94. Open Reflection

Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked, In this episode, three students from John’s spring economics capstone class join us to provide their reflections on the class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project. Our guests in today’s episode are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tararzona.

Show Notes

Transcript

Rebecca: Students can provide useful feedback on instructional practices and class design when they are asked. In this episode, students join us to provide an open reflection on one class’s experiment in developing an open pedagogy project.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Maria Aldrich, Victoria Heist and Charlie Tarazona, three students who participated in the creation of an open pedagogy project in one of my economics classes this spring semester. Welcome.

Victoria: Thanks for having us.

Maria: Thank you.

Charlie: Yep, excited to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: None of you are drinking tea, are you?

Maria: No.

Victoria: No tea.

Charlie: No tea today.

Rebecca: How regretful. [LAUGHTER]

John: It happens with many of our guests. I’m having ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: And I’m drinking Lady Grey. The issue is our tea selection is no longer close to our recording studio. It’s a problem. It’s an epidemic now with our tea choices.

John: …now that we’re recording in this little closet in a building next door, where at least we don’t have toilets flushing every 30 seconds or so that we have to edit out.

Rebecca: So John, can you start first by explaining what open pedagogy is, to kind of frame our discussion?

John: Going back a step further. Last year, I saw a presentation by Robin DeRosa who presented on this at the SUNY Conference on Instruction and Technology and she made a really compelling case for some of the advantages that open pedagogy projects have. And open pedagogy just involves having students create content that is open and shared publicly with the world.

Rebecca: So what class did you do an open pedagogy project in?

John: This class is a capstone course in the economics department here. It’s taken mostly by seniors and a few juniors. And it’s a seminar course in economic theory and policy. It’s one of our smaller classes. And we had only 27 students in this capstone, this semester.

Rebecca: So why this class?

John: Because the students were ready for it. The course builds on all the courses that they’ve had up to this point and it allows them to pull together material they’ve learned in all of their prior courses, as well as the cognate classes in statistics and math and so on.

Rebecca: So what kind of project exactly did you propose to these students?

John: I originally proposed two options. One was to do something on behavioral economics, because past classes have found that to be a lot of fun, and another one I suggested was they could just pick current topics and work in small groups and create papers on that. Turned out that they really didn’t like any of those ideas and given the nature of open pedagogy, I left it up to the class to decide what their topics would be. And I think it was actually Charlie, who came up with the idea. And would you like to tell us what that was?

Charlie: I know you had mentioned in the beginning of the class the idea of open pedagogy. And I found that pretty interesting because it seemed like a good opportunity for us as seniors and juniors to really put what we had learned out there. And also, in terms of topic selection, you gave us the opportunity to really choose which topics we wanted to talk about. We ended up choosing the topic of intergenerational mobility and economic inequality. We focused more on the economic inequality aspect of it in the end. But yeah, like I said, it was just a good opportunity for everybody to really finish their college careers with something that they can show.

Rebecca: Dr. Kane is going to close his ears now and you guys are going to tell us exactly what you thought when he said, “Hey, you’re going to write a book.”

Victoria: I was hesitant at first, just because group projects are kind of daunting, especially in economics. However, a collaborative group project was exciting to do… to see all of our work put together. As economic students it isn’t something you really see, it’s usually individual work.

Maria: Oh, yeah, I would agree with Victoria. I was kind of hesitant at first, especially because it was something new for our class so I figured there are probably a lot of kinks that needed to be fixed. So I was a little worried about not having everything fully figured out at first. I thought it was something interesting. It appealed to me because I like the thought that other people could read what we had written and we could have control of what we would want to talk about.

Charlie: And the topic and the idea of a book project really intrigued me… that it just let us put out there what we had learned over these past few years and gave us something that we can show in the end of it.

Rebecca: Were any of you scared?

Victoria: Not scared. I wouldn’t use that word.

John: Were you concerned?

Victoria: A bit concerned, just because I like doing my individual work. I feel stronger in that.

Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think group work can sometimes be difficult to have for every class because everyone has a different writing style and everyone works on their projects at different times. So I think at first, you’re a little bit worried that not everyone will be able to work well together. But I found that in my group, we were able to work very well and we’re able to meet once a week to go over what we needed to work on for the week.

Charlie: Yeah, I found something similar to that experience. Whereas my group, after the first few weeks, figured out what we wanted to do, and when we could meet, and what was the most effective way for us to put the book project together? And I think it turned out really well.

Rebecca: So you’ve all mentioned groups, can you talk a little bit about what the groups were, how they were determined, and how that worked?

Victoria: The groups were groups of three from the class, because there’s 27 people. And then we’re able to email Professor Kane and ask if we wanted to work with anyone specific, like if we had friends in the class, we could work with them. But if not, or if we didn’t want to work with someone we knew, we’re able to randomize it.

Maria: I was put into a group of two other random people that I didn’t know, but we were able to set up a group chat immediately and communicate very well through that.

Charlie: I actually emailed Professor Kane about being a group in Victoria and we also included another student in that. I think it worked out pretty well and I was happy with how it turned out.

John: Before the groups were formed, though, the class decided on what the topics would be. So we had kind of a free-form planning session where we narrowed it down to nine topics you wanted to address. And then at that point, we knew how big the groups were going to be. And it worked out nicely with three people per group.

Rebecca: How did each group get assigned a topic?

Charlie: So the way we assigned topics was, we had created a list of the nine topics, and then each individual group could choose their top three, and then we divided them that way based on everybody’s top choice. If they didn’t happen to get their top choice, they usually got their second or third, I think that only happened for maybe two groups, and they seem to be fine with what they ended up with.

John: And going back a little bit further, it was a weighted voting scheme that you didn’t just rank them… that you assigned points, if I remember was it 10 points I gave you? And so if you really wanted to chapter you could bid all 10 points on that. And if you were indifferent, you could have assigned weight to your top three preferences and so forth. And it did work out really nicely where I think most groups got their top choice, but two of them ended up with their second or third choice, but it seemed to work.

Rebecca: How did you find collaborating in the end?

Charlie: I found that it worked really well meeting every week. We also had presentations every week that we gave on specific topics that we’re talking about during that week. So that set the initial schedule for us to meet every week and talk about what we were doing and what was going on. Also with the book project at the time, in terms of organization, I found it very laid out and simple.

Rebecca: That sounds like you had a writing group that met that frequently, but it also would be more of like a study group as well?

Charlie: Yeah, I would definitely say it was a mix between a writing group… a study group. Your group members ended up being the way, if you wanted to succeed in the class, like that was the way to do it was to work cohesively with your group members.

John: And it should be noted that they had other tasks in the class as well, where they selected topics that were presented each week and each group was responsible for presenting an article or a research paper on a topic, some of which were related to the book and others were completely different. The groups were persistent across all the assignments and involved more than just writing the book.

Rebecca: How’d you get feedback to make sure whatever you’re putting out in the public was good enough?

Maria: Well, we mainly used Google Docs. At first, we tried to use hypothesis. But that wasn’t really working out well. So we ended up just going back to Google Docs. And each group would be given a couple of chapters to review each week. And they would write a couple comments in that chapter as well as some comments made by our professor and we used that and we also used each other’s feedback to make those edits.

John: How did that work? Where the comments helpful?

Victoria: No. [LAUGHTER] Just because I’m very protective over my work, which I know I should be open to criticisms. However, I got some comments sometimes I was just like questioning, like instead of “what about this article that you might want to look at” it would be “change this word,” where I know we emphasized that often in class many, many times, but still people would persistently do that.

John: I hope that wasn’t from me. Was it from me?

Victoria: Oh, no. Well, if you wanted to do that, you’re the professor. You can do that. But you also give us feedback that’s helpful. Whereas, students I feel like if they’re rushed or doing it, like 20 minutes before the class, they’re not going to look at me like, “Oh, what about this topic that might be interesting to consider.” Instead, they’re like, “Switch this word.” That just might be the students in the class too, just because we did have a lot of work in the class. And I found that because our group would meet to practice our presentation before the class, a lot of groups are doing their final work 15 minutes before the class.

John: Yes, the quality of the work did vary a little bit across the groups and across the individuals within the groups. Overall, there was some really high quality work, and all three of you did really well. But the quality of the feedback varied quite a bit.

Rebecca: So the feedback was generally done outside of class? Like not during class time?

John: Primarily, except for the presentations on the work where there was some feedback during the presentations.

Victoria: Yes, but I found that your feedback was most helpful, rather than the students.

Maria: Yeah, I would say I paid a lot more attention to Professor Kane’s feedback than some of my fellow students. Luckily, we didn’t have that experience. We had a lot of people give a sincere, really constructive feedback, but sometimes I’d be hesitant to take that feedback because I didn’t know that was the direction that I should be going in. But I definitely think our experience was a little better and our comments were more substantial, I would say.

Victoria: And I think next time maybe switching the groups that review the feedback might be helpful, because if you have one group that gives worse feedback, and you keep getting that, it’s not as helpful.

John: The way it was structured was each group reviewed and provided comments on three other groups, and we did that on three stages. And the class decided to maintain persistent groups there. I did give them the option, but I think it does make much more sense to vary it so you’re getting a wider range of feedback.

Charlie: I think the idea to keep persistent groups stem from the fact that we wanted to have somebody read the paper and then continue to read the paper throughout the weeks when we were supposed to be improving it or making it better. So then they could also see the changes we were making. And I agree with my classmates where I think we can say that it didn’t work out too well. There’s some groups just didn’t happen to give feedback that was too good.

Victoria: I also think part of it was the length of the papers because each of us had to review three full papers for the weeks that we did that, and three 20-page papers is a lot of reading to do on student written economics. And I think maybe in the beginning it was helpful to read all three, but maybe as time went on to scale that back a little bit, so we don’t get burnt out.

John: More detailed feedback on a smaller number of papers.

Victoria: Yeah because at first, I find myself doing it too. Like the first paper, I’ll take the time to read every single word and provide helpful feedback. But I can see myself not doing as much on the third.

John: I gave feedback in three different ways. The first time I gave video feedback, and while I’ve heard that that can be really efficient, I was taking about two hours or so per paper. And that was really slow and people really didn’t like the feedback that much because some of the feedback was fairly long in terms of the suggestions. So, I probably gave a little too much feedback. The second was with comments embedded in Adobe. And the third time I just basically went along with everyone else and provided the feedback directly in Google Docs. And the nice thing about that is I was able to see some other suggestions and sometimes I’d say, “Well, maybe that’s not such a good idea.” Because in many cases, the original draft actually made more sense than the feedback.

Rebecca: What way did you all like feedback better?

Charlie: I think the best feedback I received was actually in class feedback when I would go to Professor Kane and ask him, “Hey, you know, this is what’s going on with my paper. Is there something else I could look at? Is there another source I can find?” I found that to be the most effective in helping me write the paper. I was also a fan of the comments in Google Docs, they were pretty helpful.

Maria: Yeah, I think the most helpful feedback were the comments from Google Docs because, for that last draft, I was able to go through and resolve any comments that I had made the changes to and that just helped motivate me to make my draft a really good copy. And then I would say that I was really against the video feedback because I personally like to review feedback multiple times. I like to go through it and make changes to it. And I found myself just typing up his comments at the end of the doc so that other teammates could see it as well. So I was definitely against the video feedback and prefer the Google Doc comments.

Victoria: Yeah, I prefer Google Docs as well, just because I could see where exactly you wanted the changes done. It gave more specific feedback and then it also gave the students validity I guess, like this should be changed. Like I made a comment in one paper and said, “I think you mean a different word.” And they just resolved it and moved on. But then Professor Kane came through and said, “Yes, I agree.” And I think that you agreed, and they now are aware that yes, those changes need to be made.

Rebecca: I think sometimes when a faculty member responds to student comments in a way that it also helps students know how to make better comments. So it would be interesting to see how another round of that would have gone after Dr. Kane had responded to some of those right? To see if the comments were better the next time around.

John: Yeah, I think I should have done that from the beginning. And I’m sorry, I didn’t. But in the future, I’ll probably use Hypothesis. Now that we have Hypothesis in Blackboard it will be much easier. Among the problems we had is that people had some trouble making comments on Google Docs because they also had edit access to those and they couldn’t mark up specific text. And with PDFs, that was a bit of a problem given the way the browsers were set up that they had to change a program in order to make comments on PDF documents. So now that we have that in our learning management system, it’s going to be much easier to do that and the comments will be a little more persistent, because one of the issues was people were, as you mentioned, resolving comments sometimes before anyone else had a chance to see them. And the strategy was to have the draft documents with the comments copied over to another folder, and they were only supposed to make changes in their working document, not in the documents used for comments. But there were three or four people who through three drafts, just didn’t quite get that notion and I’d see the email saying that comments were resolved, and I would go back in and unresolve them. But in any case, there were some problems with those. That’s an issue that I think has to be worked out a little bit more efficiently.

Rebecca: Beside some of the technical issues that we mentioned, what were some of the biggest challenges of working on a project like this?

Charlie: I think one of the bigger challenges was keeping the cohesive idea behind the whole book where the topic we had chose was income inequality and we also had talked about intergenerational mobility. But as the book progressed, we kind of saw that portion of the book fall off a little bit where chapters were really focusing on the income and economic inequality topic.

Rebecca: So is that something you discussed in class to keep everybody on track?

Charlie: I think we mentioned it at one point towards the end, we’re just like, “Okay, are we going to keep this? Are we going to not keep this?” And I think we agreed, we could talk about it but we won’t make it a major portion of the book.

John: There was also some scaffolding on the project… that it didn’t just start with people starting to write, groups were first asked to put together a bibliography, and then an annotated bibliography, and then an outline of the chapter, and then the actual writing started after they had feedback on each of those steps.

Maria: I would agree with Charlie, I was definitely worried about the cohesiveness of the entire book. But for my group, specifically, we did a very broad topic, the global trends of economic inequality, and for myself, it was really hard to find relevant subjects to talk about because it was just such a broad topic. It was really hard for each of us to find something that we could spend a large amount of time writing about. So I’m not sure how the other groups felt. But for us, it was definitely hard narrowing down what we specifically wanted to talk about, and then to find resources that were recent enough to include.

Victoria: Yeah, I agree with you on that. I think one change I would make after we figure out the specific topics, you can go deeper in that because it’s hard as a group to form a thesis statement or very cohesive argument because we ended up doing more of a timeline than like an argumentative paper because you have to split it up.

John: Your topic specifically was on what?

Victoria: Tax-structure and income inequality. So basically, we looked at early 20th century, later 20th century, and the 21st century, and how the changing tax structures led to increasing income inequality over time. So that’s kind of how we split it up. But I think if I was to do it again, I would take a different approach to it, because I did the first section and finding information on World War One income inequality is much harder than it seems. So I struggled a lot with that too.

Charlie: Yeah, in terms of how we wrote our chapter of the book, I’m usually a fan of writing papers that follow a timeline as an explanation but that’s just a personal preference. It doesn’t work for everybody. So I can definitely see how making the cohesive argument along with following that timeline can be pretty difficult.

John: In your chapter, I think the timeline made a bit of sense. We were talking about the evolution of it and the transitions in your chapter were pretty smooth. I don’t think that worked as well in all the chapters, quite often it looked like they were three essays…

Victoria: Yes.

John: …chopped and pasted together.

Victoria: There was this one paper with a bunch of sub topics, but it wasn’t cohesive. And I was reading it and it just did not make any sense to me how it was organized. So that was one of the suggestions I made… maybe taking a step further in class and presenting maybe our papers a little earlier.

John: In more stages…

VICTORIA. I was just trying to read it and I just could not make sense of the organization of it, where maybe if we caught that earlier we maybe could have made better paper.

John: I was giving them feedback in several groups… that sort of feedback… that they need to smooth out the transitions and have a more logical structure. But some groups responded really well and did a nice job with that, other groups were a little more reluctant to do that.

Rebecca: Perhaps some groups will respond really well to some peer pressure. [LAUGHTER]

John: And having the presentations in class would have helped do that. When people in the class were saying, “This is just too disorganized.” And most of them got better by the end, but it was a stretch getting there.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a little bit about some of the challenges, but what was really rewarding about working on this project?

Victoria: I found it really helpful to work with the group. I had Charlie and then another student, Junweii, in my group and we all read each other’s parts. I know I went through the document and made comments for my own group too. And we were all able to bring it together, make comments for each other, ask each other questions about like what sources to use especially too. And it was easier in that regard than an individual paper. Because if you make a mistake and you don’t realize it, no one’s there to help you, it’s just you. But here we have people to help each other.

Charlie: Yeah, I always find it beneficial to complete a task with other students also trying to complete the same task as you. It just makes the learning more interesting. And you’re more willing to go and spend the extra hour looking at the document to just make sure you understand what you’re writing, but also that it fits with whomever else you’re working with. I found it really beneficial or satisfying just the fact that we, like I said, could create something that any ordinary person could probably read and understand what was happening.

Maria: Yeah, I think the most rewarding part for me was just seeing that finished product and getting you know, positive feedback from Professor Kane and from my other group members. I think working in that group setting helps to motivate me to do the best of my ability. And I think it was just rewarding at the end to see everything come together well.

Victoria: I think it gave us all a deeper understanding of the material too because, instead of writing it yourself… because you can write something and not understand it. I’ve done it many times. [LAUGHTER] But when you’re sitting in a group, getting a presentation ready, you each need to understand the material. So you’re explaining what you learn to each other. And that’s something you don’t get by yourself. I found that really rewarding.

John: What about the public nature of the project? The fact that this will be out there, it will have your names on it, and it could be out there indefinitely.

Charlie: I found that portion of the project pretty intriguing and exciting. Just like I said, you can go out there, and obviously we’re college students, we’re looking for employment after this. So just showing an employer, “Hey, I’ve written something that’s been published. It’s out there, you can go read it for yourself and see what you think.” It gives something for the students to show.

Victoria: Yeah, it made it exciting because we knew what was at the end of the project. Rather than just a finished paper, we actually had something to like prove ourselves, like we did this.

Maria: I think for me, it was cool to know because at the end of the semester, I’m able to go to my family and say, “Oh, here you go. This is something that I worked on all semester long. Here’s something that you can read and you can better understand what I’ve studied for the past four years.” So I think it was helpful that I was able to show my family I’ve worked hard on this. This is something that is to show for that.

Charlie: I would definitely concur with that. Economics as a topic isn’t really discussed when you’re talking just with family members, so many of them don’t understand what you’re talking about. And you’ll try, but it’s hard sometimes. So to put something together that they’d be able to read and understand, I found that pretty satisfying.

John: And how did the class select the audience for this? What level was it written for?

Victoria: Students with a background in economics I think we decided on. But we came together as a class and decided on that. But you need economic background to understand some of the things we wrote.

John: But at an introductory level, so it wasn’t written at an advanced level. It was written for people who’ve had an economics course somewhere along the way.

Victoria: Or just no background. You don’t have to go to college to read the book.

Rebecca: How would you change this project in the future? We touched on a couple of things here and there, but do you have any other key things that, if the same exact project were presented to another group of students, how would you change the structure? Or the way it’s organized? Or the way that it’s presented the first day?

Victoria: Thinking about the class as a whole rather than just the book project, we did weekly presentations which was a lot of work in itself. So I would probably minimize those and focus on the book. Because we were sitting there reading 20+ page economic journals every week and making a presentation on it and doing the book project. So I think having more time dedicated to the book project and presenting on that material, rather than just economic journals that people have written, like it gives background, which is helpful, but maybe a little less, or maybe shorter ones, or ones that are just easier to understand. Because I know a lot of times you would say, like, “I know you guys don’t understand this, it’s challenging. But we still need to know it.” Like you would explain it in class, which would be helpful, but reading something you don’t understand is really difficult for students… in economics specifically. That’s challenging.

Maria: Yeah, I would agree. I think, at the beginning of the semester, it was a lot of work to have to juggle both the presentations and the book at the same time. So I kind of like the idea, I’m not sure if it was you Victoria, who mentioned it in class, of doing the presentation one week and then the next week working on the book and having class time devoted to the book in the week after. I think that would have been very helpful too because we did meet as groups, but if we were able to meet in a class setting than I think other classmates will be able to make comments on your chapter and offer advice. I think it would just help overall with the workload that we have.

Charlie: I also agree with that. I think the improvement can be made where we’d work on maybe a random topic every other week, and do a presentation on that, and then also incorporate the book project into that. I think it would help with the cohesiveness of the book along with just feedback and all the other problems that we had discussed.

John: One of the things I had suggested at the very beginning, you may recall, is I suggested one option is to spend the whole class focused on this. Another option is just to do it the way it was done in the past, or something else. And the class actually voted for the something else. Now having had the experience, the something else didn’t work quite as well, and that more class time should have been devoted, I think, to this and I saw that too.

Victoria: I think we’re just looking for something exciting. Like yeah, it’s a book project like we know what we’re going to do with that. But the presentations just added something else, but if I went back to a book project because then we could have taken the steps at a slower pace too, like the annotated bibliography, like the topics, we could have taken way more time with that than we did. Because once we did that very quickly, and then went into presentations, and then we just had due dates instead of meetings in class.

Maria: Yeah, I think for us, what appealed to us with this combination of the book and the presentations was that the presentations offered structure for us when we knew what we were getting with those presentations. We knew each week that we’d come in with the presentation. And I think with the book, we were excited because it was something new and different and I think we were a little too hesitant to go fully and choose the book, because we weren’t sure what we would be doing in class. We weren’t sure how we would be tested on that. So I think the combination of fields lost because we were able to have that structure, but we were also able to try something new.

Charlie: I know for some of the students in the class they had mentioned to me… they were hesitant to get rid of the presentations weekly because they were a fan of learning something new every week and learning a different topic, not just focusing on the book project. They really wanted to increase their knowledge base by just learning about multiple fields of economics. So I think that’s why we ended up going with what we went with in the end. But I think we all could all agree that if we had done that every other week, it would have been more efficient.

John: I agree. And I think some combination might be good for the reason you mentioned, but more class time devoted to it would be helpful.

Victoria: Maybe at first too, do a presentation. Like the first presentation, I don’t know what week that was, but maybe keep that one because when our group really met each other, we worked together, and then we planned a time every week where we would meet.

John: And if this is done again, and that will be if the class wants to do this in the future, perhaps that first topic for the readings could be related to whatever they choose to do so they’re actually doing some scaffolding with the presentations then.

Rebecca: I had something similar in my classes before where a team formed early on. We did something small, low stakes, to figure out how to work with each other and what doesn’t go well. So that when we did something a little more high stakes, you already knew what the wrinkles were going to be so that you could plan for that moving on. So it sounds like your presentations served that purpose, whether or not you intended that to happen or not.

John: But it became a lot of work when it was done every week, in addition to writing a book.

Victoria: That was difficult.

Maria: Yeah, I think it just helped to make us all more comfortable with each other and more comfortable speaking in front of the class.

Rebecca: So the big question is, of course, should other faculty do this?

Victoria: Yes, I’m working on my honors thesis right now, which is kind of what you would do in a traditional seminar. And it’s very difficult. So just having people there… write it with you… know what you’re talking about… You can ask them questions. In our group chat, we often ask, “What would you recommend for this part of the paper? Or what articles do you think are appropriate for this?” If you’re doing it by yourself, it’s very difficult. And the overarching topic… I feel like in a lot of seminars, they have that. It’s a topic for the seminar, but it doesn’t really filter through as well as the book project does, because we are all cohesive, all of us together working as a class of 27 people, which you never see. So, I found it really helpful and I liked it a lot. And it wasn’t like a crazy amount of work. You did the work, and you study, you did the presentations, and you wrote a paper, but it didn’t take you hours every day to work on. I feel like I learned more in this class than I have in other classes that I write individual papers for.

Maria: Well, I think I would partially agree and partially disagree with that. I think as a class, we all appreciated that Professor Kane was willing to change like the class structure and was willing to try something new. And I think that was definitely intriguing for us and provided something different as our last economic course. But I think if I had done my own topic paper, I think I probably would have learned a little bit more, I think just I would preferred that. But I think it was still important to get this experience and try something new.

Charlie: I think I would definitely suggest it to some other faculty members to maybe try this out. Like Victoria was saying, working with a group is pretty beneficial. And I feel like, from a personal standpoint, I learn more when I’m working with other people who I can ask questions to, get feedback from. Really, it helps your understanding of the class. In terms of incentive, I find that I wanted to work on the book project because you had that end goal of, “This is something that I can put out there and show to somebody.”

Victoria: Yeah, but at the same time, group work can sometimes be the worst thing that ever happens to you. Like we got really, really lucky because I know Charlie, we’re friends so we were like, “Okay, let’s work together. We’ll just get one random person.” Junwei was like such a blessing. We just work together so beautifully, but I feel like if we had someone that didn’t want to do the work… wasn’t willing to put in the work… didn’t show up to meetings… that would ruin the project for us. So I don’t know how you could fix that. But just if there’s a good group, it works. If there isn’t, I feel like it wouldn’t work as well.

Rebecca: So good to write one book during your time here, but maybe not many books. [LAUGHTER]

John: But there could be other things. For example, they could have been podcasts that were created. They could be collections of essays.They could be video projects that are put together by groups. So there’s a lot of different things that could be done.

VICTORIAL: Yeah, I would throw that out there. If you did this again with another book, like, yeah, you can write a book, but you can also do that… a different kind of form of the same kind of structure. That would be interesting.

Maria: I would be interested in doing some type of podcast because I know some of my friends in their classes have been required to do podcasts. And I feel like you have to prepare really well for that. So I think maybe that would have forced your teammates, if they weren’t doing the work, to do the work so that they wouldn’t get to the studio and not have anything to say. So I think that would have been another really cool option.

Charlie: I think it would be a good option for capstone classes, just because I know for a lot of majors, you hear what the capstone is about for the three years before you even get there. And I know personally for me, I’m also trying to get a political science degree, my capstone is next semester, like I’m already dreading the 25-page paper I’m gonna have to write. So to switch it up and have the students maybe not know exactly what they’re in for, I think it gives a little bit of an intrigue and like, “Okay, this isn’t just the I’m going to go and write a paper all year. It’s something else that I’m going to do.”

Victoria: Yeah, it’s more fun. I’m more willing to write a paper that my group members are in. Like we can all see each other too in the Google doc and talk to each other in the chat… be like, “What do you think about this part?” Or like Charlie can watch me while I’m writing my part of the paper and say, “This is good. Maybe change this. Or bring this sentence up.” You don’t do that in individual papers and even if you write an individual paper and have peer feedback, it’s not the same as having it right there, real time, or just people caring more because it’s theirs too.

John: We did have some issues with that early on though, in the first draft or two, because there were some people who really didn’t want to try using Google docs for writing. And were any of you involved in that?

Charlie: So, I’m not opposed to Google Docs. [LAUGHTER] I had just always used Word documents before. So it took a little bit of getting used to but once you commit to it, it’s a really nice thing to have in your repertoire. Google Docs, I feel like, is used by countless numbers of people, companies, places, businesses, the college. So honestly, as a student, you should just take the incentive to try to get to learn it. And once you learn it, it’s really beneficial to you.

John: One of the problems was that some people were writing in Word and then uploading it to the drive and that made it really hard for other people to edit. And eventually everyone switched over, but it did take a few iterations with some people.

Maria: So yeah, I think there were a couple of challenges with having different drafts because people made comments on separate drafts. So I think just sending out a reminder email would be helpful and letting people know because I know I think I made my changes on the wrong draft the first time and we had to send an email right away to have him fix that. So I think just having it set up all before the due dates like before you mention it in class would be really helpful too.

John: Yeah, there were some rough spots. This was new for me too.

Rebecca: So we always wrap up our podcast by asking what’s next for each of you?

Charlie: This December, I’m looking to graduate from Oswego, which is exciting for me. And after that, I’m not really sure what’s going to go on. We’ll see.

Maria: Well, I’m graduating this Saturday, and I’m going to be moving down to Florida for a little bit and doing an internship there.

Victoria: I’m also graduating Saturday and I’ll be working at HSBC this July in their graduate development program.

Rebecca: Sounds like exciting futures for each of you.

John: What are you doing in Florida? An internship where?

Maria: I’m doing the college program, the Disney College Program.

John: Oh, wonderful. Maybe I’ll see you there at the OLC conference. Well, thank you. It’s been a pleasure working with you all semester. And thank you for joining us.

Charlie: Thank you for having us.

Victoria: Thank you.

Maria: Thank you.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

93. Reflective Writing

Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, JoNelle Toriseva joins us to discuss her approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills.  JoNelle is a writer and an Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Her work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.

Show Notes

  • JoNelle Toriseva
    • Assistant Professor and Director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College.
    • winner of the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank (The Literary Journal of the University of Montana). The judge for that prize was Oliver de la Paz.
    • Selected by Shane McCrae, J.R. Toriseva’s Barbed Water, was the winner of Saudade’s annual poetry contest, and is now available from Argus.
    •  Toriseva’s work has appeared in The North American Review, Salt Hill, The Literary Review, The Saranac Review, The Cincinnati Review, Descant, and JACKET, among others, and included in  Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sound published by San Francisco’s  City Lights, and Best Canadian Poetry in English.
  • Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) at GCC
  • 2. The Metacognitive Cafe Online Discussion Forum – The 11/8/2017 Tea for Teaching podcast with Judith Littlejohn that was referenced in this podcast.
  • National Novel Writing Month

Transcript

John: Formative feedback, reflection, and practice are all essential to improve our skills. In this episode, we examine one professor’s approach of combining faculty and peer feedback with reflective practice to improve student writing skills.

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John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is JoNelle Toriseva, an assistant professor and director of English Communications and Media Arts at Genesee Community College. JoNelle has won the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry from Cutbank. Welcome JoNelle.

John: Welcome.

Jonelle: Thank you. Very happy to be here.

John: Our teas today are…

Jonelle: Bombay breakfast.

Rebecca: That sounds tasty.

Jonelle: Which I get from Jasmine Pearl, my favorite tea company.

Rebecca: Yum. I think this morning I have black currant.

Jonelle: Mmm, nice.

John: And I have ginger tea.

Rebecca: Yum. So we invited you here today to talk a little bit about reflective writing. Can you talk a little bit about some of the kinds of classes that you teach and how you use reflective writing as part of that practice?

Jonelle: Yes, well, I came to academia through being a community artist. So I went to a lot of schools, and a lot of community programs… prisons, different places and taught writing in very different situations and in coming from that background, building community was really important, and also goals. So when people want to write, they want to write for a variety of reasons. And so to help people get what they wanted out of these community writing courses, I would have people tell me their goals. And I had done some reading in how to help people achieve their goals and a big part of that can be having people write down their goals. So my whole reflective writing practice has come out of goal-setting, and having people write their goals and then share their goals with each other and learn how to achieve their goals. Some people like to break it down step-by-step, other people haven’t told another person what they wanted and haven’t experienced that kind of support that comes when you share what you really want to have happen. And a lot of magical results can occur when people talk about their goals, write down their goals, learn that other people will help them achieve their goals. So this reflective writing came out of that I learned that that was working, and that was helping people. And I thought, “Oh, why don’t we do this three times a semester. So people can kind of check in with themselves, and people can adapt what they’re doing if necessary.” Sometimes people come into a class with one set of goals, and they’ll realize, “Oh, no, what I really wanted to do was this, or that.” So I have different points in the semester when they can go in and adapt, and rewrite, and edit their goals.

Rebecca: How important is that piece of community and sharing of the goals as part of this reflective process?

Jonelle: It’s highly important. And I didn’t realize how important it was at first, but a lot of people haven’t had the experience of supportive community before. And so just stating a goal out loud… First of all, the person has to figure out how they’re going to put that into words and they can help them plan a little bit more what that goal might look like if they are actually thinking about it. A lot of people come to writing and they want to write a bestseller. And they may not have thought it through. But once they have to state their goals, they break it down, “Oh, I want to write in this genre.” Or some people will want to write a memoir about their family history and so they’re not really looking to write a bestseller, they’re looking to write something that honors their ancestors. So it helps people understand exactly what they’re trying to get out of their writing practice.

Rebecca: How do you make sure that students feel safe to share those goals and actually are taking that goal sending really seriously?

Jonelle: I do it by setting standards and also doing it right away in the course. So people see what is expected. So they’re still, at the beginning of the course, they’re still meeting each other and getting to know each other and so it’s just part and parcel of what happens in the course, it’s one of the expected criteria: that they respect each other, that they listen to each other, and that they respond in a positive and supportive manner. So I set the tone right away with it. And people respond really well to that because I find that people, they’re coming to school, they’re coming to class for a reason, they do want to get a certain thing out of it, and they’re able to say what it is that they do want to get out of it. And I also set it up ahead of time that they can’t say, “Oh, I want an A in the course.” We talk about breaking down what the writing process is, and so they’re working on specific goals. Like one person may have to work a lot on transitions, or one person may be working on creating an edited draft that can go to a certain publication. But no matter what that goal is, it’ll be broken down into chunks that are manageable and also skill related.

John: Are these online or face-to-face class?

Jonelle: I do it in both. So if we’re in a face-to-face class, I’ll have them do a writing assignment and then they will share with a neighbor close to them. If it’s an online class, they will do a post about what their goals are and then they’ll respond to two other students posts. So they’re doing one-on-one sharing with each other in either mode.

Rebecca: What are some tips that you have for other faculty in helping students prepare to write those goals?

Jonelle: What I usually advise people to do is to have a time set aside for individual reflection. So they’ve been thinking about what they want out of the course, we’ve been talking about what constitutes the course, what kind of skills they’re learning. And then we’ll do five-minute writes on them in their own process on them and their goals, and so they’re used to already doing short writing sprints about these goals. So we do practice and then also I have examples of what other students have written for their goals so they can kind of see the level of detail that goes in, and it’s something that’s very practical and it can be used as a “to do” list. And I also share with them my own writing goals so that they know everybody might have a problem getting started, or ending, or writing a good conclusion. So I’m very honest with my own writing process and I think that helps them also be honest about their writing process.

John: Some of your work is in the accelerated learning program or the ALP program at Genesee Community College. Could you tell us a little bit about that program and those classes?

Jonelle: Yes, Accelerated Learning Program is really exciting. It’s a process of where you just sit side-by-side with learners and help them achieve what they want to achieve. It’s something that I first learned how to do in graduate school at Mills College in Oakland. As part of my graduate school training, I was tasked with teaching a small seminar group of students who were selected from the freshman first-year writing course. So I had a group of six students from this writing course who I would go to class with, I would go to their composition course with, and then I would meet with them as a group and teach in seminar style weekly, thesis statements, organization, researching skills. Whatever the teacher was teaching in the one-on-one course, I would supplement and also do some more extensive teaching as the students needed it. And then I also met with each of the students individually weekly and talk to them about how their work was going, how their classes were going, supporting them if they needed any kind of academic help. And this kind of one-on-one, close involvement really helped these students because they knew there’s somebody that they could talk to, and that there was somebody that could get them help. And a lot of the problems that these students were having were not cognitive problems. They were just not as well read as some of the other students and they didn’t have some of the same training. One of these students also didn’t pick appropriate material to write about. For some reason this person only would talk about and write about Bruce Lee. So no matter what we’re talking about, she would only write about Bruce Lee. So I worked with her a lot and helped her widen our writing scope. So things like this, people that just didn’t have some of the same experiences as the other students in the class.

John: So the classes are for students who are in need of getting them up to the level of the courses, but it’s accelerated because they’re working with the regular classes, but getting additional assistance within that environment so that they don’t get behind in their progress?

Jonelle: Exactly, yes. So what was being done at Mills College then started being done across the nation in different ways, different people started different programs. And the program that we accepted and did for GCC is Accelerated Learning Program. And in that program, it’s a little bit different than the one-on-one tutoring, but it has a very similar philosophy. And in that course, a student will be enrolled in English 101, and then they will have another course called English 100 that gives them supportive training and workshopping directly from that 101 course. So it’s roughly half of the amount of students, there’s 12 students in it and they get individualized workshops on whatever topic they need to have more reinforcement on. And it addresses non-cognitive issues and addresses skill-based issues as well. So a student takes a credit bearing course along with a non-credit bearing course at the very same time. And we found that this improves retention, it improves class performance, it gives students a lot of confidence when they’re in that English 101 class and gives them the start that they need to catch up work that they didn’t have, for some reason, in their high school experience.

Rebecca: Do you find that the role of reflective writing is different with these students? Or do you do more reflective writing with this group of students?

Jonelle: Depending on the group, depending on what they need, but a lot of times writing about their thinking can be incredibly good for them because they’re able to learn how to follow their thought—and that writing is thinking—it gives them bigger writing muscles so that they’re able to write for longer periods of time and write for bigger projects. They learn how to write themselves into a project so that they know how they’re going to address it, how they’re going to shape and form the narrative, what kind of sources they’re going to be talking to. A lot of writing is the writer in conversation with texts that have gone on before or texts that are currently being created. So it’s kind of part and parcel of the writing process in many ways.

John: So you also teach classes on writing for science and business, do you use similar types of reflection in those classes as well?

Jonelle: Yes, I found that a lot of writing is very similar in that you follow many of the same kinds of steps and ask yourself many of the same types of questions. So if you’re writing an academic paper about theater, or an academic paper about a biological situation, or you’re writing something in the field of chemistry, your approach is very similar although your results are going to be very different. But a writer always has to decide how they’re going to frame their writing, how it fits into the landscape of the current writing in the field, how they can work to improve their writing. So the reflection works for any sort of writing that someone will do.

John: What’s the feedback and revision process that you use in your classes?

Jonelle: Many different layers… the first feedback is, of course, given by the writer themselves, the writer talking to themselves, talking to their piece, and this can be done in whatever way is best for the writer, either verbally or on paper. Then the writer will do peer feedback. So they’ll be reading their work to a peer and a peer will be reading a work to them, and they’ll give their views and also ask questions. So it will be helpful in the developmental stage to get more questions about what is actually on the page, what could be on the page, what needs to be on the page, and then going into revision where the student will work with me, or work with tutors, or work with each other on sentence crafting. Are the sentences crafted the way they need to be? Or do we need to have more sentence variety? How is the point-of-view working? Does that need to be shifted? Are there places where the focus is dropped? Has everything been included that needs to be included? Those kinds of questions get answered. So we go from the larger, macro view to the micro view, looking at, you know, is everything in place? Is everything nailed down? And that will be through working with themselves, through working with me, through working with each other, through working with tutors, and then going back to model texts and looking at their work in comparison with other papers. Are they meeting the standards? Are they meeting the scope? Taking a look at how they measure up to other writers out there. So there’s lots of different layers of reflection and feedback that go in. And hopefully that process is continual, and they will keep doing it after the class as well so they can continue to improve as a writer.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between an iterative revision process, and reflection and reflective writing?

Jonelle: The reflection is what will help a writer have an increased amount of success throughout their career. So when a student is writing a paper for 101, that’s one paper, but if they realize the steps and realize how this writing will connect to their future writing, then they’re able to set themselves goals, meet these goals, so they can become a better and better writer with each paper and with each writing experience. Because we’re not just training somebody to write a good research paper for a first-year class, we want them to be able to also work well at the transfer institutions, go on and work well at the masters level, at the doctoral level. Writing is a process that we continually redefine for ourselves and we continually have to get better at. So it’s this lifelong skill and the reflective writing helps people take baby steps in that larger arc of the lifelong writing, hopefully.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit about model writing. Do you use your own writing or your own process and the ways that you struggle through your own process as a model for students as well?

