Monday, June 25, 2018

Could Doubt Be a Tool to Spark Student Learning?

How might raising doubts in our students’ minds work in a teacher’s favor?
While perusing my Twitter feed several months ago, I stumbled across this claim, attributed to Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman.
Doubt raises personal questions which are the best catalysts for meaningful discussions.
Feynman’s coupling of doubt with discussion resonated with me and called to mind another author’s view – one specifically related to classroom discussion: “The point of entry into inquiry is the raising of doubt about subjects and issues that the learners care about” (McCann, 2014).
Thomas McCann’s statement, in Transforming Talk into Text: Argument Writing, Inquiry, and Discussion, Grades 6-12had prompted me to think of the teacher’s role in using doubt to design meaningful discussion. Feynman’s assertion caused me to refocus and ponder the nature, sources, and conditions for student-initiated discussion. 

Argument or Collaborative Inquiry?

Meaningful discussions emerging from student doubt take multiple forms, which promote different academic purposes. Broadly speaking, we can sort these into two categories: debate, characterized by a student’s adoption and argument for one selected point of view, and collaborative inquiry, during which students build upon one another’s ideas in an attempt to clarify understandings and arrive at a shared and new or expanded way of thinking.
Regardless of the instructional purpose, discussion is a powerful strategy for student engagement and learning, one of the strongest influences on student achievement (Hattie, 2012).
Discussions characterized by argumentation typically emerge from student skepticism about the credibility or plausibility of an assertion or claim, whether it be an accepted interpretation, custom, practice, or principle or a position or argument made by a classmate or the teacher.
Circa 1966
Let’s imagine a discussion that grows out of a student questioning whether The Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution is as relevant today as when it was ratified. Or, a debate originating in one student’s challenge of a peer’s view on whether the long-term benefits of artificial intelligence outweigh the risks.
Such doubt-driven questions ignite student interest and can be springboards to class discussions that enable students to think critically about their personal stance on an issue while engaging in deep learning. These types of discussions, when pursued skillfully and respectfully, serve as practice fields for citizens and are needed to preserve, protect, and advance our democratic institutions.
While some doubts stem from skepticism, others are born out of uncertainty. Consider an elementary student who uses an algorithm to solve a problem, but wonders how division by a fraction can yield a higher number. Or, a foreign language student questioning appropriate usage of formal pronouns.
When a “correct” answer doesn’t ring true to students, the opportunity to surface, discuss, and resolve doubts leads to true learning, which rote acceptance of an expert’s statement may not. In such settings, teachers can harness individual doubt to launch a shared inquiry that results in more substantive learning for all.
Other occasions for collaborative inquiry stem from more open-ended wonderings. For example, a class might question why so few Americans exercise their right to vote and build upon one another’s thinking in an attempt to generate a menu of possible causes and solutions, perhaps utilizing Warren Berger’s (2014) Why?/What If?/How? Sequence to move their thinking forward.

Unfortunately, discussion – whether argumentative or collaborative in nature – is mostly missing from our classrooms.” – Walsh & Sattes, 2015

Unfortunately, discussion – whether argumentative or collaborative in nature – is mostly missing from our classrooms, comprising on average only about 3-5% of total instructional time across all grade levels, K-12 (Walsh & Sattes, 2015).
This is unfortunate given what we know about discussion’s potential for student engagement and impact on learning. The research on the frequency and impact of discussion focuses primarily upon teacher-initiated discussion – not upon that occasioned by student doubts and wonderings. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how often this kind of discussion occurs in our classrooms?

