On the Truth and Importance of “I Told You So”

As millions more become politically engaged in these dark times, there has been a fair amount of Columbusing (discovering what was already there). “This is the beginning of a movement” or “first they came for the immigrants and we said not today.”

It is not the beginning, many black, latinx, native, LGBTQIA activists have been here for decades. And we are on at least the third line of that poem, because first they came for (Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Requia Boyd, Eric Garner, Devin Diamond and the many transgender Americans murdered and ignored, the victims of the Burge Chicago torture site, etc) and we didn’t speak, because we didn’t live in Ferguson or Cleveland or Chicago, we weren’t black and trans, we weren’t in prison or jail. We haven’t spoken, we haven’t truly fought, and we are all complicit.

Celebrating one’s entry into a house that already existed, as if you built it is erasure of efforts of activists who’ve been building at great personal cost for decades, and those already there have been justifiably upset. The messages sometimes take the form of “What took you so long?” and “We’ve been here for years,” and “I told you so.” While I agree with the content of these messages, I also see that they can be counterproductive. The resistance needs all these people, let’s keep coaxing them to more engagement, more marches, more action, more politics. There is lots of work to be done, and reminding us that we don’t really belong because we just got here is going to make it easy for us to return to apathy at the first sign of victory.

obama sign

But even as I want us to carefully nurture and develop a new generation of (yes, white) activists, I hope we don’t brush aside these “I told you so’s.” I hope we can see that what may seem like resentment is a defense of a crucial, central tenet of this movement. If we are truly joining a movement, we must recognize what that movement is up against and where our opposition gets its strength.

Just as this cannot just be a movement that starts against Trump, it cannot end with Trump either. Trump is just one radical and extreme success in the long history of another quite successful movement. That movement is not the shady right wing billionaire families, although they have certainly contributed to its new ascendance. That movement is not the Republican Party in Congress, although it has been entirely captured in a way unprecedented in the modern era.

I suppose we could call this movement a lot of different things, but the label I choose is “white supremacy.” And we new (white) activists must recognize that the opposition is not our President or even his administration, but the movement that made his rise possible. Not just his family’s wealth enabled by racist housing policies in the early 20th century, but his ability to spout racist nonsense conspiracy theories on television for years in the 21st century. Not just his election but the racist gerrymandering, voter suppression laws and the various structural consequences of the historical victories of white supremacy that gave him an edge for victory.

We must fight not just our President’s dark vision of crime and American carnage, but we must also recognize that our own quiet question on whether that elementary school is really “safe” continues to endorse a separate and unequal society. A short-sighted political focus on the white working class in the Midwest pivoting to Trump ignores the massive disparities that empower white supremacy, not just as a force that fuels and emboldens extremists in the Republican Party, but a force against which the Democratic Party knows it can’t win. For example, differential mortality (black people die sooner) is a result of health disparities. These differential mortality rates affect electoral outcomes. A recent study estimated that differential mortality, but would have resulted in nearly 1 million more Democratic votes in 2004, which would not have changed the Presidential result, but could have changed many local elections. Of course there are other examples for other inequalities (wealth, incarceration), we must realize that just as racist attitudes thrive when people live separately, white supremacist political power thrives in a separate and unequal society.

Let me close with this: Some progress is real. The election of Barack Obama happened and represented progress. But at key moments, Obama, just as Lincoln, had to promise not to fight white supremacy. As Sandy Darity and Tressie McMillan Cottom remind us, he kept that promise. He might protest that the constraints of his job and American electoral politics meant he couldn’t. Whether coincidence or reaction, his rise coincided with a new ascendance of unapologetic public white supremacy and empowering of white nationalists within the Republican Party.

So, as one of my activist heroes @prisonculture often says, we need to pick our lanes and fight, whether it be FightFor15, or Medicare4All, canvassing for your local democratic congressperson or calling to oppose a new abhorrent executive order. But let’s also keep our eyes on the prize: a civil society where the institutions fulfill the promises our well-intentioned white leaders have made in the past, where we American patriots ensure that our republic is not separate, but indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. This can only be done by recognizing and joining to fight the movement that has turned back these enlightened aspirations at every turn: white supremacy.

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Free Speech and Fighting Fascism

Three events which presage the world to come and require us to choose which conflicting values we prioritize. Up to now there has been a building uncomfortable stalemate on some of our social tensions, the Trump/Bannon era will escalate these tensions, and require us to be far more active in how we live our values. I think we will have to actively choose which values are most important.

One: Star Brietbart writer, well-known internet troll and fashionable fascist Milo Y goes on a college speaking tour, invited by a conservative student group. At one stop at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he bullies an individual transgender student who had fought to be allowed to use the women’s locker room. He used her dead name, showed pictures of her before her transition, and mocked her while the audience laughed. Expecting awfulness, but not that direct and personal,  she was in the audience. The President of the college wrote a bland apology, and she, Adelaide Kramer wrote a blistering reply.

At another stop on his tour, at the University of Washington, an anti-fascist protestor allegedly punched and stole a MAGA hat from a Milo and Trump supporter. This supporter later found and shot that protestor.

On inauguration night, while giving an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company, white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched by a masked anti-fascist protestor.

The last event (but not the first two) provoked wide debate.  Some argue that it is a bedrock principle of America that free speech should not be met with violence or even threats to violence or giggling at remixes of violence. Other argue that punching Nazis is as American as Captain America and Indiana Jones, and we should celebrate it, honor it and wish for more.

I’ll begin by saying I am generally very supportive of free speech. I think in many cases being uncomfortable can lead to greater learning, and that engaging with people we disagree with, even when they are provocatively extreme. I think arguing with people in good faith makes us both smarter, but also can makes for a better society when we realize our opponent is arguing in good faith with good intentions. And I firmly believe that most of us have good faith. I want my students to confront the best version of the arguments they disagree with (and I want to as well) because it makes for better, smarter arguments and better, stronger democratic society.

Also, I have a hard time with that punching video. I don’t enjoy such violence, and the giddy celebration of it honestly makes me queasy. I have been punched without expecting it on two occasions in my life, once in elementary school, and once from behind in a soccer game in my teens. I find something deeply troubling about sucker punching as political action. I worry about what happens when Nazis are punched, protestors are shot and police escalate violence in order to impose law and order.


