Everything Is Easy… Until It’s Hard

– Melissa K. Downes

Children's Reading 1

Melissa K. Downes.

Earlier this term, Hand in Hand published Paul Woodburne’s essay, “Everything is Hard – Until It Is Easy.” As Jeanne and I read it over and edited it for publication, I knew it was a good essay, raising important points about our roles and responsibilities as professors—and yet, I disagreed with it—and yet, I didn’t. It took me a while to understand that I agree with it in a complex way—and that complex reaction of both agreeing and disagreeing is part of my point.

Paul stated that a professor’s responsibility is “to make the difficult easy, to make the mysterious obvious.” However, sometimes our responsibility is also to make the apparently easy complex and to take what our students perceive as obvious and help them discover its mystery. More, part of our job may be to help our students embrace and even enjoy complexity. It is certainly our job to help them learn to handle the complex effectively on their own.

Much of what I teach to first-year students is skill based, breaking down their easy assumptions about reading, writing, research, critical thinking, and learning: reading a book isn’t just picking it up and highlighting (or darn well shouldn’t be); writing an essay doesn’t stop at inchoate word vomit at 2 AM; all sources are not created equal; two people can disagree and both be ”right.”

I want students to engage with complexity often and well: I  ask students to embrace reflection and depth in their writing and thinking; to use and assess sources based on thoughtful criteria and not on ease or agreement, etc. I also ask students to dig into and find pleasure in poems and stories that require patience and attention and can be read in multiple ways. For example, I’ll ask students their initial responses to characters early in a text (perhaps Nora and Torvald from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House): since students may already have strongly differing views, we will often list the contradictory adjectives they use to describe the characters and consider what evidence the text gives for these different readings. Later, I will ask them how their responses have changed by the end of the play. Then I might complicate things further by giving historical and/or literary context that sheds a different light on what they’ve read: what might happen to an inexperienced woman who leaves her husband in nineteenth-century Norway? What choices does she have? What would happen to her children if she were to take them with her? Why would many audiences embrace this as a feminist text, but a number of critics insist it is not?

However, while complexity can be beautiful, it is not an end in itself; lack of sureness can slow us down, cause us to hesitate. Eventually, on some issues, one must take a stand. But awareness of the complexities of a problem can make one surer of where to stand.

We are all surrounded by complexities all the time: deep divisions in our politics and culture; local, national, and global problems that cannot be solved by an easy phrase or executive order; the spread of “alternative facts” and false narratives running parallel to legitimate and powerful differences in opinion and interpretation; ethical and interpersonal issues in our diverse professional lives; and the usual messy realities of our personal lives. The desire to keep one’s head down and cling to easy binaries and moral simplicities when faced with such complexities is understandable, but problematic.

When I was in high school and in the early years of college, I was often very sure of my rightness. (I have not entirely left that annoying tendency behind me.) However, over the years I have become more careful about a righteous surety in myself or in others. Even back then, my “rightness” was often grounded in research, reading, and thoughtful conversations; nonetheless, my desire for easy answers in something clear, true, and obvious got in the way of noticing and responding to nuance and difference. It also got in the way of understanding that what might be right for me could be legitimately wrong for others.

Yes, teachers should not assume that their students are like them; however, my desire for a world with easy answers—a world with simple rightness in it—is very like the desires of many young people entering college. Kidwell (2005) suggests that, developmentally, most college students in their first year move from being “dualists” to “multiplists” and, as they progress through college, their responses become more complex and the way they perceive the world more relative (see also Perry, 1970 and Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tartule, 1986). Part of our roles as professors is to actively foster that development.

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Figure 1. “Easy” and “hard” are two parts of a single process that faculty help students traverse.

It is likely that Paul and I are talking about different stages of teaching, but on the same continuum (see Figure 1). We can and should give our students templates and scaffolds that help them manage challenging questions, difficult problems, and daunting tasks more effectively. For example, in my composition courses, I break writing down into smaller steps (i.e., invention, drafting, revision, and editing). I also provide handouts focusing on mastering key smaller skills within each step. I emphasize these processes as iterative; we are stronger and more thoughtful writers and thinkers when we loop back and use what we have learned to build on what we have done. I have them practice each step and often assess my students on both the product and the process.

However, if students stay at the stage of simply filling in templates, we have not taken them far enough. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a slippage in language, especially from many of our students. When discussing a desire to be effective, they use, instead, the word efficient. I want our students to be both effective and efficient. I don’t think their success will come easily if they (or we) sacrifice the effective for the efficient.

Of course it is not just young people who desire simplicity: I expect that most of us when encountering the new—or when angry, scared, or passionately involved —reduce complexity. Sometimes we ask our students to practice the discomfort of ambiguity, complexity, and failure without practicing it ourselves. We forgot how hard it can be to grow and change. We are better scholars and better teachers when we remember to challenge ourselves to move beyond our own perspectives.