Conditions Supporting Doubt-Driven Discussion

In many classrooms, students are not comfortable expressing doubts and raising questions that catalyze and sustain discussion. Given my passion for discussion, I continue to ponder, How can we create the conditions in our classrooms that invite students to voice doubt, disagreement, and wondering and use these as springboards to thoughtful discussion?
While acknowledging that conditions may vary by grade level, academic content, and student characteristics, my experience in K-12 classrooms suggests at least four ingredients interact to create the conditions which nurture discussions fueled by doubt and personal questions:
  1. Teacher Mindset,
  2. Classroom Culture,
  3. Teaching Modeling, and
  4. Student Skills and Dispositions.
These four can serve as guides for reflection and decision-making for those who seek to advance student motivation and ability to inquire deeply into issues and topics that matter to them.

Teacher Mindset

Student-initiated discussion cannot occur absent teacher openness to student expressions of doubt and uncertainty. Teachers must encourage student questions and dialogue. Because of issues related to control – including curriculum pacing/coverage and behavior management – many teachers grapple with the feasibility of this student-centered approach.
Reflection on one’s personal beliefs about learning and teaching is a first step to transforming classrooms into places where students partner in driving the learning. How do you deal with the following dichotomies that confront teachers in multiple ways, multiple times throughout a school day?
  • Deep Understanding or Right Answers
  • Commitment or Compliance
  • Flexibility or Control
  • Openness or Certainty
  • Interpretation or Evaluation
  • Questions or Answers
Our thinking about these dichotomies feed into the mindsets that affect our acceptance of student-driven dialogue.

A Safe and Inviting Classroom Culture

Psychological safety is the cornerstone of a learning culture in which students are willing to voice doubts, raise questions that are counter to a stated position, or propose a different way of viewing an issue. In such an environment, respect trumps ridicule, trust replaces skepticism, relationships are cultivated and valued, diversity is celebrated, and a caring community supports each individual.
How do we go about creating such learning spaces? We can begin by reflecting on and developing actions in response to the following:
  • In what ways are we orchestrating opportunities for students to develop trusting, respectful relationships with their peers?
  • How are we clarifying expectations related to engagement in dialogue, including equitable participation, listening to understand other’s perspectives, voicing of one’s own thinking (rather than mimicking the thoughts of others), and developing comfort with silence?
  • What are we doing to cultivate a community of inquiry by moving away from an emphasis on “right” answers to a valuing of where students are in their thinking and learning?
Left to their own devices, students will determine the chemistry of a classroom, whether it be nurturing and inviting to all, or destructive and discouraging to some. Our job is to intentionally envision a culture that we can co-create with each class of students and intentionally design experiences that mobilize students in this endeavor.

Teacher Modeling

When we demonstrate expected norms and behaviors, we are using the most powerful of all teaching tools. By explicitly expressing our own uncertainty, accepting ambiguity, respecting differences, and raising personal doubts, we are nurturing norms that support doubt-driven discussion. Specific strategies teachers can use to promote this end include:
  • Engaging in think-alouds through which we make visible to students the what and why of our own thinking;
  • Honoring silence as a time for all to grapple with internal conflict, to process another’s perspective, or to form a question or comment to share publicly.
  • Asking personal questions that emerge spontaneously, questions that express doubt or uncertainty about the issue or topic under discussion.
  • Expressing comfort with not knowing, or with a lack of certainty; moving beyond a search for “the right answer.”
  • Withholding evaluative comments about students’ statements while posing questions to better understand an individual speaker’s thinking, as appropriate.
Our modeling actually begins with the questions we prepare in advance of a lesson to focus student learning on standards and learning targets. These communicate our expectations about thinking and learning. Do our questions serve as gateways to student doubt and discussion, or do they serve to march students through the curriculum in a lock-step manner? If students are to invest emotional and intellectual energy into challenging their own and others’ thinking, our prompts must evoke curiosity, cognitive dissonance, or uncertainty.
Such prompts are not only open-ended, but also provocative enough to ignite student interest. Students find personal importance in the subject of these questions. These initial teacher questions incite student wondering and doubt that extend and sustain discussion.
Our modeling cannot be effective without complementary mindsets. Unless our behaviors align with our beliefs, students will not perceive them to be authentic. And, if we have not reflected deeply on our beliefs and mindsets, we are unlikely to be consistent in our demonstration of dispositions and behaviors that we desire our students adopt.