I am beginning to be persuaded of the limits of my support of free speech. I am starting to see how free speech has already proven inadequate to protect the vulnerable among us and therefore protect our democracy. Fascist hate speech is a special case, and it demands we recognize the limits of the wonderful self-correcting calculus of free speech. We must deny fascism a platform, punching Nazis is a tactic in service of that goal. This is not a tactic I would normally support, but so many of our normal tactics to contain fascism have failed.

Respect for free speech and engagement doesn’t seem to work with fascism. It doesn’t work when your opponent advocates “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and uses their free speech to bully and harass individual marginalized people and marginalized populations. It doesn’t work when you think you are arguing with an opponent within a framework where you both value the constraints and supports that democratic institutions provide. The proverbial “fire” in a crowded theater is an inadequate metaphor. Insidious fascist free speech is “the type of people in this theater are a unique threat and should be encouraged to leave… these race or religion or sexuality of people who are a danger to our society do not belong in “our” society” … “they are not leaving so we need to take steps to remove them…” This speech uses its platform not to confirm the place of democratic institutions, but to undermine them.

I strongly believe that universities are special places. I believe students should be allowed to say stupid things while they are learning, and that teachers (and guest speakers) should be able to say provocative things and study provocative topics. I often feel that the correct answer to provocative, but misguided free speech is more, well-guided speech. But what about when free speech is not just intolerant individual bullying and harassment, but argues for drastically expanding and energizing discrimination by race, religion or gender? I can’t help but feel that such speech deserves special recognition and a new set of tools to combat it, because blanket support of free speech and tolerance of opposing views fails to contain hate.

I think the critical missing link in our dialogue about free speech (and punching Nazis) is the rise of hate speech and our lack of realization that society does not simply need to protect free speech, but to specifically and positively protect the vulnerable. Nazi-punchers and protestor-shooters (there will be more, how could there not?) are not merely bad actors to ignore and trust the system to address. This escalation of the stakes of free speech debate is a reminder of the consequences of our collective failure to deny hate a platform as it was building it. Now that the head of Brietbart, Stephen Bannon, is a top White House advisor, we are witnessing what happens when we allow fascists to hijack free speech.

I find Milo’s speech at that University of Wisconsin rally and the email from Adelaide Kramer alternately both chilling and inspiring. First, chilling. This is specifically targeting an individual vulnerable student for embarrassment, ridicule and worse from someone who is known to specialize in such harassment in the past. Adelaide Kramer did not need “#UWMStandsTogether” as the UW-M President Mone wrote. She needed her community to realize that to protect the legitimacy and viability of their institution, they needed to deny fascism a platform. They needed to realize that their responsibility to protect the vulnerable members of their community needed to overwhelm their understandable devotion to free speech. “Celebrating diversity” (as the President’s letter advises) invites fascists like Milo in, and will prove to be wholly inadequate for fighting the incredible power our country has granted them especially if we treat their speech as equal and protected.

Let me pause for a second and offer some evidence to my claim that transgender Americans are vulnerable and need protection. To some this may be self-evident, but let’s look hard at what it means to be marginalized in our society. A survey of transgender Americans was released in December. 27,715 people completed it. For a group that is a relatively small percentage of the US population, this is an incredibly large number of respondents. One in ten reported that a family member was violent towards them because of their transgender status. Forty percent report having attempted suicide. Roughly one in three reported having experienced homelessness. Another report estimated that 1 in 2600 young black trans women are murdered, more than 10 times the overall rate for that age. Milo uses a slur to identify Adelaide and mentions that this makes him politically incorrect, but this survey shows that his casual disgust of transgender Americans is not about hurt feelings, but represents a callousness about people’s safety and their very lives.  These people do not need more free speech, they need a society that accepts them as full citizens and protects their access to public goods and public laws. This survey is a reminder that this is not the case.

So, here’s my worry, and my prediction: if we continue to value free speech so absolutely that it overwhelms other values, such as protecting the vulnerable, many people who have experienced their misery being ignored, will now see it openly mocked and celebrated. More of them, and their supporters, will start to think it is time to punch the fascists who have taken this next step. This will leave the rest of us (the well-intentioned neglecters) with a choice, do we decide to protect the vulnerable and their allies, who have lashed out violently? Or do we opt for law and order in the empty hopes that justice will come later? I don’t think there is any doubt which path the current government will take. Many have already said “it is much too early to punch fascists.” After all, we are not at war (yet). But when that side treats advocates of a tolerant, civil and democratic society as the enemy, I worry it might be too late.

Let me close with the inspiring part. The kind of bravery that I want to celebrate, the kind of bravery I want us to stand up and notice, is in Adelaide Kramer’s email to the Chancellor of UW-Milwaukee (and cc’ing hundreds). In all her cussing fury, she is fighting for her rights, but also fighting for a just and equitable society which grants equal citizenship to all its members, recognizing when some need protection. But we need to deserve her bravery. We need to deserve her hope. We must do so by fighting for her, and when we do so, we are fighting to preserve the very institutions that support the free speech we claim to value.

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Colorblindness is Racism

I started with a provocative headline, but I have come to believe that this is a necessary approach if we want to design policies and systems that bend the arc of our moral universe towards justice.

Let me start with a thought experiment. Say you have a large building which, for some weird historical reason, needs its electrical system updated on the eastern half of the building. This will be a long and inconvenient process for many of the building’s denizens. One of the unfortunate consequences of this update will be that even though it is winter, all of the bathrooms in the eastern half of the building will be without heat for weeks at a time.  Bummer! As a manager in such a building, you would of course apologize and ask for people’s understanding. It is still possible to use the bathrooms, they will just be quite cold. All of us building citizens are in this together, and this completely arbitrary east-west distinction means some of us are unlucky. Our eastern colleagues can exit the building and use the bathrooms in the portable trailer (taking about 15 minutes), or they can also walk across the building to use the bathrooms on the western half of the building (taking about 10 minutes). Ok, so far so good. But out of the blue, some troublemaker calls this poor building manager sexist! How could this be? As it turns out, again, through some sort of weird historical accident, (maybe back in the 50s the secretarial pool was on the eastern half and the manager’s offices were on the western half, not such a strange thing) all of the women’s bathrooms are on the eastern half of the building and the men’s bathrooms on the western half. Through no ill intent on behalf of the manager (who could in fact be a woman herself) this perfectly normal maintenance procedure is all of a sudden bogged down in controversy.

