“There are a great many more questions in the world than there are static, universal answers. I want to train students to ask good questions, to differentiate better questions from worse ones, and to pursue promising methods of inquiry. I don’t want to train basic answer-retrievers; for that, we now have smartphones.” – Christiana Z. Peppard, USA

In teaching, experience is invaluable, but new teachers often bring new levels of innovation to their work. And that’s exactly the case with Christiana Peppard, who became a university professor just two years ago. Peppard, whose title gives some indication of her wide-ranging interests, epitomizes the cross-disciplinary academic. Her views are sought out on many of the critical issues of the day, including faith and belief, environmental ethics and global fresh water issues. And she brings this diverse perspective to her teaching, both in approach and subject matter. “I think that much of the educational cartography of the future will need to be predicated upon interdisciplinary work,” Peppard says. “I can attest, however, that it takes a long time to learn to do it well and in depth.”

Peppard understands the power of video, and has developed animated TED-Ed lessons on fresh water and global fresh water scarcity that are helpful tools for teachers everywhere. She’s also passionate about fixing the gender imbalance in education. “It’s especially important to me to be a role model for young women and a source of encouragement for talented but underrepresented people in education and other professions,” Peppard says. “Being a relatively young scholar with top-notch credentials and various forms of privileged access means that I have both an opportunity and a responsibility to expand the circle of talent and conversation.”

Today, Peppard shares her thoughts on a wide range of issues, from the fresh water crisis to the connection between interdisciplinary education and 21st century skills.

What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?

Great educators drew me into education by their example, and my love of learning keeps me orbiting in higher education.

In terms of content: The beauty of life’s complex, variable systems (ecological, biological and cultural) hooked me in early college, while later in college I became fascinated with the kinds of questions that endure for human beings through time—with their particular manifestation in different historical periods and contexts.  So it is that my undergraduate degree is in human biology and my master’s and doctoral work is in ethics.  People often comment that I am inherently interdisciplinary, which I think is true. I hope to contribute to that [interdisciplinary] effort, particularly on the subject of fresh water, through my scholarship and teaching.

I stay in education, despite its drawbacks and complexities, because I love its empowering, dynamic pursuit of clarity. Clarity is not the same thing as finality or ultimacy; rather, it’s a glimpse of something—an insight, a fact, a mode of thinking—that had previously been elusive, yet now illuminates something important.  Sometimes this means simply learning to say things better, more precisely: As my husband once quipped, ethicists are fond of making fine distinctions. It’s where the philosopher and the poet in me converge.

I love to invite and enable students on that journey, and I am regularly inspired by their willingness to admit what they don’t know and enter the fray. I love the dynamism of teaching and the privilege of watching students grow into thinkers, professionals, and thoughtful adults. All of our knowledge is partial in at least two senses: it is biased, and it is incomplete. But we can only achieve clarity, however impermanent it may be, by committing to the journey. Often, good things happen along the way. Education is an invitation to adventure—to ask better questions, measure reality in ever more nuanced ways, and make meaning of the results.

Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?

My high school English teacher, Kathy McInerney, brought Coleridge and Wordsworth to life and invited us to inhabit Jane Austen, right down to Elizabeth Bennet’s very (imagined) voice—and that was technology-free, without ever bringing Colin Firth into the classroom! My Calculus teacher, Fred Hirst, loved vocabulary and would often quiz us on words like “espouse” while also integrating functions: awesome.  My French teacher, John Ballantine, insisted on speaking to me in Latin! My doctoral advisor, Margaret Farley, is an extraordinary mentor, thinker, and exemplar of how to integrate rigorous intellectual pursuit with the wisdom that comes through experience. I have been formed by these folks and am incredibly grateful.

Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education.  What has changed as a result of your work?

I’ve been a professor for less than two years, so I don’t pretend to say that I have advanced innovation in education, generally! I anticipate that, relative to my other work thus far, my TED-Ed videos (animated by the talented Jeremy Collins) will have the biggest impact in terms of helping students and educators to think better about the complex issues surrounding global fresh water scarcity. I think that the best educators innovate in ways that serve the material and the students by bringing words off the page and ideas towards fruition, so I hope that my biggest, long-term impact will be on the minds and lives of students.