As universities continue to change in this complex world, I believe we need to continue to advocate for the liberal arts and sciences—fields which can open up our students to complexity; allow them to see the world more richly and with greater empathy; and give them resources to adapt, problem solve, advocate, and thrive when things get hard. These skills are essential to an engaged and effective professional, civic, and personal life. I know that the teaching, learning, and advocacy of such skills is not easy—nor should it be—but it is a fine place to take a stand.


Belenky, M. F., Clinchy, B. M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tartule, J.M. (1986). Women’s ways of knowing. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Kidwell, K. S. (2005, July/August). Understanding the college first-year experience. The Clearing House, 78(6), 253-255. Retrieved from http://www.ecu.edu/cs-studentaffairs/saprofessionaldevelopment/customcf/Understanding%20the%20First%20Year%20College%20Experience%20by%20Kirk%20S.%20Kidwell.pdf.

Perry, W. G., Jr. (1970/1998). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years: A scheme. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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Dear Worried Sick

Dear Ms. Scholar, I have a student in class who is visibly depressed. She no longer interacts with her classmates, appears less engaged and more apathetic than in previous semesters, is performing more poorly on homework, and is missing class and failing to turn in assignments. I’m worried sick. Any suggestions?

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work

Dear Worried Sick, Talking to a student who isn’t doing well is often difficult, yet important. Our reaching out helps them feel heard and supported, two things that can make a significant difference.

It can be difficult for many people to reach out, because they can’t tell whether someone is only (only?) depressed or is actually suicidal. Is the depression short-term and situational or something more serious? However, my suggestions are equally valid for the person with depression or the one who is suicidal. Both need your support, your listening.

What can you do? Listen to your student calmly – or as calmly as you can. You may want to take a breath or do whatever you can to calm yourself down so that you can think more clearly. You may be panicking or feel overwhelmed, but remember your reactions are normal. Your worry and concern can, in fact, be helpful.

Respond to your student using active listening strategies. Reflective listening can help the student feel heard and understood, when their typical experience might have been to feel dismissed, avoided, misunderstood, or judged. When responding, you might start with a paraphrase like,  “It sounds like…” and reflect what you hear (even if it is word for word). If you’re comfortable, use any feeling words the student may have used or implied, such as, “You must be feeling exhausted right now” or “It sounds like you’re feeling pretty overwhelmed with everything.”

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Your listening can be helpful, but some students may need more support than you can offer. See figure. Make sure you are accessing all of the resources available to you (see, for example, those available from University of Alaska Anchorage).


Some of our difficulties in responding to someone who is depressed may stem from myths that many of us hold about depression and suicide:

  1. If I say something it will only make it worse. Often we fear that we are “putting ideas into the suicidal person’s head”; that is, we may believe that the person is at less risk of suicide if we stay quiet. In general, when we listen well and empathically, people feel that they aren’t alone and their depression and suicidality may decrease.
  2. They’re only saying this for attention. We all want attention and, sometimes, we ask for the wrong kinds of attention. However, a depressed or suicidal student is not merely seeking attention. Ms. Scholar finds that it is more useful to think that they don’t want to live like this. With that in mind, helping the student find ways of making life better can make things better.
  3. They’ve threatened before and haven’t done anything. They’re not going to attempt now. That would be reassuring if it were true – but it isn’t. People who have threatened suicide in the past are more likely to complete suicide in the future.
  4. I’m not a mental health counselor. What can I do? You can do a lot. You can listen to and support students and colleagues who appear to be depressed or contemplating suicide. You can make a referral to the Counseling Center. Ms. Scholar has a friend who has called Counseling to set up an appointment while the student is in her office (with the student’s approval); another friend has walked with students to the Counseling Center.  These same friends talk about coping strategies in class and remind students of university, community, and familial resources available. You can also talk about alcohol abuse as alcohol abuse is often a contributing factor. In fact, there is some evidence that alcohol plays a role in one in three suicides.

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 11.29.01 AMYes, listening to a student who is suicidal can be scary, but if you listen and if you care, you will help more than harm. Just as the Counseling Center can be an important resource for our students, you can also reach out to the Counseling Center to help you respond more effectively and handle being there for your students.

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com

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Letters of Recommendation: Don’t Damn Them With Faint Praise

Sauvage-Callaghan - Power to the People

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

I have been thinking about letters of recommendation lately – and that’s because I have read a great number of them over the past week or so, while reviewing applications for a position here at Clarion University and also for a scholarship award. I read some very good letters. And yes, I also came across a number of recommendations that might as well not have been written at all. Their writers should have known that they were doing more harm than good for the applicants.

