Thursday, April 30, 2020

Divided We Fall: Unity Without Tragedy

I'm be fortunate to be part of the efforts to bring this wonderful show together. The National Institute for Civil Discourse and New Voice Strategies have brought this together! Learn more by visiting Divided We Fall TV

DIVIDED WE FALL: UNITY WITHOUT TRAGEDY brings ordinary citizens together to wrestle with the complex issues that divide our nation. Breaking out of partisan echo chambers to listen to one another, the participants - equal numbers of whom strongly approve and disapprove of President Donald Trump - explore what it means to be an American.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

K-State, distance learning, and a global health crisis: Then and now

We are now weeks into the new experience of social distancing, teaching remotely, and finding ways to continue our mission as a land-grant university with respect to teaching, research, and engagement because of a novel coronavirus, COVID-19. For many, it feels utterly foreign to not be able to interact with students, fellow researchers, or youth through 4-H programming. This has caused a rapid response to technologies that create the experience of being present as much as possible.

When we think about the radical nature of where we are today, it’s a helpful reminder that Kansas State University, generations ago, took many steps to provide remote instruction as part of a forgotten movement that helped define the public mission of land-grant universities at the turn of the 20th century and beyond.

In America’s Forgotten Epidemic, Alfred Crosby detailed the great influenza known as the “Spanish Flu” that emerged in Haskell County and at Fort Riley in 1918 and impacted the world over. Recent estimates range from 50 to 100 million dead, considerably more than the 10 million military casualties. Crosby published his book’s second edition in 2003 on the heels of concern about then-contemporary outbreaks such as SARS. As he put it, “As I write this, SARS has spread …. It is well on its way to circling the globe in a matter of weeks.” He highlighted the importance taking seriously these health concerns. For an institution such as K-State as the future home of the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility, it is important to recognize, as Crosby put it, “The medical optimism circa 1976 is receding. America’s Forgotten Pandemic has at last attained contemporary relevancy.” We continue to confront challenges that some saw as belonging to the dustbin of history. We can learn from what took place a century ago.

So what did K-State do during the 1918 influenza? Land-grant institutions such as K-State were fulfilling their tripartite mission by educating students on campus and across the state. But how? One of the ways was through distance learning to engage diverse citizens. It’s easy to think of distance education as a relatively new experience, but it, in fact, has deep roots at K-State and at other land-grant universities. “Study by correspondence was promoted with vigor, and the staff of the department enlarged,” noted Julius Willard’s 1940 history about K-State during the late 1910s. The idea of asynchronous learning from people geographically dispersed and unable to pursue a degree on campus had gained traction during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At K-State, the origins of providing education through correspondence study were in 1910 when the Board of Regents authorized Extension to establish such courses in various departments related to farm life. This work was increasingly broadened to include “reading courses, study centers, courses giving credit on college entrance, courses giving credit toward graduation from college, and special services.”


In July 1918, the Kansas State Agricultural College Bulletin published the announcement of courses and information for the Home-Study Service. As the Home-Study Bulletin noted,


“The Department of Home-study Service of the Division of College Extension was organized to form a close connecting link between the work of the resident classes and those who are doing extra-mural work. The instructors employed in this department were selected not only because of their technical preparation, but also because they have made a careful study of the methods of correspondence teaching.”

A visual on the cover of the 1918 and 1919 
Kansas State Agricultural College Bulletin highlighting
the way in which the state was the campus for the institution.
K-State had a commitment to providing education to Kansans beyond those who could be on campus in Manhattan. The following year, the Bulletin announcing courses for 1919 stated its work this way: “The Home-study Service is a part of the Extension Division of the Kansas State Agricultural College, designed to make the state its campus—to enable the College to come to those who cannot come to it.”

This sense of the State of Kansas as the campus was captured by the image found on the cover of both the 1918 and 1919 publications. Embodying similar principles to the famous “Wisconsin Idea” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, K-State saw its role through education in all parts of the state touching boys and girls, men and women alike. Through correspondence courses and other forms of learning managed by K-State, education was not limited to academic halls or research fields on campus. In a 1923 report on the state of higher education in Kansas, this sentiment was confirmed: “The whole State has thus become the campus of the institutions, and the people have been made to feel that, if they cannot go to the institutions, the institutions will go to them with a variety of courses….” Correspondence and home-study offerings were a popular way for Kansans to access education when they weren’t able to experience in-person education on campus. These alternative forms became opportunities for “odd hours of spare time” to “be made to count.”

It’s helpful to note this history because of the similarities of the 1918 influenza and COVID-19 today. Currently, during this time of the K-State community dispersed from the Manhattan campus and now returned home across the state and beyond, there is a valuable reminder that K-State has provided education during a global health crisis in its past.

While many of us spend considerable time utilizing modern technologies such as Zoom and Canvas, the useful technology of the day then for communicating over long distances—the postal service—was important but was not the defining characteristic. As a 1920 report on correspondence courses highlighted, “It is not, then, the intervention of the postal system which gives the correspondence study its virtue. The method of instruction is the essential thing.” It’s not simply that we’re teaching online, but how we’re doing it. After this period of time passes and we return to campus, there will be new technologies and resources that we’ve utilized today that will serve us in the future. While faculty have learned new ways of engaging students because of this current crisis, we might bring some of our newfound knowledge to courses when we finally meet again in Nichols, Waters, and Justin Halls because of the educational benefits to doing so.  