Student Skills and Dispositions

The previous three ingredients – teacher mindset, a safe and inviting classroom culture, and teacher modeling – are necessary, but not sufficient, to students’ raising doubts that lead to discussion. If individual students are to pose questions that fuel the thinking of their classmates, they must possess both the skill and the will to do so. If they are to engage in respectful discussion with peers, they must adopt the norms and develop the skills of respect.
While some students seem to arrive in our classrooms with these skills, others struggle to orally express their doubts and uncertainties. We can help students develop these skills by providing them with stems to use and affording them opportunities for practice. Among simple – and respectful – stems to use in expressing doubt are: I’d like to offer a different way of thinking about . . . What evidence supports this position? I’m wondering why . . . ? What if . .?
Oftentimes, students’ dispositions are greater barriers to their participation than are their skills. They may lack confidence or be risk averse; seek answers rather than surface their own questions; accept claims without evidence; seek reinforcement for their thinking rather than broadening their understanding; value competition over cooperation; and suppress doubts and uncertainty when those bubble up.
Teachers cannot dictate dispositions. We can, however, be explicit in naming these dispositions and encourage students to reflect on and examine these habits of mind that support personal ownership and self-direction of learning.

More Questions Than Answers

How do we decide which student doubts and questions merit extended discussion? At what point do we cut off student talk and bring closure? How can we develop all students as questioners rather than deferring to the more proactive? When do we allow these discussions to occur spontaneously rather than defer them to a future time (thereby allowing for planning and student preparation)?
These are but a few of the questions I have as I continue my thought journey inspired by Feynman’s observation – a journey that is both fascinating and, I believe, important. This is an instance in which I agree with another of Feynman’s opinions: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: The power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York: Bloomsbury.
Feynman, R. (2018). Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a curious character. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.
McCann, T. (2014) Transforming Talk Into Text: Argument Writing, Inquiry, and Discussion, Grades 6-12: Teachers College Press/National Writing Project

Dr. Jackie Walsh is the co-author with Beth D. Sattes of the bestselling Quality Questioning: Research-Based Practice to Engage Every Learner, 2nd Edition (Corwin, 2017) and Questioning for Classroom Discussion: Purposeful Speaking, Engaged Listening, Deep Thinking (ASCD, 2015). She is also lead consultant to the Alabama Best Practices Center where she designs and facilitates professional learning for ABPC’s statewide educator collaboratives and for the Alabama Instructional Partners Network. She lives in Montgomery, AL. Contact Jackie at and follow her on Twitter @Question2Think.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Why is Writing a Literature Review Such Hard Work? Part One