We are university professors and, as such, are solicited frequently by students – sometimes with very little (i.e., insufficient) notice – to write them letters of recommendation in support of an application for a scholarship, for a work-study or permanent, post-graduation job, or for graduate school admission. Writing those letters is part of our job and can become burdensome and stressful at the height of “letter of recommendation season” – when our graduating seniors are applying for jobs or for graduate school. Yet, that is a task that should not be taken lightly because it does have a direct impact on someone’s future.

Here are my thoughts on letters of recommendation:

  1. It is ok to decline writing a letter of recommendation.

You can definitely do this if a student asks you for a letter less than a week before a given deadline.

My line on this one: Sorry, but I have a lot of my plate right now, and you are not giving me enough time to write you a strong, thoughtful letter.

You can also do so if you feel that you are not familiar enough with a student to write knowingly about him or her. Recently, a colleague mentioned to me that she had been asked for a letter of recommendation by an ex-student who she had taught for just a couple of semesters, and with whom she had not had any contact for some fifteen years! And I am certain that many of you have often been asked to write a recommendation by  a student who was one of 50 or 100 others in one of your classes for just one semester, and whose name does not even ring a bell.

My line on this one: Sorry, but I do not feel that I know you well enough to write you a letter of recommendation. Why don’t you ask a professor who is more familiar with you and your work?

And, of course, there are the not-so-good to really bad students about whom you wonder why they would ask you for a letter. I have to admit that, years ago, I wrote a letter for such a student, and its first line was “I have no clue why X asked me to write him this letter of recommendation” – and yes, it went downhill from there! I felt a little mean doing that, but this student – who was actually very smart but incredibly lazy – had not thought very hard before asking me to write him this letter which, I admit, I should not have agreed to write.

My line on this one: Look, you earned a D, and were far from a shining beacon in my class. Why don’t you ask for a letter from a professor in whose class you earned an A or a B?

  1. Once you have agreed to write a letter of recommendation, don’t damn your student (or ex-student) with faint praise.

Ask for specific information about that recommendation. This includes: To whom is this letter addressed, and by when? What is the student applying for? Grad school, a scholarship, a part-time job, a full-time post-graduation position? The more specific the information is, the better you can focus your recommendation to what your student is applying for.

Ask the requester for a current résumé, including a list of extracurricular activities. An instructor cannot know everything that a student has done, or all the details of his involvement in volunteer work or extracurricular activities. However, those are very important pieces of an applicant’s life journey and can help you tell a more useful story about the student.

Start crafting your letter, making sure to include the following: To tell your story well, show that you know the applicant, both as a student and as a person. Point out outstanding qualities, and be specific and concrete about what they’ve done. Draw from your personal experiences of what the student has done to demonstrate those strengths. Compare the student to others you have taught and indicate how others perceive the student (e.g., “one of the five best students in my 25 years of teaching”; “well respected by his/her peers”; “my colleagues all agree that this student is outstanding.”). Finally, give a phone number or e-mail address where you can be contacted for further information.

Pour your heart into crafting your letter.  I know, we all have our own “templates” for letters of recommendation; yet, each letter should reflect a personal investment on the part of the writer in the individual for whom it is written. I once read letters written on behalf of several students applying for the same scholarship by a professor who wrote identical, very generic letters for each one of them. Last week, I also read many letters that said absolutely nothing useful about the applicants.

What you want to convey is your real knowledge of the student and that you can testify for that person’s qualities as a good student and awesome individual (e.g., responsible and engaged, creative, strong interpersonal skills, effective communication skills).

When writing a letter of recommendation, you are putting your integrity on the line. My litmus test on this: I know that I am doing a great job on a letter of recommendation when writing it is close to effortless, if I feel warm and fuzzy inside and have fond memories of the individual I am recommending.

So, yes, writing letters of recommendation does take time and requires thoughtfulness. If those are two things that you cannot put into writing this particular letter, then don’t agree to do it.

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan (formerly Elisabeth Donato) is an Associate Professor of French at Clarion University. She likes reflecting on her teaching practices. Her goal is that her students become proficient in all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and, most of all, fall in love with the French language, the French people, and the francophone culture. Her research focuses on French popular culture.

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Why Pennsylvania Should Invest in Its Public Universities

 – Melissa K. Downes and Jeanne M. Slattery

It’s April again, and we’re paying our taxes. We suspect that no one really likes paying taxes (though we have no hard evidence for this). No one says, “I’ve just done an important thing that benefits  my community, my state, and my nation by paying my taxes.” But we should.

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Figure 1. Changes in state funding for higher education and tuition costs in Pennsylvania, 2008-2016 (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016).

However, we also need to advocate strongly for how our tax money is spent. Significant evidence suggests that Pennsylvania is not investing enough in public higher education. Since 2008, Pennsylvania has slashed higher education funding by 33.3 percent (a cut of $2,234 per student), while tuition has risen by nearly 20 percent (or $2,202 per student) (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016). See Figure 1. Pennsylvania currently ranks “fourth from the bottom nationally in per capita spending on higher education” (Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, 2016, para. 6).