Hopefully you would stop me and say, “Cedar, no competent building manager would be ignorant of that last fact, that the women’s bathroom are all on the eastern half. Their intent might be good, but they would know which bathrooms are which and act accordingly. For example, they wouldn’t suggest walking across the building if all of the restrooms on the other half were mens’ bathrooms.”

And I would agree. But it doesn’t affect the big message of my story.

Let’s recap just to make the dimensions of my metaphor clear: The building manager has no sexist intent, indeed, has good intentions, just wants to update the building. The building is designed (as every building is) incorporating seemingly weird historical accidents. But, despite this good intent, the outcome of this update (based on the weird historical accident, not the building manager’s intent) will be extreme inconvenience (40 degree toilet seats or a 15 minute walk) for a specific subpopulation of the building (women) who also just happened to have historically struggled for equal consideration, both in this very building as well as society at large.

Moral: When the discriminatory outcomes of our policies are known or even knowable, we should pay attention to the outcomes, and make particular efforts to address these outcomes.

So, to return to my provocative title, I see no benefit in restricting the incendiary term “racist” to the unknowable intentions and motivations of leaders and great benefit to identifying racism (and discrimination) in knowable outcomes and effects. We need to recognize identity politics because we have always had it.

When the discriminatory effects of what we now treat as weird historical accidents are knowable, taking an approach which ignores those outcomes and ignores that history is worthy of being labeled as discrimination and addressed as such.

Because in fact, our history is not as full of accidents as a colorblind approach would lead us to believe. Huh, all the black people just happen to live on the side of town with fewer municipal services, weird. Huh, the school that the black children go to has a crumbling building and doesn’t have money for books, weird. The white leaders of 100 years ago, of 80 years ago, of 60 years ago designed this society. The white male executives of those buildings approved those plans and even changed them. Our society, like that building, did not just happen but had choices and architects.

Returning to our unrealistically ignorant building manager, you would no doubt agree that being unaware of which bathrooms were men’s and which were women’s would not qualify as simple even-handed naivete: “I don’t see gender.” No, that would be willful ignorance. But the same is now true for many of our policies. We know that raising the retirement age to 69 would have a disparate impact. We know our schools are separate and unequal. With a President who avoids intelligence briefings, denies science, and appoints Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Rick Perry for Secretary of Energy, we are entering an age of willful ignorance.

It is time we recognized that colorblindness is not a form of fairness, but a form of ignorance. The opposite of colorblindness is not “special treatment” but awareness of history and awareness of the outcomes of our rules and policies. I am not sure what consequences this awareness will have. Is that 15-minute walk to the outside trailer an acceptable and adequate step? Should men’s bathrooms be temporarily reclassified? But the first step is acknowledging that the burdens of these changes will be borne unequally. Just as this history wasn’t blind to this, if we want to make our future more just, we need to design policies that counteract racism (and other forms of discrimination), not those that ignore it.

In other words, if we want justice, we need identity politics. If we want liberty, we need identity politics, because limits to liberty have never been colorblind. For a thorough extension of this point with regards to the causes and outcomes of the current election, read this great post by Jacob T. Levy.  Levy is no Bernie Sanders liberal, but a libertarian who was a vocal Gary Johnson supporter before the election. I’d love to quote more, but here is a good paragraph:

If you think—as I think any liberal who cares about liberty, whether classical, market, neo-, welfarist, Rawlsian, or whatever, must—that the combination of mass incarceration and aggressive policing amounts to a grave injustice, then you need to be able to think in race-conscious terms. What brought about this crisis? The war on drugs and police militarization, some readers will say. Okay, but what brought about the war on drugs and police militarization? The answer isn’t some simple intellectual mistake. The answer is deeply tied up in American racial politics.

This is not a partisan issue, if we want to design good policy with fair and positive outcomes, we need to acknowledge that to a country with our history, colorblindness is racism.


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Learning the Wrong Lessons from Newtown

It is four years since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, and we’ve had the benefit of extensive investigation and reflection. Many of the open questions in those horrible moments and days after the shooting have been answered, but we are ignoring the uncomfortable truths these answers present us with. There are lessons to be gained from Sandy Hook, but we refuse to learn them.

First, we’ve enacted no large policy changes either in controlling who gets their hands on guns, or in the delivery of mental health services. Second, advocacy efforts are focusing on useless and uncontroversial awareness raising instead of confronting the tangled root of causes of gun violence.  Organizations such as the Sandy Hook Promise try to avoid confrontation with gun advocates, opting instead for a focus on prevention and gun safety by identifying at-risk individuals and intervening before they turn violent. From the mission of the Sandy Hook Promise:

3. Developing and Delivering Mental Health & Wellness Programs that identify, intervene and help at-risk individuals and gun safety practices that ensure firearms are kept safe and secure.

The approach of the Sandy Hook Promise highlights a decentralized, grass-roots, “we can do it together” spirit together with ubiquitous (and useless) awareness raising. The message is clear: this is not about improving institutions (we should have more school nurses, psychologists and counselors) or controversial policies with big downsides (“health professionals should be more empowered to provide mental health treatment to children over their parents wishes” or “it should be easier for the legal system to strip your rights to own a gun” – these might help limit gun violence, but at considerable cost). No, the policy recommendations at the end of the awareness raising are promised to be bland and unconfrontational: sensible mental health & wellness and gun safety laws. I wonder what “wellness laws” will look like. I bet they will cost nothing but a few consultants educating teachers on how to meditate with their students. Which is all well and good, but has precious little to do with gun violence.