Yes, a literature review means reading a lot. Yes, a literature review means sorting out how to bring the texts all together, summarising and synthesising them. And yes, there are lots of ways to do this.
But this post is not about any of these important and essential literature processes. No, this post is about the knowledge work that underpins the processes, knowledge work that makes your literature review successful, or not.
The literature “review”, as it is called, is not simply about reading and sorting and then writing. It’s not really a “review” per se. It’s critical evaluation, categorisation, and synthesis. And using writing to help. And then constructing the text. Authoring. This is all about thinking – and writing. And thinking and writing are not two distinct things.
In literatures work, writing and thinking are inseparable. Just as it’s hard to separate out the colours in a marble cake, it’s the same with thinking-writing about literatures. Thinking and writing are melded.
When you work with literatures and write your “review”, you are doing very difficult conceptual and authoring work – you are extending and consolidating at least six domains of knowledge. Yes, six. They are:
  • Substantive knowledge from your discipline, or disciplines. This is sometimes called subject or content knowledge and it refers to the actual topic of your research – history, physics, psychology, geography and so on. When you read, you are building on what you already know about your subject, reflecting critically on it, adding to it, and perhaps reframing the ways in which you think about it. Knowledge about your discipline also means learning its language, the very specific terminology that is used to shorthand concepts. Knowing your discipline may also require you to learn particular ways to write – see (3).
  • Knowledge about your readers – supervisors and examiners – and the scholarly community that they belong to. Disciplines have particular ways of explaining what they do, have been, and are, to themselves and others. There are key texts, writers and moments which are generally taken as important. Your readers are familiar with these texts, people and events, and they expect that you will be too.
  • Knowledge about the kind of text that you are writing – often called genre. You are expected to follow the conventions of writing about, and with literatures to suit the genre you are working in – a paper, report or thesis. The conventions may be shaped in part by your discipline – see (1). But in essence the literatures “review” is where you locate your study in its field. You aren’t writing a long book review or an essay showing everything you know. It’s usually an argument.
  • Knowledge about the kind of rhetoric that you have to use. Rhetorical knowledge is not the same as knowing about grammar, it is a given that your work has to be grammatically correct and your citations accurate. Knowing about rhetoric means understanding the ways in which language is used to construct an argument for your work, through explaining the work of others. There are some traps here, the most common is writing a laundry list. A long listicle of your reading is problematic because lacks the kind of meta-commentary that is needed to guide the reader through your interpretation of the field, and the texts most relevant to your research. You have to know how to write without laundry-listing.
  • Knowledge about the process of writing. Writing process knowledge is built up over time, as you develop your own set of strategies to diagnose issues with your texts, and to revise and edit. You build up a set of strategies that work for you, as well as a set of criteria that you can use to judge the quality of your own work. You come to understand that writing a thesis or paper may also very well involve un-learning some processes that have up till now, worked OK.
  • Knowledge about scholarship and you as a scholar. Writing about and with literatures is part and parcel of forming an identity as a scholar – you make yourself as this or that kind of researcher through who you cite and how you write about them. But you also build your understandings of the ways in which the academy functions, and take up an ethical stance, through writing yourself in relation to the work of others. And you develop a writing “voice”.
So it’s no wonder that writing a literatures “review” is so tricky. There’s a lot going on. You are learning, using what you already know and authoring at the same time. This is complex work which can’t be rushed.
And understanding what’s involved, what you need to know, the six domains you’re working with, can be helpful.
Part Two, on why literatures reviews are hard, looks at locational work. That’s coming next week.
Further assistance:
See more on literatures work on my wakelet collection.
Graf and Birkenstein’s They say, I say, is a very helpful introduction to the rhetoric of writing about other people’s texts.
Image by Simpson Petrol on Unsplash