Misrepresentations – by administrators or public servants – of faculty and students at our public universities as lazy and greedy give neither a fair nor realistic view of how public higher education in Pennsylvania benefits every Pennsylvanian. Such misrepresentations are counterproductive and short sighted. They demean and demoralize faculty and students, and, when they lead to a lack of serious investment in higher education, they damage everyone.

We need a college-educated Pennsylvania:

[B]ased on current trends — without significant new investment in capacity — the nation’s education system will not keep pace with the rising demand for educated workers. By 2020, the country’s system of higher education will produce 5 million fewer college graduates than the labor market will need. (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2016, p. 22)

Affordable and effective public higher education is an important part of our economic and social health as a state. We do a fundamental disservice to all Pennsylvanians and to current and future generations of young people if we do not change our state funding choices.

Public Good vs. Private Benefit

Just this past week, Melissa and her College Writing students were watching Ivory Tower (Rossi, 2014). While this documentary covers many issues in higher education (e.g., “paying for the party,” student debt), one thread running throughout the film is the cultural/political shift in the perception of higher education from that of a public good to a private benefit.

That perception of college as merely a private good has profound repercussions. We see some of those repercussions right now as we view the Senate budget hearings, as five PASSHE universities send out letters of retrenchment, and as the State System conducts a feasibility study to decide the fate of public higher education for those students most needing access to affordable higher education.

While we both firmly believe we have benefited as individuals from our educations and fervently hope our students will benefit personally from their college careers, we as fervently and as firmly believe that higher education is a public good.

While Melissa attended a private university as an undergraduate, her commitment to (and affection for) public higher education started long before she came to Clarion. Jeanne went to a public university as an undergraduate. She has taught at Clarion long enough that the mission to make higher education accessible and affordable, to offer opportunities to succeed to students who might not otherwise have opportunities to do so, is lodged deep in her bones.

Both of Melissa’s parents taught at a state university. Her parents’ lives as professors were made possible by public higher education. Both first-generation college students from poor families, they met and married at Florida State, where her mother was getting her Masters and her father studying for his BA. In her own family history, she has seen the private and public benefits of public higher education, the way that such an education enriches lives, enhances civic and political engagement, promotes social mobility, and makes even more things possible for the next generation.

But personal testimony is not the only evidence of the value of public higher education. Multiple studies attest to its value as a public good.

Some Ways that Higher Education Benefits All of Pennsylvania

The Institute for Higher Education (1998) notes that private and public benefits of education have a “cascade” effect on each other (p. 3). What might appear at first a private good (literacy, for example) also acts as a public one (and vice versa). Though their graphic showing many of the benefits of higher education divides these benefits into public and private, the overlap or “cascade” effect is important to remember. See Table 1. Further, things they deem as having social benefits (improved health, for example) also have long-term financial benefits (both private and public).

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Table 1. Array of benefits derived from a college education (Institute for Higher Education, 1998)

Thus, the private good of greater earned income that many of our students strive for is also a public good:

The economic benefits of increases in postsecondary attainment extend far beyond the individuals who earn credentials. A more productive economy generates a higher standard of living overall. The higher earnings of educated workers generate higher tax payments at the local, state, and federal levels. Four-year college graduates pay, on average, 91% more in taxes each year than high school graduates, and for those who continued on to earn a professional degree, average tax payments are more than three and a half times as high as those of high school graduates. (Ma, Pender & Welch, 2016, p. 9; see also Bergeron, Baylor, & Flores, 2014; Hill, Hoffman, & Rex, 2005)

Furthermore, Hout (2012), who is quite careful about correlation, cause, and competing explanations, suggests that, if education “boosts collective productivity” as research indicates, “then increasing educational attainment for a population might be a key causal factor in overall economic growth” (p. 392). Investing in education makes good business sense.

Beyond these economic benefits of productivity, a higher standard of living, a stronger tax base, and overall economic growth, research shows that higher education brings about further benefits for communities that invest in it.

