Indiana elementary school preps for violence by shooting its own teachers with pellet guns

I have to say, this is a jaw-dropper: Earlier this year, the Meadowlawn Elementary School in Monticello, Indiana, held an “active shooter training” that included shooting its own teachers with plastic pellets, execution style. As reported by Arika Herron for the Indianapolis Star (link here): 

An active-shooter training exercise at an Indiana elementary school in January left teachers with welts, bruises and abrasions after they were shot with plastic pellets by the local sheriff’s office conducting the session.

The incident, acknowledged in testimony this week before state lawmakers, was confirmed by two elementary school teachers in Monticello, who described an exercise in which teachers were asked by local law enforcement to kneel down against a classroom wall before being sprayed across their backs with plastic pellets without warning.

“They told us, ‘This is what happens if you just cower and do nothing,’” said one of the two teachers, both of whom asked IndyStar not to be identified out of concern for their jobs. “They shot all of us across our backs. I was hit four times.

“It hurt so bad.”

Folks, welcome to a combination of incredible stupidity blended with America’s love of guns. Let’s see, how do we prepare our teachers to deal with the threat of workplace violence? The answer is easy. We shoot them, but only with pellet guns that leave welts and bruises. No better way to prepare for trauma than to inflict a bit of it ourselves.

Yes, I know, I’m being snarky. I can’t help it.

But here in the U.S., beyond this idiocy is the more serious question of how we can safeguard our public places, amidst a powerful gun lobby that opposes even the mildest safety checks on those who want to own some of the deadliest weapons. The answer may be a complicated one, but shooting workers with pellet guns as a drill isn’t part of the solution. In the meantime, mass shootings are becoming a tragically ho-hum reality here.

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It’s not Yale or fail: The college admissions scandal and our unhealthy obsession with school prestige

Top fueler of the unhealthy prestige obsession

Here in the U.S., we’re watching the unfolding of a major college admissions scandal (highlights here) led by criminal indictments alleging that dozens of wealthy parents engaged in fraud and bribery to get their kids into highly selective universities. It has prompted a fast-developing and overdue dialogue about how the wealthy and powerful are able to game the college admissions systems on behalf of their children.

Have you heard the term “Yale or jail“? It’s a catchphrase that refers to the notion that if you don’t get into a prestigious college, then your only option is a slide toward landing in jail. It’s a clever saying, but a more accurate descriptor of this dynamic is Yale or fail. You see, it’s not that parents and applicants fear an eventual jail sentence if they don’t attend Yale or a similarly elite school. Rather, it’s that they fear failure, loss of social status, and others’ perceptions of the same.

The Yale or fail dynamic, I submit, is the main answer to the question of why would rich parents risk felony indictments to snag that elusive letter of acceptance for their children.

This scandal, which just broke last week, has already prompted a ton of handwringing in media commentaries about social class inequality and how the wealthy and powerful gain undue access to prestigious institutions of higher learning. It has been accompanied by a wave of anger and resentment about those advantages, splashed all over the social media.

Of course, these protestations may be a bit overdue. In reality, these advantages have been around for a long, long time. Perhaps it took a scandal of this (alleged, of course) brazenness and magnitude to unleash the simmering backlash.

Against this backdrop is another truth: There are many colleges and universities outside of that elite circle that provide quality learning and open doors to life’s opportunities. Literally millions of people can personally attest to that. The focus on such a narrow band of colleges and universities takes out of the conversation hundreds of schools that deliver multiple, abundant benefits to their students.

The underlying culprit: U.S. News rankings

I submit to you that the world of American higher education changed dramatically when the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate programs came onto the scene. The appearance of the U.S. News rankings has been the most influential development in modern higher ed history, in terms of shaping perceptions of institutional prestige and accompanying priorities. These rankings have serious flaws — there’s a whole literature on that — but they have occupied the field nonetheless.

Many educators and administrators in higher education are positively obsessed with these rankings and their endless spinoffs. Of course, because the rankings are so influential, they are ignored only at one’s peril. They can and do matter. Ask any admissions director, and they’ll tell you why.

However, I have good reason to suspect that much of the obsession is due to too many denizens of higher education allowing their own self-images to be unduly shaped by those rankings. Intellectually, they know the U.S. News rankings are problematic, yet they buy into them. Beset by what I call the “good student” syndrome, they look externally for validation, rather than creating their own markers for evaluating quality and success. True, most of us do that to some extent, but here it can be taken to extremes.