The approach of the Sandy Hook Promise is encapsulated in a viral video they recently produced. An emotionally manipulative and clever video with a twist ending leaves us with a clear message: “If everyday people would pay closer attention to warning signs, we can prevent school shootings before they happen.” But this is plainly not the case, for gun violence in the aggregate, as social psychologist Sanjay Srivastava notes below, or in the particular case of Sandy Hook.

We are not going to stop mass shootings by catching more “signs.” The base rates of mass shootings are too low and the purported signs not specific enough. The science is very sound on this: http://nymag.com/…/…/10/gun-control-is-the-only-way-out.html

The solution is sensible control of high-firing-rate, high-capacity weapons like AR-15s. Profiling and detection are routinely trotted out by the gun lobby as an alternative to deflect from that. I am disappointed to see the Sandy Hook name on this.

The evidence in the Sandy Hook case also plainly contradicts the effectiveness of this approach. The decidedly un-viral report from the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate, reported in the Hartford Courant in 2014 and expertly analyzed by Patrick Blanchfield. This report and Blanchfield’s essay make clear: the Sandy Hook massacre was emphatically not what this new viral video implies: an “at-risk” youth who slipped through the cracks of a troubled system, unnoticed by peers and authority figures alike. No, the perpetrator repeatedly triggered red flags with disturbing behavior. His mother repeatedly ignored medical advice, and the schools, hospitals and officials who she had contact with were unwilling or unable to change her mind or enforce treatment that was plainly in her son’s best interest.

“This shooting could have been stopped at any point along the trajectory of [Adam Lanza’s] life,” said Scarlett Lewis, whose son Jesse was one of the first-graders killed in classrooms in the Sandy Hook Elementary School. “Red flags were evident, yet procedures were not in place to effectively deal with the issues. This is a systemic concern.”

Of course it is tempting to view Sandy Hook through a colorblind lens. Because the perpetrator was white and the victims were overwhelmingly white, it seemed unnecessary to even refer to their race. Racial animus obviously had nothing to do with Newtown, and through our tears we could all be relieved that this horrible event didn’t have that always complicating American dimension. I wrote about it at the time and didn’t mention race at all. But luckily Blanchfield (who’s consistently incisive on the gun violence issue) clarifies that race is a critical element of this story. The report and the video should also convince us that we ignore the racial element of this tragedy at our peril. Let’s look again at a seemingly throw-away line in the Hartford Courant story:

At times, the report said, school officials in Newtown failed to comply with legal requirements in their handling of Adam.

Reasoned analyses of “we need more careful procedures” or “we need better policies so that these kids don’t fall through the cracks” should look carefully at this line. There were laws that were not followed. There were procedures that were not adhered to. Exceptions were made. This is the problem with “this is a systemic concern.” Without realizing how racism infects our systems, we’ll design better systems, but then continue to make racist exceptions. No single person in this system has to be a deplorable bigot for small assumptions to be made, again and again, about the agency and competency of a wealthy white mother looking out for her son’s best interest. These exceptions need not be the results of the extreme prejudice of individuals, but they are not accidents.  “She seemed so on top of things” because she was a wealthy and well-dressed white women, despite considerable indications of her own dysfunction. The outright bigotry of proud white supremacists such as Richard Spencer or Dylan Roof is no doubt strong evidence of the endurance of extreme racism in our country. But Nancy Lanza’s white privilege in navigating schools, hospitals and shooting ranges with her severely disturbed son is the other side of the coin of the nameless thousands of young black boys and men who are quickly shuffled into the prison system through school misbehavior.

So let’s return to the viral video, its own clear blind spots now revealed. Do we need to be more vigilant against these signs?

What will more vigilance result in? I would guess more criminalizing of the misbehavior of black students, who are already seen as more threatening, and continued rule-bending for white students. Read about the collective disturbance that led one disturbed white man to go to Comet Pizza armed to the teeth. Read this extraordinary paragraph:

But Welch had another habit. He was arrested several times on drug-possession charges and his name appeared on a forged prescription, according to police ­records. He was convicted of marijuana possession and public drinking and was sent to a ­substance-abuse program.

The problem is not just the fake news which distorts his mind, but the whiteness which protects and arms him through his numerous run-ins with the law. Also read Ijeoma Oluo on why pizzagate is a lie but what it says about our society is real.

Why does the viral video particularly frustrate me? Because it represents a disturbing trend, in which we collapse systemic political and sociological problems into psychological ones. The Connecticut Child Advocate report lays out massive complicated systemic failures. But the video uses a familiar psychological trick, demonstrating our limited attention to suggest that improving our attention can help prevent gun violence.

Gun violence is preventable, if you know the signs.

I love new examples of inattentional blindness. I use them in my classes to talk about attention. This one for bike safety is ok I guess (but now that I think about it, more bike lanes and enforcing right-of-way laws probably saves more cyclists than telling people to “look out for cyclists.”) Even as I am a cognitive psychologist who advocates for psychology’s relevance to policy and everyday life, I think it is critical to note where cognitive psychology falls short as a way to understand and improve social problems. The role of race and racism in gun violence is not an example of inattentional blindness (“if you know the signs”), but rather examples of our willful ignorance of the institutional and political ground that these signs are planted in.



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Professor, Heal thyself! On unprofessionalism and lack of empathy in (complaints about) student emails

A recent op-ed in the Guardian, entitled “I’m not LMAO at ridiculous student emails” lodges a familiar complaint: students don’t know how to communicate with professors in a professional manner, flaunting reasonable social codes and ignoring professors busy lives outside the classroom. Such ignorance and lack of decorum will surely hinder these students future efforts in the workplace.

The bitter irony is that in nearly all of these pieces (and there are many) the professor  sorely lacks the very qualities they bemoan as deficient in their students.

