Through published commentaries, Mac faculty members speak up about complex issues.

Why resilience matters


Kate Knuth’s recent departure from the role of chief resilience officer (CRO) in Minneapolis caught many off-guard. Across media platforms, people are asking what this job entails and who is best suited to do it. A Star Tribune article on this topic resulted in hundreds of comments suggesting that Minneapolis is wasting its money on resiliency. As environmental studies professors at Macalester College, our research has partnered with city staff in both Minneapolis and St. Paul to understand why and how resiliency matters for creating a more livable and just Twin Cities. We think residents are well-served when we focus public dollars on resiliency.

Resilience is defined as the capacity of individuals and organizations in a city to “survive, adapt, and grow” in the face of acute natural disasters and more chronic stresses such as an aging transportation system, now-routine weather extremes, a vulnerable electricity grid, and an increasingly elderly population. Resilience also means creating solutions for many problems with one stroke. For example, programs that improve insulation and energy efficiency not only make homes and buildings more comfortable, they also create jobs, save money on energy bills, reduce stress on energy infrastructure, and cut down on the pollution caused by burning fossil fuels.

A dedicated CRO looks across agencies and chooses areas for opportunities. As the above example demonstrates, one targeted action can positively impact many sectors of an urban economy. We might compare a city CRO to a corporate chief sustainability officer, who works company–wide to achieve benefits for the company, the employees, and the community. Businesses already recognize the value of this type of position; Fortune 500 companies including Dow, AT&T, and General Mills have had a chief sustainability officer on staff for years.

The Twin Cities are not alone in focusing on urban resiliency. Louisville’s CRO has worked with Georgia Tech to prepare the city’s most vulnerable populations for a predicted increase in heat waves. New York City’s OneNYC Plan is aimed at fighting climate change by addressing all forms of racial inequity. Pittsburgh’s resiliency strategy aims to create a reliable, modern communications infrastructure that is accessible to all. To our south, El Paso is focused on building healthy, affordable housing in desert environments.

Building resilience requires close partnerships with residents and local nonprofits. Five years ago, we began a project in St. Paul called Ready & Resilient to help bridge the gaps among city agencies, district councils, nonprofits, and residents. We partnered with former St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s staff to lead resiliency workshops throughout the city for residents. We collected innovative ideas and ground-level realities. Our major takeaway was that the key to building resilience, especially to extreme weather, lies in increasing the social cohesion of our neighborhoods. We helped this effort along by creating a community resiliency fund that provided microgrants for residents to implement ideas. This resulted in support for after-school education, wildlife conservation, and Block Nurse programs.

For those who took the story about Knuth’s resignation as an opportunity to fill the comments page with climate denialism and disdain for welfare programs, we remind you that climate scientists and urban planners are unequivocal that future extreme weather events will result in flooding, and transportation and electrical grid failures. The question isn’t will these things happen, but how quickly will our cities be able to rebound when they do.

Roopali Phadke and Christie Manning are environmental studies professors. Published originally on Feb. 27, 2018, as “It’s not just a buzzword: Why resilience matters to Minneapolis and St. Paul,” this article is reprinted with permission from the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The case for and against autonomous weapon systems


Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Henry Kissinger, and Elon Musk have all warned that artificial intelligence (AI) could, in Hawking’s words, “spell the end of the human race.” Most of the excited discussion of their apocalyptic predictions hovers somewhere between philosophical thought experiments and science fiction. Isn’t it possible and even likely, Musk asks, that AI has already emerged and we are trapped inside the matrix it is using to enslave us?

image of mines

Meanwhile, a much more quiet and relentlessly practical techno-revolution is occurring. Governments and militaries around the world are investing billions of dollars in developing autonomous weapon systems (AWS). The U.S. Department of Defense defines AWS as “a weapon system that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator.” Proponents of AWS research argue that the atrocities of war are the natural consequence of basic human behaviors or emotions, and that by removing the human element AWS could spell the end of war crimes. However, AWS critics argue that removing the human element means removing non-algorithmic moral intuition and feeling— the distinctly human features that mitigate the horrors of war. Unless a pre-emptive ban on AWS is implemented now, they argue, we face a future of unrestrained and even unrestrainable ‘killer robots.’ Who is right?

