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Deb Mashek (@DebMashekHXA) is the new executive director of Heterodox Academy. She is currently professor of psychology at Harvey Mudd College, but will be leaving that position to serve full time as executive director. We talk about her career and her three priorities for 2018.
“I regularly have students and colleagues swinging by for closed-door conversations where they say things like, ‘There is this question I wanted to ask in class, or there’s an idea I wanted to raise in a meeting, but I didn’t feel comfortable with doing so because other people might tell me that I’m being ridiculous, or that it’s an offensive question.’ And that has a very chilling effect on inquiry and on the pursuit of knowledge.”
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Chris Martin: My guest today is Deb Mashek. She’s the new Executive Director of Heterodox Academy and this is her first appearance on our podcast. Deb also goes by Debra. I mentioned that if you want to search for her scholarly publications. She’s currently a tenured Professor of Psychology at Harvey Mudd College and despite being very happy with her job there, she has decided to leave and join us here at Heterodox Academy. You can follow her on Twitter, @DebMashekHxA. So here is Deb Mashek.
Welcome to the show and welcome to Heterodox Academy.
Debra Mashek: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Chris Martin: Well, thanks for joining us for this episode and congratulations on your appointment. So you’re currently a Professor of Psychology at Harvey Mudd. But you started out studying psychology, biology and women studies. So tell me a bit about how you got from there to where you are right now.
Debra Mashek: Yeah. So I was an undergrad at Nebraska Wesleyan University where as you mentioned, I was studying bio-psychology and women studies and then from there, I moved on to Stony Brook University where I received my MA and my PhD in Social Psychology with an emphasis in quantitative methods and my expertise developed there in close relationships and I studied the self-expansion model. The idea there is that through relationships, we take on the resources, the identities and the perspectives of other people and then ultimately increase our own agency in the world through interpersonal connection.
Since then I’ve applied that theoretical frame to the study of romantic relationships and incarcerated people, college students and also inter-institutional collaborations. So after Stony Brook, I went on for a three-year research fellowship at George Mason and then as you mentioned in 2005, made the move to Harvey Mudd College, which is a small liberal arts school in Claremont, California. We’re very STEM-focused and we’re one of the Claremont Colleges, which includes Pomona, Scripps, Pitzer, Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Claremont Graduate University and Keck Graduate Institute.
Chris Martin: So last year you applied to our director position at Heterodox Academy. What made you decide to do that?
Debra Mashek: It’s a great question. So I’m at this job I absolutely love working with students and colleagues who just wow me every single day and I’m getting ready to leave it and so the question is, “Why in the world would I do such a thing?” and the answer has to do with I am worried about what I’m seeing in the broader landscape of higher ed.
You know, given my relationships work, I think a lot about relationships among people, among institutions, among ideas and I am personally very fascinated by – kind of these emergent properties of togetherness, the ways that when we come together, we can think, we can create, we can discover when there’s really room at the table for diverse people, diverse ideas and I’m worried that higher ed has become increasingly ideologically homogenous. That we’re developing these monocultures and I worry that there’s not space at the table for everybody to be playing together and with the – playing around with the most difficult questions and problems that our world faces.
I worry that if we don’t make room, if we don’t make that space, if we don’t take seriously the idea of heterodoxy, that we’re going to be pursuing [0:03:51] [Indiscernible] solutions that ultimately won’t be as durable as they could have been had we had more space at the table for everybody.
Chris Martin: And do you see this as an issue in teaching? I know you’ve done a lot of teaching. Both in teaching and in research.
Debra Mashek: I do and that’s one of the things that really strikes me about the Heterodox Academy mission that I’m drawn to is this – the focus on these twin goals of the academy. So we need to be able to create the best research out there and to do that, we need to make sure that there aren’t already – or we know that there are a lot of assumptions in terms of the questions we ask, the methods we use, how we analyze and interpret the data and what data we deploy and how we deploy it on behalf of policy and what not.
