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Many students arrive in our classes with relatively little understanding of how they learn. In this episode, Dr. Judith Boettcher joins us to discuss how well structured project-based or problem-based learning activities can help students develop their metacognitive skills so that they become more successful as learners.
Dr. Boettcher is the author of many books and articles on higher education and has long been a leader in the field of online education. The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, co-authored by Judith has been an important resource for faculty transitioning to online teaching. At Oswego (and many other institutions), many faculty have been using materials that Judith has developed for ACUE (the Association of College and University Educators).
- Designing for Learning – Dr. Boettcher’s blog.
- National Research Council. 2000. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/9853.
- Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.
- Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
- Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. M. (2016). The online teaching survival guide: Simple and practical pedagogical tips. John Wiley & Sons.
- Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.
- Past Tea for Teaching podcast episodes referenced in this episode:
- Allen, D. (2015). Getting things done: The art of stress-free productivity. Penguin.
- Kandel, E. (2006). In Search of Memory:The emergence of a new science of mind (Paperback ed.). New York Norton.
- Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press.
- Hussman, Polly R. (2019), “Metacognition v. pure effort: Which truly makes the difference in an undergraduate anatomy class?” Improve with Metacognition blog. April 10, 2019. (the study referenced near the end of the podcast)
- Tanner, Kimberly D. “Promoting student metacognition.” CBE-Life Sciences Education 11, no. 2 (2012): 113-120.
John: Many students arrive in our classes with relatively little understanding of how they learn. In this episode, we examine how well structured project-based or problem-based learning activities can help students develop their metacognitive skills so that they become more successful as learners.
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.
Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Judith Boettcher. She is the author of many books and articles on higher education and has long been a leader in the field of online education. The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, co-authored by Judith has been an important resource for faculty transitioning to online teaching. At Oswego many of our faculty have been using materials that Judith has developed for ACUE (the Association of College and University Educators). Welcome Judith.
Judith: Thank you very much, Rebecca and John, it’s great to be here.
John: We’re really pleased to have you here. Our teas today are… are you drinking tea?
Judith: I actually… yes, made a special point. Here’s my cup, which you can’t see. But I chose one of my favorite teas, which is a lemon and ginger tea from England, of course,
John: the Twinings version.
Judith: No, this is a Hamptons tea from London.
John: We have the Twinings version of that in our tea collection.
Rebecca: I’m drinking Jasmine green tea today.
John: And I’m drinking oolong tea today.
Judith: Sounds good.
Rebecca: Judith, your mug looks really interesting. Is it abstract art. Is that what was on it?
Judith: It’s actually pears.
Rebecca: Okay, I only saw the bottom part of it. I can see it now.
Judith: Yeah, right. Well, I will confess that at some point, I finally decided to clear every vendor cup out of my cupboard.
Rebecca: That sounds refreshing.
John: I have vendor cups all over… in my vehicles… in my offices, everywhere.
Judith: Well, that was part of my retirement process that I went through. I said, “Okay, that’s it.”
John: One of the things we had trouble with is picking a topic because you’ve worked on so many topics, but we settled on having you talk a little bit about how students can work to improve their metacognition using project-based or problem-based learning. But before we do that, could you talk a little bit about what metacognition means?
Judith: I would really like to John, partially because I had this book with the title of metacognition that I was reading when I was with a family event. And one of my relatives said, “What in the world is this? Meta what?” [LAUGHTER] So, an easy way I like to think about metacognition is the definition of just it’s thinking about thinking. It’s a definition, I think. that we can all just really grab on to and we can really use. But then I kind of like to expand that definition into one that’s in the How People Learn report that I go back to pretty regularly and that is that “metacognition is the process of reflecting on and directing our own learning.” And I really like that one, because it’s got the two steps, I think, what we want to really kind of focus on with metacognition, and that is reflection… really stopping thinking, pausing… and then actually directing our own thinking, because that leads to action. So then we have reflection and action, which I think is the core of metacognition skills.
Rebecca: One of the things I think we often talk about in education context is this reflection piece. And we always tell students to reflect, but we don’t always give them the time and space to do that.