An Elephant in the Room: How We Set Ourselves Up To Be Bad at Mentoring
If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this post, it is that the most important component of mentorship is self-awareness.
But before we get to that, I want to start out by saying that I have had to provide myself with all of the training that it takes to become, to be honest, an actively good mentor. I think that needing to self-train on mentorship is common, as it is not one of those things that are usually taught as part of grad school. Especially in STEM (which is where I do most of my work) you’re lucky if your program is forward-thinking enough to give you the basic training of how to instruct undergraduates as a TA. Personally? My starting place for my self-training in mentorship has been “Mentees should not experience harm as a result of interacting with or being trained by me”.
The purpose of this post is not to provide a template for mentorship, but to first point out some underlying assumptions that allow us mentors—usually inadvertently!—harm our mentees. And then to provide a few examples of what toxic behaviors can be, and what non-toxic alternatives are.
Academic culture sets us up to harm our mentees. Regardless of any training, experience, or interest, a lot of academics in STEM (and, I’m guessing, elsewhere in the academy) end up having ‘mentor’ in their job description. Being a mentor is often incentivized by funding institutions, but rarely, if ever, defined. And in the pyramid scheme of academia, even if you’ve actively wanted to NEVER mentor people, it’s rare to end up in a position where you have no responsibilities for mentoring junior colleagues. The lack of training in mentorship brings with it a lack of general agreement about what ‘mentorship’ means. For some, it means that the mentee can expect weekly meetings and availability for deep personal conversations. For others, it means that the mentee can expect a spot at a lab bench and funding to do projects, which will be coauthored with the mentor, though little other interaction will take place. I think we can agree that there’s a lot of room in there, and that’s before we even begin talking about the fact that mentorship is marketed very differently to potential-mentees than it is to potential-mentors.
So the important first step in any productive, healthy mentorship relationship is to negotiate explicit expectations—for both people—and then stick to them. As the mentor, that’s your job: you get to say what you’ll be on the hook for, but you have to make sure this happens. And if you want to be a responsible human, I think you should really support them in advocating for what they need from you, rather than take advantage of their deference to keep your burden minimal, but that’s just my opinion. You have the power—use it to be crystal, written-contract clear about what, specifically, you are willing to be relied on to do.
When I was in grad school (up until this past year), it was common for grad students to remind one another that our PIs “just don’t remember what it’s like to be in grad school anymore”. We said they didn’t remember, rather than that they didn’t care, because we preferred to believe our PIs to be ignorant, rather than uncaring—and who could blame us for that? To our shame, we emulated their lack of concern by talking down to and dismissively about undergraduate students. Disdain for junior colleagues has been encoded as a way to show coolness and sophistication in parts of the academy. We see it modeled, we are socially rewarded for practicing it, and—crucially–it is an especially common coping technique for people experiencing flares of impostor syndrome. This is too bad, but it’s a rare person who doesn’t engage in it.
This behavior harms the people who are on the receiving end of it—and the people we mentor are in a vulnerable position to begin with, especially with respect to their mentors (more on this in a second). So we’re not talking about a little bit of hurt feelings here and there—we are talking about potentially life-altering shifts in goals, self-concept, and confidence. And this is because, I’ll argue, that people in the role of ‘mentor’ usually do not understand the amount of power we have. Because, though we are not often reminded of this, mentorship is more than supervising cognitive development, mastery of content, and the acquisition of discipline-specific skills. It is more than helping mentees develop and follow a career trajectory, or even demonstrating “soft skills” that will help them get there.
Truly, we do not get it. We are set up to not get it, true, but we spend our lives in pursuit of ‘getting’ stuff that very few people understand, so I promise you, we can handle this. No academic work happens in a sociopolitical vacuum, and nor does academic success. But by the time we are sitting on the mentor side of a desk, much of the privilege that comes with that seat is so normalized to us, that we forget it. Sure, we can absent ourselves for active discussions about our mentees’ personal struggles (see “expectations”, above), but we do not get to pretend that intersectional power dynamics are absent (a) outside our sphere of influence (e.g. outside the lab) (b) inside our spheres (e.g. inside the lab), and (c) in our interactions with our mentees. Because of our senior position and relative social power, we exercise tremendous power academically, sociologically, interpersonally, and in terms of the developing identities of our mentees.