Jonelle: Yes, I definitely do. I tell them what’s worked for me, what hasn’t worked for me. A lot of times my talk about how I’ll do short chunk writing like write for five minutes, write for 10 minutes, write for 15 minutes using the kitchen timer when writing gets hard to do. Also taking breaks, how I motivate myself to write if I’m in a really bad funk, and this makes them laugh and also makes them realize, it’s a very human process. So a lot of being a writer and improving your writing is just learning how to work with yourself and talk with yourself so that you keep on getting better, you keep on going back to the writing process and treating yourself with kindness is important.

Rebecca: Something that seems to be coming up in the way that you’re talking about is also the need to see yourself as a writer. So it seems like the reflection is a way to help students start to identify in that way.

Jonelle: Yes, that’s a great, great insight. A lot of people have to be given permission to write or they have to give themselves permission to write in some way. If I’m teaching a creative writing class, often I’ll have people introduce themselves to each other and say, “I’m a writer,” and then they’ll hear it back. And just that ability to say that they’re a writer and be seen as a writer can be incredibly motivating and supportive for people. So yes, it’s important for people to be able to just be able to state that they are a writer. And so many of us are writers in so many different areas that it’s important for people to inhabit that role for themselves.

John: Sounds like a lot of this is building a growth mindset in students, especially students who perhaps may have struggled earlier with writing to let them know that they can, in fact, become more proficient through working on this.

Jonelle: Yes, yes. And that is something that is going to come from inside of them. We want to build up that writing muscle, that writing ability so that they do well in this class, but that they also do well in their next classes, and that they have resources of people that they can reach out to when needed if they come to a standstill. But yes, it’s creating lifetime learners and lifetime writers who will be there for each other.

Rebecca: I’m particularly interested in the student response, especially from students who are in an English 101 class, who don’t identify themselves as a writer to start off and are not in some sort of major where writing seems obvious.

Jonelle: Yes, writing has become such a big part of our lives. We text all the time, we are writing emails to each other. It’s so important that we can present ourselves well in writing and that we can understand what audience we’re writing for. So we talk about all the different writing situations so that they’re aware of how much they are writing, and I tried to use topics that are interesting to them: food, music, things that we all have in common. And so they’re talking with each other, they’re seeing each other as writers, they’re reading each other’s writing. And they start to realize, “Yes, I’m part of this community too. And I can define my role as a writer in my own unique way.” It’s fun to see them blossom, and also redefine the role of writers… a serious role… someone in an attic with crazy hair, or is it somebody writing a text… They can see themselves as a writer in their soccer playing… concert going. If they’re a math major, if they’re a science major…. Everybody writes, so they can see the role of writing in their fields and in their lives.

Rebecca: I think that sometimes faculty even don’t have that identity, despite the fact that they might do a lot of writing and maybe even a lot of publishing. They don’t always recognize themselves as writers.

Jonelle: Right.

Rebecca: And that makes it difficult to filter down to students if you don’t also see yourself as a writer.

Jonelle: Right, and it’s important for people to give themselves credit for the writing and the thinking they do. And also all that goes into writing an article, they may do things just automatically and not realize all of the steps that have actually gone into what they create and how complex it is. So they can sit back and give themselves a few kudos. And I find many departments will have weekly meetings where they will have people read papers, and that can also highlight what’s happening in their academic field and give a spotlight on the writing and the writing process. And that also helps build community.

Rebecca: How have your colleagues responded? Do other colleagues use similar approaches? Especially maybe some of this goal setting strategy that you laid out at the beginning.

Jonelle: Yes, I find that a lot of people do reflective writing in their own way. One of my colleagues, Marie Iglesias-Cardinale, has students write letters to themselves and to her and that is another way of framing the reflective writing. So you can do it in many different ways and have it work in a way that is more natural to whatever subject you’re doing, or also to your personality too. Some people like the journal writing, some people like the epistle letter writing, some people could frame it as a podcast, some people could frame it as a selfie, a writing selfie. So people can do it in a variety of ways. And a lot of my colleagues here, Judie Littlejohn, does a lot of metacognitive work and having students look at their learning, which is what this is also having students look at their writing. And I think that more and more people are coming to realize that people have to train their brain to learn a subject or to write a certain format that they’re going to be writing and that our brains are so plastic and able to respond to these tasks that we set before them in a way that is only helped by self reflection.

John: Judie was a guest on our second episode actually. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. But it does sound like much of what you’re doing is helping students become more metacognitively aware of what they’re doing and processing their own learning much more actively.

Jonelle: Yes. And it helps them get tasks done in other places. So if they can remember “Oh, I did these steps for this paper. What if I start doing them for this article I’m writing?” This is a way to get into that so they can fall back on past successes to have future successes. But a lot of times we have to train ourselves to write in a new way for a new writing task, and that can be daunting. But if you’ve had success before, you can talk yourself through the new tasks.

Rebecca: Good advice to remind ourselves during a summer writing sprint perhaps, right? [LAUGHTER]

Jonelle: Yes. Yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve recognized over time doing reflective work with my students is, needing to give and dedicate class time to that activity. Because we know that it’s important to student learning, but students can see it as a throwaway kind of an assignment if you don’t actually dedicate time and effort as part of the actual in-class time. Because if it’s just a homework assignment, sometimes it’s not taking quite as seriously.

JONELL: Very true. And also having them be in conversation with each other helps them with the process as well, I think. So it’s not just that they’re spending time on the project, it’s that they’re doing social interaction, and that social aspect of learning can be so crucial. And they may not have the confidence yet to talk about their work at home or with their friends. But if they’re in a class, they all have to be doing it, there’s this is kind of group impetus that can help them reach that point.

John: That type of peer support can be really helpful in helping them work through difficulties.

Jonelle: Yes, and they may not have that kind of support anywhere else. So that’s why I think it’s important to have it be a part of class because they may not have outside support in their family or among their friend group. So for us to build that academic dialogue is so important for them to see themselves as writers, and to give credence to what they do, and to make space for what they do.

Rebecca: One of the things that I find challenging not only with writing but also, I teach design so we do the same kind of process with visual work, is to help students move from the “pat on the back” motivational feedback, to actually critical, useful feedback so that they develop those skill sets so that they do start to have that community of practice around them outside of a classroom setting. Do you have any tips on how to help move students in that direction?

Jonelle: Well, I think that continued conversation is really important. I will model what kinds of feedback that they should be giving. If it’s an online class, they have to have 350-words in their response to make sure that they have a level of detail and also to give them a rubric so they have to address the elements. I don’t know what they would be for design, but say for a piece of fiction: that you’re looking at dialogue, you’re looking at plot, you’re looking at characterization, theme. So if they’re incorporating some of that vocabulary into their conversation, that can also be a starting point for a future conversation. They’ll be looking for the line in something else, but they’ll be looking for a round character versus a flat character in something that they’re looking at outside of class. It’s kind of creating that atmosphere for the magic to happen and then hopefully, it translates outside of class too.

Rebecca: To round out some of our discussion on reflection, can you also compare the early kinds of reflection that you do in your class versus ones that happen at that midterm or later on? You mentioned those briefly at the beginning, but we didn’t really explore those opportunities.

Jonelle: Yes, the first reflective writing is mostly just goal setting, what they want to get out of the course. And I originally started them on that because students will come into a creative writing course and they may have ideas of writing an entire novel in a course when they haven’t written anything at all before, and then they may leave the class upset with themselves… they haven’t finished a novel. So I try to find out why they’re really in the course at first, so that I can help them achieve the goal that they want to achieve, knowing that I may have to give them resources outside of the class later on. Say they’re writing a novel, that can be like a five-year journey. So it’s something that we can’t address just in 16 weeks, they’re going to need to have something outside to keep them going. So I take a look at what their goals are. And this writing is pretty short and it may not be as nuanced. And then as we go throughout the semester, I devote midterm and end-of-term writing reflection, and those ask more detailed questions, and I have them give more detailed responses. And by then they’re more comfortable with each other as well, so they’re more willing to call each other out if they’re not meeting their goals, if they’re not putting in the writing time, if they’re not putting in the work with their workshop group, or if they need to be doing more editing or revising. They’re more willing to see that in themselves and sometimes they’re more willing to see that in each other but I find that if they can look at one of their peers and say, “Oh, your peer wants this and yet they’re doing this.” They can say like, “Oh, well, I can see easily how you should change this.” Whereas what they don’t see that as readily in themselves. Why I have them work with each other is so that they can see how each other have a different approach to a writing problem, because they’re often able to solve each other’s problems easier than they can solve their own. But then they’ll see, “Oh, I just need to do this. Like maybe I need to wake up and go to a coffee shop instead of writing in the kitchen. Or maybe I need to go write in my car at lunch instead of going to the cafeteria because I’m just going to talk with my friends and not get what I need to get done.” The reflection process becomes longer… more questions… more involved as the semester progresses.

Rebecca: Do you have your peer feedback groups change over time?

Jonelle: Yes, I always mix those up. Otherwise they get complacent with each other and the social interaction kind of overplays that artistic interaction. So always mixing it up.

John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?

Jonelle: Well, I’m always creating different writing communities. One of the largest writing communities that I really love, and I love to tell people about is National Novel Writing Month where everybody writes a novel in November and it creates a huge community. It’s fun, it’s free. So if people are interested in writing, I suggest that they look at nanowrimo.org. And it’s something that I always love to do every November is to start a novel and to write with other people in community. So you’ll be seeing me in November in the nanowrimo world doing that.

Rebecca: That sounds fun.

Jonelle: Yes, it’s very fun. You can do other projects also. It’s fun to have that group impetus of working together.

Rebecca: Cool, well we’ll look forward to seeing what that novel looks like then.

Jonelle: Thank you.

John: Thank you for joining us.

Jonelle: Thank you, have a wonderful day.

Rebecca: You too.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

92. Diverse Classrooms

The student population in most colleges and universities is becoming increasingly diverse during a time when much public discourse is characterized by growing political polarization and divisiveness. In this episode, Melina Ivanchikova and Mathew Lawrence Ouellett join us to discuss a MOOC that is being developed at Cornell University to help faculty nurture a productive learning environment for all of our students.

Mathew is the founding Executive Director at Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina is the Associate Director of Inclusive Teaching in the center.

Show Notes

Transcript

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John: The student population in most colleges and universities is becoming increasingly diverse during a time when much public discourse is characterized by growing political polarization and divisiveness. In this episode, we discuss a MOOC that is being developed to help faculty nurture a productive learning environment for all of our students.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Melina Ivanchikova and Mathew Lawrence Ouellett. Mathew is the founding Executive Director at Cornell University Center for Teaching Innovation. Melina Ivanchikova is the Associate Director of Inclusive Teaching in the center. Welcome.

John: Welcome.

Melina: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.

Mathew: Thanks. Delighted to be here with both of you.

John: Our teas today are…

Mathew: I’m drinking Sea Buckthorn and Siberian Blueberry from Mongolia.

Rebecca: Wow, yummy.

John: That’s impressive.

Melina: And I decided to go the rebel route and I am drinking coffee.

Rebecca: That is a true rebel.

Melina: I apologize to all of your listeners who might be dismayed to hear that there’s a coffee drinker here in the afternoon.

Rebecca: Again, yeah… [LAUGHTER]

John: About half or more of our guests are drinking coffee or something else.

Rebecca: I have my nice boring English afternoon tea again.

John: And I have ginger peach black tea.

Mathew: Black tea’ s always appropriate. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Can’t go wrong. So we invited you here today to discuss the teaching and learning in the diverse classroom course that you’ve been developing at Cornell. Can you tell us a little bit about the origin of the project?

Mathew: Sure, when Melina and I were introduced I guess, when we became colleagues back when I first got here, we were looking for a project that could play up to the strengths of the merger of our units. So part of being the founding director is two units came together. And I’ll spare you all of that, other than to say it was a great opportunity. So one thing was finding a project that had some heft for our newly formed unit. But second, and perhaps the primary part of this origin story was the inaugural address by President Martha Pollack, who was newly installed as President. In fact, the first thing I did when I got to Cornell, the first public thing I attended, was her inauguration. And in the context of her remarks that afternoon, she talked at length about the importance of creating an inclusive learning environment for all students. And I thought, well, I know just how to do that. And now we’ve got this fantastic staff. We have the skills and the expert knowledge that we can actually do something that would benefit our campus, but also might be something with a usefulness for people out on other campuses that might not have the same opportunities or resources.

Melina: And I’ll add to that to say a little bit about the context in which the course has emerged, which is that Cornell, probably like many other campuses across the US, was rocked by several events that happened both on campus and off campus. Moments of slurs being used in public… events that were very demoralizing and just strained the learning climate for students here. So, within that context, we’re also thinking about how to support our faculty and teachers in the classroom to be able to reach out to students and warm up the learning environment.

Mathew: Yeah. I would want to add, though, that this course is not in response to those. This isn’t a reaction to these sort of community and campus incidences. Mostly it’s to prove the point that at Cornell we’re as vulnerable to them as every institution in America. There’s really very little inoculation against it. And so what we thought is that if we could do something that had utility for our faculty that appeal to them and help them, that it might also appeal and be of use to faculty at other schools and colleges as well.

John: I saw a little bit of that at a presentation at a conference a few weeks ago, and I was really impressed. Could you tell us a little bit about how the course is structured?

Melina: Sure, we’re using a framework that has five different dimensions to it. And it’s the way that the course is organized. So we begin by asking instructors to reflect on themselves: “Who are you as an instructor?” And then who are students? How do you get to know who your students are? How do you help them get to know each other? What do you know about the students at your institution in general? And then how do you teach? What are the teaching strategies that you use? What is your pedagogy and part of that is talking about what you can do to prepare in advance for a hot moment that might arise, as well as what to do when there is a hot moment that arises. And then what is your curriculum? Both from the perspective of the content of what you’re teaching, but also how your discipline looks at the world, how has your discipline wrestled with diversity and inclusion at the broader disciplinary level. And then ending with really thinking about the learning environment and thinking about action planning, what are some changes that you can make to your course? And then what we’ve been seeing in those is that people think beyond the course level from changes small to broader and more systemic.

Mathew: So just to tag on to that, people have been thinking about their ongoing learning… things that they can do to continue to advance their own development, things that they can do at the course level, interventions that they might make at the departmental level. And that’s pretty exciting when they want to go out and talk to their colleagues. And then, third is thinking at the college and or the institutional level changes that they’d like to see happen in terms of the larger climate. They have actually been really ambitious and pretty exciting.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the timeline of the course?

Mathew: Yeah we, like everybody in higher-ed, are always looking for that sweet spot. And anyone who works with faculty or as a faculty member knows that there are about five or six weeks in the dead center of the semester where we might have half a chance of getting your attention. That’s it. That’s the sweet spot. And so the whole intentionality around the course being four weeks long was so that we could load it right in the middle of this semester, not right at the opening of the start of the launch of the semester, but also ending before the Thanksgiving holidays. Knowing that once people return to campus, faculty and students alike are all on the downhill slope and at that point it’s all about wrapping the semester up.

John: How many times have you offered it now at Cornell?

Melina: We’ve offered it twice, we just wrapped the second run of the course. And and I’ll just add to what Mat said earlier that we estimate that it takes people about 10 or 15 hours to get through the course. It’s asynchronous, and we release modules each week.

Mathew: And I should add too, just for transparency, we let people take as long as they want. So even though the course officially runs for four weeks, we can get tons of requests for extensions, and we’re happy to grant them. I mean, it’s just like teaching a group of undergraduates… we understand, mostly we want people to feel like they can complete the experience.

Melina: Yes, and we should say that the version that we’ve run on the Cornell campus is going to be transformed into a MOOC, a Massive Open Online Course, that’s set to run in November this year. So that will be open to anybody.

John: And you’re running that on edX.

Melina: That’s correct.

John: And there is a sign up form on your website and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes so people can be notified to join that when it’s available. I’ve already added my name to the list. Rebecca and I have talked about and we’d like to run a cohort here, through that as well.

Rebecca: Yeah, that’d be great. Can you talk a little bit about how faculty have responded in the last couple of cohorts that you’ve had?

Mathew: Sure. Well, I’m really gratified to say overall, we’ve had a very positive response and the only negative has come when people have run out of time when they said “You know, I’m just crazy busy and I wish I had more time to do a deeper dive.” So in terms of regrets, that’s one end of the continuum. But we also are, I think, assessing the utility of the course… of the usefulness of it… by people’s expressions of learning outcomes. So we do a pre-post with… this is just only for the on-campus cohort. But we’ve had fantastic responses along a whole range of outcomes, some we hadn’t expected, and others we had hoped for. Do you want to give some examples?

Melina: Sure. One thing I wanted to say that was interesting is that we also offer face-to-face opportunities. And we were wondering, were we going to get the same folks who come to those coming into the course? But instead, we’ve seen quite a range. One of the things that surprised me is that we asked people how many years they had been teaching. And so that range goes from zero years to 20 to 25, even 30 years of teaching and all along the continuum and quite a large percentage of people who have been teaching for more than 10 years. So that inspired me just thinking about how many people are committed to lifelong learning and willing to think about what’s happened in my classroom, my demographics have shifted, what is all this buzz around diversity? We’re getting folks who are really curious and willing to think and learn together. And so the response among faculty has been very inspiring because the core of the courses are these fantastic videos where instead of giving lectures through the videos, we’ve asked people to tell their stories about their lived experiences and their teaching practices. And we have faculty, staff, and student voices in the course…

Mathew: graduate students

Melina: …graduate students…

Mathew: and undergraduates

Melina: …and these testimonials, people they’re just… you have a visceral experience as you’re watching and listening to those. And so over and over, we heard the comment of faculty saying things like, “Well, I knew my students were people. But now after I’ve seen all these different points-of-view, I got to hear really personal things about them that I normally wouldn’t ask my own students. I have a much deeper sense of the challenges that they’re facing.”

Mathew: And the reverse is true, too. We’ve had graduate students say to us, “I had no idea my faculty member had anywhere near that sort of experience.” So, referring to a video where two of our colleagues talk about being first-generation college students, and having come from very poor backgrounds, or very poor working class backgrounds, and it was a revelation to our undergraduates that there might actually be faculty here who’d come from a similar kind of lived experience. The other thing that’s just been, I think, really a good metric for success is that people have often talked about wanting to go back and talk to their colleagues. And I think that, as Melina is talking about the nature of the videos, is that there’s so few opportunities to talk about this aspect of one’s teaching. You might, for example, sit on a curriculum committee or you might get into conversations about grading or end-of-semester evaluations, but rarely do you get invited into a more authentic, deeper, personal link between who you are as a human being… fully… holistically… and what you bring to the classroom. So I think the videos do a fantastic job and I want to put a little bit of a pitch in here. Melina facilitated all of those videos and I think she just did a fantastic job in getting people to relax and warm up and feel comfortable telling their story. It’s really powerful.

Melina: Thank you. The other core piece of the course is reflection. So throughout the course, there’s moments where we prompt participants to think about their own lived experience or their own socialization. And it becomes a very personal contemplative process. So I think that’s also one of the things that I’m seeing among the faculty participation is that yes, they’re active on the discussion board, but they’re also just really active and looking at the pages and reading the material. And it’s nice that you can track all of that information in online courses. You can really see how people are interacting.

John: How have faculty responded? Has it been growing? Does there seem to be a lot of interest? And I seem to remember something about there being a fair amount of administrative support there too.

Mathew: I’m really happy to report from the first time we offered it to the second time there’s definitely what I would call an upward trend line. We have far more people register in the spring. So that was a huge sigh of relief from Melina and I because of course, you know, if word on the street was negative, no one would have signed up. So we were immediately gratified that we probably have a 25% jump in registrations. And interestingly enough, we’ve had a number of department chairs who have been genuinely engaged as participants. We’ve had some Associate Deans… and I’m very proud of this fact, our president and provost both worked through the course themselves, because they wanted to be able to talk about it in a first-hand way. And it’s hard to express my gratitude to them for setting the tone as our senior academic leadership cohort to really send the message that this is something we all want to pay attention to. And I think we’ve had also the other group that can particularly be challenging in faculty development work to get to get engaged with this, senior post-tenure folks. And as Melina mentioned, we have a number of people who are full professors who’ve been teaching for quite a while, who said, “Yeah, I’m going to swing back around and take this course.” And both semesters we’ve done almost exactly a third, a third, a third. Graduate students and post-docs. Tenure line or laddered faculty and a full range within that from pre-tenure to post-tenure. And then about a third academic administrative staff who have teaching us some component of their job:, folks from academic advising, the Learning Services Center, other sorts of student activities related positions. But it’s made for an extremely interesting conversation. And I think everyone would say that they’ve benefited from that.

Melina: Yeah, one of the things that we made available as an option was for self-selected groups to take it as a cohort. So this is something that we were also hoping that when the MOOC comes out that some faculty development centers might offer a cohort experience for their own campus. And so those groups have been able to have leaders emerge from their own group and they have their own face-to-face sessions where they discuss the content of the course and take it just one step further.

Mathew: So we’ve had two experiences of that, that I think maybe would be interesting. I’ll share them. One is we teach an introduction to teaching in higher-ed course for graduate students, doctoral students, and post-doctoral students and they participated as a cohort. And that’s a natural affiliation. And just as you’d expect, they loved it, they got a lot out of it, it was enormously interesting for us to have them in the course. The other group that’s been equally interesting have been the department chairs who have been coming to it for a variety of different reasons. But the one I want to highlight is the idea that as you hire new faculty into the department… thinking about their orientation and onboarding, both to the department, but also to the institution. And that’s been a really interesting goal. And I thought, really, if I can say, this is a kind of a selfless goal, people really are thinking about the community writ large, and how to help people accelerate their integration into the values and the priorities of our institution. That was not something Melina and I had anticipated. We thought, sure, this might at some point contribute to new faculty development. But we really didn’t think of it as an orientation for department chairs in which they could then begin to think about their approach to teaching and learning and a way to communicate that with their new colleagues.

Rebecca: That sounds really interesting. Can you also talk a little bit about some of the specific ways that, through reflection, you’ve seen faculty talk about how they have changed their teaching or the impact that the class is actually having on their own classroom?

Mathew: Sure. Melina loves this question. Yeah.

Melina: So we did some interviews to explore…

Mathew: … just that…

Melina: … just to ask that question. So we have a testimonial video, which we can show you later. There’s a couple of stories that really stood out in my mind. One was a woman who went back to her guest speakers list. This was out of the Business College and realized that all of her guest speakers were white men. And she thought, “Wow, I can’t believe this happened to me. I thought that I was aware of this issue, but I really need to actually have a systematic way of looking at my curriculum so that I make sure that I have a diverse offering. I can try harder. There certainly are some women business leaders I can reach out to.” So that was one and another comment was somebody saying, “I do so much work in the community around advocacy for women’s issues, but I never bring that part of myself into the classroom, because I just don’t know how to do it. But now I’m thinking that it’s actually important to show this side of myself and I want to be able to share that a little bit more with my students.” Those are kind of my two favorite but…

Mathew: … there’s there’s a third one I love. One of our colleagues who’s a full professor here, talks about how she flunked out of college initially, and probably wouldn’t have finished except that another faculty member of hers reached out to her… and really encouraging and supportive of her and helping her figure out a way to finance her way back into school and to complete the program. And I think that’s sort of visceral level of authentic crisis, that undergraduates can often feel like they’re in that alone or that no one else has had that experience before them, or just that they’re in it alone. And so I think her willingness to sort of frame that, she used the course and the reflection exercises to frame that out as her story. And then she actually, this spring, shared it with her students. She had, I think, 12 or 15 people show up in office hours literally crying their eyes out in gratitude that she had shared that story because the amount of stress that they were feeling and isolation they had been feeling and that no one else in the community had put themselves out in a way that resonated that deeply for them. So I thought that was a moment where, of course, we’re not advocating that everybody just stand up and start babbling. But I think in a thoughtful way, she picked the right time and the right place, and the right amount of self-disclosure, and it had a genuine, immediate impact on her students. She teaches a large lecture undergraduate section, and as we all know, that can feel pretty anonymous to begin with. So I think that was just really lovely.

Melina: So one of the questions that comes up for folks is when and how much information to share about themselves and their backgrounds and identities. So she felt like, “Oh my students aren’t going to care about this part of me.” But midway through the semester, she noticed that some students seemed to be having trouble in class. So that was when she strategically shared this personal story and then had folks coming in and just thanking her for being open about herself and sharing.

Mathew: It was really a beautiful moment. So one of the outcomes, one of the ways I think we know the course of success is when we hear these kinds of stories back… because most of our colleagues, I would say, 99.9% of our colleagues have a good heart. They want to do the right thing. They want to connect with their students, but they just don’t know how to do it in a nuanced and appropriate kind of way. So this colleague is an excellent example of someone who was willing and ready… just needed a strategy to shape it in a way that was appropriate to the academic environment and to her role as a senior faculty member. So, I think one of the things Melina and I have been surprised about is the amount of willingness coupled with the amount of trepidation. There’s just a lot of self-consciousness on people’s part about wading into these issues because as we know, faculty are deeply socialized to not get out of their realm of expertise, you know, “stay in your lane,” as they say. And so we’ve heard over and over and over again, “I’m not trained as a therapist. I’m not trained as a diversity expert.” Well, welcome to the world. Most of us are not trained therapists or trained diversity experts, and so the exercises and the content of the course is really meant to build a sense of efficacy, just a way to get started. So we’re very clear with participants that this is not meant to be an activity that’s an end in and of itself. It’s meant to be a bridge onto further deeper relationships and experiences.

Rebecca: Can you talk about some other strategies in addition to self-disclosure that are revealed in the course that might get people itching to take the course once it becomes a MOOC?

Mathew: Well, one aspect of the course that I love is we focus a lot on active learning and student centered pedagogical strategies. That’s not the same as focusing on social justice and diversity issues, but it’s a predicate for it. It’s a super helpful way to get started. So we have just loaded the course with all sorts of very practical pedagogical strategies that act to warm up the learning environment by making it more active learning and more student centered. And we’ve tried to keep these things sort of discrete enough that you could peel off one or two of them. So we’re trying to break down this idea that either you go in and you do everything and all of a sudden you’re our diversity expert, or you don’t do anything. And by trying to give people options of two, or three, or four, or five different things that they might consider doing even in just one class session, it doesn’t mean you have to reframe your entire semester long course. But what our experience has been is that the response from students is so overwhelmingly positive when you move in that direction, that there’s a lot of internal motivation to keep moving in that direction to keep layering in active learning strategies. A lot of these are pulled from the PCAST report in 2012. And for a lot of our STEM colleagues, it’s helpful or there’s utility in being able to suggest the pedagogical strategy and then link it immediately to the research that supports its efficacy. And that’s been helpful on our campus.

Melina: Another thing that’s persuasive is hearing it directly from the students. So instead of having this giant checklist of “here’s all the little pedagogical tricks, tips, and tricks,” we try to be pretty thoughtful and reflective so it doesn’t become advice giving or something like that. But in the interviews, we did ask students to answer the question, you know, “Do you have an example of a time where you really felt a sense of belonging that was created or facilitated by a faculty member in your time here at Cornell?” And so the feedback we got from faculty talking about those stories was things like, “Oh, now I really understand.” Like, for example, we had a young, gay Asian male student who took a course where a faculty member just acknowledged that don’t expect to see any references to gay relationships in this literature, because this was a time where that was just severely censured. And so he just felt so glad to have it be acknowledged that it was an absence. So that’s something you might not think of, but you hear a student talk about it, and then you start to slowly get a picture. You hear lots of little stories like this, of a black student talking about what it feels like to be at a primarily white institution, and what has made a difference to ameliorate the stress that comes with that… hearing it from students and often the strategies that go with them are incredibly practical. Like break the ice, offer a genuine opportunity for students to get to know you as a person, have office hours that are kind and open, be really clear and transparent about how you’re grading. Some of the strategies are super practical and you wouldn’t even think of them as diversity strategies necessarily, but they do reach students well.

Rebecca: We had a similar experience with a cohort of faculty that I’m working with related to accessibility. And we met with some students who take advantage of some disability resources we have available on campus. And so we met with some of those students and talked about their experiences in their classrooms and what has made them feel welcome and not. And we had some very same positive reactions like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that a discussion class could be more tricky for you if you’re taking notes and things because you might not always know what the clear takeaways are if we don’t go back and summarize what was it that we just talked about.” So sometimes it’s just really small, easy things that a faculty member could do. We just don’t necessarily think about it. So I think those student responses are just so powerful and really helpful.

Mathew: I totally agree. Another example that we’ve gotten very positive responses to is that when there’s been a national or regional or a city-wide or a campus-wide incident that’s happened that we know has resonance for our students, we have sent out some strategies for faculty to use in the classroom, beginning with just acknowledging that it was rough. This was rough to experience this, whatever that is, fill in the blank and letting students at that point know, you just acknowledge that this happened. And you don’t have to go any further than that. Just acknowledging, “Over the weekend such and such happened in downtown or it happened on campus and I want to acknowledge that and ask you to be sure to take care of yourselves… reach out to your friends… your family… reach out to services on campus, and here’s a short list of services that you might take advantage of.” But just that aspect of acknowledging it, students find profoundly helpful. So if you’re not making, as Melina’s example was so eloquent about, taking it out of invisibility, and making it real and bringing it into the classroom environment. Because one of the things that we know is that students care most about how their faculty interact with them. So in the college experience, we know there are two key predictors of undergraduate success. One is meaningful relationships with their faculty. The second is meaningful relationships with peers. And so even though the student affairs folks and the residence hall folks are wonderful people, and they do a fantastic job. If they’re not hearing acknowledgement from their faculty, if these issues aren’t coming up in class, then there’s a huge gap for that… they really feel the absence intensely. So we in the course try to give participants strategies depending upon their level of comfort. So I always say, “You don’t have to go one step further other than say, “Wow, rough weekend, be sure you take care of yourself.” And then move right into your content.” But just that moment, those two or three minutes of acknowledging the moment and acknowledging students are real people and they have significant feelings about these incidents can make a huge impact on their experience of the environment. All the way to the other end of the continuum where we have a wonderful colleague who will literally throw out the curriculum for the day, put people into individual writing exercises, and then into dyads and then into small groups and into a large group to process what the implications are for whatever happened for them individually, and for us as an academic community. It’s a continuum in what we try to reassure people… as anywhere along there is useful. Anything is better than simply ignoring it, and starting with where you feel ready.

Melina: Yeah, so one of the outcomes we’ve heard from faculty is them saying, “Well, you know, I sort of got the message from the senior administration that I should acknowledge but I wasn’t fully convinced. But once I took the course, I realized, Wow, it really does matter to them. They really do care about this, it really does make a difference. And now I have to figure out how to do it.”

John: Bringing that in through student voices, I think is a really effective way of doing that. And I was very impressed with the sample videos that you showed at that conference a few weeks ago.

Rebecca: I think the time and space that you give faculty to reflect on those moments is really important. Just in the conversation that we’re having, I was thinking back to moments as I was a student when things like that had happened. And there was one moment that sticks out in my mind that I don’t remember any other faculty handling an incident. I was a student during 9/11 and I remember one faculty member in particular did that throughout the curriculum thing. I was in a creative degree so the conversation was, “Hey, it’s really hard to make when you’re scared and things are going on, and you’re not sure what’s going on in the world. Sometimes it can be difficult to make, but sometimes it can be therapeutic to make.” But we talked through what that means is a professional when things like that happen in the world. And that stuck with me forever since then. I think it can be really powerful, whether big or small or a big amount of time or not. And I think taking the time as a faculty member to remember some of those moments that you had as a student is also really powerful.

Mathew: I love your story. And it’s one of the learning outcome goals for the course which is that you do not need to be an expert. You don’t have to have an answer. You just have to hold the conversation and facilitate a moment of reflection and connectivity. And I think in faculty lives, there’s such a drive towards being an expert and delivering an expert’s answer, or solving the problem that I think one of the big takeaways from the course is that with this sort of engagement, you really just have to be present and be authentically yourself. And that in and of itself is the work.

John: One of the issues that many underrepresented groups have to deal with is stereotype threat. Are there any particular strategies that are addressed through the course to help faculty reduce that?

Mathew: We do explicitly address both stereotype threat and also other sort of key concepts that I’ll come back to in a moment. But in particular, with stereotype threat, some of the ways that that can get triggered is unconscious and unintentional. Where you, for example, ask someone to answer on behalf of what you perceive of their community to be. And so some of the discussion guidelines that we give people and some of the resource materials that are a part of the course go explicitly in setting up environments where you can anticipate and ameliorate stereotype threat from the very beginning. And part of that is making really public your perception around mindset. And this is one of the most popular strategies, but also really effective… to make it clear that you believe that intelligence isn’t inherited, and it’s not static, that we get better at things by practice and by application. For example, we often say, “We wouldn’t have accepted you as the university if we didn’t believe you have the acumen. But having acumen is not the same as having all of the prior preparation that some of your peers might have had. And so figuring out what you need in terms of strategies and learning how to learn, those are things that you can achieve, that we would expect that you would need to work at them.” So even being at Cornell University was extremely interesting. We have a very well prepared undergraduate student body in many respects, just pretty spectacular people already. But a proportion of, a group of them, have come through high school just sailing through. They never really had to develop really coherent strategies for learning because they were just always ahead of the curve. They get here their first semester, their first prelim or mid-semester exam and it’s often quite shocking. And I think for many of them very destabilizing. For example, the first year I worked here, the daughter of a good friend of mine was a first-year undergraduate student as well. She got an 80 on her first exam and literally collapsed. I mean, she literally thought she wasn’t cut out for college. She shouldn’t be here. This was too big a reach for her. She was never going to be successful. And I was still trying to wrap my brain around, “How is an 80 failing?” But this is a kid who never in her life had ever seen the 80s. She lives in the 90s or the hundreds. She’s never seen the 80s before, but all of a sudden the level of competition across the institution is at such a level. And I think that’s true in many institutional settings from community colleges right up through university. And so helping students learn some concrete strategies for, at sort of at a meta-level, learning about themselves as learners is another way to ameliorate that. So we have a lot of strategies like that in the course too.

Melina: Yeah, and I’ll add to that even when we don’t say this is how to ameliorate stereotype threat ABCD, a lot of the strategies are doing exactly that. And we’ve just put them in the course where it makes the most sense to have them. So at the beginning of the course, we talk about things things you might consider as you’re establishing your learning community within your classroom, including how to help students get to know each other. One of my favorite all time icebreaker exercises is to invite people to tell the stories of their name… like the origin of your name story. When we think about bringing the whole person into the class… just allows people to share some cultural information because our names are encoded with all sorts of cultural information, whether you’re married or not, whether you’ve changed your name, immigration patterns, history of oppression… are also encoded in names. We also have a very high percentage of international students on campus so that enriches the name stories as well, because you get different naming traditions. Names tend to mean different things across different cultures. So over time, you also get a bigger picture of how the world works based on people’s name stories. So that’s just a little example of that. We had another faculty member who sort of shares how he uses an identity pie activity to share a little bit about his own identity. So not just a single identity axis. So that also helps to ameliorate stereotype threat because you prompt someone to anchor themselves in the complexity of their identities and then you’re not just a Latin-X student in the classroom, or a person speaking with an accent that sounds different from most, or a person with a disability. You’re just much more than that. And I think that’s probably one of the strongest features of the course. Because it’s sort of something that comes out throughout every aspect of the course… is just people are more complex. Here’s ways to welcome that in.

Mathew: Yeah, social identities pie is a great example of what we try to do in this course, both giving people an opportunity to reflect on their own growth and development, but then to have an exercise that they can peel off and use with their own undergraduates. So that we would expect that that would be useful to you personally, but also it would be a fantastic tool to carry away and use in the classroom. You know, of course, depending upon your subject and your specialization. And so through the whole course, we try to develop what I would consider sort of heuristics or models that help you individually, but also, I think could be really useful for you as a teacher and instructor in helping your students grapple with these issues as well.

John: So modeling, in the course, how courses can be delivered to address these issues effectively.

Mathew: Yeah, that’s exactly our goals

Rebecca: How incredibly meta. [LAUGHTER]

Mathew:But that’s some of the fun of it, I think. And we try to be really transparent about that in the course. So we have what I would call annotations all along in the course. “Here’s something we’re going to ask you to do that we also think would be useful to carry over into a classroom as well.” And some of the discussion questions are really about, “What was this like for you? And do you think this would work for your students as well?”

John: I’m going to throw in a reference to a past podcast we had. You mentioned how building a growth mindset can be really effective. We did an interview last year, I believe it was, with Angela Bauer at High Point University who uses growth mindset messages, weekly in classes, and it’s been found to have a significant effect on reducing performance gaps in the classes there… effectively eliminating them.

Mathew: It’s amazing what a few well chosen messages can do. And as Molina mentioned, it’s a great way to prime students, but it also makes transparent what your values are. So one of the exercises in the course that we asked our participants to do is to craft a multicultural or a diversity and inclusion statement. You can call it whatever you want. But just to put out there for students to read in the syllabus. Here’s what I think an inclusive classroom looks like. And these are the attributes of it. And these are the behaviors associated with it. And this is why I think it’s important in the context of the course but also in the context of the discipline. And it’s remarkable how effective that is. If you do nothing else, but that to strike out and make your own values transparent to your students, it can be pretty amazing.

Rebecca: So when can we start taking this class?

Mathew: Oh… the fall… we would be delighted to have you participate. And also we really hope to stay in touch with people who do take it and use it as a learning experience for a faculty learning community on their campuses. To be quite honest, that’s been one of my number one goals all along, of course, has been to serve my own institutions community here at Cornell. That’s our number one priority. But we think there’s relevancy. We think what’s going on here is pretty common. And in fact, a lot of campuses and a lot of faculty are likely starting at similar places. And so our hope is that you can take it yourself, but also grab it and bring in a bunch of colleagues at your own institution and have a shared experience, primarily because we think that you will be able to tailor this to your institutional context. I think it’s really important to make it personal and make it authentically linked to your legacy, your history, your current demographics, whatever the initiatives are on campus. We hope that this will be situated within a more robust conversation at the campus level.

John: When I was seeing the initial presentation on it, I texted Rebecca about this and said, we should run a cohort on this in the fall. We’re very excited about the possibility.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

Mathew: One thing I would just want to add is that we’re going to design the MOOC so that people can take it individually, as well as as a cohort. And I want to reassure people that we’re deeply aware of how constrained faculty are for time, it’s just really tough to carve stuff out. Even if your heart is there and your intentions are gold, it can be really challenging. So we’re really going to try to send the message that it’d be ideal if you could do this within the context of a group, but you could also just grab and go. You could jump in and hopefully it’ll be a benefit to you individually as well.

John: We’ll share links to information on that in the show notes.