The whole deal breeds a lot of insecurity and elitism among a bunch of people already susceptible to both. Former college president and physicist Robert Fuller has coined a term for this dynamic. He calls it “rankism,” or the abuse of rank-based privilege.

A better measure of institutional quality?

In the wake of these rankings has come a second generation of metrics and measures of institutional quality, infused with talk of “outcomes,” “assessments,” and “returns on investment.” This is the commoditization of higher learning, and it is contributing to the decline of important disciplines such as history, philosophy, and the liberal arts in general. It’s largely about training new worker bees, and measuring their schools by how much money their graduates are earning.

I propose an alternative measure of college quality, one that is concededly difficult, if not downright impossible, to package in purely numerical terms. In a reflective essay about my own undergraduate experiences at Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana (“Homecoming at Middle Age,” The Cresset, 2017; link here), I wrote the following:

Currently the higher education industry is positively obsessed with “assessments” and “outcomes,” educational jargon for figuring out what students learned. Well, here’s a longer-range outcome for colleges and universities to consider: How are your graduates turning out in life? If my friends are any indication, then Valparaiso can stand proud on this measure. They have turned out darn well, in myriad ways. Amid differences in life choices, family arrangements, political views, incomes, faith traditions, and vocational paths, they are grounded people leading good and meaningful lives. Some have met significant challenges with courage and determination.

In sum, this obsession with college prestige and reputation has gone too far. And while vocational considerations are certainly important in terms of post-secondary learning, a higher education should include a healthy dose of ideas, concepts, information, and experiences that don’t necessarily translate into a paycheck. Indeed, perhaps that education might even transmit the kind of values that would discourage someone from paying a huge bribe to get their child into a chosen school. Imagine that.

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Related writings

I’ve written a couple of law review articles about the influence of the rankings culture on aspects of legal education:

  • Way back in 1997, I wrote one of the first law review articles critiquing ranking schemes of law schools, “Same Old, Same Old: Law School Rankings and the Affirmation of Hierarchy” (Suffolk University Law Review; free download here). I pulled a few punches, as I was a very junior professor writing on a topic that had yet to be explored in legal scholarship, and my caution shows. However, I think it anticipates the fuller criticisms that have followed.
  • The rankings and prestige obsessions have infected the world of scholarly publication as well. I wrote a critique of the culture of legal scholarship and suggested alternatives in a more recent law review article, “Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, free download here). If I may be immodest, it is one of my best long-form, essay-type writings.

Workplace bullying, worker dignity, and therapeutic jurisprudence: Finding my center of gravity, Part I

The process of retrospection may sometimes yield soggy nostalgia, confusion, or even regret. On other occasions, it delivers a surprising dose of clarity. I experienced a big chunk of the latter, when — and apologies for the cliché — a random trip down memory lane reminded me of the origins of, and connectivity between, so much of the work I’m doing now. I forewarn readers that I’m going to use this post to ponder about this and meander a bit.

Recently I retrieved from my bookshelves Mark Satin‘s Radical Middle: The Politics We Need Now (2004). Mark is a political author, lawyer, and one-time 60s anti-war and left activist whose writings evolved to a place that he called the “radical middle.” I bore witness to a piece of his political transition. From 1984 to 1992, Mark wrote and published an independent, left leaning but “post-liberal” political newsletter titled New Options. I was among his subscribers, and I found it to be a thought-provoking publication.

However, at 46, and after many years of writing and editing New Options, Mark sought to have a greater impact within the mainstream. He figured that law school would give him some insights on how the worlds of law, policy, and commerce operated, so he set his sights on obtaining a legal education and earning a law degree.

This is how paths can cross in person: In the fall of 1992, I was starting my second year as an instructor in the first-year legal skills program at New York University School of Law, my legal alma mater. I looked at my class list and saw the name “Mark Satin” on it, and I soon confirmed he was the very person whose newsletter I had read. This connection led to many conversations about legal education, politics, and the future of the country.

During his second year at NYU, Mark asked me to supervise an independent study project that he had been contemplating for some time. Always attentive to emerging social and political trends, he wanted to write about the growing confluence between law and psychology. He envisioned putting together a broad-ranging paper that surveyed and analyzed law and psychology linkages in many different aspects of legal thought and practice. I agreed to oversee the paper despite that I only a mild curiosity in the topic that Mark had described. I saw law & policy through a primarily political lens, and while I didn’t disregard the role of psychology informing legal doctrine and practice, it wasn’t a front and center perspective for me.