Finally, as we look back to the period of that two-year global pandemic more than a century ago, it’s important to recognize that life continued. K-State continued to grow, especially as it related to what the institution was doing when it educated citizens, especially in such challenging times. A helpful reminder of that larger mission and purpose was stated by then President William Jardine. In his inaugural address in February 1919, President Jardine noted:

“In the realm of the college proper, it shall be the aim of our teaching in the future, as in the past, to give training of the highest professional type in the fundamental sciences and liberalizing subjects, as well as thorough training in the several technical curricula. Emphasis will be placed also on the practical viewpoint. We want students to know the problems that are to be solved and to be able to meet men and women of the work-a-day world on a common ground of understanding. In a larger way the aim of our teaching and training will be to produce not only the practical agriculturist, engineer and housekeeper, but also young men and women trained for leadership, young men and women who have been led, through a study of the social relations combined with professional and practical training, to have a larger vision of the duty of college trained men and women as leaders in community development.”

This commitment to helping students gain technical knowledge and expertise, a commitment to practical application, and a “larger vision” of duty is a theme that shaped K-State in 1919 and continues today. The “new education,” to use Jardine’s phrase, “must embody in it the larger, broader aim of training for citizenship.” In today’s terminology, we would refer to those with technical knowledge and a commitment to a larger purpose as civic professionals. As we engage one another using Zoom during COVID-19, we would do well to remember previous generations of K-State faculty and students who dealt with their own serious challenges. A century ago, faculty were encouraged to educate students to have a “larger vision” and to see them as “leaders.” While it might be in the backs of our minds, we do well to remember our role in furthering K-State’s mission of helping to develop a highly skilled and educated citizenry necessary to advancing the well-being of Kansas, the nation, and the international community.


Thursday, March 12, 2020

A pandemic is not a deliberative moment

As I shift my teaching this semester from face-to-face to online (thanks Zoom!), I'm thinking about the learning opportunity that comes when you're teaching about dialogue and deliberation theory. Foundational to deliberative democracy is the idea of citizen participation and engagement with a wicked problem that requires people to wrestle with the tensions and trade-offs on a particular policy decision.

While there are many reasons engage people in decision-making processes that inform an appropriate response to this crisis as it relates to the distribution of resources, COVID-19 is not a deliberative problem. Instead, it is a classic example of a technical problem. It's helpful to remember that "technical" is not "simple." This pandemic is an urgent and technical one. So when we're thinking about something like public health, it's important to defer to expertise within the particular domain. It can also highlight how technocratic approaches can be very helpful in such challenging times. The example from Iceland is something many other countries could benefit from.

In short, there are times when deliberative processes are essential and necessary. And, as is the case with our current pandemic experience, advocacy for informed public health strategies based on expertise rather deliberation is the way to go right now on this particular issue.

Finally, make sure to wash your hands and don't touch your face!
from Coronavirus GIFs via Gfycat

Sunday, September 29, 2019

An unexpected encounter and an unforgettable experience


Monday, June 3, 2019

I Am Easy to Find

I've watched this short film a few times. I'm a fan of The National. But I feel like this film by Mike Mills made with The National is something more than a long music video.

I've come to experience it as a sort of meditation. You might find it to be useful in such a reflective way for yourself.


Monday, February 18, 2019

Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech teaches important lessons about today's political polarization

Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech teaches important lessons about today's political polarization

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The nation was bitterly divided over slavery in 1860, when this political cartoon was published. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Bradford Vivian, Pennsylvania State University

The idea of “two Americas,” or “red” and “blue” states, now dominates public discussion. “Political polarization,” the Pew Research Center reports, “is a defining feature of American politics today.”

But the idea that America is politically polarized isn’t new.

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln delivered one of the most important addresses in U.S. history, his “House Divided” speech, when he accepted the Illinois Republican nomination for Senate. The speech marked his entrance into national politics at a time when the nation was profoundly at odds over slavery.

Lincoln’s speech still offers timely lessons about the costs of deep-seated political polarization.

My research examines how communities remember – and sometimes fail to remember – the lessons of the past. Lincoln’s description of the Union as a house divided is well-remembered today. But many Americans fail to heed its deeper lessons about equality and the moral foundations of popular government.

The divided states of America

To cite the language of journalist Bill Bishop’s best-seller, “The Big Sort,” Americans have sorted themselves into distinct, homogeneous groups.

Complex social, moral, legal and even scientific questions are now filtered through the lens of opposing party identifications. Political scientists Daniel Hopkins and John Sides conclude that U.S. “polarization has deep structural and historical roots” with “no easy solutions.”

In his “House Divided” speech, Lincoln addressed a nation even more fiercely divided by partisan acrimony, regional differences and economic tensions than the U.S. of today.

