Ellen Granberg

Ellen Granberg Headshot

Dr. Ellen Granberg is the first woman in the history of RIT to hold the position of provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs.  Throughout her career, Granberg has remained dedicated to furthering students’ ability to understand the importance of developing critical thinking skills and incorporating them into both their academic work, and their everyday lives.  Read her answers to a few critical thinking questions here:

1. How do you teach applied critical thinking?

When I was teaching sociology, critical thinking exercises were embedded into my lectures. I would provide students with data that allowed them to test their assumptions of the social world. Then, they’d reflect on the ramifications of what they’d learned by considering relevant policy or other practical applications.   The most important part of those critical thinking exercises was the students’ reflection.  I would ask my students, “What did you think? Where were you right? Where were you wrong?” As a faculty member, I really focused on that reflection piece. I wanted my students to explain why they came to their conclusion, how the data supported it, and what the implications were.

2. Why Do You Think Applied Critical Thinking is Important in Your Domain?

One of the most important skills you can give a person, especially in the modern era, is the ability to distance themselves from their opinions. Critical thinking provides a set of tools that can help us to understand the sources of our beliefs and, when appropriate, the ability to examine their validity.   This is especially important today because we are bombarded with messages influencing what we think, how we see ourselves, and how we see one another.   For example, in the era of big data, numbers are often assumed to have an unquestioned validity. Having the ability to critically assess a statistic, whether or not we agree with it, is an enormous advantage to separating good ideas from bad ones.  Critical thinking is the set of tools that makes this possible.  In my academic discipline, I had the opportunity to build those kinds of skills in my students, and I really enjoyed that.

3. Can You Share a Story Where Quality Applied Critical Thinking Was Key to Your Success?

Applied critical thinking was instrumental in the development of the metrics for RIT’s strategic plan, “Greatness through Difference.” When constructing this type of plan, it’s important to have metrics that are grounded in past history and ones that are aspirational but not overly ambitious.  The tools of critical thinking were extremely helpful as we sorted through our goals, determined how to measure them, and set appropriate targets.   

4. How Do You Use Critical Thinking in Other Areas of Your Life Outside of Rit?

I would consider myself a careful and cogent consumer of data. Due to my experience with critical thinking, I am very aware of its value. That really does frame the way I look at and think about my everyday life. I don’t run around trying to find data for every decision, but I like to understand the broad patterns. For example, when I was preparing to move to Rochester, I was a bit intimidated by the winters, and I wanted to understand what it meant to get a lot of snow. I knew we usually got about 100 inches, but what did that mean about daily life?  As I reflect on that, I realize I used a lot of critical thinking. 

I started looking at websites where I could get what looked like some valid technical data on snowfall, days of sunshine, etc.  First, I discovered that there was a lot of variation in year over year snow totals. Then, I read somewhere that Rochester only got two or three major snowfalls a year. That’s when I began doing the math. Rochester typically gets about 100 inches of snow a year and has three major snowfalls that are around 10-20 inches. That still leaves 40 to 60 inches of snowfall unaccounted for and spread over several months.  That suggested to me that perhaps we got regular dustings rather than day after day of huge snowfalls.  Dustings sounded a lot better than blizzards, but I really wanted to be sure. Therefore, I followed this logic down the line and eventually found historical records of day-by-day snowfall totals. It showed lots of days with a few inches, which I thought I could handle.  No big deal, right? Finding that information helped me alleviate my concerns about winter.  So, one could say that critical thinking is a big part of what brought me to Rochester. 

5. Any Last Critical Thoughts You Wish to Share?

Critical thinking is one of the most important skills we can teach a student. It is one of those cognitive abilities that is truly a differentiator, and it will be even more valuable to employers as time goes on. The more we can do to help students develop critical thinking, the better.