Conor Friedersdorf: It’s a big thing to walk away from a tenured job as an academic.
Debra Mashek: Yes, I’m leaving my dream job at a college that I love with these students and colleagues who impress and inspire on a near daily basis. I love the academy. I have this deep sense of gratitude for my own education. I value education as this amazing, equalizing platform, but I also worry about the academy.
I’m hearing the stories of the blowups and the shout-downs and the shutdowns, and I worry that we’re undermining our ability to do the best research and cultivate the best minds to go out and solve the trickiest problems that the world faces. And, as a professor at a liberal-arts school, I think about what it takes to engage with ideas from across the spectrum. It takes fluency with those ideas. And fluency requires exposure in the classroom––beyond a cursory there are these people who think differently, which ends up being a caricature of a position. I think it’s important to engage with the people who actually hold those different positions.
Friedersdorf: What do you teach at Harvey Mudd?
Mashek: My favorite classes to teach include one on the psychology of close relationships (I explain to the students that it’s about hooking up, breaking up, and everything in between). Another is on the psychology of collaboration. My students spend a lot of time in group-based learning at college, and then when they graduate, many work in teams in tech and industry, so this class helps them think about how to bring their individual perspectives and talents into a shared project and contribute meaningfully to proverbial stone soups. And then last year, after the election, I decided to teach a course called I’m Right, You’re Wrong, which was about constructive engagement with others. This semester I’m teaching a course about intellectual virtues.
Friedersdorf: And what’s your experience been in the classroom?
Mashek: I haven’t experienced a great big shout-down or shutdown or anything like that. But I have seen an increase in the small tensions in my classrooms. It is as if I’m looking at a pond, wondering if it is really raining, and watching rain drops hit the surface.
I am seeing more raindrops.
So thinking about last semester, in the Psychology of Close Relationships class: Student facilitators were talking about breakups and had us do this really clever exercise where we each wrote down advice to our future self if we experience a breakup. We all balled up our paper like snowballs and threw them across the room.
Then everybody picked up somebody else’s snowball, and we went around the room. The very first speaker starts reading somebody else’s words: “He wasn’t good enough for you anyway, you’re better off without him.” The facilitator—a thoughtful, generous student—started to look uncomfortable, and stepped in to ask that if anybody sees gendered pronouns on your snowballs, if you could please just neutralize those. Then I stepped in and said, “No, no—the instructions were for us to put our words down, so we should honor the words that others wrote down.”