Gender matters here, too. The underrepresentation of women and minorities is a huge problem in contemporary American public discourse—I’ve been totally galvanized by The OpEd Project (of which I’m a Public Voices Fellow through Fordham University)—they’re doing crucial, empowering, exciting work to cultivate thought leaders. Here’s the upshot, for me: the world is not composed predominantly of middle-aged white males with degrees from Ivy League universities, despite the fact that they populate the vast majority of American public discourse. Don’t get me wrong: intellectual pedigree can be important, and I like a lot of white males too—I’m married to a great one, and I study the thought of a lot of dead ones—but there’s room for much more diversity at the table of elite education, public discourse, thought leadership and global leadership. I hope to contribute to expanding that circle through my scholarship, teaching and mentorship.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

As a humanities professor, I find that technology can effectively add texture to an idea, historical personality, or issue. For example, I use Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Bottled Water” on the first day of my classes at Fordham to convey one of my three cardinal classroom rules: no disposable bottled water! When I teach Darwin, I mobilize the wonderful digitized images of original letters and first-edition publications that can now be found online.  At the start of every class I play a song (usually found on YouTube) that relates to the theme of the class that day.

Recently I’ve partnered with TED-Ed and animator Jeremy Collins on two short, animated lessons on global fresh water. That’s been awesome—the concept of short (<4 minutes) animated lessons that can be used in the classroom, and returned to by students later on, is a real boon to teachers everywhere. As the creator of one lesson, it’s been amazing to see the response. I hope that those pieces can be helpful resources for students, teachers and life-long learners.

In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?

The use of technology in flip teaching is a fantastic tool in the pedagogical craft bin—I look at it as a form of rigorous crowdsourcing that, when used on appropriate topics and in appropriate ways, can empower students and teachers alike. However, it’s important to remember that flip teaching should not be a cover-up for the ever-increasing number of students per teacher. The proliferation of online tools and learning communities more generally is also exciting, especially for autodidacts but also for students who want or need extra information or practice.

I think that the most exciting challenge — and innovation — in education today can be found at the intersection of various disciplines. How can we teach and embody rigorous interdisciplinarity? Technology has a role in this. So does innovation. But it’s technology in the service of a goal, a question, a pursuit; not technology as an end in itself. Aristotle was right: the value of a tool is in how it is used—for what kind of goals, in what kind of circumstances, by what kind of craftsman?

Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?

One of the courses I regularly teach at Fordham emphasizes “critical reason.” It’s an increasingly crucial focus of education. The reason is pretty simple: in a digital, mobile age, seemingly any data can be retrieved with a click. Of course, information is great: I love facts of all stripes. But we need to be extraordinarily careful not to confuse data or information with knowledge and wisdom. People need to know how to classify information, adjudicate the reliability or utility of its sources, identify and analyze it, generate new data through careful observation, and consider the purpose and likely outcomes of inquiry. Only with critical thinking skills does information stand a chance of being transformed into knowledge or wisdom. Students need basic data, for sure; and they need practice in transforming data knowledge and wisdom that can inform human decisions and actions. That task is ever ongoing. So, on a planet with a plethora of data and ever-expanding sets of information, critical reasoning skills will be utterly essential for students in the coming century.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

Every child in the world stands an infinitely better chance of learning if she or he has access to clean, fresh water and sanitation.  Water infrastructure, filters and toilets aren’t educational tools at first blush (er, flush)—but without them, children have profoundly diminished chances of sheer survival, not to mention education. A staggering number of girls and women worldwide gather water every day—for domestic purposes, that is, to support their families’ basic survival needs—and in doing so, they forego education.  What an invisible privilege water infrastructure is! What a rampant loss of girls and women the world experiences when they bear the burden of water scarcity. At a basic level, clean, fresh water is more important than pencils and paper, not to mention microchips.
What is your region doing well currently to support education?

