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If I Wasn’t a Rich White Kid – Ruminations on Gene Marks

December 19, 2011 1 comment

One of the greatest gifts [curses] white people have is the ability to forget or take for granted the numerous advantages they’ve had in life. I’ve certainly been guilty of this many more times than once in my life.

The same is true of the tech-savvy.  We take for granted all of the things we learned and the many teachers and lessons we had along the way.  We perform highly-sophisticated tasks as rote, and because they are rote to us – we often forget that they’re most definitely NOT rote to others.  That’s why I grind my teeth whenever my co-worker asks me something about basic HTML code.  I forget all of the lessons I’ve learned since I first typed a string of it.

This is what led to Gene Marks of Forbes writing a piece (“If I was a Poor Black Kid”) offering a well-intentioned but misguided prescription for success to the inner-city black youth readers of Forbes (doubtless there are many of them):

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have. (“If I Was a Poor Black Kid,” 2011)

Writers far better than I have already responded (and I recommend you read their pieces over mine: Kashmir Hill, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cord Jefferson, Baratunde Thurston) but I couldn’t let this go, because of the problems inherent in how Marks closes his essay:

Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.  Yes, there is much inequality.  But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.

One can literally parse through each sentence of Marks column and come up with a laundry list of obstacles to the tasks he so blithely outlines (insinuating they’re relatively easy to follow).  For the sake of time, I’ll just address the first paragraph in detail.

“I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.”

No you wouldn’t.  That would require that you had the luxury of time to devote to things as non-essential to survival as “grades.”  It assumes you have some place warm, safe and dry to go back to every night after school (it also mistakenly assumes the school you go to is also warm, safe and dry).  It assumes that you’re not moving every couple of months as your parents (or whomever is raising you) are kicked out of rental dwelling after rental dwelling.

Taking a step further back, it assumes you actually want to be successful at life (which requires experience with examples of success in life that plant the seeds of aspiration in us).  It also assumes you understand that there is an important series of steps that must be completed in order to achieve that success.  It also assumes that you don’t make any poor choices in between each of those steps (like commit a crime – which is basically a life sentence for a youth of color in a way it isn’t for white kids).

Taking a step forward, “good grades” don’t necessarily mean good education.  Thanks to the standardized test-driven curricula we have, it often means that you develop unimportant skills (like memorization and regurgitation – an utter absurdity in the era of Wikipedia access on our smartphones) learning relatively ineffectual information (like what a bunch of old, white academics near retirement think should be ‘common knowledge’).

I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.

No you wouldn’t.  That assumes you understand the importance of reading.  It assumes you can overcome the derision of peers for seeking such an absurd goal.  It assumes you have the time and resources to accomplish this end (and that humiliation doesn’t preclude you reaching out to someone to teach you how to read).  It assumes your parents know how to read and would think or have time to pass along the value of reading to you (and reinforce it at home).

What amazes me about my fellow honkeys is that they think children of color are somehow supposed to inherently have far more discipline, self-control, and patience than their own children.  By that I mean, while they can’t get their own kids to clean up their toys or keep from throwing tantrums in line at the grocery store; they expect the children of the socioeconomic underclasses to be miniature adults with fully-formed pre-frontal cortexes capable of long-term decision-making and reasoning and able to always delay short-term gain for the benefit of long-term gain.

I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.

Cracker, please.  Brock Lesner wouldn’t last five minutes at that school.  You would care.

Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options.

Which assumes that’s common knowledge.  It also means that these students are fluent in the language and culture of academia.  Oh yes, academia has a language and culture – and it’s distinctly white.  Here are just some of the conventions of white academic culture that are often missed:

  • Attendance is important and counts beyond the points the teacher gives.  It can also buy the credibility necessary to ask for an extension on an assignment, or overlook a minor mistake on a test question.
  • Constant communication with the teacher is important; it shows you’re paying attention, and can earn you an excused absence from class if your car breaks down.
  • Participation in class discussion is important – it shows you’re paying attention and that you read the assigned text.  It’s often something you’re also graded on either explicitly or implicitly.
  • There are conventions for every type of work you have to do in a class.  Papers have them.  Tests have them.  Presentations have them.  Knowing where to access resources to better understand these conventions is an important skill not easily developed.  Take tests as one example: it’s not built into our genes to understand that it’s important to venture a guess just in case you get credit, or to skip the hard questions and come back to them later, or to check the wording of other questions in the test for answers to others.
  • Appearance is important; understanding how prone everyone (and I mean everyone – even teachers) are to stereotyping and prejudice based on nonverbal communication is a skill some rich white people (*cough*Trump*cough) figure out – to say nothing of how hard that is for poor black kids to learn.