Lack of professionalism: Here I am guided by Siva Vaidhyanathan’s idea that “the classroom is a sacred space.” If students can’t feel safe enough to express what is wrong or incomplete about their thinking, their learning experience will be needlessly limited and deficient.  If a professor never gets to see what students know, don’t know, and what they know which isn’t so, then the professor is merely sending a golden record out into the great unknown, hoping students are learning, but never knowing for sure. Even if we regard our job as conveying knowledge, we need to respect the inevitable ignorant failures of our students and not take student work in a semi-private, and yes, sacred, space, whether in the classroom, on a test or paper, and mock it in a public forum. Mocking student work or communication to a professor in a public forum is unprofessional and reflects poorly on how a professor regards the learning process and their role in it. Is it good practice to anonymize student writing and then mock it in front of the class? Of course not. Why is it then ok to do the same in front of a much larger audience of a national newspaper? Do you want to improve student writing? Teach them how to write a better sentence, don’t chuckle at their ignorance on twitter. Do you want to improve student’s emails? Teach them how to write a better one. Don’t publish their private communication to you in the newspaper, anonymous or not. Just a year ago, Jesse Stommel’s response to the Chronicle Vitae’s Dear Student series makes many similar points, but also emphasizes the necessity of empathy. For Stommel and many others, empathy is a critical part of the profession of teaching.

Lack of empathy: While professors bemoan that students don’t seem to understand that professors are people too (people who hate emojis, aren’t up at 2 am, and don’t respond to emails on weekends). Here is the Guardian writer:

The ultimate email, now legendary in my office, was from a postgraduate student on the day of her viva. We’d spent weeks trying to coordinate the meeting, getting the right people from different campuses to the same place at the same time. We managed to schedule half an hour, and impressed upon the student how important it was that we started promptly at noon. We waited, waited some more, and after a full 15 minutes an email arrived: “Running late. Put a potato in the oven for lunch and it isn’t ready yet.”

Disrespect is one thing, but when someone prioritises a baked potato over you, it feels like contempt.

According to Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but I can assure you, this potato is not just a potato. The professor who complains that students don’t understand basic social considerations doesn’t seem to know the first thing about the psychology of being a student. A postgraduate student on the day of her viva is a nervous wreck. I assume like in the US, this is an in-person oral exam with a committee of impressive faculty with the express purpose of judging one’s work and merits as a scholar. A postgraduate student who has been “impressed upon” the importance of a meeting is not prioritising a baked potato. That student is a mess. A student who has worked hard for years in a field, gaining expertise, passing exams, demonstrating readiness in many ways (you didn’t let that student schedule a viva without helping prepare her, did you?) was so nervous she couldn’t get to the ultimate moment on time. You could have taken that student aside and said, “You’ve worked so hard, it’s going to be fine, we’re on your side. Anxiety is natural, but you’ve practiced and people get through this.” But no, you made that embarrassing call for help “legendary in your office,” and now decided that the student deserved wider embarrassment. That, to me, looks more like contempt than wasting 15 minutes of you and your colleagues time and following it up with a obviously meager excuse.

Lack of understanding of the changing nature of communication: When I entered college in 1994 the web was young. There was no Facebook (not even Friendster yet), no Google,  and one of the most popular websites, Yahoo, looked like this.

Yahoo.com, circa December 1996

Most people did not have cell phones, so there was no texting. Since then, Facebook went from nothing, to something only Ivy League college students had access to, to something the world uses for social and professional networking and communication.  I’ve seen professional collaborations begin on Twitter. When I talk with one of my twin boys, who are 12, he tells me that he follows CNN on Snapchat. Yet we professors too often think that the social conventions of professional communication change as slowly as we do. So a professor who thinks it should be obvious to a student to not to use emojis? Probably doesn’t understand that before college, students are likely to have at least one teacher who has used emojis in a communication with them. A professor who assumes it is ridiculous that a student writes an email as if texting? Probably doesn’t realize that there are now systems (like Remind, or Celly) that intentionally blur that distinction, so that a teacher can send an email which appears to students as a text, or students can text which gets routed to a teacher’s email. Young students have even experienced change in communication rules, when Grandma starts texting, or Dad gets on instagram. Students don’t recognize that line not just because they are ignorant, but sometimes because they have a more varied experience than most professors. So when a student defaults to informality, it may be because keeping the different communications preferences of every adult in their lives is nearly impossible, and the world has just as often adjusted to their preferences as the other way around (as has been true for every generation time immemorial).

Further, when professors see shorthand communication as inherently informal and disrespectful, they are ignoring that such shorthand is a common and logical adaptation of language. It was common in Morse code to use shorthand such as: “Hw r u ts mng?” And the answer would be: “I’m pty wl; hw r u?” Taking student communication seriously as a complex adaptation rather than ignorant carelessness might be a good first step in helping them learn to communicate with us. The linguist John McWhorter puts it well in his TED Talk on why text language is no cause for alarm:

Let’s think about it. LOL is being used in a very particular way. It’s a marker of empathy. It’s a marker of accommodation. We linguists call things like that pragmatic particles. Any spoken language that’s used by real people has them. 

The first step towards teaching students must be by understanding and respect what they bring to the learning process, whether it is vocabulary or background knowledge, cultural approaches or misconceptions. Taking student communication seriously is a great first step.

So what would a compassionate, professional and understanding approach to fixing the “student email problem?” look like? There are some good resources out there in the deep scold sea, but here are the basic outlines of mine:

It would begin early in the semester with a short: “This is how you can communicate with me and what you can expect from me.” Along with recognizing that some of our communication rules might be idiosyncratic, it might be useful to students to identify some rules of thumb for communicating with all professors. For example I tell my students that a generally safe, respectful and gender-neutral salutation is “Dear Professor <spellsmynameright>,”  and that “hey” is never appropriate for a first email to a professor. I’m a psychologist, so I also use this as an excuse to highlight James Pennebaker’s fascinating work on psycholinguistics of pronouns.

Second, such a lesson is sadly not a universally effective vaccine against future cases of the HeySorryLOLs. Students will still send inappropriate emails, often informally joking about a failure of theirs, missing class, assignments, etc. When this happens, I see two choices: One, send back an email noting that while you are sympathetic to the students unfortunate and perhaps misspelled experiences, this is not the appropriate way to communicate with professors, and that attendance in class is important for their learning. I tend to think modeling appropriate communication while valuing and prioritizing their learning is the best course here.

A second option would be to ask the student to come meet in person. I tend to think that the more ridiculous the email, the more important it is to choose this option. Ms. Potato didn’t need mockery, she needed a mentor to both reassure her on her general competence and preparedness as well as note (in a firm and concerned way) that such tardiness and excuses might have lasting consequences to her credibility in future circumstances.