My daughter is a kindergartener in New York City public schools, in an area with high parent involvement and good teachers.  I love that across the entire city, schools provide need-based breakfast and lunch to children who need meals—you can’t think straight if you’re hungry.

Insofar as we continue to support students in embodied as well as intellectual and technological ways, we’re doing OK. But education falters when one of those aspects goes off-kilter, and that’s a real risk in the US these days.

How must education change in your region to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?

New York Public Schools serve a great many children in a complex system. Like many public school districts in the US, there are massive challenges: slashed budgets, high numbers of students per class, amplified testing curricula and performance evaluations of questionable utility, underpaid teachers, entrenched union commitments, parents who work long hours just to scrape by.  When combined, it’s a rough reality for teachers, students, parents, and administrators.

The daily fact is that teachers—especially in primary, middle, and high schools—cultivate and nurture the minds and experiences of our children, spending more time with them than many of us do as parents. Quality, individualized attention can’t be given in a cookie-cutter model in a classroom of 35 kids on a salary of $60,000 per year in New York City.  Private schools are an option for some but, due to their cost, are not feasible for most New Yorkers.  A result is a constancy of educational stratification, which itself is not necessarily a new problem but rather one that continues to roil against our aspirations towards universal education and equality of opportunity.

At the college level, the burden of educational debt is terrifying and prohibitive for many students and their families. Again, we are at real risk of ossifying socioeconomic inequality through problems of access and the long-term burden of individual, educational debt. Education is a public good, but higher education in particular has become a personal burden for many middle- and low-income families. This is a vivid problem in my line of work, every day.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

I find that cultivating critical reason—that is, getting students to analyze and critique raw data and other people’s analyses of that data—can be difficult in the early college years. Partly, I think, this is because there is so much information readily available with a swipe of the touchpad.  How can we teach students to separate the helpful data from the noise? And how do we cultivate problem-solving, critical thinking skills when students no longer have to reason through speculation about, say, how one might calculate the earth’s circumference—when they can just ask their smartphone instead?

First, I work very hard to help students learn to generate possibilities without relying on Wiki or Google. Yes, the Internet is a very helpful tool. But when it comes to problem solving, it’s rather two-dimensional—akin to using a calculator without ever having learned about how fractions specify quantity and relationship.

Second, I try to help students learn how to judge whether and how a source of information is reliable: many students are really unskilled at this when it comes to Internet sources.

Third, I try to help students learn how to analyze, critique and construct arguments. There are a great many more questions in the world than there are static, universal answers. I want to train students to ask good questions, to differentiate better questions from worse ones, and to pursue promising methods of inquiry. I don’t want to train basic answer-retrievers; for that, we now have smartphones.

A practical challenge is class size. I regularly teach classes of 35 students: how to reach all of them, with their different educational and cultural backgrounds? How to draw out conversation and teach on-the-fly critical thinking and verbal debate? It’s do-able with 18 students; it’s prohibitive with 35.

How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

Regarding critical thinking, I tell students that there is no such thing as a perfect, unbiased essay or argument. I stress that there are better and worse ways to mobilize information into knowledge, and that part of education is recognizing this as a lifelong pursuit in the classroom and beyond. Context matters. There is no view from nowhere. Not even physics has successfully mounted a Theory of Everything.

Regarding students’ judgments about Internet sources: I do an Annotated Bibliography assignment in which each category of source has to be defended as to why it’s relevant to the topic; how the student might use this information; and how she/he knows it’s reliable. One example I give in class is with regard to celebrity sightings and gossip: What magazines or online sources are trustworthy? Who goes to Huffington Post for such things when you can go to Perez Hilton? I try to make it fun, while also prompting students to look at classic questions like who wrote this piece? What are her/his qualifications? What is the intended audience? How is the site or organization funded? And so forth.