This also mistakenly assumes inner-city kids are aware of options for their future beyond being a musician or pro ball player.  Even white kids have trouble envisioning other options because of the limited exposure they have to career fields; some have postulated this is why education is such a popular major in college – because it’s one of the only career fields students understand well as a result of continuous exposure to teachers as role models.

With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.

Yeah but doing well in a lousy school doesn’t increase your opportunities much; you still carry that stigma to every class with you.  Not only that, but you’re completely unprepared for the workload you will encounter when you try to advance to higher education.  Just look at higher education completion rates; only 55 percent of those who go for higher ed degrees successfully finish them.

Beyond the oversimplification of the problem, inherent in this conclusion is a very ugly component of upper-crust white American sentiment toward all others: …so, uh, what about the kids who aren’t smart enough to go for it?

The answer is that the majority of White America is basically okay with those kids ending up in prison or dead (fates they would never tolerate for white children if they were happening as routinely as they do for children of other races).

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How Not to do Social Media Case Study – Southern Illinois University Carbondale Facebook Page

November 9, 2011 1 comment

"The Net Interprets Censorship as Damage and Routes Around it" - John Gilmore

Right now, the Southern Illinois University Carbondale is in the middle of a contract negotiation dispute which has resulted in a strike by the tenured faculty.  As one would expect in a situation such as this, the faculty has urged its supporters to be vocal on the union’s behalf and some students took to the SIU Carbondale Facebook Fan Page to urge a resolution to the contract dispute.

Unfortunately, the SIU Carbondale administrators of the page began deleting those messages.  One report noted that they began by deleting only the messages of support for the faculty, but later began deleting all messages related to the dispute – and even went so far as to ban some users. Read more…

For Andrew – On Public Relations and Community Engagement

September 8, 2011 Leave a comment

This evening I received a comment on a blog post I did about the “My GR Six” contest currently going on in Grand Rapids:

“At least they’re doing something besides taking pot shots from your lazyboy. What an asshole you are. No wonder you don’t have any friends. Lol.”
– Andrew | Submitted on 2011/09/08 at 5:02 pm

Though it perhaps didn’t come through in my blog post – I think the My GR Six crew are a great bunch of people.  I like Beth Dornan and John Gonzales quite a bit and even attended a recent Grand Rapids Social Media meetup to hear about the inception of the project.

While I’d never deny I’m an asshole, I do take exception to some of what Andrew said – chiefly the idea that I’m not doing anything.  For example – after the less flattering entries were frowned upon I thought it would be great if they could find a forum. Read more…

The Less Than Definitive Guide to Grading Student Blogs

August 21, 2011 56 comments

Using Blogs in the Classroom

At the behest of my fiancee (who happens to be a superb part-time professor at Grand Valley State University), I’m writing this post about using blogging as an important part of the educational process.

It should also be noted that this post is directly relevant to those outside education as well: every organization should be encouraging employees to blog about work-related content.  Not personal gripes or gossip – but about their day-to-day struggles and triumphs, or about their trade/craft/field.  Social media engagement is the modern equivalent to networking in trade groups or local business associations.