Judith: Yeah. [LAUGHTER] Very much.
Rebecca: So can you talk a little bit about project-based and problem-based learning and how metacognition connects to those rather than standard ways of operating in the classroom?
Judith: Yes, I would love to do that. In fact, that was one of the first things when we’ve got into online learning, was that there was a real struggle as to how do we maintain the security and everything of people taking tests. And so it turned out that we decided that one of the best ways of gathering evidence of student learning was not by doing these tests… that we would actually have the students do projects. And that kind of evolved into the following process. And that is that in some of the work I’ve done for ACUE, and also in the book, I’ve mentioned that I really like to design a course that starts with the students selecting and doing a project, actually in week one or two of the course. And then that students actually focus on that project throughout the entire course. And that’s the mechanism by which we gather evidence of student learning. It kind of also avoids this whole process of buying papers and buying other kinds of things. Because you really have milestones along the way.
I’m going to stop and talk about the first step for just a moment. And that is choosing a project. One of the wonderful things about choosing a project is that then students actually have to stop and then think about the kind of project that they want to do. It gives them an opportunity to actually customize a course to their interests, which starts getting past that big motivation problem that sometimes teachers might say, “Well, how do I motivate them?” Well, we give them the opportunity to choose something that is of interest to them. So they choose a project, and then they actually write up what that project is that they want to do. But that’s not the end of selecting the project. Before the project is really kind of finalized that they’re going to be working on, they actually then sit down and talk with some of their other students and the other peers. They switch and swap their proposed project descriptions, so that they actually talk out loud about the project. And then hopefully, by talking to their peers about it, they get some additional ideas, and they refine it a bit. And then it goes to the faculty member. So the faculty member doesn’t get it right away, but it goes through this first the individual students thinking about it, and then the other students thinking about it, and then the faculty member can take a look at it. And that’s only milestone one that can take up to about the third week of a course. But by then, hopefully, that gives them a real focus of the course rather than having just the topics thrown at them from week one through week 16… that they’ve got a real focus of: “Oh, how is this going to affect my project?” We can come back to that I just want to mention briefly then there’s like four other milestones, five other milestones for every project throughout the course. And the first is that project description, then the second one would be planning how do I plan to do it, which is a really important metacognitive skill. And then another milestone would be some type of other “Just checking in, how are you doing?” …kind of a thing. And then there’s two final things. One is where they actually share their project with the other students, like in a mini conference, whatever. And then the final thing is the actual final thing, which might not be a paper, it might be a video or an interview, it could be one of a number of things that would go into their student portfolio then. But, that gives the student a focus throughout the entire course that way. That’s a lot, isn’t it?
Rebecca: It is a lot. [LAUGHTER]
John: When you have them give feedback to each other, do you recommend that that’s done synchronously or asynchronously If it’s an online course?
Judith: You know it’s actually best, I think, that the students do it somewhat like a brainstorming event. What you and I are doing right now here with Zoom, students can do with FaceTime, they can do it with just an online gathering chat, whatever. If they’re really, really busy online students, and they have to do it asynchronously, that can be done too with email. I mean, that works too. But it’s often really great for the students themselves to talk out loud. We don’t have them talking enough, I think. They read passively, and they kind of think and everything else, but we don’t have ways for them to use their voice to talk about what they’re thinking.
John: It sounds like the project’s really nicely scaffoldied. But how do you bring in the metacognitive development? How do you get students to improve their metacognitive skills? Is that something they’re explicitly thinking about? Or is it something that’s done as part of the structure of the project?
Judith: Well, of course, it depends on how the faculty member wants to do it. As I had the chance to go back and look more intensely at the metacognitive skills, it occurs to me that thinking metacognitively is such a basic intellectual skill in many respects, particularly now in our 21st century. It’s as fundamental as reading and writing. And, you know, I think we need to look at our entire curriculum from pre-K through whatever as to really how do we explicitly teach and model and coach metacognition skills, which includes with that initial project proposal, we can talk about the fact that what they need to do is think and be sure to build on their interest to give them the criteria and coaching as to how that’s going to really work for them. It’s really a problem when they have to select a project. So what are the constraints on that problem? What are the features or benefits that they’re going to get from this? …and to build that into the assignment and actually writing out the initial proposal and then meeting with their colleagues and peer students, that’s all part of the coaching and the modeling of the metacognitive process.
