” by David Richardson

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly feature for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

About five years ago I had a voice mail from the father of a former student, Kelly B. She had been in a summer school class of mine about three years prior to when I got the voice mail. I remembered her right away when he said her name. 

Back then, in about the third week of the class, she came to me and said that she needed a letter. I said, “Sure. What for?” Turns out that she was only in the class because she’d been paroled and needed to be in school or have a job. She had a hearing coming up on whether she would have to stay under confinement to her house, which would make the school thing impossible. So I wrote a letter saying what she’d been doing in class and how she had done enthusiastic work–leaving out some things about the grades and comprehension and the rest (she was very under-prepared, but trying at least). The judge accepted it, but I don’t think she finished the class.

Anyway, years later, her dad‘s call came. In that voice mail he told me she had died as a result of her struggles with substance abuse, and he was calling to ask my permission to read part of my letter in her eulogy. He said something like, “She was many things, but in recent years, she’d come to be defined by her struggles. But she kept your letter as a reminder of what else she was. We don’t have anything else like it.” I saved that voice mail for years.

David Richardson is Professor of Philosophy at Harold Washington College.