With characteristic determination, Mark dove into his research project, and eventually producing a law review article, “Law and Psychology: A Movement Whose Time Has Come,” published by the Annual Survey of American Law, one of NYU’s student-edited law reviews. (Unfortunately, there is no open online access to this article.)

After graduating from law school, Mark did go mainstream, at least for a short while! For several years he became a commercial lawyer, working for a New York law firm. But the writing/newsletter/policy wonk side of him couldn’t be suppressed for long. Furthermore, Mark’s political worldview was evolving in a direction that he would call the “radical middle.” And so in the late 90s he launched what would become the Radical Middle Newsletter, which he would write and publish from 1999 to 2009. (You may access the newsletter archives here.) He would also author his book, Radical Middle, which was published in 2004.

Although my own political outlook was somewhat to the left of Mark’s, I agreed to join his first board of directors and then later would slide over to his advisory board. During this time, Mark started writing about stuff that I was discovering independently. You see, my work on workplace bullying and dignity at work was drawing me to the law and psychology perspective that he had championed in his law review article. Among other things, Mark wrote feature articles for Radical Middle discussing therapeutic jurisprudence (here), “rankism” and human dignity (here), and workplace bullying (here).

In one of his last Radical Middle pieces (here), he highlighted my 2009 law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law:

At the risk of sounding immodest, I think my article (pictured at the top) still holds up well. It remains the best articulation of my beliefs of what our system of regulating the workplace and resolving employment disputes should look like. (You may download it without charge, here.)

My political center of gravity is still more left than center, and in many ways I’m an old-fashioned liberal. (Indeed, it makes sense that for many years, I’ve been on the board of Americans for Democratic Action, an old-fashioned liberal advocacy organization.)

But these deep themes of psychology, human dignity, and societal & individual well-being now frame my outlook on the making, implementation, and practice of law and public policy. Furthermore, the overlaps between Mark Satin’s “radical middle” and my back-in-the-day brand of liberalism appear to be many, at least if my other affiliations with the workplace anti-bullying movement, therapeutic jurisprudence movement, and human dignity movement are any indication. Perhaps this also means that while political labels matter at times, maybe the distinctions between them aren’t as sharp as we sometimes imagine them to be, at least at their respective margins. 

To be continued…..

Of maize and blue: Talking about workplace bullying, at the University of Michigan

I just had the distinct pleasure of spending two days on the University of Michigan campus, courtesy of a speaking invitation from the school’s Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies (ICOS) and Dr. Lilia Cortina, a psychology and women’s studies professor and leading authority on workplace harassment and incivility. ICOS describes its mission this way:

ICOS, or the Interdisciplinary Committee on Organizational Studies, has the single goal of enhancing the University of Michigan’s strength as a world center for interdisciplinary research and scholarship on organizations. We seek to enrich the intellectual environment of Ph.D. students and faculty interested in organization studies, by increasing the quality, breadth, depth, and usefulness of organizational research.

It was a wonderfully stimulating and intellectually rewarding visit. My talk, which you may access here, addressed some of the demographic and diversity aspects of workplace bullying. Here’s how I previewed it in my abstract:

This talk will examine bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work, with an emphasis on demographics and diversity. It will briefly sketch out some basics, a sort of “Workplace bullying 101.” It will then look at the demographic and diversity dynamics of these behaviors overall, especially pertaining to aggressors and targets, especially in the context of organizational cultures. Finally, it will take a closer look at gendered aspects of bullying and related behaviors at work, including (1) linkages between bullying and sexual harassment in the midst of the #MeToo movement and (2) complicated issues of bullying-type behaviors between women at work. Plenty of time will be reserved for comments and questions.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of colleges and universities to give guest lectures, and all have been a worthy expenditure of time and energy. What distinguished this visit from most of the others was the way in which the ICOS program goes well beyond the guest lecture to add in lots of additional conversations through small group meetings and meals.

In addition to my talk, my time on campus included meetings and meals with faculty in psychology, English, theatre, engineering, medicine, and business; a deep conversation about diversity initiatives with leaders of the university’s organizational learning programs; and multiple exchanges with U of M Ph.D. students, whose own research in organizations, working conditions, and diversity will no doubt command our attention sooner than later.

Some of my academic colleagues may be thinking, whoa, that’s a lot to be doing during a visit of barely two days. Indeed, when I first previewed the fulsome itinerary, I knew that I’d have to be “on” for most of that time. But I will attest that this is a very smart way to maximize the value of guest speakers’ visits and to give them plenty of opportunities to share their work and insights. It also tells them that their contributions are respected and trusted beyond the inherent boundaries of formal presentations.