Investing in higher education tends to correlate with a reduction in crime and the costs associated with crime, according to the Justice Policy Institute (2007):

  • States that made bigger investments in higher education saw better public safety outcomes. Of the 10 states that saw the biggest increases in higher education expenditure, eight saw violent crime rates decline, and five saw violent crime decline more than the national average. Of the 10 states that saw the smallest change in higher education expenditure, the violent crime rate rose in five states. (p. 2)
  • Higher education correlates with increased access to desirable job markets, and thus higher potential wage earnings, heightened aversion to impulsivity due to cultivation of critical thought, and the added deterrent of strong social bonds with community and agency of employment. (p. 10)

A stronger investment in higher education may reduce other costs, as well, including the cost of public assistance programs:

  • Education is…inversely related with reliance on welfare and public assistance. Investing in education reduces the necessity to invest in other public income transfer programs. Twenty-four percent of individuals without a high school diploma have at some time participated in a public assistance program, compared with 4.6 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree. Lack of education represents a huge cost to society. (NEA Higher Education Research Center, 2003, p. 3)
  • In 2015, 29% of adult high school graduates and 47% of those without a high school diploma lived in households that received Medicaid coverage. Participation rates were 24% for those with some college but no degree, 21% for those with an associate degree, and 12% for those with at least a four-year college degree. 
 (Ma et al., 2016, p. 35)

Evidence suggests a correlation, as well, between higher education, civic engagement, and a stronger democracy:

  • The percentage of individuals who perform unpaid volunteer activities increases with level of education. Among adults age 25 and older, 16% of those with a high school diploma volunteered in 2015, compared with 39% of individuals with at least a bachelor’s degree. (Ma et al., 2016, p. 40)
  • In the 2014 midterm election, the voting rate of 25- to 44-year-olds with at least a bachelor’s degree (45%) was more than twice as high as the voting rate of high school graduates (20%) in the same age group. (Ma et al., 2016, p. 41)
  • We all benefit from the non-market public effects of education. Society gets a better citizen – one more likely to vote, raise healthier children, volunteer, and provide skills to the community. Informed and involved voters are the foundation of a democratic society, and education helps develop skills for a democracy. (NEA Higher Education Research Center, 2003, p. 3)

And the Most Important Part

While what public higher education does for our state financially and socially is important, we also need to invest in our students. That trite phrase about our children being our future applies here. Educational benefits are intergenerational, as Melissa’s family story suggests. If we deprive a generation (or more) of Pennsylvania’s students access to affordable higher education, our students will pay for the lack; their children will pay for the lack; all of us will pay for the lack.

We believe in public universities and in offering access for students who might not otherwise have a chance at higher education or the opportunities that public universities offer. That is why we are so dismayed to hear of retrenchment notices from the five public universities serving Pennsylvania’s poorest populations. At Clarion, of the 15 Pennsylvania counties from which we frequently bring in 100 or more students, all but two are below the state average in per capita income (Hanover Research, 2013); we suspect that many of our students from the two counties above the state average are not wealthy. Should we turn our backs on Western Pennsylvanians from low-income homes?

We have a profound and widening income gap in higher education. In 2014, 80 percent of graduating high school students from wealthier families (the top family income quartile) pursued a college education. Only 45% of student from the bottom quartile did so (Pell Institute, 2016). Student retention for those from the top family income quartile was 87% in 2014; the continuation rate for students in the bottom quartile was 60% (Pell Institute, 2016).

Working class families need help in sending their children to college. Students from homes with an income of less than $10,000 pay 238% of their family income in average college cost, even though such students select lower-cost schools. The percentage of family income spent on cost of attendance by students from families in the $30-40,000 range is 72%. In contrast, students with family incomes of $200,000 are laying out only 18% of that income, even though attending higher-cost colleges (Pell Institute, 2016).

Facing such costs, many lower-income students must make the unenviable choice of incurring significant debt – a debt made more difficult to pay off by their family circumstances – or not going to college at all. What is a public university for? Are we merely providing somewhat inexpensive education for the middle and upper-middle class or are we helping people succeed when they otherwise might not?

Higher education encourages social mobility and decreases poverty. Regardless of household type – intact, single parent, blended – the rate of poverty falls as education rises (Ma et al., 2016). In 2001, 21% of lowest-income students earning at least a bachelor’s degree attained the highest income quartile after ten years (Ma et al., 2016). Lack of access to affordable public education decreases upward mobility. We must invest more in public education now:

The benefits of higher education remain significant. By 2018, it is projected that only 37 percent of all jobs will require up to a high school diploma, of which only one-third will pay $35,000 or more. By contrast, 54 percent of workers with an associate’s degree and 69 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree are projected to earn more than $35,000 a year. (Coles, 2013, p. 4)

What happens when the costs of college go up (i.e., tuition, fees, books, and housing)? Maguire Associates suggested that the bottom line matters, not only the cost of tuition, and that increases in the overall costs will negatively impact enrollments (Mash, 2017). Pennsylvania has increasingly been shifting the burden of the cost of public higher education onto students and their families: in 1984, Pennsylvania funded 62% of the costs of public higher education, while tuition paid 38%. By 2008, state funding had dropped to 38%, with students and their families responsible for 62% in the form of fees and tuition. Now, 72% of cost is paid by students through tuition and fees (Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, 2016). While we recognize that population/demographics are part of the reason that fewer students are enrolling at many of the PASSHE universities, the increasing cost burden we ask students to take on most impacts the very students we most need to serve.