Why? Because if we are their mentors, these (usually) students look up to us. Our explicitly and implicitly stated opinions, no matter how ill-conceived or poorly expressed, fall from a great height on them, and stay around for a long time. Unfortunately, the harsher the comment and the greater the power differential, the longer it is likely to persist. And the operative power differential is not the one we perceive—privilege foreshortens how we perceive this differential: it’s like there’s a spyglass between us, and for us the mentee appears close, but to them, we seem to be very, very far away. So for us it may seem like just two people having a discussion on some random day, for our mentee it could be That Day That My Mentor Made That Joke About Me And I Was So Ashamed That I Decided To Not Take That Class I Was Considering. The next day, we will have forgotten about the conversation. But our mentee—and I am not exaggerating here—may never recover.
There are, of course, individuals who believe that because they had a tough time, they are entitled to give their mentees a tough time, too. This type of zero-sum math is part of what keeps the academy an extremely hostile place to people who are not sociologically primed to believe they are entitled to a place in it. We do not know how tough our mentees’ lives are outside of the academy. It’s not necessarily our place to know it, or to pursue knowledge of it (see the ‘setting expectations’ thing, above). But the very least we can do is to not add our retrospective self-validating hazing to their plates. Academia is tough, just because it has gotten easier for usafter more than 15 years of pursuing it as a career, it hasn’t gotten easier in general. We do not have to make it harder for our mentees, in order for them to be good. If our mentees experience their primary difficulties to be in areas of academic content, we will have done our jobs impossibly well (or just chosen extremely privileged people to mentor).
Tough love is important, of course. I’m not advocating that everything be made perfect and easy for mentees—but unless we are hubristic almost beyond the norm even for STEM scholars, we need to acknowledge that the lives of our mentees are beyond our power to make perfect. That, we do not have the power to do. We can require tough rewrites, exacting experiments, hundreds of pages of dense reading, and that is because we care. And many people claim that hazing their mentees is a thing they do, because they care. But here’s the thing. A widespread misconception about mentoring is that “caring about” our mentees is sufficient, or in itself an indicator of a good mentor. Zoom out and think about that—caring about our research area isn’t enough to do a good job of answering questions in it. Caring about what you eat for dinner is not going to get the food cooked. Caring about climate change, global hunger, or infant mortality will not, in and of itself, address any of those issues.
Our job as mentors is not to be a buddy, an older sibling, a stand-in parent, or a parole officer. Our job is to help our mentees succeed at their goals. Or at very least, not harm our mentees while they figure those goals out. To do any of this effectively, we need to police our intentions to be certain that our impact is a match. Research has shown that it is when we believe ourselves to be without bias, that we are most prone to doing harm. Caring about our mentees isn’t the endpoint: it’s what can motivate the considerable effort that goes into being a good mentor. As mentors, we have considerable power to help mentees advance in their studies, lives, careers, and development. But we have substantially more power to do almost irreparable harm—and that’s the part nobody really tells us, when we start mentoring.
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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Critiquing Discourses of Resilience in Education
neoSat at the Association of National Teaching Fellows one-day event in sunny Birmingham, I found myself engaging in passive-aggressive tweeting about bloody ‘resilience’. On my return, I complained about my disquiet with the way the term, and what it has come to stand for, have become pervasive in some parts of education. With great relief, I discovered that my office-mate Dr Nicola Rivers, shares some of my views. Out of our conversation, we have tried to capture the core of what, in a Higher Education context, is so problematic about the narratives on resilience, grit, Millennials, ‘snowflakes’ and academic buoyancy that seem so omnipresent.
There are things we leave out, such as the place of Mindfulness practice, discussions around ‘trigger warnings’, and free-speech on campus; and we hope to write a fuller version of this post, which includes them, possibly for publication elsewhere, but this is an initial ‘take’ on what happens to a concept when everyone thinks it’s a good idea…

