Updating the Self

Neuroscientists call the brain an “anticipation machine” because it spends so much time predicting the future.[i] It does this by piecing together past experiences to build scenarios of expected outcomes, in a process that reinforces itself as predictions come true. But of course things don’t always come true,  creating uncertainty and wreaking havoc on the anticipation machine. In mild cases this expresses itself in a sense of worry that things might go wrong. But pile up a lot of bad experiences and you end up expecting the worst, in what psychologists call “anticipatory dread.”[ii] While this can be a healthy process in buffering the shock of negative events, it also can spiral into a harmful sensation of crisis.

Recent research has a lot to say about the anticipation machine’s relationship to the update impulse. Visions of the future don’t spring from a vacuum, but link to objects, expected outcomes, or something we think we want. This desiring process applies to just about everything, whether it’s a slice of pizza or the admiration of others. But here’s the fascinating part: Getting things is less powerful than wanting them. That new pair of jeans might bring a thrill. But soon comes the yearning for another purchase. Neuroimaging reveals that “wanting” and “liking” occur in different parts of the brain, with the former more strongly active than the latter. Contrary to common wisdom, motivation isn’t influenced by animalistic hungers and drives. What gets people going is the imagination, which is why advertising favors feelings over facts. Continue reading “Updating the Self”

Beyond the Slogans: Evidence-Driven DEI in Higher Education

The past year has witnessed unprecedented assaults on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in universities. Often disguised as support for “traditional” values or academic freedom, these criticisms mask a deeper debate about the role and direction of higher education in a diverse society. To navigate this turbulent discussion, it’s important to move beyond slogans and delve into the evidence-based benefits of DEI, not just for educational institutions, but for the very fabric of a democratic society.

Historically, American academia has been marked by exclusion. Access to knowledge, the cornerstone of a thriving democracy, was largely reserved for privileged white students. This reality underscores the dynamic nature of tradition in higher education. True progress lies not in clinging to past practices, but in expanding access to reflect the rich tapestry of American life. DEI serves as a crucial tool in this expansion. Far from a political tool or mere slogan, it represents a data-driven approach to dismantling barriers that impede access and success for historically marginalized communities. Research paints a clear picture:

  • Improved Student Outcomes: Studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research show that diverse learning environments significantly enhance academic performance and critical thinking skills.
  • Higher Graduation Rates: The American Association of Colleges and Universities reports that campuses with robust DEI programs boast higher graduation rates, particularly for socially marginalized students.
  • Stronger Civic Engagement: Research by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that universities with strong inclusivity practices foster greater student satisfaction and civic engagement.

Continue reading “Beyond the Slogans: Evidence-Driven DEI in Higher Education”

Racism and Sexism in Teaching Evaluations

In the world of academia, where the pursuit of knowledge and excellence in teaching are paramount, one might assume that evaluation methods would be impartial and objective. However, a thought-provoking article by David Delgado Shorter, a UCLA Professor of World Arts and Cultures, sheds light on the problematic nature of student evaluations. In his article titled “Teaching Evaluations Are Racist, Sexist, And Often Useless: It’s Time To Put These Flawed Measures In Their Place,” Shorter questions the validity and fairness of using student evaluations as a basis for academic merit and promotion decisions.

Shorter’s journey into this subject began when he reviewed his own teaching evaluations from the previous years, aiming to compile them for promotion purposes. What he found was a mixture of bizarre comments and personal narratives that had little to do with the actual course content. He realized that this was not an isolated incident; many of his Black and Asian colleagues, especially women, faced even more problematic evaluations.

These concerns prompted Shorter to delve into the research surrounding teaching evaluations. He discovered a wealth of peer-reviewed papers spanning decades, all pointing to the same disturbing trend: gender and racial biases in student evaluations. Women consistently received lower ratings than men, and younger women were often judged less professionally than their older counterparts. Women of color faced additional challenges, being rated as less effective than white women. These biases, based on gender, race, and even seemingly unrelated factors like the time of day a course was taught, raised serious questions about the validity of using student evaluations as a sole measure of teaching effectiveness.

The American Sociological Association (ASA) recognized these issues and recommended in 2019 that student evaluations should not be used as the sole basis for merit and promotion decisions unless part of a broader, more holistic assessment. Some universities, such as the University of Southern California, the University of Oregon, and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, have already taken steps to combine student evaluations with other forms of assessment in personnel decisions. The ASA’s stance has garnered support from nearly two dozen professional organizations.