Illinois’ Old State Capitol circa 1858, the year Lincoln gave his ‘House Divided’ speech there. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum

Lincoln began his speech by attempting to predict whether a calamity was coming and if it could be prevented:

“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it … I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”

The alternative to bitter polarization that Lincoln offered didn’t prevent the Civil War. But it shaped postwar understanding of the territorial, political and even armed conflicts that led to it and the lessons to be learned from it.

Union first

Above all, Lincoln stressed in his speech that “a crisis” over slavery was imminent. He asked Americans to choose the common purpose that would best serve their Union – a government of all free or all slave states – before the crisis chose for them.

Lincoln developed the idea that the Union is exceptional in public statements from 1858 until the end of the Civil War. In his First Inaugural in 1861, Lincoln called the Union “perpetual,” and “much older than the Constitution … [N]o State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union.” For years, Lincoln held that Americans belong to the Union before they belong to political parties.

His reasoning purposefully echoed George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796, which warned Americans that “the spirit of party” is a prime threat to “Union … a main prop of your liberty.” For Lincoln, Americans’ common identification with the guiding ideal of equality should transcend their affiliations with political parties.

Consider the symbolism of Lincoln’s main metaphor, the Union as a house:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand …

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.”

Building and maintaining a house is familial and collaborative. Family conflicts are inevitable; households fall apart if families don’t resolve those conflicts.

Lincoln in 1858. Shutterstock

The metaphor of a house emphasizes interdependence, cooperation and shared purpose. It asks how citizens might build and maintain something together, despite natural differences, rather than live and work separately.

These ideas have been lost in social and political debates today, which are dominated by competing party agendas and talk of irreconcilable “red” and “blue” state mentalities.

Lincoln’s central warning – “A house divided against itself cannot stand” – was rich in moral significance. A house should rest on a firm physical foundation for the safety of the family who lives in it. The Union, Lincoln implied, should rest on a firm moral foundation: a bedrock dedication to equality.

The Union, he believed, cannot be a compact of convenience or a loose-knit confederation. It was founded for a clear moral purpose: to extend conditions of equality to as many people as possible. The “new nation” that “our fathers brought forth” in 1776, Lincoln would say most memorably in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Commitment to the principle of equality was an essential, not optional, basis of membership within.

Beware false prophets

Bipartisan compromise sounds good – but it can erode fundamental commitments to equality. By 1858, the U.S. had witnessed decades’ worth of political compromises over slavery: the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. All of these measures maintained the institution of slavery while purporting to limit it.

According to Lincoln, such compromises only led to more intense conflict:

“We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation. Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.”

Lincoln warned of false political prophets who earned praise for short-term bipartisan compromises without taking a firm stand on fundamental forms of inequality. They aimed to build a “political dynasty,” not a strong union:

“Our cause, then, must be intrusted to, and conducted by its own undoubted friends – those whose hands are free, whose hearts are in the work – who do care for the result.”

Lincoln’s opponent in the Senate campaign, incumbent Democratic Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, claimed to not care whether territories voted to become free or slave states so long as the elections reflected the popular will in those territories. The “machinery” of such compromises over principles of equality, Lincoln said, constructs only “temporary scaffolding,” hastily fabricated to win elections before being “kicked to the winds.”

Equality over polarization

I believe Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech offers alternative ways to imagine the nation than as a patchwork of “red” and “blue” states.

Americans belong to a union first, parties second. Party machinery and false political prophets divide the house of the people; the people have the power to stabilize that house if they choose to do so. The union was founded on a dedication to equality. It retains a firm moral foundation by preserving commitments to principles of equality over region or party.

The primary offense against the principle of equality in Lincoln’s time was slavery. But Americans can apply the logic of his argument to contemporary inequities based on race, employment, gender, voting rights, criminal justice, religion and more. The nation is a house divided, many times over, in all of those cases.

Lincoln didn’t claim that perfect equality could be achieved. But he saw broad commitments to the idea of equality as essential to the ongoing work of creating, as the Constitution puts it, a more perfect union – and a freer one for all.

The union must “become all one thing, or all the other” in order to be truly free. On this guiding principle, Lincoln declared, there can be no partisan dispute and no bipartisan compromise.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on June 14, 2018.The Conversation

Bradford Vivian, Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences and Director of the Center for Democratic Deliberation, Pennsylvania State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Talking it out, deliberative dialogue in higher education: Compact Nation Podcast

I had the opportunity to be interviewed about my teaching and research with colleagues at Campus Compact as part of #CompactNationPod. Listen below.

Talking it out, deliberative dialogue in higher education

 In our eighth episode of the second season, Co-Hosts Emily Shields and Andrew Seligsohn sat down with author and scholar Timothy Shaffer about his work and research in deliberative dialogue, including his new book “Deliberative Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Democratic Engagement.” We discussed what it really takes to embed dialogue in campus and community work and some ideas for making it more effective. We also took a detour from the usual pop culture conversation to review Thanksgiving traditions, including Andrew’s recipe for turkey that doesn’t suck. Listen now and weigh in online using #CompactNationPod.