Mathew: One thing I would say is that I think people have found it a lot less scary than they thought it would be. It’s very important to know that we don’t have a subtext or a secret agenda of hunting for the racist. That’s not our goal. It’s not how we facilitate the course or how we facilitate the MOOC either. And so Molina and I were laughing about the fact that a lot of people have had prior experiences with diversity related training or professional development or workshops. And we were laughing because I’ve heard this since the 90s from people saying, I took a consciousness raising workshop in the 70s. It was horrible, and I hated it and I’m never going back. Or these opportunities come to people as mandated top down HR related expectations. So you have to take this course and sign it before you can get your contract. And we’re the antithesis of that. This is strictly voluntary. It’s strictly collegial. And it’s meant to be an opportunity, as you were saying, to get meta… to just step back from the doing and have a chance to think about resources that are useful in shaping our thinking, which in turn will shape our behaviors. And for most of our colleagues in the faculty, I just want to underscore it’s not that there’s a lack of willingness. There’s just time to get the resources and have some focused time to think these things through and apply them in a tailored bespoke manner to their own context and discipline and courses. And I think that’s what the course really offers. It sort of gives you this lovely little bubble of a garden in which to sit and reflect and think in ways that you don’t typically have in the course of a day.

Melina: You know, one of the things that we’re seeing in our survey data is that people’s sense of responsibility around this issue increases… goes from “The university should do this, but I don’t have to do” this to going to “Oh, yes, this is about me and what I do.” There’s just a much higher level of awareness and excitement about being a part of it.

Rebecca: …probably speaks a lot to the idea that reflection is a very valuable teaching tool.

Mathew: Yes, and one that as instructors, we know this, we know this, but it’s easier said than done a lot of times.

Rebecca: I’m really curious about… behind you under window. There’s a tomato.

Mathew: Yeah.

Rebecca: …it looks like a tomato.

Mathew: It is a tomato. Thank you. [LAUGHTER] I’m going to tell my husband who’s an artist who doesn’t think I can draw that you recognize it as a tomato. So, thank you. It’s the pomodoro technique.

John: That’s what we were wondering, actually. I think Rebecca and I both had that thought.

Mathew: I cherish when I can get literally five minutes in a row to complete a thought. And so I’ve taken to taping over the class and my door with a tomato to signal my colleagues. I’m here. I’ll be available in a moment, but I’m just trying to get one thing done.

Rebecca: So you’re human then.

Mathew: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh my gosh, yes, yeah.

John: So since you’ve created the course, could you tell us a little bit about your background in the area and your experiences related to the course?

Mathew: One thing I love, which is completely accidental… is that Melina and I are both from New Mexico. And that has absolutely nothing to do with anything except it’s extraordinarily rare to meet another person from New Mexico. So I just love that… that’s just as sort of a weird thing we have in common. She actually grew up there. But I was born there, but didn’t really live there in my childhood, but you lived there. The other thing that we share in common is we both have traveled a lot internationally our entire lives. Melina and I have both been, what I would call third-culture kids where we’re American by citizenship, but also culturally, it’s much more complicated than that. And I’ll let Melina tell her part of that story. But I think that’s been really important in our growth and development and of our approach to these issues. So my father was a pilot in the Air Force. He was a fighter pilot in the Air Force for his career, and we moved a lot and we moved all over Western Europe and all over the eastern seaboard of the United States. So in my own lived experience, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to both be an insider and an outsider. And that has, I know, shaped my approach to this work as sort of a specialization level. I have a doctorate from University of Massachusetts Amherst, in multicultural organization development. So it’s my research area, as well as sort of my lived experience. And I’ve been out as a gay man for a really long time… since probably high school… early high school and growing up in a military community and also State Department community, my dad was a military attache, I think that really shaped me… sort of that fitting in, but not fitting in, that a lot of times it’s called code switching where you have to sort of adopt a certain set of behaviors or certain narrative form to fit in whether that’s your home base or not.

Melina: … What about being a white man… [LAUGHTER]

Mathew: Oh, yeah. Yeah… John and I have this in common… we’re both greying a little bit or at least I’m greying and so I walk into the classroom and I get an enormous amount of privilege, a benefit of the doubt. People automatically assume I belong at the front of the classroom. I’ve never been mistaken for our grad students, even as a grad student… people always thought I was faculty. But because I teach in social work, my specialization areas and my practice was in social work. And so I taught at Smith College in the School of Social Work for about 10 years. And always, whenever I do this work, I have to lead with “What’s a white guy know about diversity? And who am I to be at the front of the classroom?” And so I have, of course, as you’d imagine a pretty comprehensive response to that. But mostly, I like to lead with the idea that this is everybody’s work and that white men have a role in this as deep and as important as women of color. It’s just two ends of the continuum. But if white guys aren’t involved, and we’re not taking it seriously, particularly with a privilege that comes from being an academic, than I think we perpetuate misogyny, and patriarchy, and racism in deep ways. So I think I can see when I do that when I start right off with, “Okay, I know the first question on your mind is, ‘What’s a white guy know?’” I can see the visceral level of relief in the room because it was on everybody’s mind and until we address that I know we can’t get on to the work of the course or the session or whatever. So it’s pretty fun.

Melina: So a little bit about me. I’m an Associate Director of Inclusive Teaching here at the Center, which is a new position… a new role since last July. And before that, I was focused on supporting global and intercultural learning at Cornell. And my interest in this particular area has been sort of bubbling and growing throughout my entire life as Matt alluded to. I grew up bilingual and bicultural, Argentinian-American and spent part of my childhood living in Uruguay, where my mom and her family still live. And doing that kind of cultural code switching of realizing I was an American at I think age 10… having these moments of self awareness that sort of continue to grow. And I still continue to have the moments where I realized “Oh, I had a blind spot in relation to not really understanding this particular other way of being in the world.” So and I’m a poet by training, which I think has honed my observation skills. And I’m a former faculty member, I used to teach English at a community college in Massachusetts where I was specifically hired as a bilingual bicultural faculty member to do quite a lot of teacher training and faculty development, actually, around that particular identity category. So I also had to contend with the complexity of being a white identified Latina woman and what that means and seeing my Latin-x students eyes get really big and be like, “Wow, I didn’t even know there were white Latin-x people.” When they didn’t believe I could speak Spanish until I would speak Spanish to them. And that would sort of challenging the assumptions of who we are and I love the discomfort that comes from being in the soup that is the complexity of identity and learning from how people’s experiences of being misread or mislabeled or misunderstood inform us about how to do better in terms of building inclusive communities. So the work at Cornell… there’s a lot of work to be done… but it’s also an exciting moment because there’s a lot of people on deck thinking about this. So the response we’ve seen from the faculty and then the President… also being able to speak about this is incredibly inspiring. And then also going out to other campuses and meeting you in New Paltz and seeing other people are hungry for these conversations too, and students have a lot of place to think about their identity formation. And faculty, they’re not often necessarily asked to unless there’s suddenly an occurrence or an opportunity or an invitation. So I like being able to offer those moments of invitation to think about this together.

John: We’re glad that you do. It’s a very nice resource.

Rebecca: Yeah, we’re definitely excited to explore it with our colleagues here.

So we always wrap up by asking: what’s next? [LAUGHTER]

Mathew: Well, now that we’re concluding the second iteration of the on-campus course, the next is to actually write the MOOC. And we’re also going to write a Course Guide. So for folks like yourselves who might host or facilitate a learning group there, this is a genuine invitation to feedback. We think that we’re going to have a really fine course… it’s going to be worthwhile… but we also always know there’s room for improvement and so we’re hoping that this will be a sort of a virtuous loop of feedback from participants. And the course from the fall to the spring changed a lot… we learned a lot… and I expect that the same will be true of the MOOC as well.

John:That’s something we all should do with our courses, which is, again, a nice practice to share.

Rebecca: Oh look, reflection comes back again.

Mathew: Absolutely. [LAUGHTER] Absolutely.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us today.

Melina: Thank you

John: Thank you. We’re looking forward to continuing the conversation through the MOOC this fall.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

Mathew: Absolutely. It’d be really fun in another year, assuming that we get it written and published, and that you get a chance to convene a cohort… it’d be really fun to come back and do it again and talk about what was it like, from your perspective, your experience on the ground? That would be really, really solid.

Melina: We can interview you for your own podcast.

John: Yeah,that would be a nice twist…

Rebecca: That would be fun.

Mathew: That would be fun, yeah.

John: We did have someone do that. It caught us by surprise because we weren’t ready for that.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: But fortunately, we have the ability to edit. [LAUGHTER]

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

91. International Education

Global education and education abroad has evolved from more traditional semesters abroad to a suite of opportunities including research, internships, and courses with faculty-led travel components. In this episode, Josh McKeown joins us to discuss the variety of international study opportunities and the impact that international travel can have on students.

Josh is the Associate Provost for International Education and Programs at SUNY Oswego and author of a highly regarded book on international education titled, The First Time Effect: The Impact of Study Abroad on College Student Intellectual Development. He is also the author of forthcoming chapter on education abroad, bridging scholarship and practice and other articles, chapters, and presentations.

Transcript

John: Global education and education abroad has evolved from more traditional semesters abroad to a suite of opportunities including research, internships, and courses with faculty-led travel components. In this episode, we discuss the variety of international study opportunities and the impact that international travel can have on students.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Josh McKeown. Josh is the Associate Provost for International Education and Programs at SUNY Oswego and author of a highly regarded book on international education titled, The First Time Effect: The Impact of Study Abroad on College Student Intellectual Development. He is also the author of forthcoming chapter on education abroad, bridging scholarship and practice and other articles, chapters, and presentations. Welcome, Josh.

Josh: Thank you, Rebecca.

John: Welcome.

Josh: Thank you.

John: Today our teas are.

Josh: I’m having black coffee…

John: …again [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: I have English Breakfast tea today.

John: I have Bing Cherry Black Tea from Harry and David’s today.

Josh: I did have English Breakfast tea at breakfast this morning at home. So I had some tea today.

Rebecca: Alright.

Josh: I hope I’m in the right place. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: As long as you’re pumping tea through your system, we’re good, yeah. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: It’s still there.[LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: SUNY Oswego has been a leader in international education for quite a while and supports a wide range of programs. Can you give our listeners an overview of the range of programs your department supports?

Josh: Sure. And thanks for noticing that as well. I think in the last three years this institution has gotten some long deserved national recognition for that, too. We’ve always been a leader own to ourselves, and I think within the SUNY system, but from several really important international education organizations like the Institute of International Education, out of New York, Diversity Abroad, and the AASCU—the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, all have recognized SUNY Oswego and our departments work in the last three years.

…where to start? I think it was good for me to sort of articulate those recognitions because I like to think that we’re being recognized for all that we do internationally. I think that sometimes it’s one program or one location that may get the headline or the spotlight of the moment, because it’s interesting, or maybe it’s relevant, or the curriculum is something noteworthy or important to the day. But really, I believe we are as comprehensive an international office in international offering as you’ll find. So we have many existing programs abroad that have been running for decades. So we’re talking about semester-length programs to London and Paris and Barcelona. Kind of the more traditional format and traditionally most popular destinations in Western Europe and those still enroll. So, in one case, the Paris Sorbonne program was founded the year before I was even born. And we’re still running it and we’re still running it with pretty much the same model, although the offerings have changed within it. But the structure is really comparable for almost, well, 50 years now. So we have a whole portfolio of standing programs that are traditionally designed and delivered. But the real action in education abroad has been in areas that I would call embedded programs. The word embedded means within the curriculum, and that’s where the growth has been. That’s where the real excitement has been. And it’s not new anymore, but it continues to sort of surprise and astound in some cases, given what we do. So in those cases, individual faculty members lead programs abroad based on the courses they teach on campus. So to give some perspective, we probably now have at least 80 programs that regularly run through my department. And in any given year 400, or this year over 500, students studying abroad or spending some time abroad as part of their academic program this year. That’s just this year.

Rebecca: That’s great.

Josh: Yeah, it’s astounding. One of the recognitions that we’ve gotten was from the Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad project where we achieved our goal of 20% participation rate from SUNY Oswego undergraduates in education abroad, which is just huge for a college…

John: That’s remarkable.

Rebecca: That’s incredible

Josh: … of our size and traditions. When I came here in 2001, I think we were sending abroad 3% of our students and that was considered pretty good at the time. So those faculty-led programs, those embedded programs entail a course delivered on campus in most cases, they can be standalone, like in the summer or January. But typically it’s a course delivered on campus during the semester. And then students take a portion of their time, almost all do it at the end of the course in January after fall semester, in March after quarter three on our campus, and then May/June time-frame after quarter four spring semester. And this year, off the top of my head I can’t even remember the exact number we have, it’s probably around 30 of those, and they’re going to all continents. Our human computer interaction program is going back to Australia. We have numerous programs in Asia this year, faculty-led, including places that you’d be hard pressed to find study abroad, such as Myanmar, Vietnam, we rather go to China, Japan, India. And then we have programs in the Caribbean and Central America, South America, and all over Europe, and two programs in Africa this summer.

Rebecca: Have you hit Antartica yet?

Josh: That still eludes me, Rebecca. [LAUGHTER] You know, I’d love to be able to say all seven continents, but that’s the last place, but I have high hopes actually. And I know the exact program that I would like to go down to Antarctica. [LAUGHTER]

John: We all have programs we’d like to send to Antarctica, but… [LAUGHTER] Or maybe some faculty.

Josh: Ours would be for a good reason. No, it’s true. There’s a new offering this year in South Africa, very challenging program to put together. It’s out of our cinema screen studies program. And the faculty members will take students for several weeks to do environmental filmmaking. And some of the students will be out in the bush filming wildlife and animals. Others will be near the coast filming sea life and things. And so it’s that group that I hope goes to Antarctica to film penguins next year. [LAUGHTER]

John: Now you mentioned Myanmar, was there any concern there about the instability there in recent years?

Josh: Well, that’s a really interesting point, John. A lot of my work, and I’ve been fortunate in the 18-years that I’ve been at SUNY Oswego, I was at Syracuse University before that, we have had tremendously supportive and stable leadership, particularly from the president. And so it’s not to say we don’t care about risk. We do, we care a lot about it. But I operate from a position where I know that our campus leadership believes in international education and we did long before it became really common. I mean, it is not unusual now for institutions to have 10% or more of their students going abroad every year. That’s kind of the norm now… believe that’s the national average, actually. But we’re still quite a bit more than that. But I know that my campus leadership supports this, in principle. What we do from year-to-year, of course, changes but we were running programs to Cuba long before it was easy to do that. Now it’s relatively easy to send a program to Cuba. iI may get harder soon again, but we were doing it when it was a really rare endeavor. We have had programs that involve being on boats, that require competent swimming ability. We have had programs that climbed mountains… literally like Kilimanjaro. So yeah, there are always risks… so the risk can be political, they can be health, they can be personal safety and security. So we’ve never shied away from that. To me, the question is, “What’s our business there? What reason do we have to go?” I like to say to new staff, for example, that I don’t just throw a dart at the world map and decide we’re gonna open a program there. And I think this gets at the organizational power of SUNY Oswego and properly done, how international education anywhere can fit into an institution’s culture. In the case of Myanmar, it was an initial relationship I made through one of my volunteer activities. I was a volunteer mentor to a program, essentially that was providing distance learning tutorials to would be international educators in Myanmar. So these are people who were trying to develop the skills, the abilities that I have, and others have here. But in a country like Myanmar, which was really opening up after many decades of military dictatorship… arguably still is opening… it’s not quite opened all the way, but it’s more open than it was. So they were trying to instill… and there was a grant for this… to instill that ability in Myanmar higher education institutions so they could become more globally connected. And so I volunteered for that. This is what I do in my spare time. [LAUGHTER]

John: It complements it very well.

Josh: I know. I look for interesting activities like that, that do complement what we do. But also that I found interesting because I didn’t know much about Myanmar. And so I was paired up with a medical doctor who had, essentially, a private medical school and then he was trying to become more internationally aware. So, long story short, he eventually visited us here in SUNY Oswego. We hit it off, and I introduced him to several faculty members. And one of them made a good connection there on her own and now she’s leading a program, our first ever, to Myanmar and particularly looking at transitions from dictatorship to democracy. And she teaches in our Political Science and the Global International Studies Department. So you can see right there I’m always looking for that and I hope it’s been successful across the board. I’m open to any faculty member who has any interesting idea and sometimes I try to pair them up if I think there’s an interesting link that I can help make. And if the faculty member is interested… right, Rebecca? … to go to India and look at art and culture there

John:… and in the Czech Republic…

Josh: and soon the Czech Republic. I’m open to almost any good idea, because I know in the end, it benefits our students. That’s what it’s about. It makes Oswego a more interesting campus. It makes our education stronger. And I know from a research standpoint, that all those things contribute to a student’s intellectual and academic abilities in ways that we’re still just beginning to understand, but I think are more and more proven.

John: And we should note that we did record an episode a few months back, where we had two people talking about one of their study abroad experiences. So, two faculty members, Casey and Jeff, and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes if anyone wants to hear about the faculty side of the experience, and will be interviewing Rebecca when she gets back sometime this fall. Do faculty-led programs attract a different mix of students than the full semester abroad programs?

Josh: I would say in all honesty these days, no. Because our student population is, from my standpoint, and they’re all facing similar challenges, similar obstacles, and are excited by similar things. And I think it’s important to say that to the audience who might not be as familiar with education abroad. Because study abroad, as we used to call in the old days, it really used to be an elite activity. And it was something most students didn’t do. I never could have done it, had I not gotten a really good scholarship as a student… and so it used to be a boutique activity. And it really isn’t anymore. And I would say that any institution that wants it to be mainstream can. It’s not that complicated to do. You just have to believe in yourself, have some funding and staffing. But even after a while that can become self sustaining. So we no longer are looking to create a program that students have to really… I want to say… like be selected for but that is how did the industry used to look at study abroad: that you had to be really a special kind of student. You had to be an ambassador… which is a term I reject actually… an ambassador for your institution… ambassador for your country. That used to be the mindset and so, by definition, it was exclusive in the old days. And so the current thinking… and I think anyone who wants to expand it needs to really embrace this is that it’s an activity potentially every student can do. And when you go there, you have to accept who your students are. And our students are bright and they’re ambitious and articulate, and they’re maddening, and they’re naive, and they’re stretched for time, retention and resources, all those things. And if we’re educators, we need to educate them. And education abroad is part of higher education. So I look at it that way. So, in that sense, I think the students who go on faculty-led short-term programs or embedded programs, which is now by far the majority of our education abroad population… I think those are students who might have been introduced to the idea by their professor in that class. And that’s what’s kind of cool about it from my standpoint, by involving so many faculty members, we have the ability not just to have education abroad be promoted out of my office. But now, I think I count over 30 faculty members this year are involved with our work directly, and they all have friends and colleagues and people know what they’re doing. So, I like to think that in all these classes around the campus, professors are talking about study abroad, talking about their program and that, if a student hadn’t been to our study abroad fair or hadn’t been on our website or one of our sessions, they can be introduced to it that way. And so I think potentially, yeah, potentially that student might have not have thought about it before. Whereas a student going for a longer program… a semester program… even summer… might have been thinking about it longer because you have to prepare more. But these days, I really look at them as the same… or very, very similar.

John: I was thinking on the student side, we have a lot of rural students who often haven’t traveled very much and that a one-week experience, say might seem less intimidating or threatening, and it might open the possibility of study abroad to students who might be a little concerned about a…

Josh: Yeah.

John: …longer term experience.

Josh: I think that that student definitely is still out there. Students from predominately upstate New York were the traditional student population of this campus. But as we know, our campus is a lot different than it was 10, 20 years ago. And so I think now the majority of students are from
Metro New York City area. I know in my class, I teach global and international studies on campus, I always asked at the start of the semester, who has traveled abroad before, and I’m astounded how many already have. So, I think it’s becoming more common. And many students have relatives in other countries. They may not think about international travel as part of an education yet… could be just visiting family or a vacation or something like that. So I think, in that sense, we still have the opportunity to reach people with education abroad, even if they’ve traveled before, but to think about it differently to think about their travels as part of their overall academic experience, maybe even as part of a larger campus effort to have them grow and develop into the best students we can. So, I think that’s what I think about study abroad in those terms. And it’s great to come on a show like this because I realize that a lot of people don’t know that, and it’s something which, in our profession, we take for granted now. But it’s important to keep expressing this to larger audiences, that there are regular high school programs that go abroad. I was at the airport not long ago and one of our faculty colleagues was picking up, I think, her middle school age daughter who had just been on a school trip abroad. Kids are doing all kinds of things. By the time we get them, many of them may have had that travel experience, but it’s still up to us to take them where they are and move them forward.

John: I actually had traveled abroad when I was a freshman in high school to France, Germany, Switzerland.

Rebecca: I know that as a student, and I came from a working class family and I never thought of travel abroad as something that could possibly be something that I could do. But as a graduate student, I presented a paper abroad and that was my first international experience… and it opened up so many doors, and now I try to take every opportunity to travel, as you know. But you know, it really changed things for me. And so I think you’re right, that faculty are reaching some of the students by talking about things in the class. I taught a freshman class this year, a first-year student class and we have a couple of first-year students going with us to the Czech Republic, who had never traveled.

Josh: That’s a great story. I love to hear that.

Rebecca: You know, so that’s really exciting, and I think it works. I know in your book, you talk a bit about this first-time effect. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and the power it has on students?

Josh: I would be glad to. And that book came out 10 years ago now… 2009. And the research collectors was a few years before that. And so, yeah, I could probably use a second edition with some updated research samples, actually… because, in a nutshell, the important finding from that book, which it did hit… at least within our profession… it hit the audience that we were seeking pretty well. It spoke to how students change after they study abroad, and through the process of education abroad in general. Because for as long as there has been something called study abroad, or now education abroad… and just real briefly, education abroad includes internships and research and service learning and things like that. So we say typically “education abroad” now, but for decades, people who did this for a living, and professors who saw their students go abroad for a semester and come back, saw something different about them, and no one could put their finger on it. No one could say what is this? They just seem different. And are they more mature? Well, not quite. Are they more focused on their studies?
Yeah, but that’s not quite it. Are they more interesting and smart? Well, not always. But there’s something about them that was different. And I felt that too… Again, I was from a similar background and thankfully the university I went to head to may study abroad really accessible and I had a good scholarship. And when I came back, I remember my friends who were there who had not gone abroad, there was some like gap between us, it was hard for me to put my finger on. So I sought to do some research to try to answer that question. And it’s far from answered, but at least I think I made a contribution. And there’s a scale called intellectual development. And there are other meaningful ways to look at this kind of development in students, but the way I chose was the intellectual development scale, because it really addresses students understanding of complexity. So, it doesn’t test their understanding of world history or language or even culture, actually. It’s not like a sort of an assessment of the study abroad experience in that sense. It really gets at more basic cognitive abilities, and can you, as a student after the experience, can you think of the world in more complex ways? Can you think of knowledge in more complex ways? Can you understand different perspectives? Do you look at your professors and other authority figures in your life, whether it’s parents or a political leader or or any supposed expert, can you look at them, and understand that they’re not all-knowing authorities, they just have been doing this longer and they have different points of view, even from what they have to express. So, it’s that kind of intellectual ability that it measures. And by and large, like a lot of studies, it did not show that all students have that growth. But I did find a subset of my sample that did and it was statistically significant. And it was those students who had either never gone abroad before, or who had gone abroad for such a short time, that it was clear that it was not an in depth experience. And that was really exciting to go into a research project like that. It was also for my doctoral dissertation. You don’t want to assume anything about the outcome if you do it properly. You may have some hunches, but I wasn’t expecting that. At the end. I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I thought, Well, yeah, that actually reinforces what a lot of us have been observing in this field for a long time… that that experience is powerful, but it doesn’t have a cumulative effect, I realized… and I coined the term first-time effect. And that’s been cited in quite a few other papers, books, and dissertations. I think it’s stuck. And I think about the students we were just talking about, John… these students who have never been abroad before or students today who, yeah, they’ve gone to the Dominican Republic to visit a family member, but maybe it was for a short time, or maybe it wasn’t something that was part of a structured activity, and maybe it was a place they were already familiar with. That, I think, still holds. I think that individual when they go to a place that’s far different, and for a longer period of time, like an education abroad experience, I think that’s still possible. So yeah, I’m proud of it. Now, the profession is looking… and thanks for mentioning the forthcoming book, Education Abroad: Bridging Scholarship to Practice. I was the lead author of a chapter focusing on academic development. And I got interested in that because there hasn’t been a whole lot of research on this particular topic. There’s been some and that is… by academic development, we mean the student’s capacity as a learner… so much more targeted to learning in a college setting. But you can see how it complements well, the former research that I did: that students who come back from study abroad seem like they’re more focused students… seem like they’re more career oriented… they seem like they have their act together a bit more than before. And so there are some ways to measure that, too. It’s far from proven still, but I think there’s an emerging consensus that education abroad is one of those potentially high impact activities that can, first of all, keep students in school, keep them on track to graduation, and help them in their academic careers and their professional careers in ways that… it’s not the only activity… but in ways that a lot of university experiences can’t say. So I’m hoping to keep pursuing interesting and relevant research areas. But I must say it’s easier than it used to be, Rebecca, to do that, because it’s been a lot of research over the last decade especially about what I was interested in. So I found a lot of sources to pull from… a lot more than before, actually. So that’s gratifying.

Rebecca: You see a lot of students have interest in traveling to places like Western Europe, the standard staple places that you mentioned earlier on. But we also have a lot of programs that we’ve touched upon already, that go to other, maybe more out of the way, places.

Josh: Yeah.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how we get our students to be interested in those places and feel confident to travel in those?

Josh: Yeah, I’m really glad you asked that. And you’re a good example of this. I think the two projects that you and I were working on together, one was to India, the other to the Czech Republic. And both of those are in that category, I would say. The number of countries that we send students to keeps growing, and we already mentioned Myanmar and South Africa. Just this year, we have programs also to Tanzania, and Honduras, and Dominican Republic, and we’ve had students in Russia. And I mentioned Cuba and Vietnam and India. It no longer really is like I don’t want to say noteworthy because it happens so frequently, but you’re right it is… it really is noteworthy. I would say this about that. If we were to promote a semester length program to India… which we do… but not led by a faculty member… not tied to a course… not embedded in the curriculum in such a way that the connection between what that student is doing in a class where their major and that activity weren’t so clear, I don’t think that semester program in India would succeed. In fact, I can say that definitively because we have that, and very few students choose to spend a whole semester in India. However, and I’m just using India as one example, when a faculty member deliberately ties what they’re researching and what they’re teaching about to this trip, and if they’re good professor, and the student looks at them, not only as someone I can learn from for this course, but someone who can teach me something about life…. so we’re talking about mentoring more, actually. And if that professor is willing to put themselves out there and also be a program leader, which involves not just knowing your subject matter well, but getting on buses and subways together, sharing space, being in the same hotel having breakfast every morning, seeing them on good mornings and bad mornings and being willing to say things like, “I don’t know, we’re gonna have to figure this out,” which happens on all of our programs all the time, no matter how well they run… that actually creates the kind of authentic interaction that this generation… they say… craves for and increasingly demands. It’s one of those situations, I think, where if travel itself is now not as difficult as it used to be, for lots of reasons, but yet education abroad is still growing. The value that students see in it, I think, comes from that. It’s learning. Yes, I’m going to India, but I’m going with someone who I really want to learn from and I really see as someone who can help me understand this place. Maybe going there for a semester is too intimidating. Maybe they don’t see the value in it. either. And so the role of faculty in those cases is crucial. They have to be the people who are willing to put themselves on the line really… not just the program. The students say I’m going to India with you. They’re not just going to India, they’re going with you. So I think that really drives the act.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how when we take students abroad, we help them make sure that they’re not reinforcing stereotypes and assumptions, but actually learning about culture and growing.

Josh: I think we should do that in all of our courses, of course, on campus too… and others have done a lot of research on intercultural development, for example. It’s not really my area, but I think it’s incumbent on all of us when we’re in this role to do our homework and make sure that students do see the country authentically… as little things like, I remember one of the programs that we had to Paris, which, again, a generation ago, we would have presented as “Paris, the City of Lights” and really just shown them the beauty, the art, the grandeur, all of which is there. But I remember talking to this professor about the other Paris, the working class Paris, the very racially diverse Paris, the Paris that was the seat of a vast colonial empire at one point. There’s a different Paris too… then the City of Light and Arc. So I helped her construct an intinerary with this in mind. So it could be a small thing like, for example, from the Paris airport from Charle deGaulle airport into the city, rather than take a bus, you can take a train. And when you take that train, you go by neighborhoods, and you see graffiti. And you see things about Paris that are really not beautiful, they’re authentic. And they’re important for different reasons. But they may not have all been what that student had in mind when they first thought of the idea of Paris. So I think if you approach study abroad that way, and make conscious choices, and then deliberate steps that eventually become an itinerary, and you’re thoughtful about it, you should get there, there should not be an opportunity for a student to go someplace and come back and just say, it was awesome, and only be able to talk about fun things that they’d seen in books before and now they see in real life. That’s a tourist trip. And so education abroad really these days, this is what really we should be doing. We should be constructing programs that add to students intellectually and academically and as faculty lead programs to make sure exactly what you said that we are showing them the authentic reality of places even if it differs a little bit from maybe what the student had in mind before. That’s our job.

Rebecca: I think one of the interesting things that happened when we were in India is we went to the Taj Mahal in May when it’s hot. And we were there when mostly Indians were traveling. There was mostly families that were traveling from other parts of India. And so that experience was very different than a touristy kind of experience that you might have had it at a different time of the year. So we ended up having a lot of discussions about the difference between “Oh, we’re like an international group and like we put our shoes here.”

Josh: Yeah.

Rebecca: And really having to break that down. So, that was an interesting learning moment that was far more learning, then one might have thought. We went there because it was an important architectural work, especially for the course content that we were teaching. But it ended up being this much bigger learning moment.

Josh: You’re speaking also to the importance of faculty preparation and credibility in that moment. And again, if this is for an audience of people who work in institutions that maybe are not quite there yet, or you’re aspiring to that. One of the main points I made when I give presentations and talks on this is that it isn’t that hard to get faculty to that level. Some faculty come equipped already, maybe they were from the country where they’re traveling to, or they’ve traveled there already, but most don’t, actually. And so as part of our administration of education abroad, I build into budgeting, and I build into the sustainable operations of the department, funds for faculty development travel, before I ever want a faculty member to go abroad with a group of students, they need to go there themselves and learn those things and chart out for us what is that ideal itinerary? Now, we have to make choices. We have to make good choices about how we use funds like that, and there’s a competition for it and it’s overseen properly. But we do have, in that sense, it’s almost like a company might have a research and development R&D aspect to it. In a way it’s that. It’s making sure our faculty are developed. And I think, at this campus that was not always widely embraced. It is now and I see faculty members who have just been hired, come to me and say “I heard you have some travel funds.” Words getting out even before we actually announce it each year. But if we do that well, we’lll ensure that the program is safe and properly run. Because that professor’s when they’re program leader, they are the institution. No one else is with them in most cases, I’m not there in almost all cases. Other staff usually don’t accompany programs like that. So if you’re halfway around the world, even if you have a good itinerary and good trip connections and things like that, you’re responsible for everything, really. And so we make sure faculty are as prepared as possible for that. And I think that’s a key to the success of it. It’s work. And I think you could attest to that. It’s still work for the faculty member, but you’re not doing all the work, you’re supported and prepared by the institution as much as possible. And together if we do those things well, all of a sudden you go from 3% to 20% participation… you go from having maybe one faculty-led program in the summer to 20 or 30 a year.

Rebecca: That’s incredible.

Josh: Yeah. And you pick up… if you’re lucky too… put yourself out there… one or two national awards that people find, say, “Hey, you’re doing something special,” but I think we’ve been doing something special for a long time and it’s nice to see that

John: …and we should note that about 23 to 25% of our audience is from outside of the US

Josh: Oh, great, great.

John: So if there’s anyone from institutions that might like to establish a relationship we’ll include Josh’s contact information in the show notes.

Josh: My staff are going to kill me though… we have too many programs. No. Yeah, sometimes my staff.. who are great, they’re incredible people, and all true believers, you have to believe in international education. I will say that for faculty who don’t think it’s a lot of work once they get involved and realize… it’s work, but if it’s work you believe in, it doesn’t feel like work. And that’s what we try to do. But sometimes they think I never say no, to a program idea. And I do… I do say no, sometimes. But there are times when I think, “Oh, that just sounds really cool. We got to do this. We gotta try this.” And we have enough experience, I think, and the connections that we make most programs doable and when it’s not, I will pull the plug on something if I have to, for various reasons, but usually we go for it.

Rebecca: You talked a little bit about some of the preparedness for faculty in terms of traveling ahead of time, but are there other things that faculty can do if they’re going to take students abroad to make it a really effective experience?

Josh: I think that it’s not totally dissimilar to classroom teaching, in that, I think you have to see yourself as others see you. I think a good teacher does that. I mean, I’m not an actor, but maybe that’s what an actor does… be able to see how students might view you. I think that the difference is, is 24/7s. So imagine that you’re with a group of students all day, every day… and again, not just an hour and a half, twice a week. That’s different. I have gone to the lengths of having a mandatory training with all faculty, I used to do it much more informally. But for lots of reasons, not just the risks abroad. But I think with success and growth comes scrutiny and attention and you have to be prepared for that too. So whether it’s students with disability issues, or Title IX, issues like that, as well as some of these more far-flung locations that involve longer flights and riskier scenarios, we just have to be more aware of the preparation and training and kind of legal compliance for lack of a better term. So I do have a mandatory training session for faculty and I go through those things. And yeah, occasionally we scare some people off, I guess, because the idea doesn’t turn into a proposal and never turns into a program. So I think it’s important to be clear with faculty like that. I will repeat that overall, we are growing and growing strongly, including the number of people who are requesting to lead programs and then leading programs. But it’s not unusual for someone to say to me, “You know, I didn’t realize how much student contact I was going to have.” And it makes me wonder what they did think. Maybe they thought that….

John: …they’d meet for an hour a day and then send them off on their own?

Josh: I don’t know. Yeah, and that’s okay…. rather find that out before they lead a program. But I think maybe they’re thinking about traditional models of education abroad, maybe it would be at a study abroad center where the students would just be hanging out with each other and be supervised by someone else. And they’re really not. In most cases, it’s a traveling type program, students are at a hotel or residents or in the case of a more outdoorsy program that might be at a lodge and they’re together. There is no one else. And so I think that does put off some people and that’s okay. I’d rather know that up front and if someone decides “No, I just don’t want that amount of responsibility.” Because students are demanding… they expect certain things, they still expect you to be a great professor, in fact maybe even more so than on campus. But faculty have to watch out for students’ mental health, their physical health, their interrelationships. They assert things, they have to minister discipline at times, there are aspects to this in a way when I say they are the institution, and imagine all the offices on this campus rolled into one person, that’s kind of what it is. But it’s also super fun. And I think the people who thrive in it, realize it’s a really unique opportunity not just to talk about what you know, but to be the person you are or think you are in a global setting…

Rebecca: …or a lot of the things you don’t know…

John: …and to learn…

Rebecca: Right, yeah, I mean, cuz you learn together when you’re abroad. There’s things that you just don’t expect or whatever and you investigate and you learn together.

Josh: That’s what I meant by authentic. It’s interesting how that word is being used so much. There’s so many ways to travel. You can go online, go on some vacation site… it’s easy, much easier than it used to be there… and there are so many ways to learn about the world. You can watch PBS, you can watch documentaries, you can listen to podcasts. So to be special, it has to be different… has to be something really targeted and led well and interesting. So I think when we do that, students are drawn to it, because the result is something intense. And that’s when the learning happens, right? We wish every class of ours on campus were like that. I wish every class was like that. But usually it’s not. Education abroad, properly constructed, it can be… especially the faculty-led model. It’s a shorter model. If you plan well, it can be really high impact in a short time.

John: As we bring in more students from New York City and from traditionally underrepresented groups, the average income of many of these new students may be relatively low. How can low-income students afford international travel?

Josh: For higher education, in general, this is one of the biggest questions of our time, right? How can we get this incredibly bright and ambitious population of young people in our country educated and prepared for their own futures, but also our future… our collective future. And I do believe education abroad plays a part in that. The growth in it has not come without, I think, some really creative approaches to that very question. So I’ve tried very hard to keep our education abroad programs as affordable as possible. In some cases, a student can choose a semester length program, for example, that doesn’t cost them, when all is said and done, that much more than being here. I try as hard as I can, controlling what I can control, to keep costs as low as possible. And there are various ways to do that. If I can refer to another publication I did. Our main professional organization is called NAFSA and they have a guidebook… a handbook to international education and education abroad in this case, and they asked me to write a chapter on strategic planning for education abroad, and I included this aspect of it in addition to the other things we talked about, and that’s budgeting and financing. I really am a strong advocate that in all endeavors you get what you pay for, you get what you invest in. And so I think many institutions don’t understand fully how important it is that the international office or the people responsible for putting programs together have certain discretion over decision making that differ from other aspects of what the university does. Through my department we deal with vendors all over the world, we deal with their airlines or tour providers, banks and bill-paying services. You have to be able to do that. If you put that in the same structure as folks who are buying copy paper on campus or contracting with with vending machines, it just doesn’t work. It won’t succeed… it flat out will not succeed. So SUNY is a pretty progressive institution actually system wide for this. There are some mechanisms in place… little things like being able to transact in currencies, when the value is favorable to you or being able to shop around for the best airline deals or pre-paying expenses that you know you’re going to have… things like that… that as long as it’s all documentable and able to be reviewed, there’s nothing wrong with that, in my view. But there has to be some, I think, understanding that international education is different. And this institution… I’m quite fortunate, there’s always has been a view that, of course, accountability, but discretion. And so if you look at it that way, and not every program that runs makes a profit, not every program that runs even meets its expensive. If I had to cancel every program just because it might lose $1, we wouldn’t be running a lot of the programs. And so the ones that can are the ones who maybe you’re fortunate that there is some favorable cost outcome, maybe we’re planning on an exchange rate being x and it’s that it’s y…. And then you’re like: “Okay, I didn’t have to spend as much on that. “Well, how about the program that in the end, you had to spend more on? if you approach it holistically like that, and I hope I’m doing that reasonably well, you can price programs in a way that aren’t out of touch for students. I think it really starts there. And also we have to make sure we are running academic programs. And so earlier when I said we’re not running tourist trips, I think that applies to this discussion too. Students can use financial aid for this… they can. If it weren’t tied to a course or if it weren’t part of their academic experience, they couldn’t. So, I think it’s incumbent on us to never forget that. And then I think you have to look for opportunities for scholarships, grants and other rewards for students. And we’ve done that on this campus. We didn’t solve it. But we’ve done a lot. I think there are now 10 different scholarship or other grant award programs that students can apply for. I remember when there was only three, and they were were small. Now, there’s a sizable number we gave away over $100,000 last year in scholarship money to students… a hundred thousand dollars. And so that’s sizable.

John: That’s making an impact.