Why Would I Want to Engage in This Sisyphean Undertaking? Read more…

Five Tips for Faculty on Interacting With Students via Social Media

February 28, 2011 2 comments

Social Media in the Classroom

Several people have asked me questions (following the social media policy webinar I did with PaperClip Communications last week) about how faculty should interact with students using social media.  It’s a pressing issue first, because there have been several high-profile cases of inappropriate conduct, and second, because social media provides an opportunity to share relevant information to an entire class (or multiple classes) if it’s handled well.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Stay “On Campus: If they’re available on your campus, course management software like Blackboard, Banner or WebCT can do nearly everything Facebook can do and there’s a “check” in place in that the school is able to oversee the interaction. In addition, it allows other students to view, participate in and learn from the interaction.  We at GRCC use Blackboard and we also use a set of tools from Wimba (like Wimba Pronto which is a client that builds in collaboration, video chat, instant messaging, chat, etc. into one tool).  Most of these systems are also able to publish content to Facebook through an application like CourseFeed (so that students can still remain in Facebook – but participate in the class and get notifications and announcements).
  2. Don’t Friend – Be Friended: Faculty(and supervisors)should never initiate friend requests – they need to respect the fact that the power inherent in their position might make students fearful to refuse the request. If a professor wants to invite students to connect with them – it should be done in the form of a general invitation to the entire class(no different than providing their email in the syllabus).
  3. Stay Public: Conduct discussions in the open (ie through wall posts as opposed to personal messages) to help ensure that they stay focused on the course and don’t deviate into personal areas that might be inappropriate.  It’s the same as the principle behind conducting an after-class meeting with a student in a hallway as opposed to a classroom so that event he appearance of impropriety is avoided.
  4. Use the Buddy System:  It would be ideal if faculty would let their department head, dean or another colleague know that they’re using social media to interact with students AND to “friend” them to give themselves a system of checks and balances.  If you’ve got another pair of eyes helping you keep tabs on what you’re doing, they may be able to help you watch out for interactions that may be problematic.
  5. Be Transparent: Behaving as though others can see your conduct is always a good policy.  Anyone trying to maintain a public face that is markedly different from their private behavior is bound for epic failure in an age where online content is easily shared, and students (and consumers) have audio/video recording equipment with them at all times (on their mobile phones).  An “abstinence-only” approach to social media is bound for failure just as much as the “abstinence-only” approach to reproductive health education.  Content about you will go online whether or not you want it to – ultimately it’s best to have a say in the conversation.

In the end, as more of our communication moves to social media – eventually this will become the dominant paradigm for faculty as well as professionals in the private sector.  Better to get a head-start on familiarizing yourself with its nuances now than wait until it’s mandated as part of your contract.  Not only that -but I think you’ll find (as I have) that your teaching experience is richer for the relationships you’re able to maintain with students after the class has ended.  I’ve been amazed and humbled by the pursuit of scholarship that some of my students maintain outside the classroom – and I often learn just as much from them as they hopefully do from me.

Resources from Paperclip Communications “Social Media: Campus Policies and Protocol” Webinar

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment
http://prezi.com/bin/preziloader.swf

Social Media – Campus Policies & Protocol (Feb. 17, 2011 Webinar)

January 25, 2011 2 comments

Organizations With a Formal Social Media Policy Chart: 29% Have, 71% Do Not Have Source: Manpower, “Social Networks vs. Management? Harness the Power of Social Media,” January 26, 2010

[File under "shameless self-promotion"] If you’re working on a social media policy for your organization, I’m hosting a webinar for Paperclip Communications: “Social Media – Campus Policies & Protocol.” The program is aimed specifically aimed at higher education institutions and will cover legal issues, employer/employee issues, student/faculty/staff “boundary” issues, online reputation management, campus PR issues, and generally provide advice and tips to help keep a school’s use of social media positive and lawsuit-free.

Social Media – Campus Policies & Protocol – February 17, 2011 Webinar
Date/Time: Thursday, February 17, 2011 from 2:00-3:30 PM ET
Length: Approx. 90 minutes
Price: $259
Register here: http://bit.ly/SMPolicyWebinarFeb17

It should be a lot of fun; there have been no shortage of fascinating case studies regarding employees and social media policy in the news and this is a topic that I love discussing.  If you’re interested in reading some of my other posts on social media policy and online reputation management, here are a few:

PR Students: Your Fundamentals are a Strong Asset

November 19, 2010 Leave a comment

I was talking to a couple of colleagues yesterday over coffee about teaching Public Relations and something occurred to me.

PR students are, in some cases, better experts on some areas of PR than their supervisors.

Public Relations is a relatively young discipline.  Many people who practice PR have no formal education; they’ve acquired their expertise informally – usually through experience.

Areas of Expertise - Students vs. PR Pros

Mapping Public Relations Knowledge

As a result, the people who lead PR departments or agencies frequently don’t have a broad-based understanding of the profession.  They may have come from hospitality with event-planning expertise, or from a news background (which gives them media relations expertise).  While they have a very deep and nuanced understanding of those disciplines – they have relatively little or no awareness or education about some other areas of PR – which is a very broad field that encompasses many responsibilities, practices and tactics.

In my experience, this has proven to be true.  I’ve worked in PR for over a decade and the majority of the leaders I’ve worked for fit this description.  They have very strong skills in particular disciplines, but they invariably have blind spots as a result of how their knowledge was acquired.  They may be experts on handling crises, but lack skills in measurement.  Or they may excel at writing, but know very little about the legal concepts that apply to PR.