The case against humans
I have worked closely with convicted war criminals who have murdered, tortured, raped, and performed monstrous medical experiments on captured civilians. They came from all walks of life, but they shared a handful of key features: they were ordinary, remorseful, and—once I got to know them—hard not to like. For decades, researchers have struggled to find unique, predisposing personality flaws in men who commit atrocities during wartime, but they have failed.

We are not predators. The men I knew descended into the worst savagery not because they were natural killers but because they were not. The unbearable psychic stress of killing led to behavioral breakdowns and decompensation, which increased the entropic violence that, in a vicious circle, further amplified the debilitating stress.

The coercive force of morality, the way our consciences can break us down, is not an argument in favor of maintaining human agency in war. It is precisely the reason we should turn violence over to true predators like AWS.

The case against autonomous weapons
The International Committee of the Red Cross is deeply concerned that AWS could destabilize the laws of war, an already tenuous legal structure that mitigates the worst horrors of combat. Human Rights Watch has called for a total ban on AWS research. There are three primary arguments against the development of “killer robots.”

First, AWS will be incapable of respecting the foundational principles of humanitarian law, including distinction (the requirement not to target civilians) and proportionality (the requirement to consider risk to civilian populations when determining military objectives). Second, AWS poses technical legal difficulties that represent philosophically deep moral problems. How could we hold AWS accountable for war crimes? Holding the robots themselves morally accountable is a non-starter. Holding software designers responsible for the particular actions of their programs is also a non-starter. Third, and finally, the global result is likely to be catastrophic. AWS will proliferate and evolve. Market pressures will push in both directions: toward the development of ever more complicated, reliable, and expensive systems, but also toward simpler, sloppier, and cheaper systems.

What have we learned?
AWS proponents often resort to the last-ditch argument that the technology is inevitable— “resistance is futile”—so we might as well focus on optimizing the systems rather than banning them. If recent human history teaches us anything, it is that such arguments are profoundly, catastrophically short sighted. Thoughtful, forward-looking work on nuclear proliferation in the 1930s would have been far more effective than our current efforts.

Late is better than never, but early is best.

DeWitt Wallace Professor of English James Dawes teaches literature and human rights. His analysis is expanded in the September 2017 edition of Nature Human Behaviour. Excerpted and adapted by permission from Springer Nature, Nature Human Behaviour (“The case for and against autonomous weapon systems,” James Dawes), 2017.

Why colleges must change how they teach calculus


Each fall, more than 300,000 students enroll in first-semester calculus in colleges and universities throughout the United States. Most of those students are aiming for a degree in engineering, physics, chemistry, computer science, or the biological sciences. About a quarter of them will fail to earn the C or higher needed to continue. Many more are so discouraged by their experience that they abandon their career plans.

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We now know that much of the problem rests with an outdated mode of instruction, a lecture format in which students are reduced to scribes. This may have worked in an earlier age when calculus was for a small elite group that excelled in mathematics. Today, professions that require calculus make up 5 percent of the workforce, a proportion that is growing at a rate that is 50 percent higher than overall job growth. We can no longer afford to ignore what we know about how to improve the student experience, both inside and outside the classroom.

There are a variety of approaches that are known to promote active engagement with mathematics, helping students to understand and be able to use their mathematical knowledge outside of their math class. They generally go under the name “active learning.”

Active learning does not mean ban all lectures. A lecture is still the most effective means for conveying a great deal of information in a short amount of time. But the most useful lectures come in short bursts when students are primed with a need and desire to know the information.

The presidents of the professional societies in the mathematical sciences have endorsed these methods of teaching. Yet despite clear evidence that they greatly improve student learning, science and mathematics faculty have been slow to adopt them. Part of this is reluctance on the part of faculty to diverge from what worked for them. But a greater obstacle is that faculty need both departmental encouragement and a supportive network if they are to make the transition to more effective teaching.