Regarding class size, I tend to teach with a combination of mini-lectures (15-20 minutes) interspersed with brainstorming questions every 5-10 minutes; and for class discussion, we create a “fishbowl,” in which 5-8 students who have written focused two-page papers (in response to a prompt) for that class session sit in the middle of the class and present their ideas, then respond to one another. Eventually, the circle of conversation expands to the “outer circle,” where non-presenters sit (i.e., myself and the majority of the class). It’s a way of enabling students to cultivate verbal communication skills on scholarly ideas while also facilitating students’ conversation with each other. Their job is to present, support and constructively critique their peers’ work. By mid-semester the exercise often becomes fun, empowering, and healthily fierce.

For more on Peppard’s views on environmental and water issues, see this C-SPAN video, Scientific Predications about the Future.

About Christiana Z. Peppard

  • Birthplace: Fresno, California: in the Central Valley.
  • Current residence: New York City
  • Education:
    • Excellent public schools in Colorado through high school;
    • B.A., Human Biology, Stanford University (2001);
    • M.A.R., Ethics, Yale Divinity School (2005);
    • Ph.D., Religious Studies, Yale University (2011)
  • Website I check every day:  Circle of Blue (www.circleofblue.com/waternews)
  • Person who inspires me most:
    • Sandra Steingraber—ecologist, writer, citizen, activist, parent;
    • Pauli Murray (d. 1985)—lawyer, poet and writer, Episcopal priest, advocate and activist for racial and gender justice in the mid-20th century.
  • Favorite childhood memory: In early February 1986, my dad woke me in the middle of the night and we bundled up, trundled over dirt roads and clambered to a field where denizens of suburban Denver milled amicably in the dark, amongst telescopes. It was as if I had been transported to another reality as I surfaced from a groggy haze, sat in a folding beach chair, and drank hot cocoa from a mug while trying to make out the contours of the nighttime landscape and a bunch of adult strangers. I was seven years old. We were there to see Halley’s Comet. I remember mulling over the fact that neither my father nor I were very likely to be alive for the next round of the comet’s fiery flight. One woman invited me to look through a very powerful telescope that seemed about as big as I was: through it, I saw the moon, its craters, and (I think) Mars.  That night, the comet was elusive but the night sky vast and cavernous. It was probably the first time I thought hard about planetary motion, deep time, and space so distant it couldn’t even be seen.
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): For work: Miami—I’ve never been, so that’s exciting. For pleasure: Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why?  Most recently, I laughed ten minutes ago at a good pun. I also adore situational humor, that is, the convergence of unlikely factors that point out something in a new, amusing and delightful light. For example: recently I was stopped in my race-walking-to-a-meeting tracks by the unexpected sight of a man on a skateboard, coasting off the curb and seamlessly into traffic at Columbus Circle in New York City. His hair was standing on end, he was wearing guitar on his back and carrying a huge plastic kennel with an orange cat in it. That, my friends, is a multitalented and inspiring human being! Life is funny, if you let it be.
  • Favorite book: Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson
  • Favorite music: Pink Floyd, especially “The Wall”; Palestrina (Renaissance polyphony) and the descant in Allegri’s “Miserere”; and, when the mood strikes, The Grateful Dead.
  • What is the best advice you have ever received?  Two pieces of advice from two different mentors: “Protect your energy,” and “Find someone you can change with. No one stays the same over time.”
  • Your favorite quote or motto: Clifford Geertz, anthropologist: “One of the most significant facts about us may finally be that we all begin with the natural equipment to live a thousand kinds of life but end in the end having lived only one.”

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2 Responses to “There are a great many more questions in the world than there are static, universal answers. I want to train students to ask good questions, to differentiate better questions from worse ones, and to pursue promising methods of inquiry. I don’t want to train basic answer-retrievers; for that, we now have smartphones.” – Christiana Z. Peppard, USA

  1. Kathy McInerney says:

    Dear Christy,
    You have never ceased to amaze. I am so happy to have received this update of your career, your scholarship, your teaching-style, your interests. You’ve broadened academic boundaries and carved new challenges for your students (and your peers). I am so proud of you. Your students are blessed with the best, my friend.
    Welcome to “THE profession.”

  2. Great Easter special interview talking about the Pope, religious and secular ethics, and global resources on the Melissa Harris Perry Show!


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