If our mission is to make education accessible and Pennsylvania stronger, the shift from state funding to student funding of public higher education works against our goals. Since all of Pennsylvania benefits from public higher education, we need a stronger investment in public higher education, and the burden needs to be shared more fairly, so those who most need affordable higher education have access to universities they can afford.

If postsecondary education is necessary to obtain work that pays a living wage, then all individuals, regardless of family income, parents’ education, socioeconomic status, or other demographic characteristic, should have equal opportunity to participate and benefit. (Pell Institute, 2016, p. 7)

Public universities are not a luxury, but a public good and something we must invest in.


Bergeron, D., Baylor, E., & Flores, A. (2014, October). A great recession, a great retreat: A call for a public college quality compact. Retrieved from https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/PublicCollege-report.pdf

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. (2016, August 15). Funding down, tuition up: State cuts to higher education threaten quality and affordability at public colleges. Retrieved from http://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/5-19-16sfp.pdf

Coles, A. (2013, April). The investment payoff: Reassessing and supporting efforts to maximize the benefits of higher education for underserved populations. Institute For Higher Education Policy. Retrieved from http://www.ihep.org/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/pubs/the-investment-payoff-final-april-2013.pdf

Hanover Research. (2013). Student home county mapping: Prepared for Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://www.clarion.edu/about-clarion/offices-and-administration/university-support-and-business/office-of-institutional-research/student-home-county-mapping-clarion-university-of-pennsylvania.pdf

Hill, K., Hoffman, D., & Rex, T. R. (2005, October). The value of higher education: Individual and societal benefits (with special consideration for the state of Arizona). Retrieved from https://www.asu.edu/president/p3/Reports/EdValue.pdf

Hout, M. (2012). Social and economic returns to college education in the United States. Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 379-400. doi: 10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102503

Institute For Higher Education Policy. (1998). Reaping the benefits: Defining the public and private value of going to college. Retrieved from http://www.ihep.org/sites/default/files/uploads/docs/pubs/reapingthebenefits.pdf

Justice Policy Institute. (2007, Aug. 30). Education and public safety. Retrieved from http://www.justicepolicy.org/images/upload/07-08_rep_educationandpublicsafety_ps-ac.pdf

Ma, J., Pender, M., & Welch, M. (2016). Education pays 2016: The benefits of higher education for individuals and society. Washington, D.C.: The College Board. Retrieved from https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/education-pays-2016-full-report.pdf

Mash, K. (2017, March 30). Accelerating that State System death spiral. State APSCUF Newsletter.

NEA Higher Education Research Center. (2003, May). Higher education: Who benefits? Update 9(3), 1-3. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/HE/vol9no3.pdf

Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education & The University of Pennsylvania Alliance 
for Higher Education and Democracy. (2016). Indicators of higher education equity in the United States: 2016 Historical trends report. The Pell Institute. Retrieved from http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2016_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf

Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. (2016, October 14). Editorial board memo: Higher education funding in Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://pennbpc.org/editorial-board-memo-higher-education-funding-pennsylvania

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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Post-election: Reaching Across the Table

–  Jeanne M. Slattery, Ellen Foster, and Melissa K. Downes


Melissa Downes, Ellen Foster, and Jeanne Slattery

We value exploring ideas in the classroom. We value effective communication. We value making room for a variety of perspectives. Given these things, last fall’s election was personally challenging, but also an opportunity to grow.

Ellen had a student on election day crow about Trump’s surge in the polls – and another express concern about hearing racial epithets directed at her, about feeling less safe after the election.

One of Melissa’s students announced in an assignment – which was not at all about the election or US politics – that “the world” has to agree on a “right answer” and support the president as he makes “a better country.”

Jeanne’s interns, all senior psychology majors, were baffled and afraid after the election. Their values and career goals were challenged by the election, as psychology majors often want to “help other people,” to make the world a fairer place for all. Suddenly, for them, the world felt unsafe.

The three of us have had difficulty with the election results, but we also want to make room for multiple perspectives from both sides of the political aisle.

Teaching often takes courage. Ellen had been asking students to consider the meanings of a series of images. See Figure 1. Students expressed positive – and in some cases negative – reactions. She had planned on discussing the last of these three images on the Thursday after the election and considered dropping it to avoid a contentious discussion. She went ahead, reminding students that their classroom was a place to exchange ideas respectfully and build understanding. If not in a room where they’d worked well together since August, where could such conversations happen? As one of her students said, “You have balls, Dr. F.” (She took his statement in the spirit in which it was meant.)


Figure 1. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, Photo by Joe Rosenthal/Associated Press; US Marine Corp Memorial, Washington, DC; and Photo by Ed Freeman/Getty Images.