Josh: It is. 18 years ago I think we probably gave away under $5,000 total. So, it’s a staggering leap. And that has helped a lot. And I know many of my colleagues who do really toil because they can’t get any traction on this at their institutions. My advice is always keep at it and also take charge of your own narrative. Even if you could only afford to run one program, run it really well. And then get as much publicity as you can for that program. Show how it’s changing students lives. Because it is. Make sure you care and devote some time to really processing that. Tell that story. Keep telling that story. Someone’s gonna want to listen eventually and build, build, build. SUNY Oswego didn’t always have this vast an array of programs either. Look at what we have now. It can happen, even at a state institution that is a comprehensive college whose students are struggling economically. We can get there. If we can get there, others can get there too.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking what next?

Josh: My latest research interests are still in international education but are more policy areas. So I did a research study over the winter and I presented it at the International Studies Association Conference in Toronto in March and it was well received. I’m going to expand on it. I’m really looking at how scholars, researchers, faculty members pursue internationalization in their own careers and for their own institutions. And in particular, I looked at China and Chinese scholars and researchers who come, not just to SUNY Oswego in the United States, but go abroad for significant periods of time to do research work. And I’m interested in it because if you look at that example, China is a country that was trying to catch up on a lot of things, and I think has caught up on a lot of things. One of those areas has been higher education and internationalization of higher ed in particular. But what I started noticing here at SUNY Oswego, maybe around 10 years ago, is the number of Chinese visiting scholars, faculty members, researchers who come with full funding, and in many cases with full government funding. And I’m in a position to be able to see that and some of them iare n the business school, I think you had one, the art department, and you say to yoursel…, first of all, where the heck is all this money coming from? And second, there must be some great incentive to push this out. We’re not just seeing it once, we’re seeing it a number of times every year. And so I started doing some research on that, and that’s why I’m pursuing that. I think it’s an area that needs to be looked at, because there’s a lot of interest in China right now to begin with. There’s a lot of interest in whether it’s the current dispute over tariffs and trade, whether it’s over technology transfer, what sort of national security. In our case, it’s over this enormous country that still a lot of Americans just don’t go to when they think about education abroad, but there is a lot of exchange and collaborative academic activity. So I’m kind of looking at what’s going on with that? What is the purpose of it? What’s the funding mechanism of it? What are faculty members who choose not just to go abroad with a group of students for a week or two, but to spend six months… a year… in the middle of their career, and to do so regularly? What kind of impact is that having on them as scholars, but also on the institutions where they work and maybe by the country overall where they live? To my knowledge, there’s nothing comparable like that going on in any other place in the world, given the breadth of it. So I’m curious what’s happening with that. And it also speaks, I think, to the broader subject of internationalization because not that education abroad is old news or conquered. There’s still a lot of challenges with it, but I feel we really have made the case well, that education abroad is important. And I think it’s here to stay no matter what today’s challenges might be, I think it’s here to stay. So what other areas of internationalization really are important. And increasingly, I’m looking at areas of the world that we don’t have as much collaborative activity with and forms of international education that are different than just American students going somewhere, because there’s a lot happening. So I guess, stay tuned on that.

For our work on our campus, we continue to try to expand and diversify our offerings. And so I’m really excited this coming year, I expect our first program out of our new criminal justice major, we have our first program out of the health promotion wellness major this year. So there’s still pockets of our own campus that have not been tapped for education abroad, but slowly and surely, we’re getting to all of them. I think.

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of exciting things coming down the pike.

Josh: Yeah, we’re working hard. I’ll keep doing it until I can’t anymore.

John: It’s great to hear about all those wonderful things and that expansion.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for sharing.

Josh: Oh, my pleasure. Glad we could do this. It’s a rainy Friday here in Oswego.

John: …which is so unusual.

Josh: I know, right?

Rebecca: Well, thank you again.

Josh: My pleasure. Thank you.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

90. Blackish Mirror

First-year students are often enrolled in survey and introductory courses that offer limited interactions with full-time faculty. In this episode, Mya Brown and Ajsa Mehmedovic join us to discuss a model in which students have the opportunity to explore interesting and complex issues in a more intimate setting in their very first semester.

Mya is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY Oswego who developed the Blackish Mirror first-year seminar course. Ajsa was one of Mya’s students in this class.

Transcript

John: First-year students are often enrolled in survey and introductory courses that offer limited interactions with full-time faculty. In this episode we discuss a model in which students have the opportunity to explore interesting and complex issues in a more intimate setting in their very first semester.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Mya Brown, an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY Oswego, and Ajsa Mehmedovic, one of Mya’s students. Welcome.

Mya: Hello.

Ajsa: Hello there.

John: Our teas today are….

Mya: I actually am not drinking tea. I have coffee and water.

John: Okay.

Ajsa: I’m drinking chocolate mint. It’s a great experience. I definitely recommend

Rebecca: Yumm. I think I’m leaning on my old favorite of English afternoon tea.

John: And I have blackberry green tea.

Rebecca: You’re both here today to discuss your first-year signature course, Blackish Mirror. Mya, can you talk a little bit about the class and then Ajsa, maybe you can talk a little bit about your experience in the class?

Ajsa: Of course.

Mya: Absolutely. I was really excited when I heard about the opportunity to create a first-year signature course. I’m on the task force for this new pilot program that we brought in here to SUNY Oswego. It was started by our Provost Scott Furlong… and Julie Pretzat, the Dean of the School of Communication, Media, and the Arts, reached out to me as a potential professor for a course, as well as someone to sit on that task force to help develop this pilot program. The thing that really drew me to it was the opportunity to get in with brand new students to the university and help them discover how much Oswego can be their home and also discover who they are as individuals so that they can contribute to society in a positive and impactful way. When it was presented to us instructors, it was presented as an opportunity to teach students how to be students. But, obviously, we don’t want to condescend students, right, or make them feel like they just absolutely have no idea of what they’re doing… what choice they made to come here… So we wanted to empower them through this course. And you know, they say a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. We thought, let’s teach how to be a student through something that the instructors are really passionate about and something that students would potentially be really passionate about. And I always, as a theater instructor, am trying to focus on social justice issues through plays that I read and introduce in my courses. Also, I’m on the play reading task force here. So I’m contributing to the season that we choose at Oswego. And I’m constantly looking for content that speaks to social issues that we find in the community. I looked at this as an opportunity for me to incorporate some social justice issues, specifically in relation to the African-American community in the classroom, while also teaching students how to be successful in college. So, I really wanted to focus on the evolution of the black character on television. So in the course, we went all the way back to Ethel Waters, which is the very first African-American character that’s seen on television. And what we were reflecting on was things like how much screen time our minority actors getting on television. Also, what kind of occupations are we seeing them in? What kinds of relationships are they engaging in? So we went all the way back from the 30s to present day. And I think the discoveries that we made in class were some really awesome discoveries. And we saw this trend in television where it was really kind of kid gloves with the character and introducing this new kind of character to the general public. And then we saw the gloves come right off, and we saw lots of “in your face” when we got to about the 1970s, the 80s, the 90s. Then we noticed this trend of kind of going away from taking the gloves off and putting them back on and we thought that that was actually quite interesting. Kind of early 2000s is where we saw this character almost regressing.

Rebecca: Like whitewashed

Ajsa: Yeah…

Mya: Yeah, definitely getting whitewashed and regressing back to what we saw

Ajsa: the norm…

Mya: …originally, right, with what was appropriate, what was inappropriate content for these characters. It was a great opportunity for us to have open discussions about what we were seeing, these trends we were seeing. And I think one of the major questions that I asked the class… you help me with this Ajsa… “Are the images that we see in the media influential in our thinking about a specific group of people?” That was the major question we wanted to answer over the course of the semester. And I think we all agreed…

Ajsa: Yeah, we came to a conclusion, and we definitely agree with that statement. And we got to see how the social norms are first ever made with the first ever character presented and then going into the gloves. And that whole aspect is really interesting to see that whole give and take aspect.

Mya: Even I was shocked and surprised by this trend that we saw in the evolution of the character. I think when I came up with this concept in my mind, I thought that it would be this very clear upward trajectory. But I found that it was not, it was definitely this kind of roller coaster ride that we went on with some really great highs, but also some really kind of low lows. And yeah, the most, shocking thing was discovering that some of those low lows are occurring now and in the most present time that we have. In this time where we think that we’re so progressive right now, and “we’ve come such a long way” since segregation and things like that. I don’t know how far we have actually come when we reflect truthfully on society, the images we’re seeing. We also ask things like, what’s the responsibility of media to tell truthful stories, to tell diverse stories to uplift the community through their outlet? What is that responsibility? Is there a responsibility also with the creators? …so we talked about that as well with the directors. Should they be checking their biases, because this is being presented to the community as a whole.

Ajsa: We actually had a moment where we talked about modern-day society, we talked about different things that are arising during Halloween and the whole cultural appropriation. And it was really exciting because we could see how the course was outlined. But there were definitely moments where we would stop and talk about real-world applications. Definitely reflecting what you’re talking about how it still matches society now. And it was just a whole experience that we all as a whole were learning together. Because this was like her first pilot having this class and it was just a really over the board genuine class.

Mya: Yeah, thank you, Ajsa. I was hoping that that’s what the students would get from it. So it’s really great. And I knew that you did.

Ajsa: Yeah

Mya: But it’s always great to hear that reflected and see it reflected in what you’re doing now. So one of the major components of this class is community and making sure that the students feel a sense of home here at Oswego. We did a scavenger hunt…

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: …in the very beginning in small groups so that they were able to get to know each other a little bit better before we dive into this really deep kind of content and subject matter and I think that was useful. Also…

Ajsa: We had check-ins.

Mya: We had regular check-ins.

Ajsa: Yeah, during the semester we’d talk about like our applications with that, or in the sense like how you’re going to college, and different relations with the dynamic of having a roommate, the dynamic of coming from home. And it was just so interesting because we had this setup of the class, we were able to get into deeper content and not just say, “We’re good. We’re having a good time. This class is boring.” We actually had reflections on how we feel emotionally and how we feel like biased in a sense. And it was a really great experience.

Mya: It was also nice too, they had an opportunity to reflect on “how’s it going in the dorm?” What are maybe some things that you could do? What are some problem-solving skills that you could develop, and we just shared openly. So it was great to hear these varying opinions on how to address situations and people would say, “Oh, I never even thought about that. I’m going to try that next time.” So they were teaching each other, as well as me teaching them, as well as them teaching me.

Rebecca: So, it sounds like you had a really authentic experience and around some really tough issues. Both personal issues of that transition to college, but also about some really interesting questions around race, which is never an easy conversation to have really. So how do you each think that the class was set up that really supported the ability to have those authentic, deep, real conversations that everyone felt trusted and safe?

Mya: Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. And I do this in all of my classes, I really try to set it up in the beginning, I let them know that, “Hey, I was once in your seat and I am an advocate for you. I am an ally for you. And this is a safe place.” So I really try to reinforce that through my actions and I model that behavior in the classroom. Would you agree Ajsa?

Ajsa: Mm-hmm. I feel like Mya is actually one of those professors that actually cared, has such this in depth interest in how you’re going as a person. She was always easy to find outside the classroom or have independent conversations with the content was affecting their lives. It was just so interesting to have that bond with her because she is a Director. So sometimes students don’t always have that connection. So, I definitely see her as such a genuine authentic person, it really reflected in the course

Mya: Yeah, I think it’s really important. If you are transparent with the students then they will buy in, you know. I mean, and honestly, there’s nothing to buy into. It’s just more of they’re comfortable and they’re confident that they can be who they are because they see you being who you are. It is empowering.

Ajsa: I think we’re definitely lucky that our class was 19 people. And we had such a diverse group. In the first day we had discussion, we went around the room saying, Why did you take this course? And it was so interesting seeing everyone be so raw, because you never get asked that question like, “Why are you in this Gen Ed? …but this course was so different, because no one expected it to be so in depth and be such a good scan of society. And I always said when I came to this course. I was like that general expectation of college, like “I’m in college now, I’ll talk about politics and this whole aspect.” I was like, “This is this course.” And I think it was great that everyone was so diverse and so willing to be open and we all came to class… our favorite class. We also sat in a circle…

Mya: It was really important to me for us to sit in a circle and typically in a lecture-style course that’s not the way we handle things. However, in theater courses, we are constantly in circles. So I think I took that for granted because it’s just the nature of what I do. But once I incorporated it in this course, I realized how powerful it is to be in a circle. And not only would the students sit in a circle, but I would join the circle as well. I think it’s very important that they saw me as someone who was a part of the whole, not someone who was this outside force who was like regulating what they were doing, but as someone who was engaging with them. So in order to do that, I sat in a circle with them as well. And this idea of the circle, it allowed us to have eye contact, there was definitely more unity that was already just… it’s implicit in this format. Also, and I didn’t realize that this was happening at the time, I’m not sure if you realize this, but Jen Knapp, our Associate Dean, she came in and she observed the course and one of her reflections… that I was like, “Oh, wow, I totally take that for granted, I didn’t even think about that…” was how we were able to have this civil discourse in class and she noticed that students always said their names when they were referring to what someone else in the course said. If they were reflecting on or responding to something that Ajsa said they would say, “Oh, well, when Ajsa this thing…” and that was commonplace in the classroom, did you even notice that? It’s not something we planned it just organically….

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: …happened.

Ajsa: We never said like, “Okay, if we talk to someone make sure we say ‘Tom’” …it just happened. And I always say this course actually made friends in this course… after I see a lot of them… We’ve been in shows together or in general, we say “hi,” and I’ve never had a course especially not a Gen Ed. You’re like, “Oh, there’s Mike Gold in the back.” It’s like, “Oh, I know, his beliefs. I know his values.” And it was just so exciting having that circle because you could hear and see everyone’s voice, you could see the distinction. And it was just really great having that connection with different students because everyone had different opinions on different topics. So I think that was definitely a strength of the course.

Mya: I actually was really concerned with whether we would be able to have a civil discourse on these kinds of topics and I was so impressed with the class because there were definitely some differences in opinions and some very strong conflicts that happened in the course. But they handled them very well. It was always respectful. And there was always an acknowledgement of the other and their perspective and then just a “Yeah, but I think … and the reason why is because of my experiences…” and we all were open to listening to each other in a way that I’ve not seen in a classroom before.

John: Did you have a class discussion on ground rules for the discussion before the discussions commenced?

MYSA: We did but it was really brief. Honestly, it was like “Respect each other. This is a free space. It is very comfortable, that kind of like general basis…” but I think it happened naturally. Because once a professor sets the tone, you kind of realize what the course can be… what’s appropriate. And I always say there’s some professors who just teach by the book, they don’t really look at the subject material, but I feel like Mya was always ever changing. Always you could tell she had her heart in the class. She always tells her own experiences, but the episode she chose… or next semester she’s going to take this episode out…. And I think it was really genuine having that reflection with the teacher and having her have her own opinions in there, too. It was just really ongoing.

Mya: I think it’s important that students understand that professors are not infallible. And it’s important for professors to present that as well. And again, just be transparent. But if they understand that their opinions matter, which is what I made sure I implemented from day one, then I think they feel more free to voice their opinions.

John: Did it help that you were looking at this through the lens of fictional media, rather than dealing with circumstances that people were directly involved in?

Mya: I think so. I think it creates a sense of distance that makes it…

Ajsa: …comfortable, yeah…

Mya: …a little easier to approach. Yeah, but with all of that subject matter, even though it was fictional, it’s all based in reality, due to the nature of it. And so everyone could relate in some way or form to at least one character in each episode. And it’s like, “Oh, I know that girl,” or “Oh…”

Ajsa: “I am that girl.”

Mya: …”that is me.”

Ajsa: Yeah. I think it was also a great experience because while we had media, we also had our own personal reflections. So it was like a mix. The episode set the tone. So, it wouldn’t be anything to touching… nothing like triggering that we have to like vocally say our experience first. And then after, naturally, people would speak up, and it got to a point that at the end of the semester we all raise our hands. And we all want to talk at the same time because we were just so into it and really involved. And it always felt comfortable to just talk in that class about whatever the subject material was.

Mya: And if for some reason an opposing idea didn’t come up, I would play devil’s advocate. And I really find it important that students are able to form some kind of sense of empathy so that they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, see it from someone else’s perspective. And I always say listen for understanding, not to rebut. So I think they really absorbed all of those lessons and they use them really well in the class.

John: You mentioned that people came in with some strong opinions. Did you see those opinions evolve in response to the dialogue?

Mya: Yes, actually.

Ajsa: Yeah, I did.

Mya: Yeah, that happened a lot.

Ajsa: Yeah, people would vocally say, like, “I never thought about that before. Okay, you’re right. Or they would say, “That’s not my personal view. But I understand where you’re coming from now.” And it was just great, because there’s not many times people will take theirselves out of that out-of-body experience and listen to the other end. So… just a really good experience going through that.

Mya: Yeah, I agree.

Rebecca: I was just re-listening to an episode of Freakonomics about where great ideas come from. And they were talking about some research related to dissonance or people that disagree. And that when you have a room where someone feels comfortable enough to disagree, the ideas and the depth of a conversation or a deliberation like in a jury, considers much more evidence. And so, I think it’s kind of interesting, if you were playing devil’s advocate, if no one had brought up a different point of view, and you brought it up, then that was always present in your classroom. So I wonder if that helped the conversation evolve.

Mya: I think it absolutely helped.

Ajsa: It did.

Mya: Yes.

Ajsa: It was like throwing a wrench… it was so exciting.

Mya: Yeah, and then they had to deal with it, right? Instead of just everybody could pile on… they had to actually deal with the opposing side of things. And we couldn’t just ignore it because we all felt the same way.

Ajsa: Yeah, it’s like a whole theme of the class was once an opinion is said you can’t ignore it. You have to have reaction to it. It just happened naturally. But the whole experience… listening to other people and always valuing everyone’s input… which is such an interesting things in modern society now. I feel like people just talk over each other or don’t really have the time to think about actually what’s going on. So I think it was great having everyone’s voice heard in that class.

Rebecca: So a key learning point was listening?

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: Active listening.

Ajsa: Active Listening.

MYSA: Right? Yeah, it was very clear that listening is not just “You hear it.” [Overtalking] but “You hear it, you process it, you form an opinion on it.” So actively listening to the other… again, for understanding and not just so that you can rebut or prove them wrong or something, but to actually get in their shoes and see it from their point of view, so that I can maybe soften your heart a little bit or expose you to something brand new that you had absolutely no idea about. And that’s why I think the diversity in the class was something that really helped as well. I do wish we would have had more diversity of gender, it was a pretty female heavy course. And there were no non-binary students in the class either. So maybe a little more diversity in that area would be nice. So that we could address some of those topics as well. [Overtalking]

Ajsa: We had a lot of different majors. because it was a gen ed course. There wasn’t any one that was all theater or anything in that sense.

Mya: …and I think it definitely served its purpose. I’m excited to teach it again next fall.,

John: What would you do differently?

MYSA: I feel like I might have missed the boat a little bit on the opportunity to introduce some time-management skills. We did a little bit of that, but I think we could have done a lot more, so I would incorporate more of that. But the biggest change that I have for this next fall coming up, is I’m going to have a TA which I’m really excited about. Yeah, so I recruited someone from the course to assist. I’m actually going to call her a peer mentor instead of a teaching assistant… But I think to have that element of someone who’s sat in that exact same seat, and not too long ago, will really be helpful for the students. Even though I’m pretty good at getting students to feel comfortable with me and open up to me and use me as a resource for absolutely anything, I feel like it is easier for you to talk to someone in your own age, who has a more recent and current experience with the class, the subject matter… the transition into the university. So having that peer mentor component, I think it’s going to really enhance the course and I’m excited about that.

Ajsa: I also feel like you mentioned resources. This course was really heavy in depth of resources on campus. She taught us Blackboard… I never knew about that… That was so in depth learning about that because we had our first journal that was due. We had journals with personal reflections in them. And also we had this whole experience going to the Writing Center, your reflection, one of them was going to an involvement fair. They’re having extra credit if you go to these are in musicals or different productions. It was just really great having that full over the board experience, because I feel like I’ve never had a course taught me the resources on campus, but this one did. And it was really good for freshman.

Mya: Yeah, I think the scavenger hunt really helped with that, would you say?

Ajsa: Um hmm.

Mya: So I sent them to places like the Women’s Center, the library, the Writing Center,

Ajsa: Cooper…

Mya: …literally just everywhere on campus you could think of that has a support component to it for the students. I made sure that they went to those places, just so that they knew there are so many resources on campus. I remember when I was a freshman, first semester and I was just completely overwhelmed. Like “What is this new world?” …because university… it’s very much of a bubble of its own world. And the rules are totally different than what we’re accustomed to from high school. They’re also different than what you’ll experience in the real world….

Ajsa: Yeah.

MYSA: …just to let you know.

John: …unless you choose to stay….

Mya: Unless you stay? That’s true.

John: Which many of us have done.

Mya: Yeah, but just introducing them to all of the awesome opportunities here. And I’m so proud to see them take advantage of those opportunities beyond the classroom Ajsa was just in the main stage production of Fun Home that we did here. She also is in directing scenes, she did them last semester. She’s also doing them this semester. Another one of our students was in Fun Home. Yeah, from that course. Two of the students from that course actually traveled with me to London. So they really are getting exposed to the university. And these great resources and opportunities that we have here, in a way that they wouldn’t have been exposed had they not taken this course.

Ajsa: Just in general, I see them involved in different things. One of them is my Psych class. I just think it’s so exciting having that connection, because it’s not like a regular class… you just had calm… it’s like you actually had to hear each other, so it’s like, these are my friends even if we weren’t close. You just know who they are as people.

Rebecca: Mya, can you talk a little bit about what you learned teaching this course that you’re applying in some of your other courses?

Mya: Yes, absolutely. The major change that I’m making in my other courses is to the syllabus. I’ve learned how important a tool it is, I think before I just kind of looked at it as a necessary evil or something. And the style of my syllabus was totally archaic. I mean, it was literally nothing but words, white piece of paper with black words on it, there’s nothing. But now for this one, I actually incorporated pictures… there’s color… I used a graph to do the grading breakdown. So for my rubric before it was just columns, and these are the assignments these are the points that are allotted, this is what you need to get. But this time I used to color and I put it in a pie graph and I tried to state things as questions. I’ve added a lot more personality to the syllabus than I ever had before. Before, it was just pure facts. This is what you need to do for this. But this time I engaged it in question formatting, so that they would have to think about things that were on the syllabus versus “Oh, this is a bunch of information. I hear it all on the first day. I forget about it. I don’t ever look at it again.” But it was an actual tool that they were able to use in class. And I placed things on there, like little tips for success in the classroom, that they could apply to any class, not just this class. And so hopefully they could use it in their other classes. I also had a form that we use that kind of guided them when they did their reflections on the shows that we watched in class. And I heard from an advisor that one of my students shared it with them and said, I’m using this in my other courses. So that made me say, “Oh, I’ve got to use in my other courses.”

So definitely changing the syllabus to make it a little more welcoming… opening… add a little more of my personality to it… adding some color… some pictures… some visuals… so that it’s exciting. It should excite them instead of make them feel like “Oh, here’s another syllabus, recycle this thing.”

Ajsa: That was our one requirement: to have the syllabus on us. The first day, we went through the whole syllabus and she was teaching us this is what a college syllabus is. And these are the dates. And it was actually so useful because in high school, you have a syllabus that doesn’t mean anything but in college, it’s like yes, this date, that’s your paper, no changing. But this one obviously was ongoing, but it was really exciting having to learn that tool in the course because as freshmen you don’t really realize how important it is. And it was just really great seeing those tips reflecting on it. And I think that’s something that definitely taught me the importance of syllabus.

Mya: Another thing Rebecca… you will be excited about this. I’m going to work on this this summer… is making my syllabi accessible.

Rebecca: Big smiles on my side.

Mya: I know. I knew you would love it. Now, I’m going to come to you for assistance with that as well, because I’m not well versed in how to do that. But I think it is absolutely necessary. And that’s the next steps that I would like to take with all of my classes.

Rebecca: Thumbs up. Ajsa, can you talk a little bit about what you got from the course that you’re using in your other classes?

Ajsa: I definitely understand the whole perspective of hearing everyone’s voice and definitely seeing the other side to any issue… any conflict. I think that’s definitely useful in the real world. And in general, any communication you ever have with any other person… and I think definitely getting involved. Not many courses tell you “These are the resources, please go to them.” And I think this course like Maya was saying definitely gave us all the foot in the right direction and made us all student leaders in a way… and confidence. I think it definitely made us feel comfortable talking and feel comfortable with our values.. our morals, I think it’s definitely something that has taught us growing up in maturity I feel like personally. And of course tools in my other classes like Blackboard and the Writing Center.

Mya: Another element of the entire program, the pilot program was that we do attend these outside of class activities. And so some professors and I got together. These other professors were also teaching first-year signature courses. And we thought, “Okay, how can we combine our courses in one single event?” So we had the Luke Cage event. Do you remember that one?

Ajsa: Yeah, I went. I had a free t shirt… it was great.

Mya: Yeah, it was really great. That was Allison Rank. Jessica Reehar, Margaret Schmull, Amy Bidwell. We all got together and we were like, “Okay, how can we incorporate social justice and the black character on TV and comic books from yours and gender identity from yours and health from yours?” And so we came up with a viewing of an episode of Luke Cage and then a talkback afterwards. And the students in my class all reflected on the event and said, “We felt so prepared for it.” What I noticed is that my students were the ones who were the most engaged in that talk back. And I think it is because it was a very similar format to our class. So they felt empowered. But what was really awesome is that through them speaking up so freely and confidently, you literally saw it trickle off to other people and other students within that audience. And they all started to feel empowered to speak up and quite confident to do so. And it was really a great event and an awesome opportunity for me as a faculty member to engage with other faculty members from other departments that I would never typically get a chance to do something like this. And also for the students to engage with other faculty members from other departments, especially at this young time in their careers here at Oswego. They were introduced to some faculty who now it’s like, “Oh, well, Allison Rank is awesome, I think I’m going to take a class with her.” So it was a really great opportunity for us to introduce these students to some of the other opportunities on campus outside of theater, and outside of these resource and support services, but also these academic opportunities that they could have with fellow faculty members. I really appreciated that we were able to do that. And we’ll do much more of that in the future.

Ajsa: It was actually pretty funny. I sat next to this girl who’s in one of the other courses and she was like, “Oh, my God, I don’t know how to do this. I have to do a paper for this course, with what we’re doing a reflection on. And I was like, “My Professor, she’s right up there.” And I was like, “We do this all the time.” And she’s like “That’s your Professor?” And I was like, “Yeah,“ and she’s like, “Wow, that seems like a great course.” And we’re just having this whole” discussion and I sat a little bit away from my class so I could see all of them. And I was like, “Yeah, all those people talking like in the second row, that’s my whole class.” And I actually saw it trickle down to everyone else. And in the event we also had trail mix being passed around for the health and wellness and there was on it, how you can make this trail mix in the dining hall and how accessible it would be. And it was just such a good experience. You could just tell everyone was like genuinely involved. It’s so authentic and really just good experience all around.

Mya: Yeah, that was Amy Bidwell. She’s “Okay. How do I use my nutrition course in relation to this Luke Cage thing?” and she had that idea of “Oh, we can provide a healthy snack…” and it was a great opportunity to teach the students how you yourself can go make this healthy snack just right here in your residence hall.

John: It also saved on the budget too

Mya: It did. [LAUGHTER]

Ajsa:I just know that personally, in my own life, I always talk about this course and tell everyone and all the theatre students come up to me and they’re like, “I really wanted to take that class with Mya. It sounds great.” And this is my first ever experience with Mya. I never had a theatre course with her it was just this. So I think my experience with her was so different than other theatre students because I saw her more discussion wise and more about like her own values. So, It was such a good experience to see a professor like that. And also my regular students that I tell this course about always like, “That’s a great course. I wish I was a freshman so I could take that course.” So I would love to one day, see it open to everyone. But I also think it’s a really good application for freshmen. It does its job.

Mya: Yeah, I actually had lots of students who were like, “Hey, I want to get in that course… that Blackish Mirror course that I heard about. And I’m like, “Oh, sorry. Only first semester freshman.” …which I think is a necessary part of that formatting because of what it is exactly that we would like them to leave the course with what the…

Ajsa: course objectives

Mya: …course objectives are.

Rebecca: I just heard a student say course objectives

Ajsa: Mya Brown taught me that… that’s how I know what course objectives are.

Mya: Yes, Julie and Scott will love that. [LAUGHTER]

But, see, I think those are the things that you take for granted that are they actually absorbing these kinds of things? So using that first semester to make it very clear and very plain to them… the importance of those things is changing for your experience in university.

Ajsa: Yeah, when I took this course, on the first day, when I said, “Why are you in this course?“ I had a friend in theater department recommend… like, Oh, I was “Do you know anything about this course? I’m just a freshman.” And they were like, “Mya Brown’s teaching that course” and I was like, “Yeah…” and they were like “I didn’t know she had the course… she’s an amazing teacher… take anything Mya Brown has.”

Mya: Aww.

Ajsa: …and I just remember being able to feel like “Yeah, this is a great experience. I don’t know what she’s like in her other classes, but this one was a great experience… always recommend. So I think it’s just nice having such a beloved and caring teacher teach this course because it makes a whole welcome and friendly setting in a….

Mya: I think that’s an absolute necessity in whichever faculty member is teaching, they must have a passion for it. We actually initially started calling this program “passion courses” In the beginning, but then it was like,”Mmmm, I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s appropriate, let’s maybe go away from that.” But it is true that you have to have a passion for the subject matter. And you have to have a passion for reaching young people, and helping them to discover who they are as people so that they can optimize their potential, and then give back to society. If you’re not interested in doing that, you’re just interested in the subject matter, you’re probably not the right person to teach this kind of course. I think you definitely have to have a full investment in the student as a person, not just as a student in your course. Can I help them discover who they are?

Ajsa: It was a really good experience because while she does theater, she was also involved in everyone else also. There were students that were like, “Oh, I’m doing this I’m doing a civil service trip or I just got involved in this position on campus.” And typical “Oh My God, tell me more about it. That sounds great”. It was never just like a focus on a theater driven students it was always focused on everything all across the board, just really inspirational and just really supportive. And I think we can all relate that Maya was our like mom and like support system on campus when we came here and no other professor cares about what you’re doing on campus or how is your dorm life. She always cared.

Mya: Oh, thank you. They made it easy, though. I mean, I just loved this class.

Ajsa: We’re so lovable, yeah.

Mya: And I think if all freshmen could have this kind of experience coming in, it just will increase their chances of graduating… of being successful at the university level… and then taking it beyond university.

Ajsa: Student leaders… the whole aspect.

Mya: I do have an idea for a new course as well, which my rough working title is Revenge of the American Pie. And for this one, I would like to do a survey of films, specifically 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. And the way they are approaching some issues and relationships and what’s appropriate… how that is affecting society. And we’re seeing the results of it now with the “Me too” movement. Women feel like they have to protect themselves and they have to dress a certain way. And they’re taught these things based off of what they see in media. It’s your fault is

Ajsa: …how sexualized they are.

Mya: …if something happens to you… Right, how sexualized they are. And then men are kind of empowered to, or embolden to feel like they can do whatever they want with a woman because of some of these films that we saw early on. And I call it Revenge of the American Pie, because Revenge of the Nerds, and American Pie kind of inspired this look and this survey. So I always try to do a little play on words with the titles. But I really feel like we’re seeing the results now, of those harmful images that we saw in films from the 80s and 90s and early 2000s. We’re seeing the results and the effects of those images. And that messaging that was in some of those movies, we’re seeing that now Again, this Me Too movement era. And I think it’s important that we address that and we have to address it with young impressionable minds because that’s where the change happens. This is why I thought Blackish Mirror was so important. And why I would love to, maybe in the future, do the Revenge of the American Pie. I definitely think that’s really important because a lot of people notice the 80s 90s, mid 2000s are very raunchy and modern days very PC and every once in a while… I don’t get it like back then it was appropriate when it’s like the question is, was it appropriate or was it too much? People don’t ever know the line. Allso, I would love to say about Blackish Mirror was that we never just focused on the black minority, we focused on everything. One of the things we said right off the bat was “You know, you can always notice sexism… you can always notice anything in there… any kind of bias… any kind of minority… feel comfortable talking about it and definitely like the African American everything in a whole sense was a big focus, but we’re always open to anything you want to discuss… always like social norms and social constructs. I definitely feel like this course was over the board just inclusive.

Mya: Yeah, there were several things that we picked up on that were social thinking issues. There was a episode of Benson that we watched…

Ajsa: That’s what I was thinking about.

Mya: Is that the one you’re thinking about?

Ajsa: Yeah.

Mya: And there was lots going on there with gender inequality. Also with some immigration issues that came up… and Blackish Mirror, we used it as this opening to discuss any biases that we saw or social injustices that were present, and how we can reflect on them today. And it was not just “Can you identify these things?” And “Can we reflect on these things?” We took it further and said, “What can you do about these things to impact society?” So the final project was a public service announcement. They had small groups and they identified issues from the episodes that we viewed and discussed throughout the semester. And they then had to choose something as a group that they wanted to address and create a public service announcement to hopefully inspire some change towards that issue. And how do you think that assignment went?

Ajsa: It was so interesting because we had to get cameras from the library. And a lot of us are not media majors, not cinema. So, we’re just like, “How do you wear a camera? Is she like for real?” And it was just such a cool experience, because the product and results were actually really good. They’re great content… we watched them in class. And it was just really interesting where everyone took it and how we didn’t choose our groups… we were put into the groups… so it was like universal thought. It wasn’t one person was leader. You had your friends saying “I’m interested in this.” So are you. This is our group. We had to sit there and kind of spit ball and talk about like, “What do we collectively want?” And that was just a great experience having, and I think it was appropriately challenged. It was definitely something that is intimidating at first and then you do and you’re like, this is doable. This was really great.

Mya: I think that’s what university is. It’s intimidating at first. But then once you get into it, it’s like I can do this. I can totally handle this. I think that that’s like the broader message that they were able to leave the course with is “Yes it might be difficult, but there are support systems… reach out… be confident… and also allow yourself to make mistakes. No one’s perfect. So allow yourself to make some mistakes and understand that you’re not alone in this. I think that’s another thing that was helpful with all of the group work. Nearly everything we did was group work.

Ajsa: Yeah. And also something that I remembered a student said was “Once you have this course, I can never look at media the same. It rewires your brain… You thought to look at it as like a whole inclusive thing because while we look at the episode and expect a minority then we would notice different things of sexism, etc, in it that we would never even pick up on naturally before this course. And I think it really helps open your mind and just makes you better human beings.

John: We always end with the question: What are you doing next? You’ve already addressed some of this, but what are some of your next projects for each of you?

Mya: Well, I am actually going to the University of Michigan for the Fredrickson intensive on rapier dagger training. I’m prepping for next season… I’m directing She Kills Monsters, which is this excellent play about this girl who finds herself in a position where in order to get to know her little sister, who unfortunately passed away, she plays her D&D module, her Dungeons and Dragons module. So she meets her sister in this D&D world. They fight all these monsters… they bond… and it’s this really great look at grief, and how we can overcome it.

Ajsa: Personally, for me, I’m really involved on campus. I’m hoping to be a summer RA this summer. And also I am really involved in the civil service trips. I did one for Alabama. And I built a house in, Alabama and it was great and I’m really getting involved and would love to do another one. So I’m planning that and, in general, I’m just doing all these different aspects that I am involved in on campus and just having this whole touch on campus life. I certainly love that whole aspect.

Rebecca: Great.

John: Thank you for joining us. This was a fun conversation and I’m looking forward to hearing about more iterations of the course in the future.

Mya: Thank you.

Ajsa: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

89. Teaching About Race

Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, Dr. Cyndi Kernahan joins us to discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.

Cyndi is a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Class discussions of race and racism can be difficult for all participants. In this episode, we discuss ways of building a classroom climate in which these issues may be productively explored.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Cyndi Kernahan, a psychology professor and Assistant Dean for Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. She’s also the author of Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor, which will be available from West Virginia University Press in Fall 2019. The book will be part of the Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Series edited by James Lang. Welcome, Cyndi.

Cyndi: Thanks.

John: Welcome. Our teas today are:

Cyndi: I actually I just have water although I am a big tea drinker usually.

Rebecca: I’m drinking golden-tipped English Breakfast tea.

John: That’s a new one.

Rebecca: I know I’m branching out! [LAUGHTER]

John: And I have blueberry green tea today.

Rebecca: We’ve invited you here today to discuss your forthcoming book, Teaching about Race and Racism in the College Class: Notes from a White Professor. Can you tell us a little bit about the book?

Cyndi: Yeah, the book is essentially my answer to a question to my earlier self. So when I started teaching about the psychology of racism about 20 years ago, when I first started here, I felt desperately in need of help, because I’d always wanted to teach about the psychology of racism but it was much more difficult than I anticipated, as most teaching often is. And I was very young and new and I wanted a guidebook and there really wasn’t one. And so I kind of have had it in my mind for a long time and about five years ago, I started thinking seriously about how to do it. So the book is meant to be sort of a guidebook. It’s got both my own experiences, but also a lot of evidence in it. I’m a social psychologist, so there’s a lot of evidence from my field that I think is very easily translatable to the classroom in terms of how to learn and how to think about these issues because they’re hard to teach. It’s hard to teach about racism, I think. There’s a lot of difficulty in it. There’s a lot of evidence and also just sort of my overall philosophy about how we can teach it in compassionate but very honest ways. And so that’s my overall thinking…making sure that you tell the truth but that you tell the truth in a way that doesn’t alienate your students and keeps them engaged, which I think is kind of a can be a difficult line to walk. So, that’s kind of what it’s about. It covers a lot of different things, student resistance, creating a good climate, how to take care of yourself as an instructor when you teach this sort of stuff. But, those are some of the basic ideas.

John: A few years ago, with the election of Obama, there was some people who claimed that we had moved to a post-racial society. I think evidence since then has shown that that hasn’t quite been the case.

Cyndi: Yeah.

John: And I think the book is particularly well timed because these issues are in the forefront with the news all the time. How do you begin to address issues of race in your classes?

Cyndi: First of all, I think that idea of the post-race thing is really interesting, and I see it a lot in students. I mean, I’m just finishing up teaching this class now. We’re in our last week of classes now, it’s finals next week. And when most of my students, most of whom are white, came to the class a lot of them just have this colorblind idea, which is similar to the idea of post-race, like we’re done…sorted that out in the 60s, it’s all good. And it’s obviously not…and so they believe that we’re in this equal playing field, which we’re not really in obviously. And so that’s kind of a starting point. I talk about that in the book, this colorblind ideology that most Americans share. The first order of business is sort of getting through that. And so there’s, I think, two main things that most students and most people (especially white people) need to understand. One is that colorblindness isn’t really possible, even though we think it should be the norm, it’s not really the ideal. So that’s one thing, but then also that there is this larger structure of what people in my field would call institutional racism or structural racism. And that’s the piece that I think most white people, most students don’t really get: that racism is not as people said, individual acts of meanness, it’s also these bigger things that affect us that we don’t think about. That’s usually where I start. We talked about what race is and what it’s not, what institutional racism is, and what it’s not. So I think that mostly answers your question as to where we start.

John: And that feeling of colorblindness is that more unique to white students, perhaps than students of color?