The legal implications of relying solely on student evaluations are also a cause for concern. In a case at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University) in 2009, an arbitrator, William Kaplan, acknowledged “serious and inherent limitations” of student evaluations, describing them as “imperfect at best and downright biased and unreliable at worst.” This raises the possibility of legal challenges if colleges continue to use these evaluations as the primary criterion for decision-making.

In response to these issues, Shorter’s own department at UCLA decided to prioritize fairness and reliability. They chose not to rely on student evaluations for job security and instead implemented a system that allowed faculty members to use peer-assessment and self-evaluation, with documented revisions to pedagogical statements. This approach aligns with the principle that academics should be assessed by their peers and experts in their respective fields rather than relying solely on student evaluations.

The New Face of College

As the new academic year begins, the shifting demographics of undergraduates bear acknowledgment. Today’s students are navigating a profoundly altered landscape when it comes to higher education. Coming of age amidst shifting sands, they no longer view
college as a mere rite of passage into adulthood, a perception held by many in previous generations. Instead, higher education has emerged as a perceived bulwark against an unstable future, a necessary tool to secure a foothold in an increasingly competitive market. Armed with a critical eye and a deep-seated desire for value in their educational investment, these students are willing to devote the time and effort necessary to achieve grades that promise to pave a promising pathway into the workforce or further studies, viewing each step as a vital cog in the machinery of their future success.

The metamorphosis in the racial and ethnic composition of American higher education institutions is indeed noteworthy. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there has been a discernible increase in the enrollment rates of several minority groups. In the fall of 2019, it was noted that the proportion of white students enrolled in colleges was around 55.9%, while Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander students represented 20.1% and 7.4% of enrollments, respectively.[1] Furthermore, the number of African American students enrolling has also seen an incremental rise, accounting for 13.2% in the same year. These developments illustrate a promising trajectory towards fostering a more inclusive and diverse educational environment. The progressive shift not only indicates a break from a predominantly white majority but also hints at an enriching academic milieu where perspectives from various backgrounds can converge. This diversification is a cornerstone in preparing students to navigate a globally interconnected world, where understanding and appreciation for diverse cultures and narratives is a critical asset. Continue reading “The New Face of College”

“The Instruction Myth” Revisited

In the vast landscape academia, one constant lingers. The venerated lecture is an historical artifact that traces its origins to the very inception of higher learning. Such a tradition, efficient as it might be for transmitting facts, often falls short in sparking genuine engagement. A growing body of evidence-based research shows that this is arguably the least effective way to generate learning, especially in our digitally charged era where learning has undergone a dramatic metamorphosis.

Our digital age hasn’t just redefined how we retrieve information, but reshaped our very expectations of learning. The omnipresence of online tools and multifaceted communication avenues heralds a marked shift in pedagogy. Brick-and-mortar classrooms, once the sole sanctums of knowledge, are being complemented by, if not at times replaced by, vibrant alternative modalities.

As John Tagg insightfully noted in his now- classic The Instruction Myth: Why Higher Education is Hard to Change, And How to Change It (Rutgers, 2019), established education structures can unwittingly ensnare itself in a misguided “universal solution” mindset. They risk glossing over the rich potentials of diverse learners, their individualized backgrounds, and inclinations. In this milieu, learning that foregrounds students’ individual aptitudes emerges as a promising way forward. Such adaptive approaches beckon a richer, more encompassing educational horizon. Continue reading ““The Instruction Myth” Revisited”

The Fitness Paradox

In the American panorama, fitness culture has taken a front-row seat. Sculpted physiques have become the driving force in our self-image-fueled society. An aesthetic representation of health has hijacked the popular consciousness, becoming not only coveted but also expected. It’s a celebration of the human body, but with its glorification, the “healthy” standard morphs into an unreachable Everest for many.

Couched in the language of possibilities without borders, fitness campaigns shine a spotlight on personal responsibility, with Nike’s “Just Do It” mantra being the poster child for such efforts. It’s not about selling sneakers, it’s about selling the dream that we can all ascend to athletic greatness. Their website continues this narrative, stating, “Your daily motivation with the latest gear, most effective workouts and the inspiration you need to test your limits ––and unleash your potential.”