That broad base of knowledge is what the Public Relations Society of America’s “Accredited in Public Relations” (APR) designation works to remedy – the gaps in the whole profession that may have been missed through one’s career in the profession.

It can be intimidating to be an intern or an entry-level PR pro sitting at the table with leaders who have decades of experience on you.  PR pros who are young to the practice should take confidence from the fact that in addition to the fresh perspective they can offer, they may also offer leaders knowledge they may not have.

Inspiring, no?

This window of opportunity likely won’t be open forever though.

Public Relations is now a formal degree offered by an increasing number of colleges and universities, so eventually the majority of PR pros will have some formal education.  I tried to track down the first college/university to offer a PR degree and found references to Boston University – but despite Google and leafing through a couple of PR textbooks I’ve not been able to locate a history of PR higher education (and if anyone knows the historical roots of formal education in PR – I’d love to hear about them).

The Case for Investing in the Mobile Web Continues to Build

August 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Students Accessing the Web

Too many resources are sucked up by the process of designing and re-designing our websites.  We’re wasting valuable time poring over navigation, color palettes and spiffy Flash animation.

None of those aesthetic flourishes matter for a great many of the people who actually visit the site, because they do it through aggregators or on mobile devices:

How grcc.edu Shows Up on a Blackberry Curve

How grcc.edu Shows Up on a Blackberry Curve

PRSA Tactics had a brief (“Survey: Blacks, Hispanics are Most Active on Mobile web” by Kyra Auffermann) in the “Diversity Dimensions” section that cited Pew Research Center numbers that reinforce the case for everyone (but especially higher ed institutions given the dramatic increase in minority enrollment during this economic downturn) to do more to invest in making information and services available to the mobile web.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Among the findings (which continue to show that mobile phones are the primary connection of minorities to the web):

  • Rate of Cell Phone Ownership:
    • African Americans & English-Speaking Hispanics: 87%
    • Whites: 80%
  • Rate of Wireless Internet Use:
    • African Americans & English-Speaking Hispanics: 46%/51%
    • Whites: 33%

The days of establishing a hub and forcing people to make a pilgimage to it are in the past.  The new dynamic is reaching people where they are, on their terms.  Increasingly that is on social networking platforms, and increasingly that is mobile.

The Importance of Data Integrity: Community College Rankings Based on Flawed Data?

August 25, 2010 1 comment

Enrollment Report Data

Apropos of my recent post about the error uncovered in how Michigan colleges report data to the Federal Government, a story just appeared in Inside Higher Ed about the Washington Monthly’s rankings of Community Colleges in the US.

The Washington Monthly has yet again irked some educators, as it did three years ago, by ranking what it calls “America’s Best Community Colleges” using openly available student engagement survey data.

Using benchmarking data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) and four-year federal graduation rates in an equation of its own making, the magazine attempts to rank the top 50 community colleges in the country in its latest issue. Though the periodical’s editors say they only hope to highlight “what works and what doesn’t” at these institutions by ranking them, CCSSE officials have denounced the use of their data in this way and argue it may do more harm than good.”

The data available about your organization can and will be used with or without your permission.  With more information being published and the increasing ease with which that data can be used – it’s critical to be aware and vigilant.  Even with the best of intentions on the part of a journalistic entity like the Washington Monthly, it can damage an organization’s reputation (and mislead stakeholders).

In the executive summary explaining their rankings, the Washington Monthly acknowledged the limitations of their methodology and wistfully remarked about the lack of data available:

“Of course, our rankings aren’t perfect. Like the president, we wish we knew how community college graduates fare in the job market and their future careers. We’d like to know if students who transfer to four-year schools get good grades, earn bachelor’s degrees, and go on to graduate and professional schools.”

The upside is that the data they seek may soon be available from other sources.  For example; what if we were able to pull employment data from social networking platforms like Linkedin and Facebook (or even people-oriented search engines like Pipl.com that catch references to employment in press releases and newspapers) and mash it up with the data from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement?

We may soon be able to complete the loop and better track student success (which is a challenge all educational institutions face).

Not only that, but what if we could monitor tweets and Facebook content (there are already algorithms that can evaluate tweets to determine whether they’re positive or negative) to look for warning signs that might allow counseling or student support services to intervene with a student to get them resources before it’s too late and they fail out of classes?

There’s a lot of possibility out there, and it’s up to us to tap into it.

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