So that research wing is super important, absolutely critical to solving the world’s biggest problems and on the other side, we also – on the teaching side, we need to be able to offer students the opportunity to have exposure to a range of ideas. So these are the students obviously who are going to graduate, go out and be the policy makers, be the citizens who are active in their communities and who are – continue to engage ideas.
So we want them – in fact we want all of us to really have fluency with a range of ideas and not just – sometimes I worry that in the classroom, we might be able to offer kind of a caricature of there are these other people who think this other thing. But it’s not necessarily going into the level of depth or nuance that would actually enable our students to make use of those ideas out in the real world as they’re trying to solve those big problems.
So I do – I absolutely think about this in terms of teaching. I want to focus on helping students think how they want to think as opposed to what to think and having ideologically diverse spaces in the classroom on the campus enables that sort of intellectual growth.
Chris Martin: In the classes you’ve taught, do you feel like you’ve had a mix of centrists, liberals and conservatives so far?
Debra Mashek: Yeah. So in my classrooms, we definitely have a broad range of students who are present and it’s also the case that while our classroom discussions are largely very open and we are able to bring in a lot of ideas, it’s also the case that I regularly have students, colleagues swinging by for closed door conversations where they’re saying things – like there was this question I wanted to ask in class or there was an idea I wanted to raise in the meeting. But I didn’t feel comfortable doing so because I thought I might – the other students might tell me that that was – or that I’m being ridiculous or that’s an offensive question even. That has a very chilling effect on inquiry and on the pursuit of knowledge.
Chris Martin: So that kind of self-censorship I think was a concern of Jon Haidt’s as well and it’s a concern of a number of people who joined Heterodox Academy. In terms of how we solve that problem, how do you feel like going into the future of Heterodox Academy is going to tackle that issue?
Debra Mashek: Well, yeah, I would love to talk about the broad, strategic vision for Heterodox Academy. But to that question in particular, I think we need to back up and really think about how do we equip our students, ourselves with – what I find myself referring to as the “habits of heart and mind,” to engage constructively across difference and be the big – the four things that I would encourage people to focus on there is how do we cultivate intellectual curiosity.
So rather than having those moments where someone says something that is at odds with what you believe, how do we get it to the point where instead of saying, “You believe what?” as though it’s the worst thing anyone could have possibly imagined.
But instead, getting us to the point where we can say, “You believe what?” and “Tell me more about that,” and “How did you come to that? How do you see it? Let’s walk through your understanding of it,” and really thinking about engagement as an opportunity for understanding the other person’s point of view as opposed to trying to explain to them why surely they’re wholly wrong.
So intellectual curiosity is one of the markers there of those habits of heart and mind. Another one being intellectual humility. So I don’t know about you. But I find myself wrong quite often and just holding that possibility in mind when we engage with others who see the world differently that chances are – this one person, this one place and time that probably my experiences probably have not somehow enabled me to have the one right perspective on the world and just to have that humility to say I need to see – I need to see what others are seeing also.
Then the other one is being – empathy and perspective-taking that my belief is that humans are fundamentally good people and if we take the time to figure out where they’re coming from, their ideas probably won’t seem as just ridiculous as sometimes I think our kneejerk assumption tends to be.
Chris Martin: I really like those ideas especially the first. I did some research for my own dissertation in anxiety and why college students appear to be more anxious than they used to be. Someone I interviewed incidentally also from California. He’s a psychiatrist there who has worked with a lot of college students. He says that students aren’t sure how to cope with this concept of political correctness. I think they generally want to be sensitive but they don’t really have any concrete guidance and I think if you break it down into principles like curiosity, humility and empathy and perspective-taking, that actually gives students something concrete to work with.
Debra Mashek: Yeah, I totally agree with thinking – you know, so many of our institutions have orientation programs and what not for their incoming first year students and one of the tools – I know you’ve talked about it before on the podcast is that open mind, the open mind tool and I would just be thrilled if we could help administrators and professors bring that tool into their orientations to help equip students with exactly those habits of heart and mind, to start figuring out how to navigate the campus culture.