Rebecca: I think your emphasis on talking about things is really interesting. Because I find that students often will passively write something, and it makes no sense to anybody. But as soon as they try to explain it out loud, they realize it makes no sense. Because when it’s in writing, or they’re just reading in their head, they don’t often have that realization. But as soon as you try to say it out loud as a sentence, it’s not structured in a way that makes sense. They catch themselves or they realize, “Wait, there’s a big hole in what I’m talking about here… nobody knows what I’m talking about.” You can tell it by other people’s faces looking blankly back at you.
Judith: And then they realize that they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
Judith: So yes, in fact, that’s apart of the power of talking with their peers about the project, because the peers would most likely say, “Well, wait a minute, why did you choose this? Why are you interested in this?” And so that’s when they have to dig more deeply. It almost goes back to that Socratic questioning, “Why do you think that? Why is that important to you? Do you think this is going to make any difference in your life?” One of the things I really recommend in online learning is that the students, when they read and look at the objectives for a course, to stop… and in the first week, actually, to have the students process those learning objectives, and then personalize one or two of them and say, “This is what I really want to make certain I know when I finish this course. This is how I’m going to be a different person.” Thinking “What skill am I going to be able to do when I finish this course?” They kind of set that goal and set those expectations early on. Hopefully, students setting those goals and objectives become again, more personal to them, and something that they can check themselves. And then as they go through the course, “What progress am I making on this particular goal? How is this coming?” …kind of fun.
Rebecca: Are there ways that you would suggest a faculty member model metacognition early on in an online course?
Judith: Well, I think a really easy way for faculty to model meta cognitive skills is… say, for example, in biology or one of sciences, one of the things I love to look at is the biography of a scientist and looking at, “Well, how did they come to this point? What made them think X, Y, or Z as opposed to A, B, or C?” and we find it’s really rooted in their personal lives and their thinking that they’ve been doing. So faculty member can somewhat do the same thing, in fact, very early on in their introduction to the course. Now, what do you teach Rebecca?
Rebecca: I teach web design.
Judith: You teach web design, okay. So in your introduction, then, to your students, you can say the reason I love web design is as follows. And you can go back into your life and your experiences and say, This is what happened to me… and this is what I was thinking… this is how I got to this point. So you really speak out loud, and you share your processes by which you arrived at that point. And we can do that for any kind of thinking… as we’re talking about an experiment. We do want faculty to share their expertise and their dissertation, for example, they say, “Wow, you know, this is why I’m interested in this. And you know, after 25-30 years, I’m still interested in this because of this.” So they share their thinking processes. Another really easy time is when students ask them a question. And obviously, this can happen online in the synchronous activities. And the students might ask them a question about, “Well, gee, Professor, so and so what does this really mean in this instance, or in this context?” And the faculty member can say, “You know, I really am not sure about that. And I would like to, before I answer that, I would like to do a little more research and thinking, and I will get back to you on that.” So it sends the message that the process of thinking is something that we keep doing all the time.
Rebecca: I think that moment of admitting that you’re not always the expert in everything in the moment, is always a good thing for students. And they respond really positively to that.
Judith: That’s right. It also gives them the opportunity to say, “You know, Professor, I would like a little more time to think about that. Let me get back to you on that.”
John: How can we tell that students have improved their metacognitive skills? I like the idea of having the peer instruction do that. Or to work with students to help them recognize what they know and what they don’t know. But how can we measure that? Or how can students know that they’re more metacognitively aware? How can they observe improvement?