Cyndi: I think it’s more unique, but it’s not exclusive to white students. Students of color can often struggle with that understanding of institutional racism, and structural and cultural racism, as well. If you look at attitude surveys, it’s not unusual for people of color to say that they don’t necessarily see it in institutional or structural terms. Or you’ll see surveys, they’ll ask, “What’s more important? Individual behavior or institutional laws and policies?” And almost all Americans with the exception of really recent immigrants and Native Americans, I think, say that the individual behavior is more important. And as a social psychologist, I would say, actually they’re both important. But as far as what impacts your life more, it’s those big, broad institutional, cultural stuff. So I think white students are more likely, but not only.

John: How do you make students more aware of those issues? How can you help get them past that notion of color blindness?

Cyndi: One answer is a lot of evidence, but it’s how you deliver that evidence. My usual way to try to get these things across is to combine a lot of statistical evidence, a lot of broad evidence, with stories and examples that are representative. So I try really hard in my content, like I don’t just cover a bunch of psychology experiments, and I don’t just cover statistics. I try to have that together with individual stories of people’s experiences. And I also think discussion is really key. So I don’t lecture in this course, really much at all. I’ll do some mini-lectures. But, that’s never the main thing that I’m doing because I think it’s really important for them to read, and then come to class and process all that stuff. Because the number one thing that happens, again going back to the misconceptions they come in with, is that they realize that there’s all this stuff that they didn’t know. So we cover a lot of history, for example, and there’s all this history of how we got to the racial categories that we have now that they’re just like, “No one told me this.” And they need to hear other students say that too. That’s part of also creating that climate is like, “Oh, I’m not weird or stupid for not knowing this. All these other people didn’t know it either.” And we talked a lot about, “It makes sense that you wouldn’t know because we don’t really teach it in our K-12 system very well for most students.” So, I think it’s a bunch of things. I think it’s what the content looks like, it’s how the class is structured, it’s how the evidence is presented. I think all those things matter.

Rebecca: Many faculty members avoid talking about race, especially in classes that are not about race specifically.

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: So can you address maybe why faculty do that, and how to help faculty overcome that fear?

Cyndi: I think fear is the main reason. And there’s different types of fear. One is: I don’t want to be the bad guy and I don’t want to be confrontational, which is understandable. Many years ago, I was talking to a friend of mine who taught in our English department, and she was teaching something called ethnic film and literature. And at the time, I was coordinating ethnic studies, and I really wanted her to teach that class again so that I could get it back into the rotation. And she just told me…we were at a party and she said, “I’m not teaching that anymore.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because I have to fight with them about whether or not racism is a real thing. And I don’t want to do that anymore.” She didn’t want to put up with the resistance, essentially. And she didn’t want to have to be what she felt like was the bad guy to deal with that resistance. And so I think that’s a big piece of it. If I try to tell students the truth about this stuff, they’re just going to resist and then I’m going to have to deal with that discomfort. And that’s a real fear, particularly for instructors of color. I mean, they’re all these national examples, right? …of people getting called out by their universities for basically just telling the truth in their classes and trying to teach institutional racism. The most famous example was Shannon Gibney over at Minneapolis Community and Technical College near where I live, and she was officially reprimanded by her University, basically for teaching what I teach, because she was getting pushback from white students, essentially. So I think that’s part of it. Also, it creates a lot of dissonance in students which was related to the resistance, so knowing how to deal with that dissonance can help students feel okay about themselves even as they recognize that they hold a lot of these beliefs and they haven’t really been very critical about it. So I think that all those things, all those types of fears play into why you don’t see people covering it.

Rebecca: How do you suggest maybe faculty get over that or feel prepared for that resistance or can actually deal with that in the classroom and not feel shocked or distressed or overwhelmed.

Cyndi: The big key, I think, is being prepared and feeling like you know how to talk about it. I’ve also heard a lot of instructors say, “I don’t feel like I have enough knowledge.” For white instructors, they feel like they don’t have the right or the credibility to talk about it. So that’s sort of an issue, and for instructors of color, there’s a whole other set of things. If you look at the research for them, there’s just a ton of microaggressions that they often have to deal with. They’re also seen as not being credible purveyors of this information. So that’s an issue. So I think just a couple things: one being as prepared as possible. So knowing your subject really well…being clear that when you teach the class, you’re gonna be clear with the students like, this is the evidence we’re going to use. So you’re not coming at it, like it’s all people’s personal experiences or opinions. That I think is where it gets especially hard. But if you know that, you’re going to come back to this scholarly base of evidence that usually makes most of us more comfortable, because that’s how we roll. …and people had this misunderstanding of teaching about race: “Well, it’s all just opinion.” I once had a student say, “How could you possibly give us a test on this? I mean, it’s just all people’s opinions.” I was like, “No, not quite. [LAUGHTER] There’s definitely evidence there. There’s psychology, there’s sociology, and there’s history and we’re going to use all of those things.” So I think that part of it is knowing that you have this common base of information. And also knowing what to expect…how to deal with the resistance, knowing what the resistance looks like, I have a whole chapter on what resistance looks like and how it manifests in white students versus students of color and how to think about it and how to deal with it. So I think that can be helpful too.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about maybe one or two ways that we tend to see resistance and a couple of strategies that we might be able to use to overcome that?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think, in general, what you see with the research is that white students tend to be more resistant than students of color in general. They tend to be more vocal about it than students of color. One sort of broad distinction you sometimes see is that students of color are more likely to leave if they’re the minority in the classroom. So, if you have mostly white students (which is a lot of what I deal with, and maybe I have a few students of color), you might get more passive resistance on the part of the students of color, they sort of withdraw a little bit more, because they don’t want to be the one student saying things in the class and then being really looked at or targeted in that way. And for white students, they just tend to be more comfortable speaking up about this, particularly in the primarily white environments. So I think the ways to get around resistance are: 1. always sort of coming back to the evidence that you’re using. And if you set the table at the beginning of the class that can usually work so you can come back to: “Okay, here’s what we’re going to focus on.” So for example, I’ve had students say in class, when we talk about wealth disparities or something, they might bring up a particular person that they know who doesn’t fit that. And so what I found is useful as I don’t fight with them about whether or not their story is true. I don’t know the wealth of this individual family of color. So if I tell you that the wealth disparity is like 10 times… white families have on average 10 times the wealth that black families have…and they say, “No, no, there’s this one family I know. And they’re, they’re really, really rich…,” you know, as sort of an anecdotal thing. That’s a way you see resistance manifest, right? And so instead of arguing back and forth about whether or not that family is rich, which is useless, you can just undercut that and talk about the general wealth disparity. So, that’s one way to do it. That’s obviously pretty mild resistance. If you have consistently students questioning evidence, which doesn’t happen as much as you might think, bt it can happen, but it can happen, then I sometimes will take that out of class. For students of color, the way I try to work with the resistance you often see there, which is that sort of passive withdrawal because again, they don’t want to be targeted within a predominantly white classroom, one technique I use is to send an email really early in the semester that says something along the lines of, “We’re going to be talking about racism all semester. Your classmates may look to you to be a representative, just know that I know that you don’t need to do that. That’s not your job. And I’m not going to expect that of you, because I want to try to make those students especially feel as safe as possible. And I also recognize too, I reinforce to them: “I’m a scholarly expert on this. But this is your lived experience and I recognize that. Not saying that one is better than the other, but just I see you and I see that your experience is going to be different than the white students in the class. And so that’s the way I try to short circuit that withdrawal from class as much as possible. And most students, at least so far, have appreciated that…and also just acknowledging way up front that this is going to be new to you. You’re going to be uncomfortable, I put it in the syllabus: “You’re going to feel uncomfortable, this is not comfortable stuff to talk about, and so just know that it’s coming.” So those are a few things.

John: Do you recommend having the class come up with rules of engagement or discussion on these issues.

Cyndi: I definitely do. I mean, I have some that I think are important, but I let them drive that discussion. And then I add them in if I feel like maybe they’ve missed them, or something. And I usually have them. Actually, I think I learned this from an earlier version of your podcasts, someone was on talking about having the students working groups to develop their rules of engagement. And so I did a little bit of that on the first day this semester, let them talk about it in small groups before we talked about it in large groups. And then I just take a picture of what those agreed upon discussion groups are and I post them up on Canvas, so that that way they can come back to them. Yeah, we have a whole discussion about discussion: about what it should look like in our class, how we want to engage. One big question we always talk about is do you want to raise your hands or just talk? How do you want to handle somebody upset? They always think it’s going to be more contentious than it actually is, at least so far in my experience. I haven’t had a whole bunch of anger or confrontation. So that’s been so far that’s worked well.

Rebecca: What are some of the consequences of not dealing with race specifically in classes or subject matter that doesn’t directly indicate that race is going to be a part of the conversation? So we often hear this from faculty in math or science, or I would even say in my area of design where it’s not obvious that race might be something that should be discussed. What are the consequences of completely avoiding it?

Cyndi: Well, obviously it marginalizes it. So, it turns it into something that only some people can do. Only some people can cover these topics, only some people are allowed to on some level. And it’s interesting you ask that because this has come up on my campus in the last couple of years in a couple of different ways. Because we have, I don’t know if you all have it, a diversity requirement, but we do. So we have one course, American Cultural Diversity, that students are supposed to take. And there’s been sort of a…fight is a strong word, but…argument over who should be teaching those courses. And I don’t think just anyone should be teaching them. But I do think people can develop an expertise within their own field. So for example, I have a colleague (and we have a very big agriculture college on my campus), and she teaches soil science and crop production and all that sort of thing. So that’s an area where you think, where’s the race going to be that but it’s deeply in it because she’s teaching these future farmers and folks working in that industry. And there’s so many immigrants that work in farming. So she developed and she developed the expertise on this. And she developed a class on immigration…migrant farm workers, essentially. She and I talked about that course many times when she was in the process of developing and starting to teach it. She teaches it regularly. And I think the advantage of that is that, for the students who are majoring in that college, that’s going to feel very relevant for them. And so again, I think people have to develop some expertise to do it, and then they need some tools for how to teach it. But we all need tools for how to teach it because it’s hard. So, I think it’s important because it allows people to be more motivated to see how it relates to their specific field. I also have a colleague in math, who has talked a lot about trying to develop some courses around race and whiteness and math. You may recall, there was a math professor, I think, in Illinois, who was writing about white privilege and math and got a lot of haters online, essentially. Basically a really good scholarly analysis about the way white privilege works in math. And that stuff is really useful for students. It helps them connect in ways that are relevant to them.

John: You mentioned using narrative. While evidence is useful, it doesn’t always reach all of the students. I’ve been teaching about discrimination in my labor economics classes for decades. And it’s remarkable how resistant people are to facts. Because they rely on the sort of narratives: “My third cousin twice removed is this exceptional case. And it means all this evidence is wrong.” But you mentioned using narrative perhaps in a constructive way to help students understand that. Could you give us some examples of that?

Cyndi: Yeah, sure. Like the example that pops to mind right away was a really powerful piece that I used this semester on black maternal death rates, you may know that they’re wildly disparate, right? There’s a huge health disparities when it comes to race and healthcare. And so there was a really nice piece that was actually in the New York Times Magazine. That was this really good combination of a personal story of one woman and her experience. She lost a baby and then she was pregnant again and dealing with that… and there have been all these famous cases. Serena Williams most famously talked about her complications during birth and not being believed by doctors. So this piece was really great because they both had her story but then woven into it, it was a really well written piece. It had all the statistics, the differences…And the students…I gave it to them over a two-day period, because it was pretty long, and we discussed it for two days. And I just used it as this larger example of implicit bias in the healthcare industry. And these larger statistics on the disparities, the wealth gap…it illustrated a bunch of things that we had already covered. And the students loved it. It was hard for them to read, but they were very engaged with it. And some of the questions I got were excellent. And I’ll just say, too, I think one important thing is that when you come into a discussion, it’s really important to have a base to discuss with. And so, every day they have to read and post questions. I don’t give like reading quizzes, but they have to post questions so that I know that they read or at least mostly read, and I grade them. Because if you don’t do that, then your discussion is not good at all. If people don’t have a base of evidence to work from, you’re not going to get anywhere. And so those types of materials…I’m always looking for them…where they have that combo of the broad statistics and also the individual stories…and yeah, I know economics, it’s really tough to get those pieces. It’s the same for psychology can be really hard to find, but they’re useful.

John: Well, certainly in immigration and discrimination in labor markets, there’s a lot of examples out there and lots of good content.

Cyndi: Yeah, there definitely is. You just got to always be on the lookout.

Rebecca: So, what happens when it’s a conversation where the discussion point wasn’t going to be race, but then it becomes race. There isn’t a piece that you’re going to discuss ahead of time. But it pops up in conversation, it needs to be addressed. Do you have any strategies for handling those more impromptu situations that occur?

Cyndi: Well, for me, I think I always go back to then, either being honest that I don’t know enough to comment on it. What that question makes me think of are when students will bring up current examples, either that I don’t know or that I don’t know enough about. And so I will always try if I can to find some relevant psychological data or evidence or sociological data or evidence that I can bring it back to. And there have been times when if current events are happening, and I feel like I don’t know enough, I’ll just say, I don’t think we know enough. So if we have time, maybe we all spend a few minutes on our phones trying to find some information and you can do that right in class sometimes. But I always see myself as sort of a guide in terms of helping them sort through what the larger patterns are in terms of that evidence. And I think if you create a decent enough climate where they trust you, that usually can work. But yeah, the impromptu stuff can be tough, particularly if it’s not your area. I think that’s where, again, being prepared is hard. And I think you can just say, if this isn’t your area, like, “Let me go and find some more. Let me go find some stuff out and then we’ll come back to it.”

John: On dealing with things in the moment, how would you recommend people respond if someone makes a comment that somewhat racist without realizing the impact of that?

Cyndi: A really good example of that happened actually in a colleague’s classroom on campus this semester, and he called me after it. I forget what the term was, but a student had used a term in class that he found offensive and he was pretty sure other students found offensive and he didn’t really deal with it in the moment. And so he called me and asked what I thought. And I think one of the strongest ways to deal with that is, oftentimes, students don’t realize or people don’t realize that a turn might be offensive, or it might seem offensive. And so a lot of times, and what I advised him (and he said, it worked pretty well) is to go into those conversations, discussing it in terms of kind of a growth mindset idea. You know, here’s this term that was used…it’s offensive for some folks, but some folks might not understand why and then maybe talking about why that is. The word “colored” gets used a lot… “colored people.” And it makes sense in some ways that white students now who are very young wouldn’t know that that was an offensive term in the 50s and 60s. And so they use that term because they hear people say, people of color and then so colored people seems like a normal permutation of that, right? But it’s really not. It has this very unique history and so you could talk about how “Here’s this history that you may not have understood. And here’s this term that people didn’t use to describe themselves, it was used about them. And so that’s part of what makes it offensive.” And it’s normal that language changes and it evolves. And there’s plenty of examples you can bring up around that, like we talked in my classes about the word queer and the way that shifted over time…and language evolves…and so just sort of accepting that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re probably going to say things that might be offensive, but what’s the mindset that you bring to that? Do you bring the mindset that it’s normal, and you’ll figure it out, and you have to make your classroom safe for that too. So that it’s not like people are being called out and told that they’re saying the wrong word. We talked a lot in class about the difference between willful ignorance, like, “I know it’s wrong, but I’m gonna say it anyway” and just ignorance…like just really not knowing and coming out that and I give examples of my own, like times I screwed up…things I’ve said that were wrong, as a way to help them see that you’re never finished. I’ve been doing this for like 20 years, and I still make mistakes. I think that helps.

John: When you’re setting the classroom discussion rules, would that be a good time to bring that up?

Cyndi: Yeah, I think so. I think that you could, you could talk about expecting people to make mistakes. In the rule setting phase, you can talk about not expecting perfection, and how people will make mistakes and that’s all right, and ways to sort of come back from that, and gently talk about it rather than calling people out.

Rebecca: How do you handle microaggressions or other behaviors that might happen in class, that aren’t just like a word or whatever, but it’s something that’s happening or you see a pattern of behavior with a particular student. And maybe it’s something that you feel like you need to handle one on one. How do you usually handle those kinds of conversations?

Cyndi: Dealing with those. It’s usually much better one on one, because again, just like anybody, if you if you were to call someone out in class, then you’re likely to just get defensiveness and nobody’s going to be able to hear it. So what I’ve done in the past has been to talk to students one on one rather than to frame it as “You’re a bad person for doing this,” it’s like, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern that I’m seeing. This is how I think it could be perceived” …and then just listening to what you hear. And you have to have a fair amount of trust with a student to be able to do that. But in general, I think whenever it comes to talking about someone’s racist behavior, it’s always better to focus on the behavior rather than the person. This is why when you hear national conversations about is that person a racist, I always want to throw my radio or my phone or whatever because it’s so frustrating to hear it framed in that way. “Is someone a racist?” is not a useful question. And I never quite sure what that means, because the goalposts always move, in terms of like how we think about what that word means. So, instead, focusing on the behavior, this is the pattern I’m seeing this is a problem. And I think if you’re in a moment where (this would be less with students, but more with colleagues) where you’re seeing this happen, and it’s directed at a person who has a lot less power in that moment… so like, a person of color, for example…you could step in and say, “This is what I’m seeing, and this is how I think about it.” So you’re not putting it on the person who was maybe the target of it. But you are saying in that moment, I see this and I see that this is a problem. That can be harder to do and less with students, I think more with colleagues. But, in general, it’s just sort of noting that it’s happening and being honest about it without necessarily saying you’re a bad person for doing this.

John: Last fall, we had a reading group addressing some of these issues. And one of the issues that came up in a lot of discussions is how to address these issues with colleagues, particularly those who are evaluating you for retention, promotion, and similar issues…

Rebecca: or hiring…

Cyndi: That is so hard when someone is in a position of power. Because if you’re the job candidate, there’s just no way that you’re going to be able, in that moment, to be able to do that.

John: What if you’re a junior faculty member on, for example, a recruitment committee and you observe comments or behavior that seems to be biased in some way. What would you suggest to a faculty member in that position?

Cyndi: I think you could go back to the sort of something called micro resistance. And there’s been a little bit written about this. In terms of how to deal with it, again, not making it about the person but just saying like, this is what I’m hearing, this is what I’m seeing. This is how I feel about it. And so you make it more about yourself. In extreme situations, and I’ve certainly been in them and seen them, you could go to other people that you trust on the committee and say, “This is what I’m seeing. This is what I’m hearing.” This is slightly different, but I had a slightly different but I had a student come to me last week and say that she’s in another course. And she’s hearing this from an instructor. And so then I was able to go to that department chair and say, what’s happening? So, I think using your mentors, using your colleagues, if you’re in that lower-power position; and if you’re in a higher-power position in those same spaces, try not to make the target responsible for that. If you’re a man, and you’re seeing sexism, it’s useful to just call that out. And again, not calling the person out, but just saying, “This is what I’m seeing. This is the pattern.” We talked about this actually, there’s an interesting anecdote in my class this last week. We were talking about this micro resistance thing and one of the students is a softball player and she’s on the softball team. According to her, there’s one black softball player on the team and everybody else is white. And, according to my student, whenever racist things will come up, like, they’ll all look at the black student to ask her “Is this okay?” And we talked in class about like, maybe that’s not fair to put that on the student of color. This white student feels like she really wants to be an ally, like she really wants to be an advocate. So we talked about, well, maybe you just say what you think about it, rather than asking her “Is it okay?” or going to her afterwards and saying, “Do you feel okay about this?” Because what is she going to say in that moment? I mean, she’s in the minority…the black student is, and so I think that can be a useful way to think about it too, because a lot of times we want the person who’s lower in power to like, excuse it and make it okay. And that’s really not fair. And I think it happens just because people don’t think about the power dynamics at all. They just don’t think about it. It doesn’t occur to them. And so trying to be more intentional about what is the power in this situation and trying to be more fair.

John: One of the issues if there’s a small number of minorities in a class, one potential issue might be stereotype threat. What are the consequences of that? And how can we address that perhaps by making it a more supportive environment?

Cyndi: Yeah, stereotype threat is really interesting. I know a lot about this. Actually, I’ve given lots of workshops on this, in addition to like implicit bias and stuff, too. And it’s a real problem. The consequences are…they’re sort of short term and long term. So the short-term consequences of stereotype threat is that you have students who underperform. So in a test situation or on a writing assignment, where you have a student who is feeling stereotype threat as a result of race or gender or social class. And so then it just create that extra layer of anxiety and stress, essentially. And it’s not always apparent. And you don’t necessarily know that that’s what you’re experiencing. But we know from the neuroscience research that, you just have less working memory in those moments because of stereotype threat. And so the short-term threat is that you underperform. The long-term consequence is that students disengage from the area altogether. So this is why we hear.…I’ve heard it so many times from my female advisees…“I’m not a math person. I’m not a science person. And I think it happens in art as well. I don’t know about design specifically…

Rebecca: um hmm.

Cyndi: …but you’ll get like, I’m not an art person. I’m not creative.

Rebecca: I can’t draw.

CUNDI: I can’t draw, yeah, that’s it. That one’s, I think, less about race, maybe a little bit more about gender, but it’s a very similar thing of like, “I don’t feel like I can do this. I’m not creative.” And so I’m just going to withdraw from it altogether. And so you see what Claude Steele calls dis-identification. So I’m just going to dis-identify with that field. It’s just not my thing. I’m going to go get my self esteem somewhere else. And obviously, that has serious consequences if the thing you’re dis-identifying with is school altogether. And so that’s why we see this underperformance over time with students of color and with women in math and science. The ways to get around that…there are a few. There’s a whole set of interventions that social psychologists have developed that can be really powerful. I guess I would send listeners to the mindset network web page. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that. It’s mindsetscholarsnetwork.org. But it’s a bunch of social psychologists who have gotten together to create these really pretty low-cost interventions around increasing belonging…using values affirmations… Utility value is another one…growth mindset. There’s a bunch of them and there’s a little tweaks that you can do in your classes to help that. The other big intervention, and you can sort of call that active pedagogy. So there’s really good research that the more active your class is, that’s going to be good for everybody. But, it’s especially good for your students of color your first-generation students and your students who are women in math and science and engineering courses, where they’re more likely to feel that thread. That as an intervention itself is really great. There’s a ton of really nice discussions of that, and studies of that that you can find in terms of active pedagogy being an inclusive pedagogy. Because, in general, you want students to have a sense of belonging and you want them to feel included, and that’s going to help to undercut that, because really all stereotype threat is about is about a lack of trust. So everybody thinks it’s a lack of confidence in the student. It’s not. They don’t trust the environment to be fair, and so that’s why they disengage and they pull back. And so you want to you want to do everything you can to keep that trust.

John: …and they build more of a sense of community with their fellow students.

Cyndi: Absolutely.

John: I’m going to our conference in a few weeks, and one of the activities there is something called “sip and paint.” A friend of mine tried to convince me to do that. And my reaction was “No, the last time I painted I think I was seven years old.” [LAUGHTER] So, there’s a gender issue perhaps with the artwork thing.

Cyndi: Creativity. Yeah.

John: You mentioned implicit bias. My labor classes are online and one of the things I do is I have them take some of the Implicit Association tests, and then discuss them. And they tend to be pretty comfortable discussing many of them, but they tend to be much less comfortable discussing race.

Cyndi: Oh yeah.

John: But one of the things that led to some really good discussions are the associations between gender and careers.

Cyndi: Yeah.

John: And a lot of female students remark on how surprised they are that they associate women with home activities and men with careers. But, one of the things I note from the students who tend to perhaps have the more resistant attitudes towards facts in general, from other discussions, is that they tend to question the tests themselves and say, it’s clearly set up to demonstrate a bias when that bias really doesn’t exist. And those students are really hard to reach and we can keep giving them facts. But I’ve never been completely successful in getting through that barrier, at least in any one course. Any suggestions?

Cyndi: It’s really tough. As a social psychologist, I feel pretty comfortable talking about the Implicit Association test, but it is really hard to describe well, so that’s one problem with it, because you try to explain “No, no, like 25 years of research…” When I still had paper versions of the literature, I gotta bring in my big giant folder and I just sort of slap it on the desk and be like, “They’ve been studying this since 1995. But, like you said, the facts don’t always help. One thing I think that helps with them understanding implicit associations, is to depersonalize i… and I have some great podcast and book suggestions and article suggestions on how to help them understand what implicit associations are. But really, it’s not about them as a bad person. And that is one way I found to get at it. There’s a phrase that gets used by Mahzarin Banaji, who was one of the test co-creators and she talks about implicit associations as the thumbprint of the culture, which is really accurate, you know. So it’s not you’re a bad person, you have implicit bias… like, we all have it and it’s the thumbprint of the culture. You’ve been learning since you were a baby, what’s associated? what’s good and what’s bad? I mean, it really is that crude. It is your brain saying, “This group is bad. This group is good” over and over and over again, you get those messages. So if you can de-personalize it, I think that can help a lot. I have found that using the podcasts that I have on it, and some of the more newsy articles and they cite the researchers, that can be really helpful, too. But yeah, it’s they want to criticize the test all day long. I’ve gotten to where I don’t have them take the test until after they have a decent grounding in the science because they’re very resistant to the idea. They think the test just sucks.

John: At least those who have their preconceptions not confirmed in the way they’d like them to.

Cyndi: Yeah, because again, they think this means I’m a bad person. They think it’s the racism test. There’s a King of the Hill episode. I don’t know if y’all have ever seen that show, but I used to love that show. And there’s an episode where Hank has to go take the racism test, because he’s worried that his dog is racist or something. I can’t remember the full thing of the story. But, that episode is one of my favorites because it’s like, “Okay, let’s see if he’s racist.” But, that’s not the way it works, folks. I’ll have students sometimes say like, “We should just have all cops and all teachers and all judges take this test. And then we’d know who to hire…” and I’m like, “There’d be nobody left. There wouldn’t be enough people left to do all these jobs.” And I think if you talk about it in that way, it can make it so that it’s not a moral failing, which is, I think, why they’re so resistant.

Rebecca: I’ve done something as a follow up to doing some of the tests in my classes where I had students look at their portfolio of design work, and just see who was represented in the materials that they made. And what they usually do is discover that either it’s a lot of people that are just like them, or that it’s white and young….

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: …which some of the people in the class may not fit that particular group, but that’s what they’ve still represented. And that helps a lot, because we talk about, “Well, it’s easier to design for a group of people that you’re around all the time, perhaps”

Cyndi: Yeah.

Rebecca: Or, You know, know what, like this particular population, maybe preferences, if that’s a group that you’re a member of. And that sometimes helps too because it kind of breaks down some of the total ownership or blaming a student for something. It becomes more of that cultural identity piece.

Cyndi: Yeah, you can ask them, like, “Who’s most of your friends? Who’s in your environment?” I have them write journal entries all semester. I don’t say “Go find the racism and tell me about it” I just say like, ”Just tell me what you observe in terms of both race and gender.” Just like “What do you see? Who’s doing what jobs? Who’s in what space?” and that helps them too to start to see the stuff that they just sort of take for granted, because it’s the water that we all swim in. We’re all very segregated. And so I think it’s good for students to recognize that and then how that plays itself out in who you select to design, for example, and who comes into your consciousness. So again, thumbprint of the culture rather than moral failing…bad person.

Rebecca: I also do an activity in my capstone class where I ask students like, who are there five designers that inspire them, and then I end up with a pretty small list when we aggregate all of them together. And then I say, I’m going to ask this question again later in the semester, and I expect these lists to be really different. [LAUGHTER]

Cyndi: Yeah, that’s good…makes them explicitly think about it.

John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?

Cyndi: I want to write more about these issues. What I really want to do is run some workshops for faculty. I’ve done a couple. Most of my workshops have been on stereotype threat and
implicit bias. So I would like to run more workshops on this topic in particular, like how do you teach about racism rather than teaching inclusively. That’s fun to talk about too. But how do you how do you teach about race and racism? I would love to do more of that. And I would also like to write more about these issues. Because I think it’s hard to do. And so I would like to just have more conversation. I’m also hoping eventually to maybe write a different book about inclusive pedagogy. We’ll see. I’m not sure. it’s a ways off.

John: And when is your book coming out?

Cyndi: It’s supposed to be November, I believe, November or December.

Rebecca: Well, I know that will probably have a line of people now that really want to make sure they get their hands on your book, because…

Cyndi: I hope so.

Rebecca: …there’s a lot of books that deal with these issues conceptually, but not in a practical way.

Cyndi: I could not find a lot on teaching about it. Like I said, I wanted the guide that I wish I had for myself 20 years ago, but I there’s just there’s not a ton. There’s a lot of good chapters on it in some edited books, but there wasn’t a lot that had sort of an overarching idea. So that’s what I wanted to try to do.

John: We were looking for that just last year. So, we will have it on pre-order very soon.

Rebecca: Yeah, Definitely.

Cyndi: Cool. Thanks.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This was really great.

Cyndi: Yeah, thanks so much for asking.

John: Thank you.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

88. School Partnerships

What does it mean to have a collaborative learning community inclusive of faculty, professionals in the field, and current students? In this episode Dr. Christine Walsh and Kara Shore join us to explore one such partnership that is rich in mentorship, professional development, and mutual respect that could serve as a model for other schools and programs.

Christine is a visiting assistant professor and professional development liaison in the curriculum and instruction department at SUNY Oswego. Kara is a Principal at Leighton elementary school here in Oswego.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: What does it mean to have a collaborative learning community inclusive of faculty, professionals in the field, and current students? In this episode we explore one such partnership that is rich in mentorship, professional development, and mutual respect that could serve as a model for other schools and programs.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guests today are Dr. Christine Walsh and Kara Shore. Christine is a visiting assistant professor and professional development liaison in the curriculum and instruction department at SUNY Oswego. Kara is a Principal at Leighton elementary school here in Oswego. Welcome.

Kara: Thank you.

Christine: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Kara: Sweet tea…

Christine: …and Jasmine tea.

Rebecca: Those sound good.

John: Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have Christmas tea in July.

John: So we’ve invited you here to discuss the partnership between the Curriculum and Instruction department at SUNY Oswego and Leighton Elementary School. Tell us a little bit about that program and how it got started.

Christine: Sure, I’ll start. SUNY Oswego’s School of Education has a long standing relationship with Oswego City School District. I came to the college in 1990 and we had already been working together in preparation of high quality teachers, both elementary teachers and secondary teachers…. teachers in the school district except our in-service students for practicum for student teaching placements. And so in the 90s, we began a PDS—Professional Development School—partnership across Oswego County, and Oswego City School District has really been at the forefront of that since the 90s. I’ve been the PDS liaison here for about 10 years and so it just makes sense to continue enriching that partnership in many different ways. And this is our third year now in the Leighton-Fitzhugh learning community and it really is reaching its richest quality at this point, and in part because of Kara coming in as principal there.

Kara: Thank you, Chris, for saying that—for me when I came in three years ago, really got off the ground running as far as starting this partnership. And we did some planning in the first summer that I came. And really what we talked about was, and these are kind of Chris’s words I’ll use—how can we make it clinically rich—was the term that she used and, kind of thinking about that as we go forward, how can we make it so that our student teachers, or rather the student teachers that come to us from SUNY Oswego, how can we make it so that they are really getting all the experiences that they would have once they’re hired as a teacher? And so we know that from being teachers ourselves that six to eight weeks of student teaching and maybe some practicum hours is certainly helpful in that goal, but it’s really not seeing the whole picture of really what happens in a school day to day and so that’s really kind of where we started from. And then it was all the details that we had to get situated so that we can make sure that it was clinically enriched for those students that were coming into the program.

Christine: The superintendent in the Oswego district now, Dean Goewey, actually approached people in our President’s office here at the college and he said, “What can we do to really cement this relationship to go beyond what other districts are doing with SUNY Oswego School of Ed, to honor a clinically rich experience for undergrads for pre-service teachers, and bring professional development in for in-service teachers?” And so he kind of has a vision of this very strong collaborative learning community. And he said, “I’m going to give a classroom in Leighton elementary school to SUNY Oswego. This is going to be a dedicated room. The technology belongs to SUNY, the equipment, the furniture belongs to SUNY, faculty from SUNY will teach their courses there.” And so our students now take courses right at Leighton—their three education courses in the fall are right at Leighton—so we bring their faculty in to meet Kara’s faculty and staff. They’re an integral part of the professional development we do with teachers, our pre-service candidates are a part of our professional development now which in other districts, pre-service teachers really don’t become a part of professional development—they’re just taking their coursework—but we like to see the two populations together, send the same messages to both groups, and it is a true learning community. We sit down every month, and all the planning is collaborative. And in those ways, it’s really become so much richer than we expected.

Kara: And really, by the students being part of that professional development, they are able to have that professional development and their classes right on our campus at Leighton and then they’re able to take that learning and go right into the classroom. So it’s not removed by a few days or a few weeks, it can happen right away. So, as we know with all learning, you can put it into practice right away, you have a better chance of solidifying what it is that you’ll be doing when you’re working with the children.

Rebecca: What do our students say about that experience of taking classes at Leighton and then being able to have that direct experience in the classroom?

Christine: I do want to start off by saying that we’ve morphed from the Leighton learning community into the Leighton-Fitzhugh learning community, because Leighton is a relatively small building now that the district office is housed there and we had so many pre-service candidates interested in being in the program, we now rely on the Fitzhugh elementary school right down the road, and the principal and teachers there are very much a part of this learning community too. And so our candidates take their classes and go right into the classrooms at Leighton or they jump in their car and they go right into classrooms at Fitzhugh and it’s seamless for them. I think they appreciate that they’re not just on campus. They know that they need to learn as much from people in schools as they’re learning from people at the college and without one of those partners, they’re not getting a really true learning experience and a realistic learning experience. We need the K-12 setting for teacher preparation, and we feel they need us in many ways as well. And so it’s not an either-or situation, I think we respect the whole package and our students now, we can see the light bulbs going off for the pre-service teachers. And they go right from class where they hear about this particular theory or method of instruction, and then they go right into their host teachers classroom and they work with children for so many more hours than what our state ed requires for teacher prep and they see it happening and they say “No, I really don’t like how that’s working,” and they question it and they really are more critical thinkers because they’re in the schools more. So they’ve got that theory-practice connection down pat.

Kara: And I would say that just my own experience as a student teacher way back when, I would have never thought to go into the principal’s office. I don’t think I remember who the principals were in the places that I was put into as a practicum student and/or student teacher. And really, I have connections with those students. So not only are they working with us day to day, they really become part of our staff in everything that they do. They’re eating lunch in the same places the teachers are eating their lunch, often. Sometimes they’re in their own classroom, so the college classroom rather so that they can have their privacy but a lot of times they’re right with our teachers even down to eating their lunch. I have parent meetings and when I have parent meetings with students, they are part of those meetings. We have CSE meetings which are special education meetings, we have open house, all those things that invite our parents in to speak with us about their children, and now these pre-service teachers, these student teachers from SUNY Oswego, they are all a part of that process. So I really get to know them as well as they get to know me so I think that’s a big distinction between what we would normally see if students are just doing those six weeks.

Rebecca: I can imagine that most students don’t think of going to the principal’s office because that would be a bad thing. [LAUGHTER]

Kara: That’s right. That’s right and we’ve got to change that, right? That paradigm shift on that. So it’s very true, it’s very true.

John: It seems like a much richer experience than they typically would receive in in-service teaching where they’re just there for a few days or portion of days each week with much more immersion in a much more realistic environment.

Christine: Absolutely. Right from the beginning, we know that the college culture and climate is so different from what we live in the schools. Our schedules are different, our calendars are different, the whole energy is different in these two settings. And so it’s so interesting to work with one foot in both places, and our candidates too, they need to be flexible because things don’t always go as planned when they’re out in the schools or when they’re at the college and they have to juggle more things on a regular basis than a typical practicum student or student teacher, but we think that’s a good thing because they have the support there. They have the support from more college people in that same location, they have support from the building principal, the host teachers in that building. It is a real learning community because there’s no hierarchy and that’s a model that I think is so important for new teachers to grasp… that it doesn’t have to be that we have to have a boss or a boss of a boss and that teachers are leaders and they need to be able to connect and communicate with administrators, teachers, it doesn’t matter what your title is. And I’m finding in our learning community, we really have that communication without the fear of hierarchical constraints, which happens in a lot of places.

Kara: Yeah, and I’m really glad you mentioned that Chris—to kind of backtrack a little bit what you said a few minutes ago—it’s that professionalism. It’s understanding what it is you need to do when you walk into a school building and how you need to carry yourself. And sometimes that’s not something we might learn in a college class. But it just becomes natural because they see everyone around them and they experience what everyone else is doing. And so because of that, it just sort of happens on its own, which is, I think that and of itself, if I’m going to interview some candidates in the summer, and I’m interviewing candidates that really had those experiences and they can talk about those experiences, that interview is going to look a lot different than just someone that’s kind of talking to me about maybe theory that they have learned in a classroom. Not that that’s a bad thing—that’s a really good thing and an important thing—but if they can actually talk about how they put that into practice, that learning that happened in the classroom, that’s going to be a real strong candidate that I know is ready to go and is ready to work with whatever students come in front of them.

Rebecca: I can imagine that in a lot of disciplines, not just education, that students have a mental model of whatever the discipline or whatever the job is going to be that’s very different from what it actually is and in part because their experience of it may be from a consumer point of view or as a student rather than as a faculty member. It’s the different side of the coin. Or maybe they have pictures of what that might be from media, which doesn’t include all of the nuance that we actually experience in our jobs. So I can really imagine how much being immersed in that way can really help them understand the interconnectedness and how all these pieces work together rather than thinking, “Here’s my little hole that I’m going to exist in.” rather than realizing that everything’s connected and that you do have to adjust based on other people, bigger picture things, strategies that are being used within the entire school rather than just in a particular classroom, et cetera.

Kara: Yeah, and I think you find out very quickly if this is what you want to do. There’s lots of articles out there, lots of data, that shows that there’s a lot of teacher burnout, and so in trying to be proactive around that, I think this is one of the ways that we do that because I think students come out and they really know, “Is this for me, is this what I have passion for? Is this what I want to be doing for the next 20 years?” So I think it really gives them that guidance as well.

Christine: It’s not an easy job, not at all. Sometimes when you’re sitting on campus in a college class and you’re studying, you’re reading out of a book, you’re reading articles, you’re reading current literature, you’re talking theories, you’re talking methods, without the practical context to connect it to, and not just a short time that you’re in this context, but you’re really—like you were saying—you’re immersed in this context over and over and over, that’s when connections are going to be made. And so those practices inform both what we do at the college, and then we reflect on what’s happening, and that informs hopefully what the public schools are doing and how they can change.

John: One of the things you mentioned was the professional development aspect of this for teachers in the school. Could you tell us more about that program and how that works?