Chris Martin: So tell me a bit more about your broader vision for Heterodox Academy.
Debra Mashek: So I will be a dork here and start back with what is the mission of Heterodox Academy and our mission is to improve the quality of research and teaching in universities by increasing viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding and constructive disagreement. So in terms of how we will do that, I think of the – what is the HXA way? So what are the values that undergird our efforts? I think we absolutely love the academy. We have a deeply strong commitment to higher education.
We value constructive disagreement and again those values of intellectual curiosity and humility and perspective-taking and empathy but also empiricism and engaging diverse viewpoints. We really want to walk the walk.
In terms of what’s in store for 2018, I’ve done a lot of work with our – we have a really stellar team at Heterodox Academy and the teams come together to think through what are our priorities for this coming year and the first one is to create a vibrant network of engaged scholars and teachers.
So, so much of what Heterodox Academy has done today – and it’s a young organization. So it’s really amazing to think about all of the work they’ve done. But it tends to be creating or writing a blog and sending it out, calling research, gathering some data and sending it out.
I’m really excited to say, “You know what? We have these 1600 members.” That’s a lot of interest, a lot of talent and a lot of perspective. So what are our opportunities to create conduits for our members to connect with each other around shared concerns or shared opportunities? But also what are the opportunities for them to connect directly with our mission?
So definitely we would like to continue building the membership there, engaging our members via social media but also very soon we will be sending out a member survey to ask the members, “In what ways would you like to get involved? What can we at Heterodox Academy be doing to better enable your efficacy in your local context for creating the change that you want to see?”
We’re also interested in creating working groups around things. You know, so many of us are teachers. So I’m interested in helping us create a teaching committee where we can think about what are the best practices in the classroom setting for creating the space for these – where diverse ideas can come together constructively and we’re also playing with the idea of creating some disciplinary-based Listservs.
So the psychologist, if they want to play around with some ideas, they could do that and find each other more easily than using the member search. That’s currently in the webpage. We’re looking for opportunities to build research collaborations around these questions of, “How do you best cultivate these habits of heart and mind? What are the consequences for learning and for discovery when you’re working within the ideological monoculture versus when you have a heterodox space available?” So all of those ideas fall under that first priority in creating the vibrant networks.
Then our second priority is to create these really wonderful tools that are widely adopted or could be even more widely adopted on campus and these include the Campus Expression Survey. I think your listeners might already be familiar with this. But it’s a self-report instrument that professors or administrators can use either in a single classroom or ideally across an entire campus.
It offers an X-ray of the campus. So seeking to answer the question or questions. Who is afraid to speak up about what issue and why? So what do they imagine are the consequences if they don’t?
So the Campus Expression Survey, we’ve got some nice initial data from www.YourMorals.org. It’s not a random sample by any stretch and so one of the things, because of our value of empiricism, one of the things we’re going to be doing in the very near future is collecting some populace data on the validity of the Campus Expression Survey.
Another tool is the Guide to Colleges which – you know, we think of our target audience there as the high school students and their parents who are trying to figure out if I would like to send my – if I would like to go study or send my child to a college or university where they’re going to be challenged to think about a variety of ideas, how do I find such a place? So the Guide to Colleges offers some rankings and some indicators, so people can by the way see that, “Oh, I think that might be a good place for us to look for heterodoxy.”
Then there’s the Open Mind Platform which is – I use it in two of my classes now and it’s really wonderful. It’s a free online experience where students go through thinking about, “Well, why would I benefit from being in a heterodox environment and having viewpoint diversity? How does one cultivate intellectual humility and curiosity?”
Then it also offers these great little micro practices within the app for that. There’s the company facilitation for workshops that can be paired with the online app as well as a really lovely research library or library that includes academic research as well as writings from across the ages and across the lands, essays and what not that professors can make use of or actually individuals as well. We cultivate habits of heart and mind.