The push is persuasive, especially for young customers grappling with identity, schooling, or job hunting. Similar slogans resound from the likes of Equinox, LA Fitness, and Shadow Fitness, all tapping into the ethos of self-determination, willpower, and personal growth.

Contrast this landscape with the stark reality: many Americans remain outside this idealized circle of health and fitness, intensifying the quest for better bodies. The message to our ageing, overweight, and unwell population is unequivocal: “get in shape or get left behind.” And this pressure isn’t limited to one demographic; it’s an equal opportunity oppressor, driving men, women, and the non-binary to chase this epitome of health. Fitness obsession seeps into every corner of our lives, from diet plans to gym memberships, from yoga studios to the booming wellness industry. Even giants like Amazon have recognized this lucrative market, snapping up Whole Foods.

Yet, the resources needed to meet these standards often remain out of reach for many, leading to a disturbing dichotomy. Work pressures and financial constraints impede exercise routines and healthy eating for many. As a result, the U.S. is home to a growing population of overweight or obese individuals. The fallout is profound. Studies reveal startling figures: by age thirteen, over half of American girls feel “unhappy with their bodies,” and by seventeen, that number soars to 78%. Extreme measures take the stage with eating disorders affecting young women, with mortality rates 12 times higher than all other causes. The surgical route is also being considered by nearly half of all teens. Men aren’t exempt from this fitness craze either, with 85% yearning for a more muscular frame.

This pursuit of perfection can be traced back to the sense of powerlessness that has seeped into American society. Now more than ever, in the digital era of Twitter and Instagram, these sentiments find a resonance chamber. Fitness becomes a means to cope with insecurity, a way to exert control over one’s destiny.

The desire for self-improvement isn’t inherently bad, but when taken to extremes, it can breed harmful ideologies. This can be seen in our burgeoning fitness culture, where athleticism is becoming a societal norm, connoting virtue and psychological balance. Carl Cederström and André Spicer, in their book “The Wellness Syndrome”, argue that self-improvement culture is transforming optional behaviors into societal expectations. They warn of a looming stigma, where failure to conform to this ideology of good health equates to decreased personal value.

The Good Life

How do you live a “good life”?  It’s a question philosophers have pondered and pollsters still pose. Answers vary a lot, given differences in opinion and the breadth of the issue. What often comes to mind is a definition of happiness or what makes a life satisfying. For most people, the question entails both “self-directed” aspects of personal experience and “other-directed” elements of one’s place among others.[i]  Definitions of the good life can refer to abundance (“luxury, pleasure, or comfort”) or insight (“simplicity, health and morality).”[ii]  Other qualities include freedom or the idea of life as a journey.  This chapter explores how people view and pursue the good life, and what obstacles may stand in their way.

Discussions of the good life date to the ancient Greek concept of eudaimonia, a word commonly translated as “happiness,” “flourishing,” or “well-being.”[iii] Aristotle cast eudaimonia as an aspirational state that individuals could achieve by demonstrating authenticity and virtue in the eyes of the divine. This differed somewhat from the more immediate state of pleasure and enjoyment known as hedonia. As later philosophers gave people more credit for self-determination, enlightenment era figures like René Descartes and Baruch Spinosa linked the good life to a reasoned control of human passions.[iv] Christian interpretations of the good life sometimes gave it a moral character in beliefs that humans were created in God’s image, which is “good” by definition. In this line of thinking, virtue and success in life go hand-in-hand.

Historical figures sometimes made lists to define the good life. Socrates said such a life should follow five principles: temperance, courage, piety, justice, and wisdom.[v] Gautama Buddha spoke of an eightfold path of understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration.[vi] Almost all traditional good life lists had people conforming to widely held doctrines or belief systems, with the “self” cast as an element in a larger plan. In today’s more secular times most people see the good life as a matter of perspective. Unfortunately, this relativization has brought with it a certain emptiness. A simple online search for good life will provide you with a list of “bucket lists” of activities such as traveling or skydiving. Continue reading “The Good Life”

The New You

You’ve probably never heard of TestingMom.com. It’s part of a new generation of test-prep companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review –– except this one is for toddlers. Competition for slots in kindergarten has gotten so intense that some parents are shelling out thousands to get their four-year olds ready for entrance tests or interviews. It’s just one more example of the pressure that got celebrity parents arrested for falsifying college applications a few years ago. In this case the battle is over getting into elite elementary schools or gifted programs. While such admissions pressure is widely known, what’s new is how early it’s occurring. Equity issues aside, the demand to improve performance is being drilled into youngsters before they can spell their names.  All of this bespeaks the competition for grades, school placement, and eventual careers that has transformed the normal impulse to do better into an obsession for students and their families. Much like the drive for perfection, an insatiable hunger to be quicker, smarter, and more acceptable to admissions officers is taking its toll in many ways.