I agree with the closing of the Guardian op-ed arguing that universities should teach students to write better emails when they don’t know how. But along the way we should recognize that just as small potatoes make poor excuses, public mockery makes poor pedagogy.

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Teaching #TheDress : Resources for Teachers on the Psychology behind the Dress

Here is the original post, 27 million views and counting.

Here is Virginia Hughes with an explanation based in part on my contributions.

Here are some general resources on perception and illusions

  • Michael Bach has a great website with many illusions, demonstrations and explanations.
  • I keep a bunch of illusion and perception bookmarks that you can browse on pinboard.in (bookmarking for introverts, perfect for me).
  • A recent issue of the excellent new science magazine, Nautilus, was devoted to illusions. Here is a nice exploration of many ambiguous figures from that issue by Tom Vanderbilt.

Here are some resources for learning more about the perception behind the dress

  • A very good explanation from Steven Pinker, seems to be targeted at his Introductory Psychology class at Harvard.
  • Pascal Wallisch with a more in-depth explanation of visual ambiguity and how it relates to your perception of this dress.
  • Stephen Macknik is a perceptual psychologist, whose work includes a lot of great studies on illusions, and popularizing illusions and what they tell us about our eyes and minds. He thinks that the differences in dress perception are mostly optical and photographic, and the differences between people are actually rather mundane (scientifically). I’m not sure I agree, but I do find it an interesting perspective, in that what drove the millions of people crazy about this dress was not that their perception was different than reality, but that their perception was different than the person sitting right next to them. Paul Ford points this putting people on two teams as one of the three vital ingredients of the virality of the dress is putting people on two teams (the other two are magic and science).
  • An explanation and perspective from a colorist (artist who mostly colors comics) Nathan Fairbarn. Some really great visual explanations here (variations in lighting, variations in dress images), as you would expect from an artist. But also really well done from a perceptual science point of view.

Broader implications (and why this isn’t just about a dress)

  • For teachers of social studies or other social sciences, Sydette Harry has a great explanation of why this isn’t just a trivial illusion, but a great exploration of how we see the world differently that has consequences for our discussions of big social issues when we have to agree on a reality. As she says

The question is really “how do we create reality in collaboration with the people around us?” — not “what color is the dress?” The latter has a simple answer: It’s blue. But every now and again, it’s nice to talk about serious questions through a topic that’s anything but.

  • Pascal Wallisch also has an excellent follow-up post, titled “Why DressGate matters” laying out why it is not trivial and has broader implications for human perception and cognition. I agree, this is not just a cool instance of a known phenomena (which is sort of is) it is interesting from a scientific perspective as well.

On individual differences in perception, not just the illusion itself:

  • Large facebook study on what people mention in their posts about the dress. If someone mentioned #blueandblack but not #goldandwhite, the facebook data team assumed which way they saw it, then crunched a bunch of other numbers to try to find relationships between gender, age, time and day and device type.
  • Vaughan Bell was (rightfully) dissatisfied that all the “science of the dress” posts only explain how people perceive color and brightness in general and could see different things in this image, not why a given person would perceive it in the way that they do.

Ok, that’s a start. Please leave your own links in the comments. I will keep updating this throughout today.

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The way you saw that dress, what a mess, I confess: A cognitive psychologist sees a dress

The internet was finally broken yesterday, not by a West or a Kardashian, nor by Beliebers, but rather by disbelievers. #TheDress, in which some people see blue/black, some people see white/gold, some people see blue/gold, and some people, no … seriously? It’s blue and black. How could you? Are your eyes working ok? The disbelief is how different humans could see the same thing something as straightforward as a picture of a dress in such remarkably different ways. I’m pretty happy to have played a small role.

The journalists of the internet (and everyone else) frantically searched for experts who could tell them why this was (i.e.: why they were right about the dress, and why their spouse was horribly horribly wrong).  I think this is a great lens to see some important disconnects between science and the public. But first I’ll explain a bit of what scientists know about the dress.

Perception is a way more complex process than most people realize. Whenever you see the color of anything, you have to judge the color of the surface as well as the color of the light. We walk around mostly aware of the colors of surfaces, but in fact, our eyes are always deciding where the illumination is coming from, as well as what color and how bright it is. Our brains do this effortlessly, as in the famous Adelson checkershadow illusion below:

See here for how to check that those two squares are the same color gray.

But wait, there’s more. Not only do we decide what color is the illumination and what color is the surface, but we also have to decide what color is the medium between the surface and our eyes. Look at this chess piece illusion from Anderson and Winnower (2005), also referred to in this article by Alan Gilchrist.*

Both sets of chess pieces are the same, because we see white pieces under black clouds in the top figure, but black figures under white clouds in the bottom figure. Not only are we deciding what kind of light hits the pieces, and how reflective the pieces themselves are, but we are also deciding what that light does between the chess pieces and our eyes. In other words, from one set of color values (what gets into our eyes) we are reconstructing a rich set of layers of light, surfaces and media.

So that tells us how we perceive color in general, but it doesn’t answer the particular question in front of us. Why do some people see the dress one way and others another way? Believe it or not, most perceptual scientists I’ve seen reacting mostly shrug. We know contrast can matter, we know it matters what you saw before, we know the angle of your screen matters, we know where you look first can matter. But why do you see this particular dress this way and other people see it differently? For that, many of us are often fine to chalk it up to some element of randomness. Some people see white/gold some people see blue black and some people flip. We are happy to do this because this image, like many similar illusions, sits on a fine edge between two perceptual interpretations. We perceptual psychologists are perfectly fine with this, because we accept the idea that the process of perception results in likely interpretations, not in a perfect mirror of reality. For people who know that perception is often a process of judgment and interpretation, it is not surprising when people see differently. For those who think they see reality, the idea that there are two realities is pretty mind-blowing. But for vision scientists, that’s old news. In fact, the point is not that there are two realities, or even that there is one (the dress is blue and black under most illuminations) but there are two interpretations of the same reality, which supports each of those interpretations.