Christine: This fall, for example, we start out with a cohort of practical students. It is the semester before they student teach. We bring them out. We start in August, the schools don’t start until September, so we have a little bit of time to meet them, work with them. We’ve already recruited host teachers that we’d like to match them with, and we have an orientation at the beginning of that semester because hearing expectations right from the beginning in the school, that they are expected to do this work in has been found to be super valuable. So host teachers hear what the expectations are for their work with our candidates. Candidates hear expectations, not only from our principal, but the PDS liaisons and their professors that semester so everyone’s on the same page for this whole semester. This is what we expect our experience to be like. This is what our requirements are. This is what professionalism looks like in a public school versus walking around a college campus in terms of behavior, dress, social media. I love this work because we take the elephant right out of the room right from day one. There are no questions about what is expected in a public school classroom with children. And in this day and age, you have to be extra, extra cautious, careful, explicit. And it’s different from hanging around a college campus for four years.

Kara: Right, and we’ve been fortunate the last couple of years—maybe even three—but I think it’s been the last couple of years, we’ve been able to invite those pre-service teachers when we have opening day for staff. They’ve been a part of that. So we’ve done some team building exercises and just really get to know each other and that’s what we kind of do when we come back as a staff just to say hi to everyone, and “Welcome back, and how was your summer? And how did things go? And what’s something you’d like to talk about that you’d like to celebrate? What are some goals for the beginning of the school year? What are you thinking?” And they’re all a part of that. So not only are they getting to know our staff,as far as pedagogy goes, but they’re also getting to know our staff as, “What are your interests? What are our interests? What do we have in common?” And I think that’s critically important. As we work with students—no matter what grade level you work with students—making connections with students, we know how important that is. We know that that’s always been important, but we know that in 2019, it’s extra important that we are making relationships with kids. And so the teachers themselves are learning how to do that with these pre-service teachers and they’re learning how to do it back with their host teachers so that when students come into the room when school starts, they’re ready to do that. They’re ready to make those relationships from day one because they’ve already practiced that in the summer.

Rebecca: What a great way to have everyone feel included. I think that sometimes the internships, pre-service teachers, kind of drop-in drop-out like they don’t ever feel fully integrated or included and it sounds really great that when your staff come back, they’re all a part of the same thing.

Kara: Yes. And a perfect example of that is that when our student teachers are out sometimes—because we all are out sometimes, we all get sick sometimes—the students are asking where they are. They asked me were those pre-service teachers are. That would have never happened in the past so I think that’s a great concrete example of how much the kids really start to depend on them being in the classroom.

Rebecca: Can you elaborate a little bit more on what your students get from our college students being present so frequently?

Kara: Sure, absolutely. So we sort of know as teachers and buildings that the more that we can differentiate what students are learning, meaning the more that we can give them experiences and they can actually work with and be concrete… let me give you an example. Let’s say we’re getting ready for our science fair. And so for our science fair, typically, we would have one classroom teacher, we might have a teaching assistant in a room, and we might have anywhere between 20 and 25 students. So you can imagine that the teacher kind of goes through, “This is what needs to be on your poster board.” But then the students have to work independently. They usually will have a rubric and they can go through that rubric and they can look at all the things that should be on the poster board. And then when they’re all done with the finished product, the teacher might rotate around the room, they’re finished with the product. The teacher sort of goes over with them what that looks like. That’s fine, except for you are an end product and you hope it all went well. Okay. But with other student teachers in the room from SUNY Oswego, they are working with kids, two and three kids at a time, and they’re really helping them through that process. So by the time they have a finished product—for example, a science fair project—those students are really able to talk about what it is that they went through when they were learning it. And the student teachers—pre-service teachers—are able to really talk about where students started, and where that growth came from and as they went along, what that looked like. And that’s very different than just saying, “I’m the teacher standing in front of the room, this is what you’re going to learn, and then I’m going to grade you on this product of what I think you should have learned,” versus actually doing it and being a part of the process. So certainly they are doing that every single day and that’s across all disciplines. That’s in social studies, that’s in math, that’s in science, that’s in ELA. Also, we’re able to really take our reading groups, we’re really able to look at data and say, “These are the two or three students that really need this extra support. Now we have that person to give them that extra support.” So great to look at data—very important—but if you don’t have the staffing to then support that, when those students need that extra help, that what happens is kids get into groups, and so you might have a group of six or seven students and they’re still this high and low. That all goes away because we have those extra students that are able to do that and able to teach that reading just like alongside with the supervision of the teacher, of course, but they’re able to really work independently with those students and give them what they really need.

Rebecca: So, much more personalized learning is happening.

Kara: Absolutely.

Christine: We hear stories all the time from the host teachers at Leighton and Fitzhugh, about how much more they can accomplish in a lesson or in a given day. Some of our students even before student teaching, our college students are there three full days a week and taking courses. And so they get to see the children from when they get off the bus until when they get back on the bus at the end of the day, up to three full days a week. And so we watch them go from full-time college student to semi-professional, and then through student teaching into a full professional life—and it’s a really beautiful transformation within a year, their last year of college. But without this setting and without the collaboration, those stories wouldn’t be coming out and the richness really wouldn’t be there. But the professional development is a big part of that. We have a list of PD offerings every semester for host teachers and candidates. It begins with the orientation that we talked about, the opening day for teachers that Kara talked about that our candidates are invited to every year, and then we do something called instructional rounds where our candidates and classroom teachers are invited to do a lesson study. Two of Kara’s teachers had volunteered to do demonstration lessons for their colleagues and our candidates. And so we structure a data collection tool where we’re looking for specific pieces of instruction and elements of classroom learning and teaching and we literally go in and observe the teacher and then we debrief with the teacher afterwards, and it’s a really great form of professional development. Our candidates learn a lot, the in-service teachers, the practicing teachers learn a lot about their own teaching, “What am I doing? What am I not doing? How could I do that better?” And then they can start using their colleagues as resources. Many say, “Gee, I didn’t know you knew how to do that. How did you learn how to do that? Can you teach me how to do that?” So the learning community really is just bolstered by all the PD that we offer to both schools.

Kara: YEAH, And I’m really glad you said that, Chris, because that’s something that I have found to be just really, really an important piece of all this is that often, once we become practitioners out there in the field, we kind of go with what we learn and go with what we think we do well and that’s how that works. And so having that growth mindset, that growth model, is something that we know we should be as teachers. We should be lifelong learners, but how do we actually do that? And so by having that PD, instead of being told, “This is going to be the flavor of the week that we’re going to do for this month,” or “This school year, this is what we’re going to do, and we’re all going to jump on board, and this is how we’re going to teach reading,” let’s say for example. And we do it and certainly we’re good about following through and being good soldiers, but we don’t really know why we do it. And we don’t really know if we’ve grown because we don’t have that time to really reflect. This really gives us that opportunity to do that. An example I have of that is one of the professors Dr. Duffy, who is a professor here at SUNY Oswego. She did some PD around spelling and she did it with the adults—including myself—and there were things that we didn’t know. So we know as adults that we know how to read, but we didn’t really know why we knew how to read or how to read, and so the students really almost knew more than we knew, because they had been learning it and for them, it wasn’t anything that had to be retaught or relearned. And so we actually were reaching out to them for them to help us so that we could be working with the students. And that’s magical. That dynamic is not going to happen in any other setting, that we as the practitioners would be reaching out to the pre-service teachers. So I think that’s a good example of something that really, what we learn is going right into the classroom and how it’s a partnership, not, “I’m the supervisor and you’re sort of the student.” It’s really that partnership. That’s just I think a good example of that.

Rebecca: It sounds like really powerful interdependence. That doesn’t always happen.

Kara: Absolutely.

Christine: It is now. I think it has grown to be that.

Rebecca: Yeah, I can imagine things don’t always start that way. You have to really get to know and trust.

Christine: Trust is a huge part. If we go back three years, I remember walking into Kara’s office and introducing myself. “I’m your PS liaison!” “Oh, okay. Nice to meet you.” It was her very first month on the Leighton campus and, “I have a classroom in your building,” and “Let’s go see my classroom,” and it’s very awkward. It is awkward because it’s brand new for both of us, we don’t know each other, we think that we understand the vision, but it hasn’t really been created yet. All the pieces haven’t been thought through and it’s up to us to create whatever it is. And so it’s exciting and a little scary and weird all at the same time.

Kara: I would agree. We all come from a different place and so we all prioritize differently and I think what we had to do is we had to get in sync with that and have an understanding of the other person’s role and perspective. And I think that’s where we’ve all shown growth so that we can really provide the best model possible for those students that are coming in to learn from us.

Rebecca: It already sounds a lot, like really rich and deep and full of trust so I can imagine that it will continue getting even more rich as your partnership grows over time.

John: And it’s really convenient how close Leighton is to the college. It’s less than two miles away, so students can even walk there and back.

Kara: Yes, absolutely. In fact, I have—this is aside—but we have two students from SUNY Oswego that are part of our AmeriCorps program, and one of the students actually walks from campus so that makes a big difference that students have that accessibility.

Rebecca: So you’ve talked a little bit about the professional development aspect and the relationship that the campus has with providing some professional development opportunities for existing teachers at Leighton and Fitzhugh. Can you talk a little bit more about how that works?

Christine: Sure. We have ongoing professional development based on what our planning committee has decided the teachers would like and what our candidates like and need, and so the planning is always collaborative and then we have a semester long—or year long plan even—but it’s always grounded in what the district has set as their strategic plan, their initiatives. And so because we’ve been a part of Oswego City School District for so many years, we have relationships with people in the district office, in the buildings, we know that they have had two initiatives going on really for the last several years: explicit direct instruction and trauma-based teaching. And then recently they brought in an early literacy initiative that’s across the county. But one great thing about the Leighton-Fitzhugh learning community is that we really zero in on those initiatives. We don’t want our candidates learning things that aren’t going to be useful once they come into their practicum and student teaching. So for example, we have right now, mindfulness classes being offered—not only at Leighton and Fitzhugh but we’ve extended beyond to other buildings in the district. Oswego High School and Oswego Middle School had been involved in those courses for a number of years. We have yoga being taught in three of the buildings in Oswego City School District at no cost to the teachers here, these are all college professional development opportunities that we would like to provide and continue providing to help the district meet their goals. We do PD usually once a semester on giving and receiving quality feedback. So we know one of the sticky points of being in a relationship with a pre-service teacher, for the classroom teacher, is they’ve been dealing with children for many, many years. They haven’t necessarily been communicating with adults in an evaluative or critical thinking kind of way, and so we know the host teachers really are in a position to help our candidates in constructive ways. We don’t want them to be overly critical, but they have to be able to say when they see something going on, “I’d like to sit down and talk about this,” and really hit the nail on the head with that. And at the same time, our candidates—as they mature and become professionals—they have to have the language and the courage to go to the principal or go to the host teacher and say, “I’m really struggling with such and such, can you help me with this?” So giving and receiving quality feedback is a topic for PD that we’ve done a number of times. Co-teaching is a PD that we offer that’s very successful too.

Kara: I think just to add to that, Chris, I think that when the students and the teachers are working together to problem solve through what’s going on when they’re in the classroom, they can always refer back to those experiences that they’ve had during those PD sessions. So it’s not only that it works well when they’re working with students, but it also helps them work together as a team because truly, once the student has been there—I would say after their first or second practicum experience and they’re really part of that pre-service teaching mode—they really are doing that planning with the teacher. And so to be able to have those skills of feedback like Chris had said, is really important because often there isn’t enough time in the day to do that once you’ve started teaching. Once you’re live, you’re live. So to be able to do that ahead of time and even know what questions to ask, or what feedback to give, or why that would even be important, I don’t think is something we would have done before, and now it’s just part of our routine.

Rebecca: That just sounds really great.

John: It does, and one of the things I really like about it.. you mentioned the growth mindset idea. But when our students are there working with teachers and seeing that they’re going through professional development with them, I would think that would help build a growth mindset and help encourage them to become lifelong learners and realize that this is an ongoing process. That’s a really nice aspect of the program.

Christine: Absolutely. For too long we’ve seen such a division between what we experience in a teacher ed program on campus and what the real job looks like, feels like, demands of us, and really we have broken down a lot of that. We’re not completely there yet—we have a lot of work still to do—but for public school people to respect the contributions of teacher educators and for us to respect the jobs, the intense super-demanding jobs of classroom teachers and principals and then to bring all of that together, I think that’s where the power is.

Kara: I think it really forces us to reflect as practitioners because you have these folks around that are really depending on you and looking up to you and watching and we are modeling for them. And so really being able to talk about that, it’s one thing to be doing the job, but after you’ve done it for a while, you don’t so much really talk about it with anyone anymore. But really, that conversation has to happen so that it is rich for those students when they come into our building. So, it helps us be better I think, too, because we want to make sure that we’re doing right by our students that come in.

Christine: It heightens the professionalism just by having us in the building. And it helps us question how and why we do what we do. And we are watching them in action—it forces them to do the same. What are they seeing right now? And what are they thinking about what they’re seeing? And then we come together and talk about what we’re all seeing.

Kara: You have to be willing to be vulnerable to grow and I think that’s a big piece. And I can’t say enough for my staff that really has taken students and really, that’s the word I would use would to be vulnerable, that they really kind of put themselves out there so that the students will be able to go and teach thousands of students for years to come, which is really the ultimate goal… to be able to do that and to be able to give back to their community. Often many of them stay right here in Oswego and that’s really another one of the initiatives that the superintendent is looking at is, “How do we keep our community vibrant? And how do we keep students going?” And I think that’s definitely a piece of that.

Christine: In one of our PDs we invite the HR, the personnel director from Oswego City Schools in for a few minutes so that she can show our candidates how to apply for substitute teaching positions in the district. And it is quite a process, to go through the online application to come in for the interview, to become Board of Education approved. And so our candidates have to want to substitute teach to go through that whole process. But there’s such a shortage right now of high-quality substitute teachers everywhere we look. And so we feel at the college that we want to help address that problem by encouraging our candidates to apply to sub, get board approved. They’re very happy that they can then make some money and then be present in the school more if they could substitute teach and be present in their classrooms more than what they’re required to be. That’s the best marriage of all. We’re really helping both institutions with it. And we do have several board approved candidates in both buildings right now getting great subbing experience.

Kara: I would agree and I think that it really gives them a sense of value. Often they come in and out of fairness to the student teachers—the pre-service teachers, I know I keep using those words interchangeably—but I think that it’s a big commitment for them, and Chris kind of alluded to that. They really have to set their own lives aside to make this commitment because they are spending so much time with us. And I think it validates all of their hard work that we would trust that they could sub and they could be with those students. I think that gives them a sense of confidence and a sense of competency that the work that they have been doing is certainly the same kind of work that they’ll be doing when they’re out in their profession,—hopefully—a few months down the road once they graduate and get a position. So it’s about can you do the job, but also we know in teaching that you psychologically you have to be present all the time and you have to give 100 percent to the kids all the time. They expect that, they need that, they deserve that. And I think for our pre-service teachers to be able to actually do that, and to develop their own style, that’s another piece that you don’t necessarily get with the six weeks. But with us, they have learned what their own style is and how they’re going to go about managing a classroom and teaching the students in front of them.

Rebecca: I can imagine, especially in teaching teachers, but also in other areas that you’re teaching professionals. I’m a graphic designer, I teach graphic designers, which is also a professional degree, that the more you interact and integrate with the profession and know what’s going on and know what the challenges are, the better you can instruct your students and adjust the curriculum in higher ed to better serve what students are actually going to need in the field. So I can imagine, Chris, that being so embedded in the district right now in the way that this program is working, that you’ve learned a ton about how we should be educating future teachers, and have you had any adjustments to the curriculum as a result?

Christine: Well, I think that I am in a unique position being at the college full time and part of my load being out in schools. And so I do bring a lot of information to both groups as I learn it. I bring observations to both groups. I think that’s the only way good change can happen is if we keep those lines open and keep watching and learning from each other. We do have a ways to go, I think. Ideas are kind of popping in my head right now about ways in the future that we could really start bringing college folks and public school people together. Years and years ago I wrote a grant so that half of my load at the college could be covered and I taught a half day every day in a sixth grade ELA classroom in Oswego County with an ELA teacher. We co-taught every day and then on Fridays, I brought my literacy students out to that building to watch us co-teach and then debrief our literacy lesson afterwards. And it was ages ago that that happened, but I still think “Wow, how could we really start learning from each other in very practical ways, and then bring that back to our respective roles? So has our curriculum changed? I think it is starting to. We have a strong link with state education (as do public schools), our standards are changing, state ed regs are changing, what they require of for certification for our in-service teachers it’s constantly changing, and so we have to be in communication with CiTi BOCES, with public schools, with state ed, we can’t be isolated. And we have to keep reaching out and seeing that the schools are continually reaching out to us to be partners in that. So, taking a look at a syllabus, for example, and let’s sit around the table and we’re all looking at a copy of the same syllabus for a methods of instruction course. And all the eyes looking at that document are coming at it with a different lens and wow, what a conversation that would be. “Well, I think the new teacher should have this and this and this in there,” and other people think, “Oh, no, we don’t need as much of this as we have. Let’s take it out,” and just getting into those deep, professional discussions about what’s the most important thing for new teachers to know. I hope that we can keep going in that direction.

Kara: And I think as students go back to their professors, and talk about their assignments and what it is that they’re doing and give their experiences, I think that plants some seeds, and I think that’s what we can hope for going forward.

Christine: One of our methods professors said to me recently, “After I taught this course the first time, I looked at it and said, ‘You know what, they don’t need two research projects. They’re out in the field, they’re out with children all the time. I’m going to cut one of those out. I’m just going to do one research project and get rid of the other one and let them do some action research in the classroom.” Teachers are collecting data all the time on many different things. They’re observing kids in so many different ways and so that’s the research that is valuable, that we can learn so much from. We need books, we need articles, we need current research studies on teaching and learning. But we need action research that’s going on every day with kids in classrooms, too.

John: I noticed in an article on your arrival here that you had done some work at NORAD, before moving into teaching. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Kara: Sure. Yes, I was in the Air Force and I actually was stationed in Colorado Springs, Colorado, it was about 1990, 1991, and I actually got to work in NORAD. And so that’s where we tracked Santa Claus. So, when I first came to Oswego and they asked the questions around what makes you unique and so we always kind of talk about, “Yeah, I worked inside of a mountain and we track Santa Claus.” And certainly, the United States Air Force does other things besides track Santa Claus there, but certainly it’s all about that problem solving. So when I was in the Air Force, very much there is always an end result. And we don’t give up and we have to figure out a way. There is no “Oh, it didn’t work out. We’ll try better next time.” It’s “We’ll keep working at it till it does work out.” And I think there’s some real same sort of ideas here when we talk about this partnership, that we keep growing and we keep learning, we keep problem solving, and that we don’t give up. Because think about how sad the children would be if Santa Claus didn’t come, right? and NORAD failed… So we want to do the same, think about how our children would fail if we weren’t doing our very best for them every day in a school setting. So, I think they definitely are the same in that way and I think the other thing is that when I was certainly working there, really it’s about how can we do things smarter, how can we do things differently, so that we can still get the same result but we’re not getting “stuck in the weeds” as they say, and I think that we did that at NORAD and I think we certainly are doing that with this program. What are those things that are critical and key to making it—like Chris has always said—that clinically rich environment for our students, for the students of the campus, for all the practitioners that are working with them? So, I would say those are the two things that are alike. No Santa Claus that Leighton though, but while I’m still working on it. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Sightings coming soon.

Kara: Yes, right, sightings coming soon. That’s right.

John: Although apparently there’s Christmas Tea in July.

Rebecca: Yeah, well, you know… hey…

Kara: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

Rebecca: We always wrap up by asking what’s next?

Christine: Oh my goodness, we have a wonderful cohort coming in in the Fall, I can’t wait to meet them. I’m just excited to keep going into classrooms and seeing the work that our candidates are able to do. We did not have as high enough expectations of them until we began rich partnerships in schools. These candidates are able to do so much more before they even come student teaching than we ever imagined that they could and so capturing that, capturing concrete ways that they are growing in ways that we’re affecting the children in the elementary school—Kara says we’re not going to stop until we figure this out—we need tangible evidence that this is powerful and that it’s working. We know that it is, it’s not just anecdotal, so we want to look at it through a research lens.

Kara: Right. And I think that the way that we do that is that trust that Chris talked about earlier. I think the more we and/or the way we continue to have that trust with each other, the more we’re going to be able to talk about what’s working well, what are some things that we might want to do differently, and what does that look like? And then let’s actually try it, let’s not just talk about it, but let’s really put it into practice and then see what happens. If we have to take a step back, then we do. But if we don’t, then we know that this is something going forward that we can kind of put in our toolbox.

Rebecca: Sounds really exciting. Thank you so much for spending some time with us and telling us about this partnership.

Christine: You’re welcome.

Kara: Thank you for having us.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

87. Social Presence in Online Courses

Interactions between students and faculty in online classes are mediated through a digital interface. Students are more successful in classes, though, when they feel connected to their instructor and classmates. In this episode, Allegra Davis Hanna and Misty Wilson-Merhtens explore a variety of methods that can increase the social presence of all participants in online courses.

Allegra is an English professor and the department chair of English and Humanities at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. Misty is a history professor and social sciences chair at Tarrant County College. Allegra and Misty have been running The Profess-Hers Podcast since October 2018.

Show Notes

John: Interactions between students and faculty in online classes are mediated through a digital interface. Students are more successful in classes, though, when they feel connected to their instructor and classmates. In this episode, we explore a variety of methods that can increase the social presence of all participants in online courses.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guests today are Allegra Davis Hanna and Misty Wilson-Merhtens. Allegra is an English professor and the department chair of English and Humanities at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas. Misty is a history professor and social sciences chair at Tarrant County College. Allegra and Misty have been running The Profess-Hers Podcast since October 2018.

John: Welcome.

Allegra: Thank you.

Misty: Thanks for having us.

John: Our teas today are…are you drinking tea?

Allegra: I am drinking Earl Grey tea.

Misty: I didn’t know tea was a requirement. I have coffee. [LAUGHTER]

John: Someone hasn’t listened to our podcast. [LAUGHTER]

Misty: Sorry!

Rebecca: We have this debate all the time. Nobody’s ever drinking tea with us. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: I am!

Rebecca: So I appreciate it, yeah. We appreciate that there’s coffee drinkers in the world too.

Allegra: Yeah.

Rebecca: I’m drinking Christmas Tea today.

John: And I have Ginger Peach Black tea.

We’ve invited you here to talk a little bit about social presence in online instruction. While listening to one of your podcasts a while back, I heard you were presenting on this at a conference in Texas. Could you tell us a little bit about the importance of social presence in online instruction and what social presence is?

Allegra: Social presence is everything that’s non-instructional in an online class. And when we give this presentation, we start by saying, “I know what you’re thinking… that everything in an online class should be instructional. But everything in a face-to-face class is not instructional.” Everything that makes you seem like a real live human person with likes, dislikes, and interest is social presence. So there’s kind of two layers. One is the social presence of the faculty member, so that’s showing your students that you’re a real person, and the other is allowing students to create social presence so that your classroom becomes a community of learning and a place where students feel like they belong and can relate to each other both in the curriculum and outside of the curriculum. There are lots of strategies that faculty use to create online presence and so that’s really the focus of our presentations that we gave four or five times a semester at various conferences, some in Texas and some not in Texas. We went to Las Vegas, Colorado, and then a few places in Texas.

Rebecca: Can you give a couple of examples of social presence in an online environment, like specific ones?

Allegra: Oh, yeah, I can give you a lot. So, if you think about your in-person students, your in-person students get to see your face and facial expressions, they get to see your nonverbal cues, your body language, they get to hear your voice and your inflection, your tone of voice, and they get a sense of your personality. They know if you’re a funny or a not funny person and they know if you’re a serious or not so serious person. They see your office, they see your book bag, they see what kind of books that you have on your bookshelf, and your students get to see you make and correct mistakes when you’re speaking and when you’re writing, and so they get a sense of you as a real person. And so we try to teach our faculty to replicate the same kinds of experiences in an online class. And some specific ways of doing that, like the basic critical thing that you have to have is you have to let students know how long it will take you to respond to them and that reduces anxiety. Even if your answer is sometimes it takes me two days to respond to emails, letting students know what to expect, is absolutely critical. Obviously, I would recommend that you don’t take 48 hours to respond to student questions, but letting them know what your timeline is. And if you say, “I’m traveling this week, so I’m going to take a little bit longer to respond” … just to let them know and ease their anxiety. And it’s fine to say I’m traveling because again, you’re letting them know that you’re a real person and you have things that you do in your life. You need some kind of substitute for facial cues and personality indicators so we, on our campus, are really big advocates for bitmojis which are…

Misty: um….some people are…

Allegra: Misty doesn’t like them. [LAUGHTER] Misty is a very serious person. But some of us are really big advocates for bitmojis, which are like little avatars you can make of yourself. I use them all over my class, and a lot of people do. And if you want to make one, you just go to bitmoji.com, or you can download the app on your phone. You can download one that’s a little avatar view that says, “It’s Tuesday,” and then you can post it an announcement on Tuesday. And they have some reading books and things like that, that you can post in your class. Some people just use emojis and some people use words as substitutes for facial cues. Like they’ll just say, “JK” for “just kidding” or something like that.

Misty: And some of us use pictures. So my announcements have a lot of pictures of me at historical places… such as those me at Independence Hall.

Allegra: As Misty pointed out, we’re not all the same. And we definitely don’t advocate that all faculty take the exact same steps because the whole point is to show that you’re a real person, and so it should be authentic…

Misty: …and individual.

Allegra: In my introduction video, it’s really goofy and elaborate. And I show a picture of my child, I show them the books that I’m reading, I show them a picture of me on vacation. And some people aren’t comfortable sharing that much information with students and so it has to be authentic and it has to speak to who you are as a person. Because the point is letting your students know how approachable you are and what kind of person you are and what kind of professor you are. Whatever works for you is what will work for your students. And students are very, very savvy when it comes to being genuine and they know when a person is being inauthentic. They always can tell when a person is being fake. So it’s really what is most authentic for the instructor. And of course, beyond the basics, we have lots of things that we do training sessions on to teach faculty how to increase social presence incrementally, because we don’t say you have to completely revolutionize your class. But those are the basics.

John: You mentioned videos. I happen to have seen your intro video, and it’s really well done. And if you don’t mind, we’ll share a link to that in the show notes.

Allegra: Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

John:Do you use other videos in the class to provide feedback or instruction or other aspects?

Allegra: Absolutely.

Misty: For my class I have a lot of historical videos a little more like history.com, and they are more like me narrating and I use historical pictures and backgrounds and maps. And I know Allegra’s are a little bit more personalized than mine.

Allegra: I actually don’t use video. I don’t create video for my classes. My classes use curated videos from places like Ted-Ed. I use a lot of audio. We make a podcast, and I edit the audio for the podcast. And so I do a lot of audio for my classes. So my students can download… they’re like five-minute mp3s and they’re lesson introductions. When we start a new lesson on plot or on writing a research paper, I give them a rundown of what’s important as an mp3 file. Students could, if they wanted to, download that file and listen to it on their phones. I don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that. But when they open the class up in Blackboard, there’s just a play button so they can choose to read it, they can choose to listen to it, or they could choose to do both.

John: So you meet accessibility requirements.

Allegra: Yeah, and our instructional designers tell us it’s better to have a script. So, if you make a video or an audio file, just to start with a script and then you automatically have a transcript. And of course I find myself, as I’m talking, changing a little bit of what I’m saying or adding in an example or changing the way I wrote something. And so it’s really easy to go back and make five little changes. And then I have a transcript and I don’t have to transcript it after I do it. Plus, it sounds better if it’s planned out and it’s written and it’s scripted. We have a video studio on our campus because we’re a fully online campus. So we have a video studio for faculty to come and make videos. And the one thing our instructional designers say is, “Come with a script. Even if we change it, you need a script,” It helps take out a lot of the pauses and the “ums.” If you’re really nervous it helps to have a script, it kind of eases your anxiety…

Misty: …and it helps with your pacing.

Allegra: Absolutely. You don’t know in the moment whether you’re rambling or whether you’re on point. So if you have a script and you can stick to it, it makes it a higher quality video and of course easier to transcript for accessibility.

John: Do you use some type of teleprompter or big screen behind the camera,

Allegra: They have an iPad that’s dedicated to teleprompting, and they have an app on there. So they load up the word file and it, I don’t know how exactly how it works… but yeah.

Misty: So it flips it like a mirror, and it paces with you. And I have a tendency to talk really fast. So they’ll always say, “Slow down.” If the words are going too fast, they aren’t going to understand you.

Allegra: Yeah.

John: On most of the apps, you can adjust the speed as well. I’ve used Teleprompt+3… and there’s another one I’ve just heard about, I don’t remember the name, that actually syncs to your voice so it will recognize your voice and pause when you get to a new place or will keep up with you.

Misty: That’s what we use.

Allegra: Oh, wow… that’s cool, but kind of creepy. [LAUGHTER}

Rebecca: So social presence is really important to the learning. I think sometimes faculty don’t necessarily think of all these little details that aren’t part of the curriculum as being important. So can you talk a little bit about how students knowing you as an individual, and knowing that you’re a real person, impacts how they learn or how they perceive the class as a whole?

Misty: The first is it’s a requirement that students and faculty are interactive in a course. As you had on your podcast in April or May I think, someone was talking about the federal regulations for regular and substantive interaction. And so that’s where we start with faculty. I say, “This is not me being like a touchy-feely, Kumbaya faculty member. This is me telling you, you have to be interactive with your students or we could lose federal financial aid funding, not to mention that our accrediting body would also have a problem with you running a course that isn’t interactive.” Beyond that, it is important to students that they feel like they can reach out to you. And that’s the number one thing students say back to us when they watch our introductory videos, or they listen to a few of my audio files. They say, “I feel like you’re a real person, I feel more comfortable sending you an email.” And they also say that it really matters to them because they can tell that we took a lot of time to make these things for the course. Or they can see that we’re spending a lot of time corresponding with them in the course. And it matters to them. They take note of the fact that we’re doing what they perceive as going above and beyond. They say, “I really appreciate that. Because not everybody’s doing that.”

Allegra: The thing I get in my student reviews that I really like hearing online is, “I can tell she cares about us…”

Misty: Yeah.

Allegra: “I can tell that she cares that we’re learning.” And I think when I first started teaching online, I didn’t know how to do that effectively. And I get that pretty commonly now in my student evaluations.

Rebecca: Can you elaborate on that a little bit and talk about some of the things that faculty often miss or don’t do when they first start teaching online. Or where you found that you’ve tweaked things to get a little bit better at this.

Misty: Some of them are really, really easy. So welcome announcements, having a “start here” area on your online class so that students know exactly where to go when they first open it. Remembering that everybody’s online class looks different and students who are fully online students, which is about a third of our students, they’re taking four different online classes that all look and feel differently. So helping them with navigation and making things redundant. One thing that’s really easy that makes a huge difference with very high impact is using announcements. I post at least one announcement a week. I tell my students at the beginning of the semester, “You’re probably going to get tired of the announcements but you’ll also get used to them.” And so I use announcements, to remind them, things that are coming up that are due, to congratulate them on finishing a big project. If several people are commenting on the same thing in the discussion board, I might make an announcement and say “This is a really good topic of conversation and here are some things I want to point out.” I might say, “Everybody go read so and so’s point in the discussion board because I think it’s really, really important to the discussion.” I use them for keeping everybody on track and say, “We’re moving toward this big project, here are the things you want to keep in mind.” And if students are making a common error, if they’re six or seven students are making the same mistake or have the same misunderstanding, I can post an announcement, and correct that. Because if six students have a misunderstanding that I noticed, chances are, 15 students really are having the same problem.

Allegra: So, something that I do in my class is in the introduction week, I have them fill out a Google survey, and it populates it as a spreadsheet for me, and I tell them if there’s a name you want to be called, so if it’s Tim instead of Timothy…. So it populates into a spreadsheet for me, and I keep that on the side of my computer all semester. So every time I respond to them in a discussion board, it’s Tim, not Timothy. If they go by completely different name, they really notice. And the other thing that I do is halfway through the course, I send out a personalized email to the students who are getting A’s, because everybody corresponds to those students who are C or below. But I give special attention to the ones that are getting A’s and say, “This is what you’re doing well, this is why you’re getting an A in my courses, what’s working for you, continue with these strengths.” And if they respond I’ll say, “And these are things you can work on.” But I don’t put that in the initial email.

Rebecca: I’m sure students respond really positively about that. I think that’s true in face-to-face classes too. The students that are really excelling often are the ones that kind of get overlooked at some points during the semester.

Allegra: And discussion boards are just important places for interaction to happen. And I think a lot of times, people set the discussion board up and then they let students run the discussion. And the only time faculty look at it is when they go into grade a student’s participation. And it’s very hard for me as a chair or when I’m conducting these trainings to really push people and say, “You should engage in the discussion, you should respond. Now, can you respond to every student and every discussion board every single week? Probably not. But you should be responding to about five students per class per day.” And that doesn’t take very much time. Students know that if you’re constantly in the discussion board, that if something is a muddy point or two people are unclear about something that there’s a strong chance that you will be in the discussion within that week, and that you’ll see that and that you can help correct or clarify the point for them. Faculty really don’t want to have to do that because they say, “I read the discussion board posts when I grade them. And so I don’t want to have to read them twice.” But I think it makes a really big difference.

Allegra: Well, if two students in your in person class were debating, you wouldn’t just let them fight it out. You would step in…

Misty: We would hope. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, we would hope that you wouldn’t just let them argue and just watch. Yeah, that’s the equivalent. And, you know, everything that’s in your class is kind of your responsibility. So you should know what the ongoing conversations are. And I’ll say, when I started jumping into discussions I noticed that the discussion posts tended to be longer and more substantive. Because first of all, you’re setting a model for them, right? They see you talking and they see what kinds of things you’re saying and what kind of detail you’re going into. So you’re posting a kind of model of posts, but also, if they know you’re going to read them, they put them at a higher standard, at least in my experience.

Allegra: I do think early on, though, when they see you in there, it freaks the students out a little bit, because maybe they’re not used to professors doing that. And so it takes a minute for them to like, adjust.

Misty: Yeah, absolutely.

John: I know some faculty are reluctant to do that. Because sometimes when they’ve tried they said it tends to shut down the discussion when they come in, and maybe they’re coming in with perhaps too heavy of a hand in the discussion.

Misty: One thing I do is that I ask questions. I never just get in there… And this is what I think. And that’s it. I’m the professor, we’re done. It’s “Have you considered this?” Or “Have you thought about this?” Or “What about this point?” And it’s up to the students to lead themselves there. I’m just kind of putting the guide post up.

Allegra: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. The other thing you can do is you can read the discussions. And then you can do like a whole class response in an announcement so that students don’t feel like you’re directly responding to them. But you can just say, here’s some great things I read on the discussion board this week, and kind of highlight some comments in an announcement. And that way you’re not in the discussion, but students still know that you’re there responding to and interacting with them, and that might be a happy medium for people who don’t want to full fledge go into the discussion themselves. But, as Misty said, if we were doing an in-person class, and we had an in-class discussion, surely you would be facilitating in some way.

Misty: You hope.

Allegra: Yeah, we would hope.

John: …and nudging people sooner might be more productive than after the discussion has wandered far afield.

Allegra: Absolutely, yeah. And if you’re grading it, it’s after it’s over. So you have no chance to redirect the conversation at all.

Rebecca: For faculty who maybe are hesitant to do other things… we’ve talked a little bit about hesitation of being in discussion forums. Sometimes faculty are hesitant about having their face on screen and don’t want to do intro videos and things like that. Have you found other areas that faculty might be hesitant, but once they try something, they’ve been pleasantly surprised?

Allegra: If you watch my introduction video, you notice it’s not me talking, because I’m very aware of my facial expressions.

Misty: It is your voice.

Allegra: Yeah, it’s me talking.

Misty: Mine is not my voice.

Allegra: No, it’s my voice. But it’s not a video of me talking because I’m very aware of my facial expressions. So it’s a slideshow of pictures, and me narrating over it. So I was reluctant to speak on camera. And so we found a creative way for me to have an instructor video. And that’s the other reason I have a lot of audio files is because I don’t want to speak on camera. We have faculty who say, “I don’t want to put a picture of myself in my class.” And so then I just google them. And I say, I’ve just found 20 pictures of you by googling your name. So, your students can find out what you look like. We have professional headshots. So why don’t you just put a picture in the class? You’re not giving them top-secret information about yourself. But, absolutely, if you force faculty to do something, if we were to say you must create five videos for your class, some of them would be the most boring videos of all time because they would be forced. So what we would say is find what works and run with it. And so Missy has videos. I have audio. Other people have a combination of them. Some people make their own videos on their back porch using their iPhone. Some people do lecture capture. Absolutely, if we try to force one specific thing, then our faculty will comply, but it will be not as high quality, and so it won’t be the impact that we’re looking for.

Misty: So in my introduction video, I am aware that I’m very awkward on film. Like it’s awkward for me, it’s awkward for the students… everybody doesn’t want to see that. So mine is pictures of me, but other people are narrating it. And actually, Allegro is heckling.

Allegra: Yes.

Misty: And making funny comments during mine. But then when I’m speaking on historical topics, I can do that all day long. I just can’t talk about myself. So people will find what works for them if they’re given the ability to do so. One of our instructional designers who’s very good at working with reluctant faculty says everybody’s favorite subject is themselves in some capacity. So if you don’t want to share pictures of your family, which I understand… if you don’t want to talk about your vacations, that’s fine. Talk about your research, talk about what you’re reading. And if you don’t want to make a video, make an audio file. The software that we use to edit our podcast, which is what I use to edit the audio in my courses is free. It’s freeware… and so our school did buy us nice microphones. So that is an investment. But, for a long time, I was using a Logitech headset with a microphone. It’s not a huge monetary investment to make audio files, and students respond to it. So it’s whatever really works. And sometimes you need a little coaching to know: “What do faculty need? How can we kind of get them comfortable with the medium?” But we have people who said: “No way. Never. There’s not a chance…” and they watched a few videos, and they got to know the instructional designers who helped make the videos. And so they’re coming around and they’re like, “Okay, maybe I’ll make one for the fall.”

John: Do you have students do something similar? Do you have them share bitmojis or audio or video files?

Allegra: So we do have some faculty who use Flipgrid. The instructor will make a video on Flipgrid. And it’s basically a discussion board of little videos. Our speech faculty requires students make videos of them making speeches and presentations. And I asked students to post pictures in their introduction. And I say, if you don’t want to post a picture of yourself, post a picture of your dog or your favorite sports team, or a screenshot from your favorite TV show… just a visual that helps us get to know you. Sometimes I asked students in discussion boards to respond to things with names. So to add a little personality and you can just think about ways to make your discussion board a little bit more open. So, in my lesson about setting, I have a formal writing assignment where they analyze the setting of a short story. But then I have a discussion board where they just write about the setting in their favorite movie, and how the setting helps augment the theme or illustrate something important or relate to one of the main characters. And so I say tell us about the setting in your favorite movie, and then put a screenshot of the Hogwarts castle, or the stuff in Hunger Games. So then they’re like, “Oh, my God, I love that movie, too.” And so they’re talking about the subject matter. They’re relating to each other more personally. And so I don’t know that there are ways easily to do that in every subject matter. But I know that there are ways that you can give students less formal assignments sometimes that allows them to interact in that way.