What explains this obsessive behavior? Brain science has been proving what advertising long has known ­–– that wanting something is far more powerful than getting it. School admissions and other markers of success are part of an overarching mental wanting mechanism. That new iPhone might bring a thrill. But soon comes the yearning for an update, a newer model, another purchase. Neuroimaging shows that processes of “wanting” and “liking” occur in different parts of the brain, with the former more broadly and powerfully operating than the latter. This reverses the common wisdom that primal hungers and “drives” underlie human motivation.  Unlike animals, the motor force driving human beings is imagination –– with anticipation of something more important than the experience itself. This partly explains why merchandizing deals more with feeling than facts. Slogans like “Just Do It” and “Think Different” bear no direct relationship to shoes or computers, but instead tingle feelings of desire. In the fuzzy realm emotion pleasure is a fungible currency. Continue reading “The New You”

Update Available: The Algorithmic Self

Bing, Bard, and other bots. The world is rushing headlong into a ChatGPT future. Yet amid the giddy optimism over boundless new capabilities lie deeper questions about how artificial intelligence is reshaping human consciousness. Update Available: The Algorithmic Self (2023) take a critical look at this emerging phenomenon.

 We live in an age of anticipatory dread. Whether growing up or getting ahead, we’re conditioned to believe that faster is better, time is money, and danger lies in falling behind. Updates flourish in such a climate, whether in software, a makeover, or an online profile change.  Update Available: The Algorithmic Self looks at this future-oriented compulsion and the growing automation of human consciousness in an age of artificial intelligence. Increasingly people turn to online technology for health, wealth, and happiness, along the way unconsciously making changes and compromises.  Behind many of these transactions lie yearnings to get more out of life, often amplified these days by feelings of lack or impending loss. Network computing offers instant connections and enhanced capacity, with processing power serving as both means and metaphor.

Update Available is available as a free download from Apple, Barnes & Noble and other major retailers, published as an Open Access Creative Commons book. Other books by David Trend include Welcome to Cyberschool: Education at the Crossroads in the Information Age, Worlding: Media, Identity, and Imagination,  and The End of Reading: From Guttenberg to Grand Theft Auto.   Trend’s popular “Changing Creativity” course is taken each year by over 1000 students throughout the University of California system.

Continue reading “Update Available: The Algorithmic Self”

Find Your Superpower

“How to Find Your Superpower” is among thousands of recent articles, books, and improvement programs about the age-old dream of an updated self. Like others in its genre, the piece offers guidance for achieving “peak performance” through a blend of passion, mastery, and hard work. “The #1 thing you can do is determine your strengths, determine your superpowers,” the authors state in coaching readers to sharpen “a dominant gift an attribute, skill or ability that makes you stronger than the rest:  a difference between you and your coworker.”[i] Find that elusive something, and you are sure to succeed. Pitches like this appear everywhere these days. Witness the massive market for fitness, beauty, self-esteem, and cognitive improvement products. These range from dietary supplements and workout regimes to books, videos, and apps. Amazon is loaded with titles like Your Hidden Superpower, Finding Your Superpower, and the kid’s book What’s My Superpower? [ii]

Juvenile appeals notwithstanding, a consistent theme runs through all these books – that it is up to you alone to find, develop, or somehow acquire missing capacities. Rarely is there a mention of structural advantages or disadvantages in the superpower quest. The impulse to exceed one’s limits has a long history in Western thought, with roots in religious doctrine and philosophy. Some even link enhancement to hard-wired survival instincts. Simply put, people have been augmenting themselves for thousands of years, first by using tools, then by working in groups, and later with machines and technology. From the Enlightenment Era onward, this was seen as humanity’s “natural” impulse for continual improvement and progress. Ongoing developments in science and medicine have intensified this drive, along with the heightened sense of crisis in the 21st century. The result has been a growing mania to become stronger, smarter, and better looking than anyone else. Continue reading “Find Your Superpower”