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Civility in the Classroom in the Age of Trump

April 28, 2017

By: Dr. Jeremy Mayer, Associate Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government

(This opinion piece is solely representative of the opinions of the author. Should you have any questions or comments, please email Dr. Mayer.)

Graduate students in our hyper partisan polarized era may be worried about how civil discussions can take place in the classroom. This is particularly true at a place like Mason, which has a diverse faculty, many with strong political views and identities. In truth, it can be hard to have a civil discussion about reproductive access policy or some other controversial topic, without descending into a CNN style shouting match.

The keys are civility and respect.

On the first day of each class I teach, I have a few things I always cover in addition to the syllabus, the assignments, the books, and the topic. I warn students that in a course on public policy and politics, sensitive issues are almost certain to arise, such as the death penalty, torture, genocide, abortion, sexual orientation, religious freedom, prejudice, affirmative action, or similar matters. I ask them to treat each other with respect, that I welcome strong views, but I insist that the class be a place where the HOLDERS of all opinions and views are treated with respect, even if one cannot respect the view itself. I also issue a cautionary note that they cannot assume that my views are what I am voicing at any time, since sometimes in the absence of a particular view, I will articulate it with passion to give it a fair hearing.

It is hard to anticipate sometimes when the most sensitive topics may arise. I was teaching a Master’s class on foreign policy almost a decade ago, and I wanted students to understand the moral case for the invasion of Iraq, to see it as Bush saw it, which is hard to do now as our memory of the war is so colored by the failure to find WMD and the disastrous occupation. I knew that Bush was very affected by conversations with Iraqi dissidents and their stories of torture, and we watched a short video put out by a conservative group showing in graphic detail the torture Saddam’s agents inflicted in his prisons. In the discussion afterward, several liberal critics were attacking the idea that Bush invaded to stop torture. At some point, a usually quiet Asian man made a comment, on the edge of tears. He and his brother had been victims of torture in Cambodia, and his brother had not survived. In my opinion, the previous students had not meant to indicate that torture was not an important issue, not a terrible human rights violation, but he had felt that way, and felt that he had to make them understand the grave moral evil torture represents.

As painful as that moment was, no one left the classroom, and I think it was an important lesson about the gravity of issues that can arise in a policy classroom.

Since the election of President Trump, I have struggled with my own civility. I have, I think, moved to the left over the course of the last 10-15 years of American politics. I was previously a liberal Republican with libertarian instincts, then an independent, but the war in Iraq and the deepening alliance between the Christian Right and the Republican Party, as well as certain fiscal issues, have pushed me towards the Democrats. Still, I am proud that at various times I have been confused for a conservative, a socialist, and most points in between. I have been asked to be a faculty sponsor for the College Republicans and the College Democrats. I have always been able to articulate the Republican and the Democratic message with some fairness as necessary in the classroom.

But Trump tests civility in the classroom in two key ways. First, the man himself regularly violates civility norms in American political life. His mockery of a physically disabled reporter, his gross behavior and words towards women, his penchant for personal attacks on political opponents, federal judges, and even decorated war heroes and their families, are simply unprecedented in American history. Throughout the presidential debates in the primaries and the general election, his style of personal attacks and bombast were the precise opposite of the kind of discussion I hope to foster. When we see that style rise to victory, it becomes harder to argue it is essential in the classroom.

The second way in which Trump tests civility is more personal for me. I have said for years to policy students that I don’t care if they are liberal or conservative, that I want them to learn how to use data and logic to contribute to the policy debate, as analysts, advocates, or administrators. I’ve spent 13 years at GMU’s policy program, telling people that the type of expertise we teach is valuable. I had little trouble in the election season of 2012 talking about the policy proposals of Mitt Romney with respect. Romney had a good policy shop, and his ideas merited debate and discussion.

By contrast, Trump’s ideas are seldom more complicated than a slogan, and reveal little commitment to underlying principles or ideology. So it is sometimes hard for me to treat his proposals and ideas with civility because it seems as if his whole presentation of self represents an attack on expertise, on knowledge itself.

But part of civility is treating the ideas you find least palatable with respect. It’s definitely a work in progress for me, but I remain committed to that goal, even if the idea or political movement under discussion seems to be opposed to civility and reasoned debate.


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Graduate Students, Let Your Voices Be Heard!

April 21, 2017

By Hadeel Al-Tashi

Often, by the time students reach the graduate level they feel their days of campus and involvement and activism are behind them. This is understandable – priorities certainly do change once in graduate school with a focus shifting more toward professional pursuits, research, and degree completion. Yet, there are many opportunities for graduate students to continue to engage with the campus community. For those who were once active undergraduate campus leaders and for those who have never served in a formal leadership role, I am here to say Graduate Students, Let Your Voices Be Heard!