Misty: So I do hidden bonus discussion boards. If you get all the way through my notes, there’’ll be a link, “click this,” and it’ll take you to a hidden discussion board and I do “favorite things” as one of them. So they go on and they get to post a picture of their favorite things. So I get a lot of like Dunder Mifflin logos. [LAUGHTER] I get a lot of memes, and it’s a reward for them for actually reading the work. And then they get to do something fun at the end, and they get bonus points.

John: It’s an interesting idea.

Misty: Yeah, we have a lot of Easter eggs in our online classes; a lot of faculty make use of that. And so at the very end of my syllabus… this is a very basic one… it just says, send me an email with this subject line and ask me a question… anything you want to know… and I’ll answer it and give you bonus points on your introduction. So, if they read the whole syllabus the first week of class, not only do they get this chance to get bonus points for reading the syllabus, but they’ve already sent me an email and once you’ve sent your instructor one email, it’s much easier then when you have a question to send them an email, because that line of communication is already established. And they ask me the goofiest questions. You know, they asked me like “What’s my favorite TV show?” Or do I think dragons are real? [LAUGHTER]. They they have fun with it.

Misty: Do you have tattoos?”

Allegra: Yeah, I mean, that’s in my intro introduction video because I got that question so many times. I’m like, “Yes, I’ll just tell you, I have tattoos. They’re obsessed with tattooed professors. So I just went ahead and let them know Yes, I have tattoos and they’re all related to books in fact. So it’s sort of related to the course.

John: Have you done the AMAsa on Reddit yet? [LAUGHTER]

Misty: We should do that. We should try it.

John: That could be a podcast episode with your students.

ALEGRA: Yeah. Oh God… [LAUGHTER]

Misty: I’m scared.

John: It could be dangerous. But, you can edit it.

Allegra: Yeah, that’s true. We do tell faculty to use humor if they’re actually funny. And what I say in presentations is if people don’t laugh at you in real life, they’re not gonna laugh at you online. So….

John: …or at least not for the reasons you want them to….

Allegra: Yeah, laughing at you. So I say if you’re funny, and you can do it well, absolutely use humor. You have to be careful that you’re not making fun of people, obviously. But self-deprecating humor is always a winner. So, I tell people that. I do advise them like “Don’t try if your jokes don’t land, they’re definitely not going to work online.”

John: Do you include any social media in your classes outside of the LMS?

MISSY: I have tried. It has been an abject falure.

Allegra: Missy is remedial at social media. But, I tell my students that they could find me on Twitter. The Twitter page that I have is a professional Twitter. So I post things about online teaching, or about our podcasts or articles about education, or about cool books or things just having to do with authors, so it’s professional related. It’s not like me posting about my favorite TV show. But I don’t use it for the class. So, students sometimes will follow me on Twitter, which I tell them, you’re going to be really bored, but that’s fine. But I don’t use it for the class. We do have instructors in the English department who use Twitter for their classes as a way to ask me a question or to get more information as just an additional contact method. We’ve had some teachers try to use it as a discussion forum. And they said that they just would rather use the discussion forum in the LMS.

Misty: Some of our government instructors have been able to do it pretty well, because it’s easier to share news articles on Facebook… and they put them in a closed group, then they kick everyone out of the closed group at the end of the semester and start a new closed group for the next semester. But government’s kind of unique in that way. I don’t know if it would work for other disciplines.

John: You’ve mentioned bitmoji. Are there any other tools you use to create content in your classes that perhaps faculty should explore?

Allegra: So audacity is the software that we use for editing audio files, and our instructional designers showed me how to use it in about 10 minutes. And so then I’ve gotten used to the tools and the buttons and how they work. He says it’s like a Fisher Price audio editing…. So he thinks it’s pretty straightforward and simple in terms of how to use it. I create a lot of graphics for my course. So I create banners. I create getting to know me things. I create things related to the subject matter and I use Canva that’s like Canvas without the S. It’s a free service. It’s a graphic design online tool. So if you wanted premium content, or better looking designs, then you could pay for those things, but it is free to use Canva as well.

Misty: Screencast-o-matic… I use that a lot to create where you’re talking over a PowerPoint video, or even pictures.

Allegra: Oh yeah, talking over a slideshow? Absolutely. Right now we’re using YouTube for videos. I don’t know what they’re using for video editing. I was trying to look and see if it was in my notes.

Misty: Camtasia

Allegra: Camtasia is what they’re using, but it’s not free, so I don’t recommend it to everyone.

Misty: Yeah.

John: For people who are on Macs or iPhones, there is iMovie. And there’s lots of Android editing tools that are free and there’s a few Windows ones as well.

Allegra: I would say the newest coolest thing to make videos is Apple Clips, which you can get on an iPhone or an iPad. And I don’t know if you’ve played around with it, but especially if you’re going to do like a talking-head video. You can change the background or you can make yourself look like you’re a comic-book character. And it’s auto captioning the same way that YouTube does. So it might be like 85% accurate and it’s very easy to go in and edit the caption file to make it 100% accurate. You can make a very cool looking, engaging, and dynamic video using Apple Clips and upload it to Twitter or to your LMS very, very quickly… very, very easily. And of course, the sound quality on just an iPhone itself with no microphone is pretty good. So if you’re in a quiet room, it’s going to sound really good and look really cool. Unfortunately, I don’t have an iPhone. So I’ve only played with it a little bit on the iPads at work, but I think Apple Clips is free, 100% free. And it’s a very cool tool, If you are an Apple person… and QuickTime you can also use on Macs to do screencast videos. I think that’s all my tools.

John: The nice thing about uploading things to YouTube is the captioning in YouTube has gotten very, very good. Is probably 97…98% accurate.

Allegra: Absolutely.

Misty: Unless you have an accent.

John: Yes, unless you have an accent or there’s a lot of background noise…

Allegra: …or you talk really fast. Yeah.

And something that is probably more for English faculty or people who have a lot of essays to grade, is you can do audio grading, which is you can record like a two minute you explaining to your student where they did well and what they could improve on. And I found that it helps me deliver information in a more softer personal way, the same way I would be able to do an in-person writing conference. In TurnItIn.com, which we use through our LMS, there’s just a button on the side of the paper that says record audio and I think can you can record up to three minutes. You have to ask students if they want to opt in or opt out of that because not all students respond really well to audio comments and some students need it to be written down. But it’s it’s a good way to be engaging and students hear from your voice and you can kind of use your tone and soften things and emphasize things, so audio grading is something we’re trying to get into more. Of course, you can do it in the LMS. You just have to record an mp3 and then attach it. So it’s a little bit more cumbersome.

John: And there’s a number of apps that you can use on iPads and other devices to do that on PDFs as well. And then just email them back or share them back.

Allegra: Absolutely, yes.

So we use a lot of Spotify playlists, and so Spotify is free, and students don’t need a Spotify account in order to listen to a Spotify playlist. They can just hit play in the LMS. So, I use them in three different ways. One, in my introduction, I just have a playlist of music that I like, and some students can really relate to you in that way. So I just like 15 of my favorite songs, and I might change it every now and again. And so I just there’s a way to embed Spotify playlists, you just get an embed code, and then you can embed it in an announcement or an item on your LMS. And so students can get to know you that way. When I teach metaphors and poetic devices, I have a playlist of songs that are like riddled with metaphors and poetic devices, imagery, symbolism… metaphors, of course, very prevalent in music. So I have a playlist of songs, and I link it into my lesson on poetic devices. And so then students can listen to songs. And hear examples, like, Collecting my Jar of Hearts, right? Like that’s a metaphor and a song that they all know. And so it helps them understand that concept in a little bit more of an accessible way than the Shakespeare sonnet that they’re going to read for that lesson. And then Misty uses them…

Misty: …for every historical era. So it helps them connect with the pop culture of the time.

Allegra: So, she’s a 40 playlist and a 50s playlists and a 60s playlist in her history class.

Rebecca: That sounds like a lot of fun.

Misty: I actually have a Civil War playlist.

Allegra: A Civil War play…. I don’t…

Misty: Yeah, marching songs.

Allegra: They’re free accounts of students want you they can connect to your playlist but they can just play them right through the LMS.

Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting option that maybe a lot of faculty haven’t considered.

It’s very easy. And Missy was the first person on our campus, I think, to think of using Spotify for teaching. So it’s really simple and straightforward. And students really, really…

Misty: Are you saying that if I can do it, anybody can do it? Because that’s kind of what it sounds like. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. [LAUGHTER]

And there are opportunities maybe to have students create Spotify playlists in certain classes. So, that’s an option as well.

Misty: I want to say one more thing. Make sure that your social presence doesn’t overwhelm the actual instruction in your course. Because we have seen that mistake a couple of times, where it’s so heavy on the means or it’s so heavy on the bells and whistles that they forgot to actually teach the material. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah, I think that was really kind of an error. You know, we had a whole conference that was really about like increasing engagement and presence. And so I think a lot of people took away the message that that was really, really important, which it is. But, obviously, the subject matter instruction is what’s most important. And students can get lost in a sea of images. If you have a lot of stuff in there that’s not directly related to the content. So honestly, the best thing to do is to look at the way different people use different things and to find a good balance of what works for you, and really go with what students are telling you. So if students are getting lost in your class, if students are getting confused in your class, then you have to go back and make it a little bit more simple and easy to navigate.

Rebecca: Details, details.

Allegra: Yes.

John: But tying the social presence and the images and the playlist and so forth to the content reinforces the learning without distracting from the learning.

Allegra: Yeah, exactly.

John: How have students responded to your increase in social presence in classes. I’ll say about 50% of them have not mentioned it at all. So, we get feedback from students on student evaluations. So that’s like solicited feedback. And I have only ever taught online this way. So I don’t have anything to compare it to necessarily, but I get a lot of unsolicited feedback from students in the form of emails. A lot of them say I really don’t like English class. I was really anxious about English class. And watching your video or listening to the first lesson really helped me feel more comfortable. A lot of them say you seemed more approachable. I really feel like I can ask you questions. And it shows because students will send me emails halfway through the semester and they’ll just say, I don’t really even know what question I have. I just feel like I’m getting lost and I’m not doing very well. And I guess, can you just help me? And so a student will only send you that kind of email, if they’re really comfortable sending you that kind of like, “Just help me. I don’t know, am I doing okay?” if you’re an unapproachable instructor, if you are somebody who doesn’t consistently respond to emails, if you are somebody who seems like a robotic behind the computer grader, students don’t reach out to you with that kind of question. So, that tells me it’s important to cultivate this kind of sense of community in a class so that students feel comfortable when they are lost at sea. And they’re sitting at home all by themselves, they don’t have classmates they can turn to you and say, “Do you know what’s going on?” You have to really create that sense of community very intentionally. And it shows. I get about 15 to 20 unsolicited emails a week in the first six weeks of class when students are orienting themselves to where things are, and they all say the same thing: “I feel comfortable. I feel less anxious. I appreciate this.” And then on the evaluations, they say I can tell that she did extra work. She always responded to my messages, which it’s heartbreaking to me when students thank me for replying…

Misty: Yes….

Allegra: …to them.

Rebecca: Yeah.

John: Yeah, I know.

Allegra: Because I’m like, “Does that mean you have faculty who don’t reply to you?”

Misty: Yes, it does.

Allegra: But it does show… and I don’t mean this like in a bragging, like, “look at me, I get all this great feedback” way… But I do get a lot of great feedback. And it’s because of all of these things. It’s not because they all love reading poetry.

Misty: So, all the research shows that if you create community, students will stay in your course and will stay in college, and all of the research for years and years and years focused on in-person classes. So, we’re trying to take that research and adapt it to our online classes. And as chairs, you and I both get success rates every semester. And I can tell you, immediately when I look at the success rate I know who’s creating a social presence in their class and who isn’t because if a student feels connected to you, they don’t want to drop your course. And they want to try to do well for you. And the high success rates generally usually typically correspond to courses where the instructor’s engaged, involved, and has an actual dialogue with the students.

Allegra: Absolutely. Everybody has good semesters and bad semesters, including me. But if somebody consistently has a low success rate in an online class, then that is a person that we start to intervene. And we say, like, “Let me help you. Let me give you some strategies. Let’s talk about ways that you think you could do better, because my job is not to change the way you teach. But my job is definitely to make sure students are as successful as possible.”

Misty: And that doesn’t mean 100% success rate’s a good thing either.

Allegra: No, no. Just definitely not. [LAUGHTER] But we’re kind of sorting this out in terms of making our online classes as good as they possibly can be while at the same time evaluating our faculty’s online classes in a formal way, and also mentoring online faculty to improve their classes in a less formal way. And a lot of times they ask us, like, “How can my students just feel like disconnected for me? How can I fix that?” And I’ll say, “Why don’t you try… just post an announcement every week. Just start there. It’s very easy, doesn’t take very much time. And you’re reaching out to every single student and then we can talk about individualized emails, reminding students who haven’t submitted something, all those kinds of things. The other thing is, in an online class at a community college policies like I will never take late work under any circumstances, no matter what, I don’t care who died, it’s not going to work. And students perceive that from you. And to be that rigid and inflexible in these circumstances is a breakdown and that is what I number one thing I get student complaints about is: “I submitted it five minutes late,” or “I was in a car accident and my teacher didn’t care.” And those kinds of things we can’t accept anymore. That’s just not the nature of online teaching. And that’s not the nature of community colleges.

Rebecca: These are really good points. We want to make sure that our students succeed, and putting artificial barriers in their way is certainly not going to help that.

John: It’s a serious issue. As we’re getting a broader spectrum of society entering college, many of the students are ones who are on the threshold of deciding whether to go or not. And when they’re turned away with because of major life issues and they get discouraged, they often just disappear… and being welcoming and dealing with real-life situations in a realistic way (in the same way that they’d be dealt with in a workplace) isn’t really unreasonable.

Misty: Yeah, absolutely.

Allegra: That’s what I say to faculty. I’ve had a circumstance where a student forgot to attach the document and the faculty wouldn’t accept it. Even though the student submitted it, it was just blank… I attached the wrong document, and I can pull back an email from that same faculty member and say, “Here are three different times you sent me an email, and you forgot the attachment.” Be realistic, we don’t have to cut everybody a break. But like you said, people make the same kinds of mistakes in the workplace. And we don’t have this artificial rigid system where there are no exceptions, and zero tolerance for anything. And when there are students who are on the border of whether or not they want to continue in college, or whether they have enough support, or whether they feel confident enough to become successful, your attitude can make or break that student’s experience.

Rebecca: That really does tie back to this whole idea of social presence in a lot of ways because these are the things that aren’t really about the content of the course, but really about how it’s delivered. And that’s really what social presence is about.

Allegra: Absolutely and if you have a student who says “I felt anxious, and you’re silly video and your bitmojis helped me feel more comfortable,” that is a student who maybe would have dropped when they had the first difficulty with an assignment. But instead, they felt comfortable enough to reach out and say, I’m really struggling, I don’t have any idea what’s going on. And I can just explain it in a different way. Or say, actually, it seems like you really do know what’s going on. And you just needed me to kind of build you up a little bit. And that’s what my job is supposed to be. My job is not supposed to be to enforce a bunch of rules, and to be the arbiter of what’s on time and not on time. And to just sit in a room and grade your paper, like my job is to build you up and help you learn.

John: It’s nice to see two people who are department chairs using these techniques in their classes. [LAUGHTER] Because that sets a nice role model which we don’t always see in all departments at all institutions.

Allegra: It does help to be a fully online campus, so we have a whole campus culture. Our administrators support this, our instructional designers help us with all of this. There’s no way I could have made that video without them. And they really emphasize it and reward it.

Misty: Well, and to some extent, we’re still the Wild West, right? So we’re still getting to determine the culture, whereas brick and mortar campuses, maybe that culture has already been set. Maybe it was set in the 1970s. And that’s kind of hard to change.

Allegra: Yeah.

John: Or the 1870s, as the case may be, [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah.

Misty: Yeah.

John: Your podcast…. Tell us a little bit about how that got started.

Allegra: Our campus administration said, “We have all this equipment, and we want to make sure that it’s getting used.” Our campus President, I think, is the person who said somebody around here should make a podcast.

Misty: Well, no, what he said was, “You guys need to make radio shows.”

Allegra: Yeah.

Misty: …and I didn’t understand.

Allegra: So it was Misty’s idea, because she teaches history and I teach English and you can tell we don’t agree on anything or everything. But we do have shared passions for feminism and for social justice, and we’re both very passionate about the things we like. We don’t like the same things. [LAUGHTER]

John: It’s a great blend, though.

Allegra: So, I will talk about Grey’s Anatomy, and she will talk about the War of 1812. No… but it’s a great integrative learning model. So we, in almost every episode, are able to integrate history and literature, or history and information literacy. And we can also talk about how the same ideas of textual analysis apply to Grey’s Anatomy and Game of Thrones, or how there are historical figures who are similar to the figures that you see in Game of Thrones. That’s actually episode we’re going to record later today is about history and Game of Thrones connections…

Misty: We also want our students to see the connections between their subjects.

Allegra: Yeah.

Misty: Because we think that they leave a history class, they don’t see how it touches literature, or they leave a literature class or they don’t see out to just psychology and so having the podcast can help bridge that gap. And it can kind of wrap them in this world of the humanities.

Allegra: Absolutely.

Misty: I mean, we try math and science, too. But it’s not our strong…

Allegra: It’s not. So yeah, in our math episode we have historical women in mathematics. And then I’m like, “Here are some great books about women in mathematics.” But we the two of us are certainly not experts in math. And because we’re a community college, we don’t have like a gender studies program. So it’s a great way for students to get exposed to some of those ideas that if they’re transfer students to universities, that will be more prevalent on the university campus. So more cultural studies, more applications of history, English, sociology, and all those kinds of things together. And we sometimes have our Dean as a guest star on our podcast, because she was a speech professor and now she’s an administrator, and she has new perspectives to add as well.

ALLEGRA And the other thing… it lets our students see that were people, that we’re actual real people and they can hear us joke with each other and they can see the difference in personalities. So, I’ve started including these in my course, especially the ones that relate directly to a historical era.

Misty: Interestingly, our most popular episode is called “The Trouble with Tropes,“ which is about tropes of female characters in TV, movies, literature. And so obviously, that directly relates to literary analysis, and I teach tropes in literary analysis. And I think it’s hilarious that it’s one of the most academic episodes of our podcast, and it’s the most popular. But I definitely, when I talk about stereotypes and archetypes and tropes, direct students to that, and beyond that there’s a link to the podcast in my “About Me” section in my course. So students want to listen to it, they can have some students say, “You know, I listened to your podcast.” I’m not going to give them extra credit for listening to me talk for an extra hour because that seems a little self serving, but I do tell them about it and like Missy said, if it directly relate to the content, I will add it as an additional resource in that lesson. Absolutely.

John: I know we mentioned this at the beginning of the episode, but could you remind our listeners of the name of your podcast?

Allegra: It’s the Profess-Hers Podcast, and its history, literature, pop culture, sports, through a woman’s perspective and a feminist perspective.

Rebecca: And we can download it where?

Allegra: Everywhere you get podcasts: Apple, Stitcher, Google, all those places that you get podcasts. They’re in all of them. Yeah, it’s in a lot of places. I didn’t know how it got there.The same places you can get the Tea for Teaching podcast.

John: Are you on Spotify?

Allegra: Yes.

Rebecca: Well, they have to be, right, they’re promoting Spotify. [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah, I should be getting a check from Spotify any day now. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: Yeah. We all wish, right? [LAUGHTER]

Allegra: Yeah.

John: Our Spotify take up just doesn’t seem quite as high as the others. But we do get a few every month.

Allegra: Yeah, I think it’s 50% from iTunes and Apple.

John: We always end with: what are you doing next?

Allegra: Well, next we are recording two episodes of our podcast because our semester is coming to a close. So we will have a few weeks where we’re not on campus. So we’re also trying to record ahead a little bit so that we have the consistent podcast releases even while we’re not at work. I took Misty’s answer because as soon as we’re done with this we’re going to eat some nachos, and then record some Profess-hers podcasts…

Misty: …and beg our teachers to get their grades and on time. Please submit if you’re listening. Always submit grades on time. Thank you.

Rebecca: Public Service Announcement. Yes. From every department chair ever.

Allegra: …of all time. Yes, indeed.

Rebecca: It’s been really fun. Thanks so much for joining us.

Misty: Thank you.

Allegra: Thank you.

John: And I’ll keep enjoying your show. And Rebecca will be listening to your show.

Rebecca: Yeah, definitely.

John: It’s been a lot of fun.

Allegra: It has and I’ll get Misty to listen to yours. I’ve been listening to it.

Misty: New subscriber.

Allegra: Yeah, you’ve got one here.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

86. Attention Matters

Our smartphones, smart watches, and other mobile devices provide us with a growing number of convenient distractions that can interfere with our productivity and learning. In this episode, Dr. Michelle Miller joins us to discuss one approach to help students better understand how to focus their attention.

Michelle is the Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-curated the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She’s the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications.

Show Notes

Transcript

John: Our smartphones, smart watches, and other mobile devices provide us with a growing number of convenient distractions that can interfere with our productivity and learning. In this episode, we examine one approach to help students better understand how to focus their attention.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

Rebecca: Our guest today is Dr. Michelle Miller. Michelle is the Director of the First-Year Learning Initiative, Professor of Psychological Sciences, and the President’s Distinguished Teaching Fellow at Northern Arizona University. Her research interests include memory, attention, and student success in the early college career. She co-curated the First-Year Learning Initiative at Northern Arizona University and is active in course redesign, serving as a redesign scholar for the National Center for Academic Transformation. She’s the author of Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology and has written about evidence-based pedagogy in scholarly as well as general interest publications. Welcome back, Michelle.

Michelle: Hi, it’s so great to be here.

John: We’re happy to talk to you again. Our teas today are:

Michelle: Well, it is still technically morning here in Arizona where I’m speaking from so I am going with home-brewed coffee today with a whole lot of sugar and a little bit of cream.

Rebecca: I have an Orange Cylon tea today.

John: Cylon? Weren’t they on Battlestar Galactica?

Rebecca: How do you say it?

John: I believe it’s Ceylon, and I have Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: So we invited you here to talk about your Attention Matters project, Michelle. Could you tell us a little bit about the project?

Michelle: This is one of my favorite projects and really the most unique one that I’ve worked on, really going back to as long as I’ve been at Northern Arizona University. Attention Matters came about like this. After I wrapped up writing Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, I was really just still so engaged in this interest in disseminating cognitive psychology and cognitive science, and pulling out those key principles that we can all use in our lives and can make human wellbeing better and have all these great applications, and especially applications in teaching and learning environments. So you can probably guess that it has to do with attention and attentional processes in the mind and in the brain and how those play out in some different situations, especially with teaching and learning. Basically, the idea is that we do need to raise student awareness—and really raise all of our awareness—about how things like digital distraction—the smartphones, the alerts, the temptations that are always there when we’re online—all those can impact teaching and learning and things like memory as well. I had been really interested in finding ways to get that stuff out to students. So there were some people at my institution (at NAU), who knew that I was interested in that and that I really liked talking to students really directly about what they knew about attention, how things like attention and memory really work, addressing some myths and misconceptions that people tend to have about their own attention. So, I was interested in getting that out to students and faculty who knew that I did that would come to me and say, “Hey, can you come and talk to my students about this?” And I had kind of put together this PowerPoint presentation, and really interactive stuff where I could pull down some video clips and interactive demonstrations off the web and we could actually really get a discussion rolling about this. And so that was my idea. I was kind of going around with my little traveling show from class to class to get this out to students. And it’s obviously not terribly scalable for me to do that. I mean, how many students can I really reach that way? But I still really like doing it. So I was talking about some of these ideas with colleagues at one of our teaching day events at NAU—a lot of institutions have days like these and they’re just wonderful. They’re days when projects like this really get started—and I was talking to one of my most dynamic and really respected colleagues that I have at NAU, and that’s John Doherty. He is a brilliant instructional designer, who now works with the library at our institution but has held these roles for years at NAU. And he said, “You know, have you thought about putting this online? Have you thought about finding a way to make this an accessible online resource so that instead of you having to take your show out to different classes every semester, they can drop in and complete some of these?” and we started talking about what would that look like? How would we do it? Let’s put this together. We had no funding, there was no official initiative behind this. We just jumped in and decided to do this and he looped in some other really generous colleagues, who contributed from our e-Learning Center, and we put this together. I guess we’ll be talking some more about exactly how it’s configured, but we created this project and we’ve kept it going to this day. So this exists as an online resource at Northern Arizona University. I’ve also shared it with dozens of other institutions around the country and a few around the world, and at least one has turned it into their own module that works in their learning management system. It did win an Effective Practice Award from the Online Learning Consortium in 2015—and we were really, really proud of that—and I’ve written about it in a couple of other articles and publications, including one that came out a few years ago in Inside Higher Ed that got some nice feedback. So that’s how it started.

John: So how long does it take for students to complete this module?

Michelle: Well, it’s a module that self-enrolls so they don’t have to pay, there’s no extensive signup time or anything like that. And it does take about one to two hours for students to work through what’s an online sequence of different activities, discussions that they posted, and other types of reflections and self-assessment. So it is something that works quite well as an extra credit resource and that’s exactly how it’s perpetuated in its current form at NAU. So, faculty can voluntarily opt to incorporate it as an extra credit activity in an existing class anywhere in the curriculum. It tends to be particularly popular with our STEM teachers who have these large science and foundational science and mathematics courses, but anybody can use it. And yeah, then students put in a few hours, and they get this experience that they’re really not going to get anywhere else in that class.

Rebecca: What do students find the most surprising about this module?

Michelle: Well, let’s see. You’re picking up on a theme that we really did try to work into the design of the module itself—that element of surprise—that we typically know a lot less about how our attention works than we think. We take in a lot less than we assume or believe that we are. And so time and again, that’s exactly what we asked students. “What surprised you about this demonstration?” Students are surprised at how much can get past them when they are looking at, say, one aspect of a visual scene, but not paying attention to the whole thing. And you’re going to say that I’m going to be kind of weaseling out and talking around some of these issues. Some of these demonstrations do depend on the element of surprise. So I don’t want to talk too much about exactly what students are looking for in these different displays. Some of our more key demonstrations in this module have to do with some phenomena that most people, even if they don’t know the technical term, they’ve seen something about it before. So one is the change blindness effect, and this has to do with the fact that when we are paying attention to one aspect of a visual scene—like we’re looking at what somebody’s doing with their hands, or we’re looking at their car and not something else in the background of a street scene—we remember very little from moment to moment. And that’s why if somebody is, say, momentarily distracted or they just are really focused on one part of it, they can miss these huge visual changes. And then with multimedia, we can rewind and show you, “Oh, hey, here’s what you missed.” …and, it’s just shocking. And it’s something that is very robust in fact. You don’t have to have these perfectly controlled lab conditions, it happens pretty frequently, very reliable, so this makes a very good demonstration of attention and how attention works. We take a lot of these change blindness effects and those are very surprising. So students time and again will say, “I was surprised that I missed X, Y, and Z out of this thing that I saw.” And when they rewound it, “I just couldn’t believe that it got past me.”

Rebecca: Seems like this is a technique that pickpockets use pretty frequently. [LAUGHTER]

Michelle: Yes it is. [LAUGHTER] …and I was actually pickpocketed when I was abroad last year too. It’s something that can happen in a real scene, it happens visually. We are really subject to attention. And actually, if you’d like to, for people who would like to read a lot more—would like to do a deeper dive on this—there’s actually some really fascinating work on how stage magicians use this as well. So this is something that stage magicians have really known about in a different kind of arena for many, many years and is a very key aspect of what they do. So if you’re familiar with the concept of misdirection, it ties into that. So this is something very close to my heart because a former colleague from NAU named Anthony Barnhart is himself a very skilled stage magician and he is also a PhD who works in visual attention, so a lot of his work plays those out. So exactly, it’s something that we can all really get excited about. There’s these neat connections in so many different areas that are very, very relatable. So this is part of the fun of bringing attention and attention research out into this area to our students.

John: I want to put in a plug for another podcast actually, that came out on April 25 from the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast. There was a discussion on that, where Bonni Stachowiak was talking about something she used to demonstrate—so it won’t be one of the demonstrations you used—where she played some audio to students of a recording where there were three separate conversations going on, and she asked them to interpret it, and they couldn’t recall much of anything. But then she divided them up and she has some of them to focus on one conversation, others to focus on the other, and others to focus on the third, and then they were able to reproduce pretty much everything. But there was that issue of being able to focus on particular things and that focused attention, I think, is an important component to that. It’s not visual imagery, but it’s still, I think, the same sort of processing.

Michelle: Yes, absolutely. I mean, this is the real fun of teaching something like an attention module—which I get to do since I’m a psychology professor—because there are these neat interactive demonstrations. So those are the types of things that besides just the multimedia, and these neat demonstrations and things like change blindness that are out there on the web, I was able to kind of dive into my repertoire of those demonstrations of trying to focus when you’re distracted and how different competing inputs can take over and that affects your memory of which is interpretation, all these things I was able to pull out of my teaching repertoire and think about how could these be put online into this really massive course that students can come into, and can you make that work? And using those to—instead of trying to teach theoretical concepts about attention—to raise students awareness of an investment of that idea of being good stewards of their own attentional resources. To realize that yeah, things like learning by osmosis don’t really happen… that we need focused attention in order to learn, and that we aren’t always aware in the moment of just how our focus is being divided. And once we have lost focus on something, it’s very, very hard—if not impossible—to recapture that and get that information back. So establishing those ideas, getting students aware of and invested in them and getting us thinking about, “Alright, so how does this relate to very practical questions like you’ve got a cell phone and you’re in a class of 200 students, and you’ve got five friends texting you, what do you do? Or what if you’re sitting next to that neighbor in this large class, and they’ve got their laptop going, and it’s distracting? Or even low tech stuff like conversations.” That’s an issue that’s been around forever. So getting students kind of thinking ahead about that, instead of just kind of reactively—or worse depending on the teacher to tell them what to do in this situation. So those are some of the ways in which I was trying to weave together the teaching of some basic aspects of attention and cognition with, “Alright, you’re the student here. How are you going to handle this in your day-to-day life?”

Rebecca: How have your students who have completed the module change their behavior or used this information in a practical way?

Michelle: Well, just with so many of our teaching interventions that we do and our student initiatives that we do, I go to say it is very, very hard—not impossible—but that’s going to be a much harder and more long-term process of determining what changes in terms of actual behavior, the choices that students make. And I want to be real upfront here that in putting together and running this module, while we have done some basic empirical work on things like attitude change and knowledge change. I don’t know. I don’t know if students are more likely to turn off their cell phone and put it in their backpack, but I will say that what students say and do in the module itself is quite encouraging, quite eye opening. I mean, we asked them—and we could talk a little bit more about the design in maybe a minute—but we asked them at the end to tell us, “Alright, what is your plan going forward for managing your own attention? What’s your plan for having you manage your technology instead of your technology managing you?” And I am always surprised at the sophistication and the commitment that they expressed in these things, how they really personalized these concepts. So they will say, “From now on, I really am going to put my phone in airplane mode, or I’ll use the Do Not Disturb functions so that if that there’s a real emergency, my mom and dad need to talk to me, here’s what I’m going to do,” or a lot of what we exchange ideas on towards the end of the module when we say: “What’s your plan?” are, what’s kind of ironically, technology to manage your technology. So there are a range of other things that students can do—apps that are out there—that will do things like give an auto bounce back message when you’re in class, they’ll shut down certain problematic sites—that’s a favorite of mine because I definitely wouldn’t have any of this writing or anything to get this work done if I didn’t have a few checks on my own internet usage while I’m using my laptop—so you can make great concrete plans to do that as well. So those are some of the things that students say about their future behaviors assumption of this class. But yeah, if we look at something—I mean, I do hope perhaps in the Fall when I have a new student coming in—to look at things like longer term differences in say GPA, but those global measures, it can be very hard to discern the influence of something like that. But I do think that’s kind of the next step with this project.

John: In terms of the motivation for this, one of the things you’ve done is—I believe—you’ve looked at the relationship between the counterproductive belief scale and multitasking behavior in a convenience sample that you had worked with. Could you tell us a little bit about what you were looking at there and what you found?

Michelle: Yeah, and you know—just to give a sense of how those measures fit into all this—the part of what I’ve really enjoyed about this project as well has been the fact that it’s an opportunity to gather some data, both those qualitative impressions from students—which are so incredible to test and speaking in their own voices, their own experiences with digital distraction, that’s really neat—but we also have these very brief quantitative measures that we developed as part of the project and built in originally just as part of the assessment, but they have really become part of my research as well. So the counterproductive belief survey is a short 20 question set of items that breaks down in three big groups or subscales and they tap into what do people know and believe about their own attention and memory. So things like “quizzing yourself is a good way to remember information.” And, if we remember back to the podcast that we did together on retrieval practice, that’s such a bedrock idea about how attention to memory works, and it’s primarily an area of memory—but it relates to attention in that we kind of can contrast that with another item that says, “Oh, rereading things or skimming things in your notes is a good way to learn.” So that effortful, attentive processing is really important for memory and other things like really passes. Just seeing something go by doesn’t help you remember. So that’s the sort of thing that is tapped by that scale. So we look at what do they know about attention and memory? What do they know about attention itself like how limited it is, and so forth. And there’s actually another piece of it too that I’ve termed self-exceptionalism. The idea that, “Well, you know, other people might have a hard time texting and driving, but I’m really good, so I can do that,” or “I’m better than most people at dividing attention across different areas.” Oh, and I should say as well that this scale too was really inspired by some concepts in an absolutely fantastic book by Christopher Chabris and Dan Simon—two attention researchers—called The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us. So I went into that book and kind of pulled some of their core concepts and turned that into this counterproductive belief survey. So that’s what we can survey people on, the kind of, “What do you know?” Now the multitasking behaviors inventory was a self-report survey that looked at how often people said they multitasked with certain kinds of media or online types of things and how they did that in different day-to-day settings. So we could kind of cross those in a way so that we could ask, “How often do you do email that’s not relevant to the task at hand? And how often do you do this in classes if you take classes? How often do you do this at work? How often do you do this in social areas?” And then we can go through those same situations with other things like casual gaming or social media, or things like that. So we can also query people and get that sense of what they said about how frequently they found themselves doing this in day-to-day life. And in this survey that we ran with worldwide convenience online sample, we did find that there was a relationship between what people believed about attention and memory and how often they said they did these multitasking behaviors, which just establishing that yeah, beliefs relate to behaviors, at least self-reported behaviors. I think that was an important step. And we found that in particular, that correlation—that relationship—was strongest for the part of the counterproductive belief scale, specifically relating to attention. And that makes sense. So yeah, if I understand attention a little bit better, if I know “Oh, hey, this is limited and I’m not even going to know that I’m distracted until it’s too late,” then hey, I’m less likely to say, “Yeah, I sit in class and I do email because what could it possibly matter?” Right? So that’s something that we kind of uncovered and revealed as part of this project.

John: You mentioned the development process. Could you tell us a little bit about how this project was developed and how it’s evolved?

Michelle: In the design process for this—since it was just a project we put together spontaneously out of interest—we had a lot of opportunity to just go about it in a completely fresh new way. It wasn’t like being handed a course redesign project where new classes developed where you kind of have a rut that you’re already in. So with the design process—so I work really, really closely with John Doherty, who again, put in so much of the intellectual power behind this and made so many of the key design decisions and helped me with that. So we worked together to really talk about, “Okay, here’s sort of what we want. Here’s our philosophy,…” and then he—and again, with input from other instructional design colleagues—said, “Okay, how about this particular resource? How about this particular way of setting this up in the learning management system?” and they were just things that I would never have thought to come up with. So, with the philosophy—or grounding principles of what we wanted—we wanted to show don’t tell, we did not want it to be just this flat website that was like, “Okay, here’s a list of 20 things that I’m telling you not to do,” that we wanted students to have this experience of exploring this on their own, and have these surprising and interactive demonstrations. We did want to have those very selective, curated set of principles about attention that we wanted to convey and we didn’t want it to be academic—this is not a psychology course, not the way it would be taught in the psychology class—but it was very, very important to me that everything that we convey to students be grounded in science. And, if you just Google attention and attention demonstrations, you’re going to get lots of fun stuff off of the web, but this is an area that I already knew there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation, so everything had to be top notch in terms of what we were telling students. And we also wanted it to be something that had an open resource feel to it, something that we could kind of take apart and share with other people that wouldn’t be this one specific package that you had to either, Heaven forbid, purchase or that would be very hard to convey. We wanted it to be something that could be used in a lot of ways by a lot of people and adapted. So that’s what we wanted to do. And our design philosophy kind of converged too on this being a little bit like a MOOC—a Massive Open Online Course—so it’s got that flavor as well. Because it’s not part of my teaching load or anybody else’s, it has to be something that this does not result in a lot of papers or exams for me to grade. That’s just not feasible. It has to be something that can be run with very light interactions from me, so that’s what we were going for. So with that, it became this really creative, open-ended process because they would come up with research and say, “Hey, here’s this video I found,” I would say, “Well, no, it doesn’t really tie to this or it kind of conveys this in a way that I don’t like,” or “Oh my gosh, that’s wonderful.” Just for an example, John and his colleagues came up with one of the videos that I will talk about a little bit. It was put together by a driving safety initiative in Belgium, so it was actually subtitled, and it’s this crazy thing called the Text and Driving Test where it’s sort of like an online prank, where a student taking a driving test is set up to believe that now we’re asking everybody to text while they drive around the drivers’ training course. And havoc ensues, and the students are yelling and saying, “There’s no way this is safe, nobody can do this,” and that is something that I would never have thought to put in there, but that is something that students can definitely relate to since many of them have only recently learned to drive. And they know about the dangers of texting and driving, which—while it’s not learning specifically—it does kind of tie back to that idea that when we’re distracted, we’re oftentimes the last to know and the consequences are disastrous. So that’s how this process played out.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how the faculty have responded? You mentioned that a lot of faculty are using it as extra credit assignments and obviously, if it’s got distribution beyond just your institution, people are obviously engaged with this, but can you give us a little more specifics about what faculty are seeing the student benefit of doing this in their classes?

Michelle: Here to, this is something where really systematic impressions is a project for the future. But there’s absolutely a “voting with your feet” component to this. My fellow faculty have been so willing to incorporate this into their classes, especially those who are teaching with STEM classes, as I said, those really tend to be pretty popular. They are really, really careful about where they put their class time. Their classes are so sequenced and there’s so much in them, that they’re not going to sacrifice a moment or a point, if they don’t believe that this is something that they really want to get across to their students. And, I think this is reflected in some of the numbers which I just drew up as of today since we have students coming through this module all the time at NAU. We have had 4,481 unique users since the inception of this module and about 3,100 have gone all the way through and completed it, which for a MOOC, that’s a pretty good completion rate. So faculty’s willingness to really incorporate this as a core part of what they’re offering students, I think, speaks very highly—and again, I’m grateful to my colleagues. Because this sort of thing would not work if faculty don’t really endorse it, and not just with, “Hey, you can do this, but I will give you credit for doing this.” Another part of this too, though, I think—and especially for those people who might want to try to replicate something like this at their institution—is really needing to look at it from that faculty side as well of how can we make this a really kind of painless and low-investment proposition for faculty. So, you know, being able to really assure that the students are getting something where the science has been vetted, it’s going to pay off for the time invested, but also they don’t need to grade or support it, and it’s not they don’t care about this issue, it’s just really, they’re as stretched as they can be. So what students actually get at the end is a certificate of completion. So it’s something that our learning management system makes it very, very easy for them to just send right to their professors so the professor to mark them down for extra credit. So streamlining that last piece of that I think has been very helpful too for getting that positive faculty reaction.