So, there is a mismatch between scientists who are happy to try to explain the general case (how do we judge the relative colors and brightness of surfaces under different illumination) but shrug at the particulars and many fascinated dress viewers who shrug at the general (luminosity? isn’t that a brain training site?) but want to know why they see it the way that they do but their friend doesn’t (he has blue eyes maybe?)  But there is also a mismatch between scientists and the public (and even between scientists of different fields) on what constitutes an explanation.

Notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the physics of light or biology of the eye or brain yet. To me, the correct way of explaining our perception of this dress need not refer to the wavelengths of light, or our different cones, or color opponent processes in the retina or color processing in the visual cortex, but to the features of this image and how our visual system as a whole interprets it. You can explain many illusions without reference to particular neurons. Indeed, many other illusions, even the Hermann grid, might seem to be simple consequences of how our neurons are organized, instead turn out to be too complex to explain with neurons, leaving us just saying “we see it this way in this situation and this other way in this other situation.” Yes, my thinking is informed by visual neuroscience, but I know enough to know that we don’t have a neuroscientific understanding of these kinds of illusions, we have a much better psychological explanation.

I know I shouldn’t be, but the ubiquity of neuroscientific terms despite the paucity of neuroscientific explanations is why I am a bit grumpy when I read that “this is all about our brains.” Of course it is: everything is made of atoms too, but that doesn’t make me turn to a physicist to explain why cake is delicious.  That our brains help us see doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the mechanism of this kind of illusion. Neuroscience doesn’t predict that if you focus in a different part of the scene, or adjust the contrast that might flip your perception of the dress. Perceptual psychology does. Alan Gilchrist was trained as a psychologist. Edward Adelson was trained as a psychologist. Bart Anderson, the lead author on that chess piece illusion paper, is also a psychologist, whose expertise on perceptual processes helps him explore illusions in human perception, but also consulting on perception and illusions in other animals, such as in the case of the fascinating architectural craftsmanship of bowerbirds.

Why do I care? Why can’t I just let the brainy goodness wash over me and bathe in its credibility-inducing glow? Because high expectations of neuroscience and low expectations of psychology have real world consequences. When people like Tom Coburn wants to get rid of social and behavioral science at the National Science Foundation, he wants to to get rid of psychology but keep neuroscience. Ultimately, this will not just undermine our understanding of dresses, but of many other situations where psychology is a better guide than neuroscience, like eyewitness testimony, or prejudice or health behavior. So, next time you are interested in a mental or perceptual phenomenon, ask a cognitive psychologist (and don’t be afraid to label them as such). Our brains will thank you.


*Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed the chesspiece illusion to Gilchrist. Check out Bart Anderson’s webpage for many more great demos and illusions.

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Four thoughts about Student Evaluations (occasioned by sexism in RateMyProfessor.com)

This post is occasioned by Ben Schmidt’s wonderful tool for exploring gender differences on words used in student evaluations on RateMyProfessor.

1. RateMyProfessor is a huge, but awful data set. Why awful? First, I’d bet that well under 1% of the students who take a course rate the professor on RateMyProfessor. For example, I went to graduate school in the department of psychology at University of Virginia. Many of the professors there have taught many many students in their careers.  I would guess that 90% of the department has taught at least 1000 students, with many in the several thousands. Even professors who have only been there for 5 years are likely to have taught large General Psychology classes of 200 or so, in addition to smaller seminars. The most rated professor has 90 ratings, with most having fewer than 50. My adviser, a dedicated and decorated professor, with numerous teaching awards, had 33 ratings. Second, those students that go on RateMyProfessor are not a random sample, but will tend to include more students who are upset about having their expectations dashed, or students who really loved the class. I’m sure there are a few students out there who are dedicated and fill out RateMyProfessor for all their professors, but I’d still imagine the sample of student evaluations on this site are horribly biased. Third, this isn’t all colleges, but a sample, likely weighted by which schools are heavy users of RateMyProfessors. Ben has a graph of the top 50 schools here.

2. Even given that caveat, I think it is still really interesting to explore, and to note the differences (and similarities) among disciplines, not just across genders. For example, look at “good” where the gap between male and female occurs in every discipline by about the same amount. But then look at “caring” where different fields are different. Health sciences, math and chemistry have more females noted as caring, so does philosophy. But look at political science and music. Huh. You can also see huge across the board differences with “brilliant.” Another interesting one where there is a near constant difference across all fields: “we.”

3. Words aren’t always what they seem. The word “genius” has a huge gender difference, highlighted in this New York Times piece. While the implication that men are perceived as smarter is hard to miss (and a common finding of this kind of research, from other areas of ratings as well), it makes me think of the specific circumstances of student evaluations. I tend to think of mentions of “genius” or the intelligence of a professor as negative indicators of teaching quality. “He understands many things I do not understand” is all well and good when you are hiring somebody, but not when that person is supposed to be teaching you.  A student should be amazed by what they came to know (how much I learned) not how much a teacher already knew. Yes, it is possible that a student is amazed by the blinding intelligence of a teacher, and also amazed by how much they were taught, but I’d argue more often than not a student remarks upon the genius of their professor when the professor has demonstrated their own intelligence rather than make the student confident in their own ability to learn.

4. Student evaluations are mostly measures of student feelings, not of student learning. I’d argue that these are sometimes correlated, but not nearly as closely as we might like to think. RateMyProfessor leans in to this, by asking for three ratings: Helpfulness, Clarity and Easiness. While these are good indicators of student feelings, they can run counter to student learning. Both easiness and clarity can indicate that a course felt smooth, with little cognitive or emotional struggle. Some students value challenge and struggle, and recognize that they are necessary steps on the path to learning, but others do not, and if they don’t feel a resolution to their discomfort during the class, they will vent on the evaluations.

5. The big data approach is worthwhile and interesting, but so is the small data. I’d urge higher ed journalists to take some time to read a hundred or so random comments on RateMyProfessors.com. Many reflect more on the student than on the professor. Some kinds of comments are unfortunately quite common:

Hard if you do not read textbook

have to read the book thoroughly in order to get a decent grade

No attendance policy, which is helpful

Don’t sleep in class. He hates that.