Several organizations are working to build these networks. One of the most recent examples is SEMINAL, an acronym for Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning. Through this initiative, 12 public universities, led by San Diego State University, the University of Colorado–Boulder, and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, will work together to show how active learning can be implemented and supported in mathematics classes from precalculus through higher forms of calculus.

The days when we could afford to teach mathematics as an elite subject, one that has often disadvantaged women and students from underrepresented minority groups, are long gone.

While active learning approaches help all students, they have been shown to be most effective for the students who are at the greatest risk of failing to earn a satisfactory grade or dropping out of the sequence of courses needed for their intended career. The demographics of those entering the workforce are changing, and we can no longer afford to ignore traditionally underrepresented groups of students. White students, which were 73 percent of all high school graduates in 1995, will account for less than 50 percent by 2025. Black students will comprise 14 percent and Hispanic students 27 percent of these graduates. If the United States is to maintain its preeminence in science and technology, it will require a skilled workforce whose racial and ethnic makeup reflects the diversity of this country. This workforce needs sophisticated mathematical skills, increasingly including a working knowledge of calculus.

DeWitt Wallace Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science David Bressoud works in number theory, combinatorics, and analysis. His commentary is excerpted with permission from The Conversation.

Caution: no trigger warning!


These days, students seem reluctant to engage with disturbing material, and well-meaning professors too often cater to their preferences, shielding them from what they’d rather not confront. Last year in a literature class, I had an encounter with a student that challenged both of us—professor and student—to rethink our knee-jerk positions and to work closely together to help the student develop strategies for mitigating her sensitivity.

image of professor prospectives

Without any trigger warning, I assigned my class the 19th century Vietnamese novel The Tale of Kiêu. This novel contains several highly metaphorical descriptions of rape. One day, an excellent student emailed me saying she found the content upsetting and could not bear to come to class. I was shocked and dismissed her concerns as excessive. Unwarranted. Or rather, I felt that the only way I could condone her hypersensitivity would be if I knew about her past. Such a reaction might make sense, I supposed, if she had been assaulted herself. But I could not ask. How then, I wondered, could I possibly adjudicate whether her sensitivity was justified or not? And how could I respond appropriately if I did not know her story and if I was, moreover, unfree to inquire?

We scheduled a meeting, and she broke down in tears in my office. At that moment, I realized that her present state, not her past, was my concern: I had in front of me a young woman who, for whatever reason, was profoundly disturbed by even the poetic suggestion of sexual violence. Her feelings were powerful and real. And they needed to be respected no matter what experience, real or imagined, underlay them. My job was not to adjudicate the legitimacy of her feelings but to help her develop strategies for engaging with a text she obviously found extremely disquieting.

Over the course of more than a week, we discussed her situation several times both in person and online. We also each sought out trusted confidantes with whom to analyze our ongoing interactions. This iterative process was essential, and through it, we moved closer to understanding one another’s points of view. I choose to express the story visually here because doing so challenged me to imagine our interactions from both the student’s perspective and my own. Drawing—especially the thought bubbles—prompted me to imagine her perceptions and to envision her thoughts, fears, and concerns.

The story as told here exhibits my greatest hope for students: that they will learn to titrate their own exposure to content they find disturbing, and that they will eventually wean themselves off the need to rely on trigger warnings or “opt-out” assignments. In the end of this story, it is the student herself—not the teacher—who comes up with the best strategy for approaching the text. Students must gain this independence because eventually they will decide for themselves what to read and how to read it. They will take responsibility for balancing between protecting and pushing themselves.

Asian Languages and Cultures professor Rivi Handler-Spitz studies and teaches Chinese literature and intellectual history as well as comparative literature. This article, adapted and reprinted with permission, was published on August 21, 2018, in Inside Higher Ed.

November 3 2018

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