My name is Hadeel and I am a graduate policy student from Yemen. As one example of how graduate students can become involved at Mason, I’d like to share about my experience with the President-Student Advisory Group

I proudly served as Mason’s Arlington campus representative on the 2016-2017 President-Student Advisory Group. President Cabrera established the President-Student Advisory Group to encourage in-depth and meaningful conversations between students and senior university administrators on current issues relating to the Mason student experience. The student advisory body consists of students currently seeking their PhD, Mastand Bachelor’s degrees. The group is invited for lunch meetings at the Fairfax campus four times throughout the Fall and Spring semesters.

My involvement with the group enhanced my experience as a graduate policy student. Here are three ways it can enhance yours:

  1. Enrich Your Graduate Experience: Think of this group as an exclusive student leadership program where you will be in the loop about the latest events, issues, and developments. Not just that, but also think of it as a program where you can leave behind an impact. It is an opportunity to engage, learn, and give back. Are there any causes you are particularly passionate about? Or things you would like to improve around campus? In this group, you can voice your thoughts and add value to the conversation with senior-level decision makers. In previous meetings, we discussed issues like student health and well-being, sexual assault prevention, transformational learning, and freedom of expression across Mason campuses. We also provided our feedback on the university’s new budget model.
  1. Grow Your Professional Network: Get connected to students you wouldn’t meet otherwise. It gets harder for graduate students to meet other students outside of their program. The students you will meet in this group are bright and diverse in their academic, professional, and social backgrounds. You will get the opportunity to build valuable relationships with Mason’s President, Dr. Cabrera and Vice President for University , Rose Pascarell. You will also occasionally meet with the university’s Board of Visitors and government officials through other events.
  1. Enhance Your Leadership Skills: It is a great way to discover and practice your passions and to build your resume. I recently spoke with a Mason graduate, Lisette Vegas, who accepted an offer to work for the Urban Institute. When I asked her what she thought made her a unique candidate, she said it was her leadership role in the Mason community. The President-Student Advisory Group provides the opportunity to brainstorm ideas to solve critical problems facing the university and its students. You will also get a first-hand exposure to the measures the executive branches are taking to ensure diversity and inclusivity. The highlight of my involvement was when I was invited to share my perspective on Trump’s immigration executive order with Senator Kaine.

Whether you decide to apply for the President-Student Advisory Group or to get involved in others ways, it is important to remember that at Mason, there are many avenues for your voice to be heard! Graduate students can consider getting involved with the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GAPSA) or with student organizations within your academic programs and beyond.

The application deadline for the 2017-2018 President-Student Advisory Group has just passed, however the group is still looking for representation for the Arlington and SciTech Campuses. I would strongly encourage ALL Mason graduate students at the Fairfax, Arlington, SciTech, and Loudoun locations to consider submitting an application next year to be a part of the 2018-2019 group. Early planning for this great opportunity will give you the time you need to reflect on your own passions and consider where you would like to add value to the Mason Nation. Students from all backgrounds are encouraged to get involved!

Interested in serving as a 2017-18 President-Student Advisory Group representative for the:

Arlington Campus? Contact University Life Assistant Dean, Lori Scher at lcohen@gmu.edu

SciTechCampus? Contact University Life and Residence Life, Erin Brandt at ebrandt@gmu.edu


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Resilience at Mason

14 April 2017

By Lewis Forrest, II, Associate Dean for University Life

Spring is here and the semester is entering its busy season before exams and graduation. How are you holding up? Are you able to attend to your well-being and stay focused during this important time? Are you more resilient than you realize?

In my blog post last year, I challenged you to be mindful of your well-being during graduate school, given the complex lives and multiple responsibilities graduate students balance. This time, I’d like to focus specifically on resilience.  Whether you have things under control or not, we all should find time to reflect on our resilience. At Mason, we define resilience as: Enhancing the capacity for successful adaptation in the face of stress, challenge, and adversity.

Another definition is “the capacity to bend or stretch without breaking, to return to original shape of condition.” The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats and even significant sources of stress – such as family and relational problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stresses.”

What about your day-to-day life makes you resilient, and what parts of your life make it more difficult to bounce back? The Resilience Project, which is a part of Mason’s Well-Being University initiative, lists ways in which the university community is supporting resilience:

  • The Resilience Model
  • Resilience Modules
  • The Resilience Badge Project (cohort now in session; next cohort planned for Fall 2017)

Mason’s Resilience Model represents the components of flourishing that we believe comprise a resilient human being. We believe that with the appropriate resources and support, a person can intentionally enhance each component in their own life to build their resilience; for more information check out Mason’s Well-Being page. The five components below give you some guidance on areas where you can focus to increase and support your resilience during graduate school.

Positive emotions – positive emotions are a person’s brief responses when they interpret their current circumstances as good, pleasurable, or of good fortune. Positive emotions include joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.