Now that I’m back in Boston, I’ve got pages of notes and names from my short trip, some which will result in followup contacts and maybe even another blog post or two. In sum, it was a great visit featuring lively, informed, and appreciative dialogue throughout.

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My talk can be accessed here. Go to this page to access presentations from other speakers in the ICOS series.

Sculpted tile: A lovely gift from my friends at ICOS

Does “Mindhunter” yields insights for the workplace anti-bullying movement?

Between enjoying some holiday downtime and catching a mild cold, I devoted myself to some quality binge viewing during the past couple of weeks. Among the programs I galloped through was Season 1 of “Mindhunter.” This Netflix drama, set in the late 1970s, and features two FBI agents (Holden Ford, played by Jonathan Groff; Bill Tench, played by Holt McCallany) and a forensic psychology professor (Wendy Carr, played by Ann Torv) who commit themselves to understanding the psychology of mass murderers and serial killers. It’s based loosely on the real-life pioneering work of FBI agents John Douglas and William Ressler and Boston College professor Ann Wolbert Burgess.

Although “Mindhunter” does not re-create in detail the gruesome crimes of the perpetrators being studied and interviewed, this series is not for the squeamish. It’s dark, profane, and at times R-rated. The deep conversations with convicted killers are particularly intense.

“Mindhunter” is also a fascinating narrative of early efforts to understand the minds and behaviors of those who have committed horrific crimes, as well as the social contexts that helped to make them what they are. It has a very intellectual side. For example, the work of sociologists Emile Durkheim and Erving Goffman enter the discussions between the main characters. The series also depicts the skepticism of “old boy” law enforcement officers who are deeply skeptical of the value of researching and interviewing these criminals. 

At various points during the 10-episode first season, I found myself asking whether this series yields any insights for those who are involved in the workplace anti-bullying movement. Here are some of the thoughts that came to mind:

  • In both contexts, research matters. It gives us a base of understanding that enables us to talk about prevention and response. However, unlike the FBI agents who visit prisons to talk to convicted murderers, we don’t have a lot of interview access to workplace abusers. If alleged abusers are managers or executives, then we have virtually no access to them. This is why so much of the research on bullying and mobbing at work is based on the experiences and perceptions of targeted workers.
  • Like the early work to understand serial killers, initial efforts to study and understand workplace bullying and mobbing were greeted with some skepticism and even ridicule. I can recall many quizzical looks and responses from 15-20 years ago, when I first started investigating, researching, and writing about workplace bullying.
  • Of course, even the worst workplace abuse rarely rises to the level of direct, violent aggression displayed by convicted killers. However, the conscience-free, eliminationist mindset that I’ve discussed in past blog pieces (e.g., here and here) is definitely present in both settings. Psychopathy, sociopathy, and severe narcissism are found in many repeat murderers and severe workplace abusers alike. The same goes for systemic influences on individual abusive behavior.
  • Just as the “Mindhunter” researchers sometimes have to think like the murderers they’re studying in order to gain understanding, so do workplace bullying and mobbing researchers have to get into the heads of workplace abusers. Also, at times I find myself telling those who are trying to understand the actions of their workplace tormenters to “think like a sociopath.” Sadly, it can be a very clarifying exercise.

 

“Dignitizing” conferences and workshops

A HumanDHS workshop dialogue session (photo courtesy of Rambabu Talluri)

Every December brings a post or two (or three) about the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HumanDHS) workshop on transforming humiliation and violent conflict, hosted by Teachers College of Columbia University in Manhattan. It is one of the most meaningful events of the year for me.

HumanDHS is a transdisciplinary, global network of educators, writers, activists, artists, practitioners, and students who are committed to advancing human dignity and reducing the experiences of humiliation in society. The annual New York workshop typically includes a mix of these activities:

  • “Pre-planned dignilogues” with invited participants giving very short presentations (seven minutes!) about work they’re doing to advance human dignity;
  • “Co-created dignilogues” comprised of small group discussions on topics selected by workshop participants, culminating in short presentations shared with the full group;
  • A mix of extended talks, award presentations, and musical performances, along with break and lunch periods that foster a lot of individual conversations and connections.