Resisting Resilience, and other unpopular opinions

Dr Nicola Rivers and Dr Dave Webster

Everywhere you look in Higher Education, we are told that an attribute we ought to cultivate in our students (or act so as to encourage the cultivation of), is that of resilience. You can find toolkits for it, and articles asserting its decline. In the latter we encounter the claim that: “students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem” (Psychology Today, Sept 2015), but no data, only anecdotes about students who can’t cope with criticism, or mice, or life in general. Some are more engaged with the complexity of student mental health, and the cultural setting such as the project: Stanford, I Screwed Up! A Celebration of Failure and Resilience, but the general cultural drift they represent makes us uncomfortable, and we hope to show why it should make you uncomfortable too.
But surely we are wrong? There is no question that students now are facing substantialScreen Shot 2017-05-15 at 12.14.57 challenges, related to precarious employment contacts, housing and career prospects. There are many claiming, that we are facing a global mental-health epidemic (notable in relation to anxiety disorders)in young people. We have, you’d think, a moral duty to equip students with the best resources to deal with the harsh challenges of the real world. To a degree, that is persuasive, and I think all of us working in the University sector want to help our students cope, thrive and attain once they leave us. Of course. We are not monsters. But borne out of a concern for the welfare of students, having seen cohort after cohort of bright, amazing, interesting and intelligent young people pass from our tutelage into the world beyond, is the very worry that an overly crass, ubiquitous and uncritical narrative of ‘they need to be more resilient/tougher/less soft’ does them no favours, and at worst can feed into a more toxic cultural discourse that regards our current generation/s of young people as ‘snowflakes’, who are easily ‘triggered’, thereby slipping into the discourse of a cultural right-wing that many educators might rather steer clear of.
So, while seeing that in the case of individual students, resilience may be something that helps them, what do we mean by our broader concerns about its impact? What do we have in mind? We could well describe the ‘resilience response’ to substantive socio-economic instability as deeply neoliberal. We are aware that ‘neoliberal‘ is often considered empty and overused, so let us be clear here. In this context, we are interested in the wider cultural frame whereby the solution to problems, seen via primarily viewing persons as consumers, is presented through the case of individuals. Although seemingly benign then, the idea of instilling resilience in our students works to reinforce the facade of a meritocracy, suggesting the ‘best’ or most ‘resilient’ will succeed, while those who lack resilience will fail. Not only is this totally disingenuous – particularly for those of us working in the Humanities and Social Sciences whose own research frequently seeks to disrupt such basic neoliberal narratives – it also works to shift the focus from challenging the multiple social and structural barriers students may face, to instead suggesting the only barrier to success is the students themselves. What is then presented as an unequivocally good thing – to be resilient – is actually offering another way to fail, another way to be blamed. The relentless turn to individualism, and thinking individuals can solve their problems if only they’d do X (with one quick trick, as the click-bait article says), blinds us to ways of thinking about, or example, anxiety inways that might have more efficacy in our communal response.
The language of ‘resilience,’ ‘grit’ and the insidious ‘Growth Mindset’ flatten out the Screenshot 2017-05-14 20.20.36.pngcomplexities of success or failure as well as the apparently personal attributes that influence either outcome. As Alfie Kohn argues addressing the possible pitfalls of the unquestioning promotion of the ‘growth mindset’ sweeping across classrooms, when talking about how ‘well’ students do, we need to ask, how well at what?  When we work to promote persistence, grit and resilience we assume that the worse thing in the world is to quit, but why? What about when quitting is the only reasonable course of action; and isn’t there a subtle but important difference between quitting and giving up that the language of grit and resilience rides roughshod over? In fact, it can take grit to know when to say no, enough is enough.
Students face huge debt and there are too few graduate jobs, yet when you discuss the issue of ‘employability’* – as academics are now (robustly) encouraged to do – frequently there is a citing of the importance of resilience and a ‘can do’ attitude, rather than say, a buoyant economy, or the availability of jobs for them to even apply to. The focus of employability then becomes ‘Let us make our students the ones who will defeat their students, by stacking them full of the attributes of the few winners.’ We are equipping them to compete for unpaid internships that profit from their precariousness and participate in the unequal ‘gig economy’ rather than critique it. Systemic conversations about communal problems are eclipsed by the need to intervene individually. The message is “fix yourself and the wider social issues will somehow take care of themselves.”