* * *

It is easy to focus on the inaccuracies and outright lies that characterize some of Trump’s tweets and simply grow more and more frustrated by the whole idea of “alt-facts.” It might be easy to dismiss voters who voted differently as ill-informed. However, as teachers, we should be aiding students as they develop effective ways to both challenge and support their own values and perspectives. For example, in working with her composition students on building ethical arguments, Melissa plans to provide examples of what not to do that come from both sides of the ongoing post-election debates. Each of us is trying to pay attention to audience, to the many different values and perspectives that viewers bring to the Pride photo and other points of view (cf. Lamothe, 2015).

There’s an easy assumption that college faculty are trying to convert students to their own values and beliefs (e.g., DeVos’s comments; Jaschik, 2017). Each of us is more interested in strengthening our students’ critical thinking skills and their ability to understand differing legitimate viewpoints.


Figure 2. Both people high and low in religiosity see the other as intolerant (Putnam & Campbell, 2010).

We have been reading some of the things about differences between conservatives and liberals.  Why would “hillbillies” see billionaire President Trump as a viable candidate and similar to them, but be put off by President Obama or Secretary Clinton (Vance, 2016a, 2016b)? Putnam and Campbell (2010) provide a fascinating account of religion in the US. People who are high in religiosity see those as low in religiosity as intolerant – and those low in religiosity see people high in religiosity as intolerant (see Figure 2). Much the same is true for selfishness (not depicted here). Haidt (2012) argues that liberals and conservative hold different moral values influencing how they see the world: liberals focus more on caring and fairness, while conservatives emphasize loyalty, authority, and purity to a greater degree (Haidt, 2012).

It would be easier and more comfortable for anyone to read perspectives that agree with their own, but we are attempting to go outside our comfort zone (and we should). And we want our students to also challenge their assumptions, though admittedly in “safe” places. Liberals and conservatives often see the world differently from each other (and similarly in others). We need to pay attention to both the similarities and differences.

We are in disciplines where audience and evidence matter. We each believe we must write and teach in ways that are convincing for our audience. Jeanne believes that her students will effect change more powerfully when speaking their clients’ “language.” Being a good teacher means emphasizing critical thinking and being aware of audience – recognizing the best ways to reach students, while challenging them to move beyond their comfort zones.

If we are going to be effective at our jobs, we need to help our students consider their audiences, evaluate their evidence, recognize that audience’s values and beliefs, and communicate more effectively. We want our students to develop a greater “empathetic logic” – the ability to communicate effectively using their understanding of another person’s worldview.

And we need to communicate. Whether we are conservative, liberal, or moderate, we should consider how to communicate more effectively. We all need to find ways to reach across the table.

We are living in polarized times, where we increasingly see the world in terms of good and evil, right and wrong. Duarte and his colleagues (Duarte, Crawford, Stern, Haidt, Jussim, & Tetlock, 2015) argue that our perspectives on issues may be enriched by making room for multiple perspectives rather than excluding some or creating caricatures of them.

The real advantage to having multiple perspectives is that we don’t become complacent. We are scholars and teachers; we value evidence and critical thinking. We plan to fight for what we see as fair and just and work hard to understand why different perspectives appeal to others.


Duarte, J. L., Crawford, J. T., Stern, C., Haidt, J., Jussim, L., & Tetlock, P. E. (2015). Political diversity will improve social psychological science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 38, 1-13. Retrieved from https://journals.cambridge.org/images/fileUpload/documents/Duarte-Haidt_BBS-D-14-00108_preprint.pdf

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion.  New York, NY: Random House.

Jaschik, S. (2017). DeVos vs. the Faculty. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/02/24/education-secretary-criticizes-professors-telling-students-what-think

Lamothe, D. (2015). Iwo Jima Marines, gay pride and a photo adaptation that spawns fury. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/07/01/iwo-jima-marines-gay-pride-and-a-photo-adaptation-that-spawns-fury/

Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2010). American grace: How religion divides and unites us. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Vance, J. D. (2016a). Hillbilly elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis. Sydney, Australia: HarperCollins Publishers.

Vance, J. D. (2016b). Life outside the liberal bubble. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/opinion/election-night-2016/life-outside-the-liberal-bubble

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

Ellen Foster is professor of English at Clarion University.  This year, she’s glad to be exploring new pedagogies through teaching an inquiry seminar (Who Might You Be If You Weren’t You?) for the first time and re-imagining her first-year writing courses (not for the first time).

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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Dear “John”

Ms. Scholar at work.

Ms. Scholar at work.

Dear Ms. Scholar, I have a student who self-identified as the opposite sex to her assigned gender and who asked to be called “John” rather than “Jane.” What should I do?

Dear Confused about John, If you call your other students by their preferred names, call this student John. If you don’t, inform your student of your policy so he can change classes.