Judith: Well, one of the things I did as I was thinking about this was, you know, I was kind of preparing for you asking me the question, “What are the actual metacognitive skills?” and I came up with five thinking skills that we really want to encourage and model for students. The first one is an easy one. And that is, number one, we really want to encourage students to think. I know that sounds somewhat simplistic, but oftentimes think about in the online environment, we give them an assignment and students, they don’t even read it, really, they kind of scan it. And they kind of assume without thinking that that’s what that assignment is going to give back. And so one metacognitive skill is to pause and stop to really take some time to think and process. In fact, I kind of like to think about the assignment as a briefing. You know, we use briefings in business and politics and detective crime solving and all the rest of it we use briefings. Maybe as a faculty member, you want to encourage the students to think of an assignment as a briefing and a briefing is, “Well, this is what we know now, what do we want to know about next? How are we going to find out what that next is? And when you finish this assignment, what do you expect to know or think about or become clear about?” So step number one is really pausing and thinking. There’s a book out recently called, was it Kahneman? It’s that Thinking Fast and Slow or Slow and Fast?
John: Yes, Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s a great book.
Judith: Thinking Fast and Slow, right. Well, you know, he makes the point that we live in such a fast-paced world that our first response to anything is that, “Oh, I know the answer to that.” It’s like Jeopardy, and you really don’t stop and pause and think. And so, because it’s really easy, that’s the short-term memory, we don’t have to think about it. We know that in order for learning to occur, that we really have to stop and give time for information going into our short-term memory to get into the long-term memory. The only way anything goes from the short-term to the long-term memory is for us to connect what we know already with the new information coming in. And you know what? …that takes time. So that’s the one thing for all of us. Time is so seriously, we don’t want to take the time. But if we don’t take the time, the only way learning occurs, you know, if we grow dendrites in our brain, and so if we don’t take the time the dendrites don’t grow, and nothing lasts. It’s kind of a fast bullet shot, so to speak. And then we forget it. As soon as we use it in a sentence, it’s gone. So the idea that we have to really discipline ourselves to stop and think and process, what is it that I’m needing to do? What is it that I want to learn? What do I want to get out of this? And when I finish this assignment, how will I know that I’ve really finished the assignment. Which brings us to the next thinking skills. One of the things I really liked, I use myself a great deal. And this is kind of a hard won practice of my own. And that is that, whenever I was given an assignment whether it was at work or wherever, whenever I had a hard time getting started… you know, getting started is sometimes one of the most difficult parts of anything, right? So anyhow, I finally figured out that one of the reasons it was hard getting started was that I didn’t quite know what it was I was going to do. I finally realized that my best practice is that I visualize what it is going to be when I finish. I get requests to review articles for journals, etc, etc. Well, I know now that my visualization works is that I’ll be done when I finish answering all those questions, you know, read the article, finish answering all the questions, I compose my response back to the editor. And that’s when I’m done, okay? So with any kind of a project, we want to encourage the students to say, “Okay, what is my assignment going to look like when I’m really done? When I have finished reading this article, or reading this core seminal research project? When will I really be done? Will I be done when I can explain the research to someone else? Will I be done when I can actually implement these ideas in a web design project? Is that when I’m going to be done? Just what is that project going to look like when I’m really done?” So we just celebrated the Apollo landing on the moon, in July. I just had the recent opportunity to see the Apollo 11 program that they created out of the original footage from everything that was happening at Cape Kennedy and Houston… the pictures, it showed like, literally, a room full… it almost look like 100 guys, and they were all guys at that time… 100 guys sitting at computer terminals, and you think when they worked on that project, how did they envision success? They had to envision success as actually a man being on the moon. How did he get to the moon? What did he land on the moon in? And then how are we going to get him back from the moon safely? I mean, think of all the things that had to be planned and worked on and everything had to be coordinated to make that thing happen.
