‘At-Risk’ – Concerns About Its Effectiveness

Judith_McDaniel2_80By Judith McDaniel
Editor, Web-based Course Design

[Note: Judith McDaniel originally posted this as a comment to Carrie Heeter’s “Review of ‘At-Risk’: A Simulation Training Program for College Staff.” We’ve decided to publish it as an article to stimulate further discussion on this and similar simulation programs. -js]

Carrie – thanks for the interesting summary and analysis of At Risk. I had several responses myself after trying out the same “free” sample interaction that you did. Let me see if I can summarize some of my discomfort with this product.

First, I don’t think I have had a class at the university level with only 20 students in it since the 1980s. So for me, one necessary assumption is that most instructors are going to be dealing with far larger classes than the one represented here – at least double, probably triple or more. That makes this entire process problematic for me since it assumes that I will be talking to these students about their work outside of class – and in very large classes that seldom happens.

I am concerned too that my role as an instructor, not a therapist or counselor, not be confused – by me or by my students.

a frontal lecture where all the students are using laptops

Further, the self-reporting of changed attitudes is interesting. I did not have the same experience that you did with feeling more comfortable. But that aside, self-reporting, no matter how well-meaning, is not evidence that the program works. Changed behavior in terms of frequency of reporting would be more relevant, but of course that takes years and $ investment.

I also found the “flags” for what we should notice in our students to border on the ludicrous. Does a student come to class looking tired and with messy hair? Yes, that describes about half of a freshman class in early November. Is a student anxious or withdrawn or sullen or non-participative? Yes, inevitably when there are 100 or more students in a class, that describes some of them. I have never found that to correlate to a need for referral . . . that I would have known.

And, finally, that is my last discomfort. I did have a student who disappeared last semester two-thirds of the way through class. She had been doing really well. Emails did not get a response. Finally, the last week of the class, she reappeared. She had been hospitalized after a suicide attempt and was back. I am still working with her to finish her Incomplete. But could I have referred her sooner? I honestly can’t imagine how. Would having taken this training have let me identify her? Not from what I have seen of it.

Defining One’s Diversity Philosophy: A Crucial Skill in a Changing World

osborne80By Randall E. Osborne
Staff Writer

In a world that is becoming increasingly “smaller” due to technology and ease of travel, it seems imperative to help individuals to expand their diversity views BEFORE they venture out into that world. In other words, it seems important to make an effort to expand people’s abilities to accept difference before they venture out into a world that is so obviously different from any one individual’s background. In an effort to do this, the author incorporates a diversity philosophy into his internet course on the Politics and Psychology of Hatred. Through assignments on middle class mentality, analysis of hate sites on the web, reading books about the Holocaust, personal explorations of privilege and other assignments, students are required to explore their own personal philosophies and views about the importance of difference.

The following is excerpted from a “Philosophy of Diversity” survey created by Cornell Thomas and John Butler (2000). Students are given an opportunity to answer questions about their diversity philosophy and then score them to determine whether they had more responses in assimilation, tolerance, multiculturalism, or inclusiveness. These categories were defined by Thomas and Butler in the following manner:

Tolerance = acceptance and open-mindedness of different practices, attitudes, and cultures; does not necessarily mean agreement with the differences. Implies an acknowledgement, or an acceptance or respect. Not necessarily an appreciation and usually consists of only surface level information.

Essentialism/Assimilation = the practice of categorizing a group based on artificial social constructions that impart an “essence” of that group, which homogenizes the group and effaces individuality and differences. The word implies that we are forming conclusions, relationships, and other cultural ties based only on the essential elements, as determined by “us.” It also implies that there is some minimal level of understanding that applies to groups.

Multiculturalism = the practice of acknowledging and respecting the various cultures, religions, races, ethnicities, attitudes and opinions within an environment. The word does not imply that there is any intentionality occurring and primarily works from a group, versus individual, orientation.

Inclusiveness = the practice of emphasizing our uniqueness in promoting the reality that each voice, when, valued, respected and expected to, will provide positive contribution to the community.

This was a learning experience for many students. For example, the “lesbian-identified bisexual” wrote that she was surprised to find that several of her responses had only been tolerant. She said osborne1she had expected that, because she was different, she should have all multicultural or inclusive responses. Another concern she brought up revolved around the possibility of using inclusive language but having the goal of making all people think or act the same way. This sparked an interesting debate about both inclusiveness and assimilation.

Before another assignment was due, students had a chance to “talk” via email and to “interact” through two discussion forums, one centered around the relationship between fear and hate, the second related to our moral or ethical obligations when dealing with hate. These fora allowed students to share their views and develop a sense of trust with each other. Next came the “hate site” assignment. It required the student to go to sites on the web that promoted hate and to analyze them by describing each site, defending its right to be there, and then explaining why it should not be there. By the time we were faced with the “hate site” assignment, many of us had already started to develop a sense of understanding regarding our own assumptions and biases. What resulted was that many of the students this semester did not “pat themselves on the back” over their own acceptance of difference after the evaluation of these sites; instead, many of them discussed their own reactions to the sites, sharing how it angered them or frightened them because some of the sites were written so well that they could almost be convincing.

It seems to me that such an exploration would be healthy for everyone. As people are exposed to more people in the world (through travel and through technological access to that world), stark differences in viewpoints and ideologies are going to become even more apparent. If we are to avoid having these differences only strengthen existing prejudices or even prompt hate-based behavior, it seems necessary to promote progression along the diversity philosophy continuum outlined by Thomas and Butler. This must be done at home, through schools and through the media.


Thomas, Cornell, and John Butler. 2000. Diversity philosophy. Paper presented at the Race, Gender and Class conference, Southern University at New Orleans.