Chris Martin: Yeah. On the topic of the Open Mind Platform, I know that covers a certain variety of topics. Which ones have you tried or have you tried all of them in the classroom so far?
Debra Mashek: Yeah. I’ve assigned the full experience to students in my “I’m Right, You’re Wrong” course and then also in the Intellectual Virtues course and for the Intellectual Virtues course, I’m also using the library as the reading list for the class of students. They get to pick each week which of the readings in the library they would like to read in advance of class and then we’re using those as a platform or as the basis for our discussion about the ideas.
So our third emphasis for this year is thinking about how to shape the broader social discourse about viewpoint diversity and how to engage that productively. So obviously colleges and universities don’t exist in a bubble. We’re absolutely one of the social foundations of the United States at least and we want to think through about how do we bring more voices into this conversation about the value of viewpoint diversity and we’re writing up ads [0:16:51] [Phonetic]. If we have members who are interested in writing up ads and who would like feedback on them, we would absolutely be happy to help with that.
We’re looking for more people to contribute to the blog, to share what’s happening on their campuses, their perspectives and just making sure that we’re getting the word out beyond just our group of members because if we’re just talking to ourselves, then we’re missing an opportunity to shape discourse for society more broadly.
Chris Martin: So in that regard, do we have someone going with concrete efforts there or is that something we will see later in 2018?
Debra Mashek: I mean there are some concrete efforts. So you know the blog exists already. So if you have listeners who are interested in contributing to that, they can reach out to our communications director to participate there.
One of the blog series that’s new is Teaching Heterodoxy and they were looking for examples from the classroom, whether it’s demonstrations, actual syllabi, readings that have worked particularly well and how to engage them.
Chris Martin: I like the Teaching Heterodoxy. I think I sort of tried to do that a little. When I started Half Hour of Heterodoxy as well, trying to do every fourth or fifth episode, I think episode four if I recall was with Cristine Legare. That was specifically about teaching techniques. So I think that’s something that’s going to be of a lot of value, especially to younger professors who are unprepared for these challenges and need to tackle them as soon as they get out the door.
Debra Mashek: I absolutely agree and it’s also the case that so much of what happens in the classroom stays in the classroom, which I think is unfortunate because people are finding really interesting ways of engaging these topics and we should make that – both the process and the products of those efforts visible and available to other professors because it’s not obvious. These are difficult topics and to create communities of inquiry around how to enable our students, to think how to think as opposed to what to think.
I think we’re doing a service not just to our students and not just to the young professors, but ultimately to all of the – all the people who are going out into the world and continue to engage with each other after college.
Chris Martin: That’s right. I think that’s part of what college is supposed to be for. But sometimes colleges can be very focused on one or two disciplines that students are majoring in and they miss out on that a little. So do you have any closing thoughts before we wrap up?
Debra Mashek: One of the things I’m really excited about is inviting administrators and professors into the conversation so that they can tell us how can we be a good partner. So every campus is dealing with their own local context or own set of situations and we don’t want to imagine that we know everything that’s happening on your campus.
Instead we are interested in what do you need. How can we best support you and your efforts? And along those lines, I’m really excited to hear from – you know, to hear from our members and to hear from our non-members and what’s happening on the ground. What are they seeing? Are they seeing changes? Are they seeing opportunities of ways that we could better influence this value of viewpoint diversity on college campuses?
So this is the first of many conversations I hope and that people know that we want to hear from them and we want to be good partners.
Chris Martin: Well, I definitely hope this is the first of many conversation and it has been good having you on the show. Thanks for joining us.
Debra Mashek: It has been a pleasure, Chris and thank you for all of your work on behalf of Heterodox Academy. I love your podcast and your writing and I know you’re doing so many behind-the-scenes things. So it’s noticed and appreciated.
Chris Martin: Thank you. All right. We will talk to you soon.