This year’s just-completed gathering was a deeply engaging experience, grounded in a spirit of learning and fellowship. I’ve been participating in this workshop for around ten years, and they’ve all been good experiences. But for some reason this one had an unusually personal meaning to me. And I came away with valuable insights and knowledge, some of which I’ll be sharing in posts soon to come. Equally important, it was heartwarming to connect and reconnect with fellow workshop participants.

The general theme of this year’s workshop was “What is the language of dignity?” In keeping with the theme, during my brief dignilogue presentation, I drew upon two recent blog posts, “Dignity work” (November 2018) and “Instead of ‘weaponize,’ let’s ‘dignitize’” (December 2018), to invite us to think about how we work and talk about dignity in our daily lives.

Dignitizing conferences and workshops

When it comes to recurring conferences and similar events, I’m more likely to return to those that engage both my heart and mind — fueled by interactions with fellow participants who make such events rewarding, while hoping that I can contribute in the same way. My short list includes:

  • This workshop, as well as smaller HumanDHS get-togethers in New York City;
  • Therapeutic jurisprudence events, such as small workshops held in North America, e.g., 2016 in Toronto, and the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, which includes a dedicated stream of TJ-related panels, e.g., 2015 in Vienna;
  • The biennial “Work, Stress, and Health” conference co-sponsored by the American Psychological Association, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Society for Occupational Health Psychology, e.g, a memorable 2015 conference in Atlanta that was the subject of my guest contribution, “Conferences as Community Builders,” to the APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog; and,
  • Conferences sponsored by the Western Institute for Social Research, e.g., 2017 in the Bay Area.

In sum, I’m drawn to events that aspire to dignitize and enlighten those who attend and participate, rather than the other way around.

Paying attention to conferences

I think we need to pay greater attention to the role of conferences in sharing and disseminating knowledge and creating networks and communities. 

All too often, conferences are simply competitive marketplaces. In his 2017 book, Academic Conferences as Neoliberal Commodities, Donald Nicolson offers “the argument that academic conferences are a (neoliberal) commodity; that is, they are something of use/value, being bought and sold.” Building on this point, he asserts that conferences serve as marketplaces for knowledge, compete with other conferences for attention and participation, and reinforce the core notions of the neoliberal academy.

I find these tendencies especially in play at the flagship conferences of academic and professional disciplines, replete with individual and collective status obsessions and insecurities and varying airs of superiority, ambition, striving, and desperation. The unhealthy cultures of these events can be exhausting to witness, engage, and navigate. They can be impersonal, stiff, and cold. Some involve a lot of “badge watching,” whereby the perceived prestige of one’s institutional affiliation equates with an individual’s worthiness. Others are simply dull and disengaging.

Three years ago I wrote an essay on the value of smaller academic gatherings that allow for genuine interaction on a human scale (“Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” which may be freely accessed here). I’m more convinced than ever before that conferences should serve a community-building purpose. In such settings, shared knowledge and insights can create even deeper understanding, and the associated human connections are enriched in the process.

Education for life’s afternoons and evenings

One of my favorite passages pertaining to the importance of adult learning is found in psychiatrist Carl Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933). He asks, “Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life?” He answers:

No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve us hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie. I have given psychological treatment to too many people of advancing years, and have looked too often into the secret chambers of their souls, not to be moved by this fundamental truth.

To borrow from Jung, we sure could use some schools to help us understand, shape, and engage the afternoons and evenings of our lives. I’m not necessarily talking about formal degree programs, although they may well enter the picture for older adults seeking a career switch. Rather, I’m thinking more along the lines of adult education centers — both physical and virtual — that offer affordable, interactive, community-building learning experiences on topics related to life’s big picture topics.

As a possible model, I nominate The School of Life, a London-based, global learning center that offers courses, counseling, and publications “dedicated to developing emotional intelligence” by applying “psychology, philosophy, and culture to everyday life.” Their offerings cover personal relationships, the workplace, the self and others, and culture. Here’s a three-minute video that describes more about their offerings:

The School of Life’s originally opened in London, and it has since added centers in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Berlin, Istanbul, Melbourne, Paris, Sao Paulo, Seoul, Sydney, Taipei, and Tel Aviv. I would be delighted to see one in Boston!

Regardless of whether The School of Life is the preferred model, my larger point is that themes of lifelong learning, lifespan development, and inevitable aging lead us to ask what educational opportunities exist for people to learn and grow together during life’s second half. Alas, I submit that we face a gaping shortage of such options. Especially given the aging populations of many nations, it would be great to see more “colleges for forty-year-olds” (and older, of course!) to help people make the most of their lives.

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