John: If faculty would like to use this, or to use this approach, how can they go about doing that?

Michelle: Well, let’s see. I think first of all, I really encourage faculty to get a grounding in some of the basic issues and it’s not something, even as a cognitive psychologist, I’m not going to say “Oh, go out there, make a deep dive into the journal articles on this.” There are now some really high quality resources that talk about student distraction in a reasoned and evidence-based way which is so important. I would encourage them to consult—first off—Jim Lang’s excellent teaching distracted students series that has come out in the Chronicle of Higher Education. And he’s just been a really great voice for this, for giving a balanced reasoned take on the issues. So, I think getting familiar with that. Now, really playing around too with like what we did, to say what would be the best way to engage students in this, with that engagement idea of being really key here. And we’ve had such success with this MOOC approach, this online module approach at NAU. If they’d like to do something like that, of course, I say, “Get in touch with your local e-Learning Center and instructional designers to look at that.” There’s just no way that I could have put together something like this without that kind of input to set up the design in the way that we did and to come up with all these innovations. So, seeing whether there are some productive collaborations that can be done there, or perhaps with the library leadership and staff as well. So, having an idea of what does your initiative look like, what approach you’re going to use, how are you going to get it out there to students, is it going to meet with the faculty as we do, or something else? Now, if they would like to specifically take advantage of what we’ve developed as far as Attention Matters, contacting me directly by email or any of my other modalities is the way to go. Now what we have is not a slick commercial type of module that you can just pop open. But we have all of our materials unbundled. Everything from the self-assessments that students can take, the different surveys that we developed if they want to use those, the very short conversational introductions and summaries that I wrote—you’re welcome to those as well—and we can help you to an extent to put that together or give you what you need to create something like this in your own learning management system. And so we’ve had some colleagues who’ve been really willing to do that and to put their own spin on this and make it work for their own students and their own environment, so that’s something that you can do as well. We have a chapter out in a publication that’s free online—it was put out for the Society of Teaching Psychology—that talks a little bit more in depth about the different pieces and some things we found as far as attitude and belief change, so that I think is a good general appeal reading that you can do. And we’ll have, hopefully, some more publications coming out on this. And of course, they can always come to my website or talk to me if you’d like to do a more deep dive, put together a workshop for faculty, or anything else like that on this issue of distraction for students and how to build students skills in this area. I really come to believe that this is a metacognitive skill for the 21st century. There’s so much discussion and debate about what sort of policy should we have, what do we tell students to do or not to do? And I just think we need to come at it in a different way of looking at this as something that students need to master for themselves, to understand for themselves, and really make their own plan for how this is going to be a part of their life, kind of managing their own distractions and what they should know about their own minds. So I’m always really, really happy to share more and to talk more about this because it is just such an issue that I care so much about.

John: And as one of the campuses where Michelle has given workshops, we’d also encourage you to contact her about giving a workshop on these or other materials.

Rebecca: It’s also a topic that, like many others, like learning how to learn and other things that we’ve talked about with you, Michelle—and also other episodes of the podcast—students don’t innately know these things. I think sometimes the assumption is that we know about attention, but there’s lots to learn about it. So you got to meet people where they’re at and remember that that’s not necessarily something that they know about and maybe be willing to spend some time on these issues because in the long run, it might help them engage in whatever subject matter you’re hoping to get them engaged in.

Michelle: Absolutely.

John: And they’ll be more productive in the rest of their lives because these distractions are not going to be going away anytime in the near future.

Michelle: Absolutely, absolutely. I think we’re all completely on the same page as far as those ideas are concerned.

John: We always end the podcast with a question—as you know—what are you doing next?

Michelle: One of the big things, my big project for the summer, is to continue actually revising and getting out there an article that does go into more depth about the impact of the project itself. And I’m spending a lot of this upcoming summer pushing a lot of different kinds of learning related research projects ahead. I’ve got quite a few things in the cooker and I love them, but that’s how the summer is going to go. I am continuing in particular to work on some neat projects having to do with virtual reality for education with the immersive VR lab we have at NAU, so that’s all part of this kind of big complex of interest that I have around the mind, how we take in information, and teaching and learning. I’ll be continuing to work with faculty doing some speaking and some workshops, and I will be tackling my own long, growing, and rather intimidating reading list at this point. So much good work is coming out now, so many books, so many articles. So, I’m really looking forward to continuing to get through those this summer.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much, Michelle. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you and I think faculty will engage with your materials but also just think about attention as a topic that they might want to tackle with our students.

John: It’s always a pleasure talking to you.

Michelle: Likewise, always a pleasure.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.

85. Small-Group Discussions

Small-group discussion activities provide all students, even the quiet ones, with an opportunity to actively engage with course material. In this episode, Dr. Dakin Burdick joins us to explore a variety of small-group discussion activities that can be productively integrated into our classes. Dakin is the Director of the Institute for College Teaching at SUNY Cortland. He has been active in professional development for almost 20 years, and has served on the Board of Directors for both the Professional and Organizational Development Network in higher education (the POD network) and the New England Faculty Development Consortium, where he was a president for four years.

Show Notes

  • Burdick, Dakin (2019). Small Group Discussion Protocols
  • Joan Middendorf — Teaching Resource Center Director at Indiana University
  • Middendorf, J., & Shopkow, L. (2017). Overcoming Student Learning Bottlenecks: Decode the Critical Thinking of Your Discipline. Stylus Publishing.
  • IUPUI — Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
  • Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. (2012). Classroom Assessment Techniques. Jossey Bass Wiley.
  • 84. Barriers to Active LearningTea for Teaching podcast (with Lindsay Wheeler and Hannah Sturtevant)
  • Larry Michaelsen — Professor of Management at the University of Central Missouri, pioneer of Team-Based Learning
  • Michaelsen, L., Knight, A., & Fink, L. (2005). Team-Based Learning: A Transformative Use of Small Groups in College Teaching. Stylus Publishing.
  • Team-Based Learning Collaborative
  • Elliot Aronson — Inventor of the Jigsaw classroom technique
  • Aronson, E. (1978). The Jigsaw Classroom. Sage. Chicago.
  • ZoomiOS, Android
  • Eric Mazur — Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics and Area Chair of Applied Physics at Harvard University
  • Teaching Professor Conference
  • David Pace — Professor Emeritus of History at Indiana University, Bloomington.
  • Pace, D. (2017). The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm: Seven Steps to Increased Student Learning. Indiana University Press.
  • Pace, D. and Middendorf, J. (2004). Decoding the Disciplines: Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking. Jossey-Bass.

Transcript

John: Small-group discussion activities provide all students, even the quiet ones, with an opportunity to actively engage with course material. In this episode, we explore how a variety of small-group discussion activities can be productively integrated into our classes.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Our guest today is Dr. Dakin Burdick, the Director of the Institute for College Teaching at SUNY Cortland. Dakin has been active in professional development for almost 20 years, and has served on the Board of Directors for both the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (the POD network) and the New England Faculty Development Consortium, where he was President for four years. Welcome.

Dakin: Hi. Good to be here.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

Dakin: Yes, I am drinking Sleepytime Vanilla today.

Rebecca: That sounds yummy.

John: And a great way to start the day. [LAUGHTER] And I have Ginger tea.

Rebecca: And I have something different today. I have Strawberry Grapefruit Xue Long Flavored Green tea.

John: Okay.

Dakin: Nice.

John: We’ve invited you here to talk about effective ways of engaging in small-group discussions. You’ve done quite a few workshops on that. Could you tell us is about your shift to small group discussion protocols in your own classes and how you get started with using small group discussions?

Dakin: Sure. My method of instruction was lecture primarily. I started off in history and I did a lot of lectures. Some of them were good—and I’m proud of those few—but I was teaching a class at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis at Columbus and it was a U.S. history survey, first-year survey. It was once a week, three hours long, and some of the students had traveled for more than an hour to reach the class after a full day of work. Some of them came in with their dinners, and I knew that lecture class was not going to get me through that class. Nobody would survive it; not even me. [LAUGHTER] So I worked with the Teaching Resource Center Director at Indiana University, Joan Middendorf. I selected several small group discussion methods: jigsaw discussions, role playing. I modified the debate system to create a evidence-based debate protocol. I used the just-in-time teaching method from IUPUI, and the classroom assessment techniques of Angelo and Cross, which I kind of regard as my Bible. The combination of those worked really well. The students remained active throughout the class, we were often surprised to find the class was over, everybody was still energized, I still had a protocol or two to go. Everybody learned each other’s names because we did random groups, and the class as a whole was tremendously successful. I was really happy with the results and I’ve used it ever since.

John: Whole-class discussions are often used but what are the advantages of small-group discussions relative to a whole-group discussion?

Dakin: I actually advocate both of those. I advocate lecture, small-group, and whole-group discussions for different purposes. The large group for me is one where I would often find faculty having the usual suspects were the only ones talking. You had three or four students in a class of 20 to 30, no one else was talking, and the faculty member would usually come to my office and ask, “Well, how can I change this? How can I get more students involved?” and often, that’s where the diagnostics began. What I found was, first of all, they needed to have preparatory homework, the students needed to do it, it needed to be graded, and if it was graded and it’s frequent assessment in order to reduce faculty load, they had to grade this lightly, and place the effort onto the students and not onto themselves. And if they did that, usually things improved. The advantage of the small groups is that if they’ve done all that work, then the students wants to talk. If you get to a large-group conversation and you’re not talking, it’s pretty boring for the students that aren’t talking. For the faculty member, it sounds like it’s a really good conversation because they’re the center of the wagon wheel, they’re the center of the hub, and so they’re constantly talking with those three or four students, but they’re wondering what’s happening with the rest of them. And that’s a good thing to wonder about, frankly. If you use small groups, you have the advantage that more people are talking at the same time. So instead of having one person talk at a time, you can have six people in the room talking at a time, so there’s a lot more conversation taking place and hopefully, more change in learning, which is important. Students in small groups feel more free to talk, there’s less risk in a small group, they can gain confidence from that talking, and they’re more active in the classroom at the same time because there’s more people talking. It also gives them the chance to practice disciplinary skills that the faculty member has put into that assignment. So the assignment shouldn’t be about declarative knowledge or facts, it should be about how can you do something in the field? How can you emulate the skills of an expert? The other piece of this is that the small groups have been demonstrated to be effective. Students in the 1920s said they preferred this sort of discussion—at least large-group discussion at that point—and then by the 30s and 40s, there was research and social psychology showing that small groups were more effective in promoting change and student learning. And from there it went on and since the 50s and 60s, a lot of different types of protocols have been invented and developed. There’s just a lot of advantages.

John: Could you tell us a little bit more about how you ensure that students come prepared to actively participate in those small group discussions?

Dakin: The main thing is grade it. The rule is that students—according to the Carnegie unit—are supposed to study for two hours outside the class for every one hour in. Well, the Study Study at Indiana University showed they weren’t doing that. They were studying one hour outside of class for every hour in, and it was usually on Sundays. That means that we kind of have to take that knowledge and make use of it. We know they’re going to do their work on Sundays. So okay, the assignments going to be due Sunday night, 11 o’clock, 11:55. But you make sure that they work harder. You don’t feel guilty about putting more work on them because more work means more practice. All of them could use more work reading, all of them could use more work writing, so that’s what I have them do. And then I make sure they turn their assignments in on Sunday night, I grade them Monday morning—which is a principle of just-in-time teaching—it’s preparatory homework, I read that, and then I modify my class based on what the students bring to it. And so I can see—first of all—their weaknesses. I can see their misconceptions. I also can see their strengths. Occasionally they have real strengths they bring to the class that would be totally invisible if I hadn’t done this work. And my example for that is I had a class where I was teaching the My Lai Massacre—about Vietnam—and I had in the class two very strong students. One was a G.I. who had fought in Vietnam, and one was a First Lieutenant who had taught the rules of land warfare at Fort Benning for three years. Both of these guys were A, smart; B, aggressive; and C, constantly fighting with each other because it was enlisted versus officer. So they dominated the class very often. And when I got back their feedback, they told me their knowledge and I hadn’t seen that knowledge before. I did not know that these were their backgrounds. So I spent an extra two to three hours reading about the rules of land warfare, came to class prepared, and instead of a class that would be a trainwreck for me, what happened is they came in and the Lieutenant said, “Everybody knows the rules of land warfare. So they’re all guilty, and they are all responsible,” and the G.I. says, “No G.I. is going to read a 100-page field manual on the rules of land warfare.” And the Lieutenant says, “Well, there is no 100-page manual on the rules of land warfare,” and I said, “Well, actually, there’s three. [LAUGHTER] There’s the 1956, 1965 and the 1973 (revised on the basis of My Lai).” Okay, so that stops that conversation. Then I turned to the GI and I say, “Okay, but every G.I. has those little plastic helmet liners, right? …with the 10 rules of land warfare on them.” “Yeah.” “Okay. So we’re agreed; they knew the rules of land warfare. Some follow them, some didn’t. Now, let’s talk about why,” and at that point, the conversation became really useful. First of all, all the other students could participate, because they now had the background, and the two people that were real experts in the room could help us kind of determine why people followed or did not follow those rules. And again, if I had not done that preparation—just two extra hours—that class would have been ruination.

Rebecca: What are the kinds of questions that you have students respond to that maybe elicited some of the information that helped you? What are the keys to asking good questions for that preparatory work?

Dakin: I think the keys to that are knowing your subject. So, everybody that is a content master—every faculty member —has their own expertise, and it’s pretty impossible for me to name the prompts that they might use effectively. But they probably know them, they’ve probably seen them in their graduate work. They know that these are the elements that made up their dissertation exams, their qualifying exams, and they’re probably pretty smart about what are those major issues in their field that need to be discussed, and to be prepared, and the students need to be prepared. The big thing is making sure that we’re talking at a high level of cognition. So in Bloom’s taxonomy, talking about analysis, talking about evaluation, those are the levels you want to get at. And those are almost impossible to get at with multiple-choice questions or tests, so that means there has to be conversation, there has to be writing. Those are elements that are important.

John: Earlier you mentioned that you use random assignments for small-group activities. Do you do change the groups on a daily basis or do you have more persistent groups?

Dakin: Occasionally, if I’m doing long-term group work, I will do some sort of pre-test, find out what the strengths and skills of the students are, and then place them mindfully into those groups, so that they construct useful groups because they’re going to be in those for half a semester. I’ll do a swap halfway through, but that’s a long time to be in a single group. For the random groups, I definitely do that and I do that on a daily basis. The students originally complain about that, but they get used to it pretty quickly and they’re ready for it. And the advantage is that they get to meet everybody in the classroom. They get to be in a group with everybody else and that builds trust and it builds community. And that allows them, by halftime through the semester, they know everybody, they’re comfortable with everybody, they trust that other people have their best intentions at heart, and then the conversation just escalates from there because everybody’s now willing to talk.

Rebecca: In our previous episode that we just released last week, we discussed some of the issues that can come up when you’re using evidence-based practices for the first time. A lot of people know or buy into the idea of small-group discussions and might just go for it without necessarily having a good plan in place, and things might go awry. Can you talk a little bit about ways to be prepared for trying something new, the kinds of things that might go wrong, and how we might adjust ourselves a bit as faculty members as we’re trying new things?

Dakin: The thing that I find usually is that people just don’t give the new techniques a chance. It’s scary. Now there was a study back in the late 90s out at Brigham Young and they asked faculty two questions. They asked them first, “What do you think are the most effective teaching methods?” and then “What do you do?” and they were diametrically opposed. [LAUGHTER] And the reason was time management, people are very busy and the stuff that’s effective takes a lot of time to do—or they think so. So I view my job as an instructional designer when I’m helping them to reduce that amount of time and make sure that they can do that. So first, make it time manageable, so that you can do the task and you can feel comfortable. Secondly, trust the system. Trust the change you’ve made. You made this change for a reason, trust it. And third, trust your students. Your students want to succeed, they want to learn. Trust that and have them help you make this successful. Tell them what it is you’re doing in the classroom, why you’re making this change, why you think this is going to help them learn better, and then also use feedback from them to get it. So I typically will use something called a stop, start, continue—What do you want me to stop doing? What do you want me to start doing? What do you want me to continue doing?—and use that student feedback to then modify the class. So it’s kind of like a mid-semester evaluation, but I feel like doing it whenever I do… it is just fine.

John: Now earlier you mentioned that whole-group discussions have a place. In what sort of sequence might you use or in what combinations would you use small-group discussions and then whole-group activities?

Dakin: My process is basically four-part. One, preparatory homework. There has to be preparatory homework and it has to be graded—lightly graded—and it should be moderately challenging. Next, they come to class, there’s a brief lecture and the lecture introduces the material, frames the questions we’re going to talk about today, maybe corrects some of the errors that were made in that preparatory homework, also celebrate successes from that preparatory homework. Once that lecture is done, maybe 10, 15 minutes, then move them into small group work. Small group work can be anywhere from one to two minutes in a lecture hall to 40, 50 minutes—and you might do a whole session on the rest of that piece, maybe a debate or some large-scale exercise—usually though, about 10 to 15 minutes in small group. Then when you hear the sounds rising, that means they’re talking about things they enjoy, which means their social life, [LAUGHTER] and so it’s time to stop them. You’ll also see sometimes that there will be a student—maybe all the A students somehow got at the same table—and they’re done three to four minutes before everybody else. Well, the point of putting them into small groups is to build energy and confidence and you don’t want your A students to be bored. So if you have a group that’s done first, you appraise how much of everybody else got through, “Can I stop this now?”—usually you can—and you bring them back to the large-group discussion. And in that large-group discussion of 10 to 15 minutes, you do debriefing and you find out what they think they know, maybe use a classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross, and you evaluate and you build feedback that you can use later. And then once you’ve got that, then you move back to the lecture, and you clean up the misconceptions, you explain and reframe the next issue, and then it’s just a cycle. So it’s lecture, small-group discussion, large-group discussion, and continually like that.

Rebecca: What are some strategies that you use in small groups to make sure that everyone participates or is engaged and stays on task?

Dakin: First, make sure they’ve done the homework. Secondly, randomize so that I’ve got some good students and some poorer students in the same groups, so that we have people that can interact—also, so that people can learn about each other. To keep them on task and walk the room: first of all, be engaged with them. Listen to what they’re saying and if it’s on task, you just congratulate them and move on, if it’s off task, okay, now start working with them—and there’s going to be one group that’s off task, certainly. Other pieces are… that you might encounter a small group where there’s a number of dominant individuals. So there’s a couple of people that are really assertive, and they’re talking all the time, and they are just dominating the whole piece, and the other people aren’t getting heard. And so in that point, then you start introducing other discussion protocols that will allow more inclusivity: so things like expense account, talking stick, things where other people’s voices are valued. Another one would be Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning that also does that.

Rebecca: Can you talk through each of those, for those that aren’t familiar with each of those?

Dakin: Sure, let’s start with talking stick. Talking stick is very simple. You have an object—usually a pencil or something—and one person gets that stick, and is able to talk for one minute without being interrupted, or any comments from anybody else. And then you pass it to the next person, for one minute they get to talk, and it goes around the room that way. And then once it’s gone around once, everybody can talk at once and kind of work out what it was that they heard said, but everybody’s voice is listened to and heard during that time. That’s a rather formal way. Another less formal way is expense account, which is maybe you give them three—or however many pennies you want—three tokens. And they pass those tokens in each time they talk. So the assertive ones are going to spend their pennies very quickly. [LAUGHTER] And the less assertives are going to then have a chance to spend their pennies. And when everybody has spent their pennies, you all get your pennies back and now you can start again. But again, that’s a way to give people a chance to speak. But people can choose when they want to speak, rather than having this turn where it’s coming around. And it’s very set. Larry Michaelsen’s Team-Based Learning is much more complex. Larry started this in a lecture hall. And so he has basically an IRAT and GRAT. And the IRAT is an Individual Readiness Assessment Test and that GRAT is a Group Readiness Assessment Test. So he has them take an IRAT first, and as an individual give their answers, turn that in—that’s a grade—and then he has them do the GRAT. So as a group, they now turn in their group grade. And he also uses the scratch off cards, the if/at cards, that sort of thing. Initially, the assertive ones—again—are giving the answers. But as they discover that they don’t have the right answers all the time, then the quieter ones in the group suddenly become more important to the group because their grade is dependent on this. So they’ll start asking, “What did you get for this? You seem to get A’s all the time. Can you please help us?” And so that’s his method of doing that inclusivity.

John: And in that approach though, I believe he recommends persistent teams over the course of the semester, so that they develop that sort of team dynamic.

Dakin: Yeah, very much so.

John: Are there any other small group activities that you like to use?

Dakin: I have a lot of protocols that I’ve gathered over the years—probably got 40, 50 protocols—and the ones that I select are the ones that are low risk. So I’ve kind of classed them as low risk, medium risk, and high risk in terms of how much risk does the student feel when they’re in the classroom doing these… and I like low-risk things which are usually small group where they’re by themselves and they’re talking, and it’s not in front of the faculty member, and they are not having to answer to the whole class in front of a large group. So, some of the pieces I like are jigsaw—which comes out of Elliot Aronson’s work in the 70s—the idea that you break up an assignment into five pieces, and each of the students in a group will do one of those five pieces, and then they will talk in class and share out what they’ve learned from each of those five pieces. So it’s a great way to synthesize a lot of data that maybe you don’t want all students doing. So when I was teaching my Middle Eastern history class, each student was responsible for a different country and they had to do a lot of reading on that country. But if I had all the students do all that reading, it would have been far too much. So instead, I can have these various countries sit at a table and then have a conversation, and the student representing Israel can talk about Israel’s point of view, and the student doing Jordan can talk about Jordan’s point of view, that sort of thing. So that’s one method I love and I even do a double jigsaw. But I only do a double jigsaw maybe twice a semester and they’re at moments where there’s so much content, that there’s absolutely no way we can cover it. And the best example of that is U.S. history survey, first day, which is the dawn of time to 1492, which I think is horribly disrespectful to everybody that was in North America before 1492. So we do a double jigsaw, which is where you have a jigsaw that creates experts at each table and then those experts then are now experts in five different topics. And those people then go off to create super jigsaws. And that works well, but it takes a lot of time. The other one I love is role playing. Role playing… just because it’s my age… I grew up with role playing, but I’ve done a lot of different styles of role play. The one that I think I use the most in first-year history is Articles of Confederation. Everybody takes a representative to the Confederation and talks about what it was that person was like, and why they voted the way they did, and what were their goals. And then we skip ahead to the Constitutional Convention and we talk about who’s still there, who’s not there, why are they not there? If they’re still there, do they still have the same opinions? Are they still voting the same way? Why are the results different at the Constitutional Convention as opposed to with the Articles of Confederation? So that’s a good one. Other classics are the Oregon Trail… everybody loves the Oregon Trail. And unlike the computer game, what you learn is not many people died on the Oregon Trail. People who died most were the Native Americans who are along the trail, everybody else pretty much made where they were going, but that had to do with who those people were. The other one we did was Cuban Missile Crisis. Did the Cuban Missile Crisis and role played the various operatives in the Cuban Missile Crisis. And then next week we talked about Watergate and again looked at those same operatives and where they were now in the Watergate plumbers. So that was also useful …those kind of things. There’s lots of different ways to use that though. I’ve seen people use that with theorists. So in psychology, different theorists are represented by the students and they argue their different theories and try to figure out how these things go together. Role playing is obviously one I love.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about how you set the role play up? You mentioned what some of the topics are and when you use it, but can you talk a little bit about the logistics of setting that up and how you have students prepare for that?

Dakin: And those vary a lot. When we’re doing the Articles of Confederation, I just have a list of representatives and I asked them to choose one and then we go from there. So my prep on that is zero, they are the ones responsible for that prep. On some of the others, there’s a lot of prep. With Oregon Trail I worked out, I took a K-12 game that had been done for Oregon Trail, and then I made it much more complex and they had to purchase their gear so I had a full list of gear, I had a list of where they were going to stop, how they were going to stop, and what the mortality rates were. So I basically created this whole game around it and then they played through that. With the Watergate and Cuban Missile Crisis, it was kind of halfway between there. I made cards with each of the people they would role play and on the back—like a Clue card—it tells you who this person is and what their role is and then I gave those to them. And then from there, they again generated most of the data.

John: You mentioned you have these organized by levels of risk. How would you recommend using the different levels? Would it make sense to start with low-risk activities, and then as more trust is built, build the higher ones, or would that be affected by the level of the class that you’re teaching, whether it’s introductory or more advanced?

Dakin: Yeah, it definitely depends upon the purpose of the class. I tend to teach introductory classes so I build a lot of trust, I use a lot of low-risk pieces, and I’ll move to maybe medium risk by the middle of the semester—or maybe I won’t ever use medium risk, it’ll all be low risk—because I’m trying to get them to get used to college and figure out what that’s involved in. If I am teaching a class that’s kind of a gateway or portal class that’s going to lead on and it’s supposed to cull out people, it’s supposed to find out who the best people are, then maybe it makes sense to start doing some of those high-risk pieces, but I probably wouldn’t do that until at least the third year. Build a lot of confidence, a lot of trust, and there’s a lot of learning that has to take place before that, before you get to that point. Traditionally of course, if you look at law school or medical school, they have a lot a lot of high-risk protocols, because there’s a lot at stake and people have to do well. And I remember when I started working with the med school that I read academic medicine, and one of the articles was, “We should abuse our students less.” [LAUGHTER] Not, “We shouldn’t abuse our students,” but, “We should abuse them less.” So, that kind of gave you a sense of what we were dealing with.

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about some of the small-group techniques that you use in online environments?

Dakin: Sure. Online environments—actually, the small groups—I usually leave that up to the groups themselves. So if there are groups of students that I’m having work on particular topics, I’ll have those students organize, say, a synchronous conference where they get together on Zoom, and they talk about these things. So they get to pick whatever tool they want—I’ll recommend Zoom because it’s free and you can have up to 40 minutes free, and you can record it. It’s very simple—but they will do that work by themselves. If we’re dealing with, say, a discussion forum, what I’ll generally deal with is ways that students can interact kind of more of at a large-group level, because there’s really no need for a small group when you’re on the discussion forum. But what I do want to do is get rid of the old “post one, reply two” because after you’ve taken two or three online courses, you’re pretty bored with that protocol. And so giving them different ways to think about it and moving the jigsaw into it, moving a debate into it, moving role playing into it, those are all really useful.

Rebecca: Can you pick one of those more complex ways of using a discussion board and talk through how you set that up or organize that?

Dakin: Sure. I think the main thing I do is really—it’s not so much about the organization of the board when I’m doing it—but building student activity. I do a big sales job in terms of talking about what is the value you get from an online course. Now, if it’s just teacher to student, I think that’s a really limited amount of value because there’s a lot of good books out, you can read, you can train, you can look at YouTube, there’s all sorts of great ways to learn. But a real value from an online course for me is who is in that class with you and finding out what their strengths are and what they can bring to it, and that’s where a large part of the education comes. So I don’t use this “post one, reply two” but I do want them to make sure that they are responding weekly to their colleagues, but at a level they feel is appropriate. So don’t say something if you think it’s totally pointless. But if you have a comment and you feel it’s worthwhile, say it, because we need to hear it. That’s the largest part of this. In terms of the organization, the only pieces I’ve done in terms of organization have been very slight. So, with an assignment, you turn in your first post Wednesday, and you turn in your final post on the piece, on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. So the initial post is what your response is—out of a think-pair-share, this would be the think part—that you’re doing your initial writing. And then the second part of the week is simply the sharing part. So now you’re responding to those students. Now, if you’re in Canvas, you can do this with setting up the initial one as your due date, and the second piece as your until date, so you can do it within one assignment. Unfortunately with Blackboard, you can’t do that, you have to have two separate assignments. But that’s the only real difference.

John: What about larger classes? What techniques do you recommend there?

Dakin: In large classes, I often talk about Eric Mazur and his peer instruction, simply because I can send them to the videos he’s got on YouTube, and he’s got a lot of videos there. He’s got a lot of publications. So that’s great, I have a lot of resources I can send them to that they can start working on. But Eric’s technique is largely one that applies to an interactive lecture. It’s not really small-group work per se, it’s a way to maintain activity by the students and also makes sure that you’re getting feedback back on what they’re understanding. But since Eric uses multiple-choice questions, he’s really not getting beyond that understanding- or application-level question. So, the issue really with small-group work and large classes is really not about the size of the class, it’s about the furniture in the class. So, you can do small-group work with a very large group as long as you’ve got movable tables and chairs. So, I did this at the Teaching Professor Conference a few years ago. I had 110 people in the room and we did value line, and we did jigsaw, and we did all these different things, and it’s very easy to do as long as you’ve got the furniture that allows you to do it. The hard part about a “large” class is really it’s about the lecture hall and the furniture in it. So if you’ve got furniture that’s fixed, if you’ve got a table that’s fixed, if you’ve got chairs that are fixed, it’s hard to have more than two to three people working together at any one time because they can’t turn around—they can’t do anything else. Also, since you’re in a large lecture hall, there’s a lot of noise. So again, you don’t want to get more than three people because you won’t be able to hear the others. If in a lecture where students can turn around, then you can have a larger group of say four to six. So you have two to three in the front row, two or three in the back row, and they’re talking together in that small group. And I’ve seen small-group work in lecture halls with as many as 160 people, so I know it works. It does take some effort in terms of arranging it. Usually they don’t do random small groups every day—because that would be chaos—but they do long-term teamwork and the faculty member who did this was David Pace at Indiana University—he was very good at this, he’s the one who taught me how to do much of this—he does a pretest, he organizes the students, he puts them into these long-term teams, and then in those teams in the lecture hall, they have the seating arrangement where they’re sitting. And then when he wants to do small-group work, he’ll do his lecture, and he’ll do small-group work, then he’ll do a debrief, same sort of pattern.

Rebecca: What do you find your role is, as an instructor during small-group work? You want to put a lot of the onus on the students, but what’s your role during all of that and how does that scale up to a big class?

Dakin: My role is—as an instructor small-group work—is essentially challenging, adding to, and supporting. Making sure that they know they’re encouraged and they’re doing a great job and going around doing that sort of thing as I walk the room. A lot of the work I do is really the preparation. Making sure that those things are well thought out, that I have a lot of idea of which directions they can go, and to, after the class, make sure I’ve done my reflection: I’ve written down all the weird places they went so that I know that those are possibilities and I can be ready for those, or maybe I just work towards those. Maybe those were better ideas than the ones I came up with—which is actually one of the big advantages of small-group work because you are paying more attention to the students, the students have a bigger role in the class, and your life isn’t as boring. If I was doing the same lecture 20, 30 years later, I would be bored to tears. But as it is, since I’m using these, every semester is different because every group of students is different. So my life is constantly interesting. And it’s almost like doing improv, really, in a way. You have to be a little brave about it, you give them opportunities, but there’s a lot of trust, you trust the students are there to help you. And everything goes well, even with apathetic classes that when I’ve walked in, the class has just been dead, they don’t want to do anything. After a week or two of this, they start getting into it. And by the end of the semester, they’re the same as every other class, and it’s going very well. So it’s highly enjoyable. So I think that’s it, make the class fun, get them to trust and encourage them to do their best work.

John: And in large classes if you have TAs, you could have TAs going around and doing the same thing, just so that you get more of the room covered.

Dakin: That, or if you’ve got a tight space to deal with, you could also have a backchannel going, so people in the groups are reporting out and the TAs are looking at that backchannel through Twitter or something else and kind of getting those ideas and feeding those back to either the students or the instructor.

John: Earlier you mentioned that light grading be used. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Dakin: I think that’s the hardest thing for faculty to do is light grading. Faculty members really want to mark everything. If they see something wrong, they will mark it. And I must admit, myself, when I’m posting to Facebook and somebody writes something and spells it incorrectly, I have to respond. It’s annoying, but I have to do it, and it’s the same way with grading. People will try to grade everything and they will eat up their lives giving these huge responses back that the students really aren’t going to listen to. Nobody has time to make all those corrections. So the smartest guy I ever saw was Bob Ferrell, who was a professor of history. And Bob was highly published—he had 50 plus books—and he still had a line out the door of students that he talked to every day and that was highly admirable as far as I was concerned. And so I wanted to find out how he did this, and what he did is… I took a readings class with him and I handed in a paper a week, and we worked through that. And every paper, the first time he got it, he marked it up pretty heavily to show, “You need to work on your grammar and I’m watching you.” But after that, every week, it was three things. He’d mark… circle one, flip a couple pages, circle another, flip a couple pages, circle another, “There you go,” out the door, you’re done. And so for me it felt like, “Oh, I only have three things to change. This is great, I’m really close to getting that top grade.” And next week it would be another three. And next week it would be another three, and so on. So, he was doing light grading, he was giving me feedback—feedback that was useful to me—feedback that was moderately challenging. I didn’t feel at sea, I felt I could do it. Great. And so I would do it. And that’s the way I come to this. The way I implement it is, say if I’m in a freshman class, I will have the students writing say 1000 words response every week, which for a freshman class seems like a lot, but I want them to work and I want to hear their voice. I will tell them not to use any quotations, I want to hear their voice, I don’t want to hear somebody else’s. I want to hear them thinking, and if they don’t agree with the text, argue with it—that’s fine. If you don’t agree with me, argue. That’s what you should be doing. You’re trying to construct your ability to speak and write. So, when they do that, they then turn these pieces in, and I grade them but I grade them lightly, which means I’ve got now 40,000 word essays I’m supposed to be grading, that will take me about 40 minutes. I spend about a minute on each. I just kind of flip through it, I can tell if somebody’s done the reading or not, I can tell if there’s a major issue or not, and then I write down my responses but I don’t give them to the students. I just give the students grades. And when I get to the class, I’ll do a group grade. So at the beginning of the class, I will then do a couple things. One, I will celebrate some people, and I’ll talk about that in a minute, but I also make corrections. I’ll do grammatical corrections, will say “Here’s the five grammatical errors of the week,” and by about mid semester, I’m still showing some of those grammatical errors up on the board and the girl who’s done it says, “Oh my God, it’s me again!” So they get it and they’re trying to reduce them and that’s fine. The other thing is I talk about misconceptions. Say somebody has a misconception about a particular piece, I’ll say, “A couple people had a misconception about X.” Now it’s not a couple people, it’s Joe. It’s always Joe. Joe’s in the back room, Joe never does the reading, Joe’s having trouble. But Joe knows he’s not doing the reading and Joe knows he’s not getting a good grade, he doesn’t need to have his name called out in front of the class. So I say, “A couple people had this issue.” I talk about that and address it. And then the next part, the celebration. So, in order to make them feel better about what just happened, I then say “Now then, I wanted to talk about some of the great things that were done this week. So first of all, Jenny had this fantastic response, it was just so meaningful. I want to share it with you, because I think it’s really worthwhile listening to. And Bob said something that no one has ever said in this class before and so I think it’s important to address that.” And then maybe I talked about Jim, “Jim really did a very deep reading of the text, he brought up some serious issues that I did not bring up myself, and I think we need to explore those today. So that’s part of our discussion today, it will be based on what Jim has talked about.” So that’s the celebration, but every week, it’s a different three. It’s never the same three, it’s never always the A students. Over the course of semester, I find a way to celebrate each and every student in that class, including Joe. And Joe is hard. Joe’s really hard. So I’m always watching every week to see what Joe is talking about and if Joe says something good it’s like, “Yes, I can now celebrate Joe! Good. Check.” I’m celebrating. And that’s the way light grading works for me, it allows me to spend more time interacting with students, less time interacting with their work.

Rebecca: I’m sure we can all take advice on reducing grading, right? [LAUGHTER]

John: When we talk to faculty about using group discussions in class, one thing they often raise is a question of when students are teaching each other—in general with peer discussion or peer activities—there’s a concern that perhaps it may reinforce misinformation. How can you be sure that that doesn’t happen with small-group activities?

Dakin: Well, I don’t think you can be sure it doesn’t happen, but you can certainly set up a system to check for that and make sure it’s not happening or that if it’s happening, you’re correcting it. So the way to do that would be use some ungraded assessments, those classroom assessment techniques from Angelo and Cross. In the large group during the debriefing, some of those may come to light again, and you can then use lecture to correct those misconceptions once they become apparent. I agree that small-group work builds confidence, but it can really be like the blind leading the blind sometimes, especially if the students haven’t been doing the preparatory homework, and especially if the groups aren’t randomized.

John: And if you do that sort of pretesting, where you’re getting the initial feedback, you can tell what those misperceptions are, so that you can be prepared to address them during the class, which should help reduce that issue.

Dakin: Sometimes… yeah. I have to know which questions to ask, and often I don’t. So it’s that ungraded assessment where they toss back an answer that completely takes me by surprise. Oh, I am so surprised. Now I know what your misconception is. But I couldn’t have guessed at it.

Rebecca: I think that’s important to remember too, that [when] you’ve been teaching for a long time, the misperceptions that you might have come across five years ago are really different than the misperceptions that you might experience this year, because the experiences of our students change and the group of students change, and all of that influences prior knowledge and prior experience that influences how they might interpret material.

Dakin: That is so important. Over the 30 some odd years I’ve been teaching, my students have changed a lot, not only in their content knowledge and what they know and what they’ve experienced, but also how they think and how they behave. And again, that’s the strength of using small group work, because you get to see how they think and how they behave. And they’re not just sitting there in rows in front of you and you imagine that’s the same class you were teaching in 1987. [LAUGHTER]

Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking, what’s next?

Dakin: I’m collecting all these protocols for my own use and also to help others, so it’d be great if people listening to this podcast could send me some new ideas, send me some more protocols, so I can share those out. The way to do that is to send them at teaching@cortland.edu. That’s our email address. In the meantime, we’ve got a new Institute for College Teaching down here, we finished up a faculty needs survey. We’ve got our advisory committee in place, and we’re just about to start setting up priorities for next year. So, there’s a lot happening, I just don’t know what it is yet.

John: Because you’ve just taken over that position fairly recently, right?

Dakin: Two months ago.

Rebecca: Oh, the surprises you might find, right? [LAUGHTER]

Dakin: I have been very pleasantly surprised so far. I have found a lot of really skilled and dedicated faculty, and I’ve just really been enjoying talking to them. I know I enjoy this because it’s a challenge, and I love a challenge. And they are so well-educated already. It makes me work very hard.

Rebecca: Which means you’ll never be bored, right?

Dakin: Exactly, and that that’s why it’s so important to me.

Rebecca: Well thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been really interesting, and I think will help faculty as they plan for their next teaching adventure.

John: Thank you and we will share some of the resources that you’ve provided in the show notes as well.

Dakin: Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Thank you so much.

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John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.