Yes, it’s that simple. – Ms. Scholar

If you have questions regarding teaching, student/faculty issues, or other comments/suggestions, please write to: Ms. Scholar c/o MsScholarCU@gmail.com

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Study Guides and Guiding Study

– Jeanne M. Slattery

JMS 0814

Jeanne Slattery

Last month I gave my students their first exam of the semester. One class did very well for a first exam (an average of a mid-C), while the other class, erm, did not.

I want my students to learn, even from their mistakes. As a result, I asked my students to reflect on their exam using several things that we’ve discussed here in earlier blogs – a video by Stephen Chew, Mark Mitchell’s (2016) article on identifying problems contributing to poor test performance, and a chapter of Carol Dweck’s (2006) work on mindset.

Surprisingly, most students attributed their problems to failing to read their text carefully enough or not studying sufficiently. I was surprised both because I expected them to attribute the problem to me (very few did), but also because they took responsibility for their poor grades, thus challenging my stereotypes about college students. Many talked about this as a first-test problem: they often have difficulties with a first exam until they know how their professor tests (and whether they need to study???).

When I run into problems, I also attempt to identify and learn from such mistakes. Two things that I’ve considered about this first exam: (a) I attempted to do too much in the first unit of the course and will pare back a bit next time, and (b) as some of my students complained, my study guide wasn’t as useful as they’d like and wasn’t available as early as they wished.

I’ve used similar study guides for a long time and have been successful in the past with them, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t handle them better. I hand them out a week before the exam, although some students thought I should hand them out sooner.

Should I?

I want my students to learn and to learn how to learn, to become curious about abnormal psychology, to adopt new ways of thinking about people and mental health problems. When they prepare for an exam, they often focus on memorizing definitions, the very bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy. I want them, at the very least, to also understand and apply the ideas we discuss. Those are skills that are difficult to build in a single week – but are unlikely to be built by reviewing definitions (although look at this way of using flashcards, written by Mark Mitchell).

I posted my concerns about study guides on Facebook and received many very thoughtful comments, more than I think I’ve received to anything else I’ve posted (thank you, all!).

Some comments that struck me:

On one hand, if you tell students everything you want them to learn, it might be the ONLY THINGS they learn. On the other side, they know what to look for and are less stressed which allows them to absorb more information. Maria Alfred ’10

From my aging perspective, I’m beginning to think that study guides serve only to reinforce that the purpose of the class is the transfer of information. John Ernissee (Geology, retired)

The syllabus is their study guide… Pam Stover (Music, University of Toledo)

They are simply used to being given the questions and answers in the form of a study guide in HS. We need to aid them in making the transition to thinking for themselves and not being supplied with the questions and answers. Rich Lane (English)

I have learned more by being challenged than by being spoon-fed…. Continue to do what you believe best prepares your students for graduate school or immediate transition to work in the field. In my experience, I was much more prepared for graduate school having earned my BS in Psychology at Clarion than most of my classmates at [xxx], and I still struggled with the sometimes rigorous demands of the program. I was expected to think for myself. Sandy Potter ’96

I am resistant to giving a study guide too early, as I also want students to begin to own their learning process. When they leave here, they will need to learn and identify what’s most important without me. As Ellen Foster (English) said, “That’s the point: ownership, self-starting, discipline, synthesis, etc.

Nic Rawson ’13, now in medical school, said,

The thing that they do [in my program] that I greatly appreciate is objectives. The beginning of every lecture (which are all powerpoints, so you’d have to get creative otherwise), they have a list of things we should know by the test. Sometimes these are “Know the pathogenesis, presentation, morphology, diagnostics, and treatment of all diseases presented in this lecture,” but most of the time they are a tad more specific. It helps guide my studying and focus on what is must know information.

Nic’s comments struck me. I know that there is a lot that I want my students to learn; Abnormal Psychology could easily be a two semester course. I do a fair amount already to guide my students’ studying. I post PowerPoints, give them a short study guide, and link to many good resources on studying effectively. In addition, though, I start each class with things that could easily be considered “study guides” for that class period. I open every class with a thought question, then follow that with a short series of questions that I’ve thought of as giving them a map of the class period (Figure 1).


Figure 1. The first two slides – or “study guides” – from my discussion of the relationship between stress and health in Abnormal Psychology.

Rather than thinking about these as only strategies to engage and orient students, perhaps I should also, like Nic Rawson suggested, be thinking of and talking about them as the best possible kind of study guides. Perhaps I should also help my students understand why I don’t only give them the test questions or a more developed study guide. As Sandy Potter observed, I want them to learn to think for themselves.

My students are focused on the grade and may not know that there are other things to consider. If all they earn is a good grade on an exam, I’ve failed them. I want my students to learn to think as a psychologist, to learn to learn, to become curious, to recognize and identify the important (and unimportant) things as they read. My study guide is only one part of that process.


Dweck, D. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books: Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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