We are not alone** in some of these concerns, in a piece by Gabbi Binnie, entitled Struggling students are not ‘lacking resilience’ – they need more support, the author writes:
I have been working as a welfare officer for the past year, and I have rarely seen the term used to encourage self-improvement in an effective way. I have seen students told by their tutors, counsellors and other support staff that they just need to become more resilient. Yet there is little advice on how to do this, or why it will help.Students often see the word as a synonym for strength, and therefore feel that lacking resilience is a sign of weakness. A professor could be saying “be more resilient” and mean that a student shouldn’t take critical comments on their work personally. But what a student hears is something like, you aren’t strong enough, or you need to man-up, or you lack backbone.
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Gabbi Binnie’s Guardian Article
This is interesting, and seems to concur with the popular register of the term. There is a more nuanced account in much literature, but when students hear it – they hear it in a context. A context where they are derided as somehow lacking in relation to previous generations – and one aspect of this lack is in ‘toughness’.
Our wider culture bombards us, and our students, with this view that they are ‘soft’, lack ‘grit’ and have somehow ‘let us all down’ (how often have you heard a comfortable, middle-aged, employed graduate complain that students are apathetic?). Not convinced? If we turn to writer, and twitter-user Luke Savage, he gathered a list of the things that articles assert Millennials have ruined. These include sex, groceries, soap, literature, breakfast cereal, diamonds, names, workplaces, privacy, lunch, and more..
But more seriously, rather than support students to challenge this view of them as ‘soft’ and oversensitive, the focus on resilience perpetuates this stereotype. While so-called ‘millennials’ are frequently derided for being self-obsessed – evident through their apparently narcissistic use of social media and embrace of the ‘selfie’ – those of us in a position to encourage students to look beyond themselves are covertly reinstating the overarching importance of the individual. Worst still, it is when students do actively engage in broader socio-political activism, abandoning the apparent ‘navel gazing’ they are so derided for, that they are most frequently positioned as oversensitive  ‘snowflakes’ seeking offence when there is none. We are Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 11.39.53not alone in noticing this, but it remains as pervasive as it is problematic.  In our ‘post-race’ and ‘post-feminist’ society, the issues they raise are assumed as having been dealt with by previous generations. To paraphrase Sara Ahmed, students aren’t drawing attention to problems, they are the problem.
In short they are lacking ‘resilience.’  Resilience then plays into a wider and well-established framework, pitting generations against each other, with ‘generation rent’ apparently looking up enviously at the home owning so-called ‘baby boomers,’ who in turn sneer at the self-obsessed ‘snowflakes’ for failing to possess the resilience or grit of previous generations.
As we put these thoughts together, we also spotted a bunch of dangerous extreme radical thinkers also taking a sceptical stance towards ‘resilience’, on the hashtag #resistingresilience on twitter. That is, librarians. At the ACRL17 event, Angela Galvan, Jacob Berg, and Eamon Tewell presented a paper on Resilience, Grit and Other Lies. Some of the slides are below, but their concerns seem to echo our worries.
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We are not calling for a moratorium on all uses of resilience, in all contexts. We are not complete idiots. We want our students to develop the attributes that make them employable, successful and happy; but is this narrative of resilience reallygoing to make a contribution here? In a recent conversation one of us had with linguist, Tony Thorne, he remarked “Where is the proof that Generations Y/Z are really less resilient? They are subject to much more insidious and pervasive pressure (trolling, shaming, peer-pressure, manipulation by commerce, etc.) because of the digital environment they inhabit.”
What we want and need are better ways of thinking about our students, not so mired in such individualist tropes. Some University teaching has moved on to a more collaborative model (obviously not all,) so surely our broader student development model needs to keep pace. The resilience model of students sees them in perpetual lack: at fault. This is neither healthy nor accurate. Instead, we need to be open to broader ways of engaging students, of thinking about their lives, what levers they really have to effect change, and where we, the rest of us, might have some responsibility in having fashioned the world (and its occupants) which has come to pass.

RJ1*The authors are not against employability. Both having had experience of unemployment, and are acutely aware that students will be facing realities where they need to demonstrate their employability. Our reluctance to be gung-ho advocates of resilience is also drawn from a need to be open about the current economic environment and the opportunities available. Even if a student has the right attitude, mindset and toughness, this is no guarantee of success. Further, having “the right attitude, mindset and toughness” is not an authentic set of tangible outcomes to demonstrate to an employer. They are not like, say, actual skills.