But every now and then you can see that a student was challenged, but felt adequately supported and learned a lot. From my reading of RateMyProfessors (and of my own evaluations) this is not as common as most observers of this kind of data acknowledge.


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Conference Blogging from the American Psychological Convention

Hello loyal readers,

Today and tomorrow I will be conference blogging (and livetweeting) from the American Psychological Association Annual Convention.

Please tune in over there, here is the blog, and my first post on the diversity of psychology.

More to follow, stay tuned.



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5 truths about character and poverty that David Brooks has too much self-control to grasp

My David Brooks posts tend to be blockbusters (tens of hundreds of viewers!) so I am leaning in and going full listicle for this rant about his latest column, which in Brooksian fashion puts a modern social scientific sheen on old conservative ideas of blaming poor people for laziness lack of character and recommending solutions to social problems through education , rather than “addressing the material deprivation of the poor.” He claims to be inspired by this article by Richard Reeves, of the Brookings Institution, but I have a suspicion that David Brooks may have been mostly inspired by David Brooks.

1) Asking people why they behaved a certain way (and asking other people why they didn’t) is a naive approach to social science. Richard Reeves cites the findings of a panel convened to explain the August 2011 London riots.

Nonetheless, at Clegg’s insistence a Riots Communities and Victims Panel was established. The members gathered evidence, visited affected neighborhoods, and then offered advice to the government. The panel’s conclusion was that the decisive factor behind the riots was not lack of money or even morality, but lack of character.

The panel spoke not only to young people who had taken part in the disturbances, but also, crucially, to hundreds who could have but did not. “In asking what it was that made young people make the right choice in the heat of the moment, the Panel heard of the importance of character,” the nonpartisan group concluded. “A number of attributes together form character, including self-discipline, application, the ability to defer gratification and resilience in recovering from setbacks. Young people who develop character will be best placed to make the most of their lives.” And, of course, will be less likely to riot, loot, and burn. Character, like oxygen, is most noticeable when it is missing.

Taking people’s own word about the reasons for their behavior as the best evidence for the causal power of these explanations ignores decades the entire history of social psychology. I guess I can understand it from Reeves, who seems to be an accomplished public intellectual who mostly adopts a lens of political philosophy rather than empirical work in psychology, sociology and political science.  But ignoring our tendency to make up (incorrect) stories about the causes of our behavior is downright odd coming from someone like Brooks who writes regularly extolling the virtues of social psychology.

2) The marshmallow test does not mean that self control trumps everything else, or even that self-control is the only thing measured in that situation. Brooks claims that “Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment demonstrated that delayed gratification skills learned by age 4 produce important benefits into adulthood.” However, new results suggest that how reliable the child sees the reward also determines how quickly they eat the marshmallow. In other words, these children may be making a rational decision. A bird marshmallow in the hand is worth two in the bush promises of an unreliable stranger. The greater SAT scores that our special little gratification delayers (coochie coochie goo! aren’t you my little gratification delayer! yes you are!) may not be due to greater cultivated character, but environmental effects that of course include parents, but also may extend beyond.

3) The relationship between academic achievement and financial success that Brooks and neoliberals treat as a totem is a feature of our economic system at this moment in time not a natural law. As an college professor, I am of course an advocate of the transformative power of education. I am totally in the pro-knowledge camp. School … good. But even as I can wax poetic on the power of education, I am wary of arguments that economic injustice in our society exists because those on the lower rungs of the ladder haven’t figured out how to educate themselves up.  I love doctors and lawyers and scientists (some of my best friends…) but it is one thing to tell one student to apply her interest in math and science and escape her humble circumstances by becoming an engineer, and an entirely different thing to tell a generation that they can all escape poverty by doing the exact same thing.

What happens when everyone goes to college? What happens to 64,000 people who have persevered through college and graduate school to gain a PhD:

One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”

 When Brooks writes:

if you can’t help people become more resilient, conscientious or prudent, then all the cash transfers in the world will not produce permanent benefits.

is he imagining that if everyone who invested with Bernie Madoff got their water turned off in Detroit were more prudent, we would have less poverty? Is he imagining that if only the predatory contract sellers evicted residents of 1960s Chicago slums were more conscientious, our cities would not suffer from urban decay? If only the smartest guys in the room black college graduates could exercise more resilience, then they would enjoy the “permanent benefits” of a society that had actual economic mobility?

4) Alienation and distrust are not character flaws of damaged people, but symptoms of a society that encourages such emotions.

Brooks closes with

But if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.

This is a strong causal claim (alienation and mistrust are what retard mobility and ruin dreams) with little basis in fact. You know what retards mobility? Racist hiring practices. You know what ruins dreams?  Structural discrimination. Oh, also, shooting people for wearing a hoodie. Choking people to death for selling illegal cigarettes. How’s that for “exemplars?” Often when I am baited into finishing a Brooks column, I find myself re-reading great antidotes like Tressie McMillan Cottom.

5) In America, you can’t talk about a culture of poverty without acknowledging the past and current impact of policies built around white supremacy. Reeves ends his piece with: The quality of our policies is a vital concern. But so is the quality of our people. Perhaps such an ending was out of the question for Brooks, but his calculated evasion of race is apparent between the lines. When lauding KIPP, Brooks is not talking about rural poverty in Mississippi (95% of the 58,000 KIPP students are African American or Latino). When he writes about the benefits of parenting coaches or a “BoomerCorps” of over 65 do-gooders helping to instill character, he is not talking about Appalachia.

If not reducing poverty through character, what should we do? How should we remedy an economic system fraught with unemployment, injustice, and inequality? For starters, I think with employment and justice. I happen to think that some inequality is inevitable, but we should act to reduce its recent growth, through (gasp!) cash transfers and respecting and subsidizing work that we now consider low status.

I view my support of such policies as applied humility. this support is a consequence of recognizing that my success is not a simple result of my resilience, hard work and perseverance (I am sure I would score average on many of these indices of character), but a complicated blend of luck, privilege and undeserved gifts. A truly humble columnist might acknowledge his own luck and be less likely to lecture the poor on their lack of resilience, conscientiousness or prudence.

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