Social support – social support is the degree to which a person feels they can rely on or turn to other people for support, advice, or encouragement.

Meaning in life – meaning in life is the extent to which a person feels their life is purposeful and how they make sense of their life and place within the world.

Coping – coping involves a person’s response to something distressing, including their ability to manage their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

Physical well-being  physical well-being encompasses a person’s objective health (regular physical exercise, healthy diet, adequate sleep), and subjective health (how healthy they believe they are).

The Resilience Modules are nine active presentations and many pre-selected TED Talks designed to increase different resilience skills. The Resilience Badge Project is a collaboration with Educational Design Lab to pilot how Mason might develop competency-based micro-credentials for “21st century skills” that can be displayed as a digital credential/badge on a student’s resume and are meaningful to employers in their hiring decisions.

Interested in participating in the badge project during Fall 2017? Contact me by email.

As you discover greater resilience, also think about how you can leverage your growth toward becoming more resilient in your school and work environments. Consider how being a more resilient person can make you an asset in the classroom or to a potential employer. Think about the value you can add to a company when you can articulate your purpose, have clear and articulated practices for dealing with stress, and managing your emotions.  Employers evaluate individuals based on factors such as experience, degrees and certifications, and are increasingly seeking employees who can adapt in the face of stress and face challenge and adversity. The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies Career Readiness Competencies that speak directly to many of the critical thinking/problem solving, oral/written communication, and leadership skills present in a resilient individual.

So back to our initial question, “How are you holding up?” Your well-being and your ability to bounce back are more than just momentary questions to ponder. As you move through this process of investing in yourself, you will uncover the value of resilience throughout your life. I encourage you to use the many resources Mason has to offer. Think about how the five components of the Resilience Model (Positive emotions, Social support, Meaning in life, Coping, and Physical well-being) can help support and sustain you as we close out the semester and beyond!

Stay connected to Mason’s Well-Being work:

Lewis Forrest can be contacted by email and on Twitter (@LewMr).


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Conferences: To Go or Not To Go?

Austin A. Deray
7 April 2017

It’s that time of the academic year, the one we both look forward to and dread – it’s conference season. In honor of conference season, this week’s blog should be on conferencing: why you should attend and what to do at a conference. So, let’s get started.

Why Graduate and Professional Students Should Attend Conferences

The answer may seem obvious to some, but conference attendance can yield these 3 beneficial outcomes.[i]

  1. Networking: Conferences are a great place to network. People will get to meet you and you get to meet others. Regional, national, and international conferences are great places to meet diverse groups of people not only in your field, but also in adjacent fields and disciplines. I, myself, have been a member of the Popular Culture Association (PCA) and have been attending our conferences for 5 years. I am now a 2-year session chair and 5-year presenter. I have met and connected with the lead scholars in medievalism and have had the opportunity not only to grow my own knowledge base and professional portfolio, but also to help others with theirs.
  2. Presenting: Presenting is a vital part of the conference experience. Not only are you given the opportunity to get your research out there, but you are also able to get feedback on your research, which in the end will lead to a stronger paper and eventual publication.
  3. Learning: Lastly, conferences are a great place to learn about the current scholarship in your field and in related and non-related fields and disciplines. Since the lead time for publishing a research article in a journal may range from months to a year, conferences are often the best place to hear about emergent lines of inquiry. At PCA, I make it a point to go to as many sessions as possible: the ones I know I will enjoy and ones I know nothing about.

What to Do While Attending a Conference[ii]

I don’t know about y’all, but I love planning and scheduling. One of my favorite things to do is to help students plan their schedules for the next term. Conferences give you a similar opportunity. Conference programs, generally, come out at least a month in advance and will be sent electronically. This is great because you can create your game plan and make sure you take advantage of all three reasons why you attend a conference. You can check to see if you see identify any scholars you might want to meet and network with, and make sure you attend their session. You can make sure you check out sessions that not only interest you, but also discuss something you may know little about (these sessions are surprisingly the most interesting.). Also take note of any receptions or socials. Receptions can give you the opportunity to meet others around a shared identity or interest in a smaller setting.

Don’t forget to check out the location of the conference. Conferences can be a great chance to explore new cities. My first time at a Cubs game and the Seattle Great Wheel were when I went to PCA’s conferences in Chicago and Seattle. Check out the city and plan some fun excursions.

So, research the sites and learn some new information. Conferences can be an all-around great experience as long as you plan and make sure to take full advantage of the opportunity. Remember to network, present, and learn something new. Remember to go to sessions other than your own and those in your own field, and remember to take your behind out of the hotel and enjoy an activity you can’t at home.

I hope this was helpful and you enjoy your weekend. Remember to check out next week’s blog, Lewis Forrest II, Associate Dean of University Life, is guest writing a blog on Resilience.

Best,
Austin


[i] Rutger’s University Graduate Student Blog

[ii] American Psychological Association


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