So thinking skills, we have to think, we have to visualize, and then we have to plan. Once we know what that final vision is, we need to then plan each of those steps along the way. And again, we can model some of that and coach that by building the planning into the assignments for the project. We definitely want the students to give me a plan with the date, the milestones, the resources they’re going to be needing,]… if they need to make appointments or interviews when that’s going to happen. So we help them realize that projects just don’t happen. They happen after all of these various steps. And then, of course, we build in step number four, evaluating and pausing to then debrief each step along the way: How am I doing? Do I need more time? What else might I need? What else do I really want to know, if I do have enough time? I mean, this really does happen with web design, right? We get to a certain point, we think of it’d be great if I did this. Great if I did that. Do I have enough time to do that? Do I have the knowledge to do that? Or do I need to learn a new skill to insert that into that. So those are all questions that we want to ask encourage the students to plan for and to ask along the way. And then of course, the final one is the final debriefing. When you hand something in, you get feedback both from your peers and from the faculty member. And in many online courses, you do have these little mini conferences where you invite alumni or experts or just friends in to say take a look at this and see what you think.
Rebecca: I like your framework of the briefing. And it’s actually one that I use in my classes pretty regularly.
Judith: Oh, great.
Rebecca: When I’m doing long term projects, I have students on a weekly basis do basically a little briefing of what did they do? What do they need to do? What are the planning steps? So not just like that big scope of the whole project, but on a very routine basis, checking in with their schedule and checking in with their plan and what they’re struggling with to demonstrate what they’re doing, and what their thought processes is as they’re working on it. So I asked them, “What were the big design decisions you made this week? And what did you base those on?”
Judith: Wonderful. In fact, I sometimes like to use the example of Mark Harmon, the actor in NCIS. I love those programs, actually. Like every morning, he kind of just drives into the office and says, “Okay, what do we have.” And each one of his team members have to then report “Okay, since we saw you yesterday, this is what we’ve done. And this is what we know.” And then from that briefing, decide on their next steps, “Okay, we need to do X, Y, or Z.” It’s a really kind of a nice example of planning.
John: Building it into the project just seems to make an awful lot of sense. If you want students to improve their skills, have them apply those skills and structuring it so that they’re doing it is a very reasonable way of doing this.
Judith: And I love the fact that, Rebecca, as you were saying is to ask the students to say what have you been thinking for? And what made you arrive at the decision that you’d like to do something a little different there? So yeah, again, verbalizing the thought processes, is part of the metacognitive abilities.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that surprises students with that assignment is that they don’t realize that they’ve made decisions.
Judith: Oh, interesting.
Rebecca: That happens in projects. But also, if they’re writing a paper, whatever, they’ve made decisions, but they don’t necessarily think of it like they’ve made a decision. They’ve just kind of moved forward. So it causes them to stop and pause and do that first thing that you were talking about, and think for a second before they move forward.
Rebecca: I do have to say, that since I instituted that, my students are far more articulate when they’re talking about their projects. [LAUGHTER]
Judith: When they’re doing their own projects, they get their passions involved. There was another thing I wrote recently on curiosity, how important curiosity is and how we want to really build that in. In fact, one of the things when I was doing a workshop, I suggested to faculty, I said, “You know, let’s get the students to stop answering questions. Let’s get them posing questions. And let’s give them problems that, in our discipline, we don’t know the answers to, because what fun is that? Ok, so we set up the situation that we the faculty know the answers, and then they have to figure it out. So switch it around a little bit and say, here are some problems and we don’t know the answers, how am I to approach this? And then we’ll give them the challenge.” And that really, particularly John, I’m sure you’ve seen this with the TIP program, the students come up with things that you never would have expected.
John: It’s one of the reasons I enjoy it so much.
Rebecca: So one of the things that I think can be a challenge is if you’re doing a big project throughout the semester, we don’t want it to end up being just one big high-stakes assignment. Are there methods or ways or strategies that we can manage bigger assignments to have some lower-stakes moments or ways so that there’s not so much pressure, and that they’re allowed to make mistakes and improve and learn?
Judith: Yes, and I’m glad you asked that. Actually, somewhere in a couple of tips online that I wanted to refer to. It’s, I think, tip… is it 38 and 60, that talk about project-based learning online… that’s something to think about. But I also have a chart that recommends the grading process for an online course. And so you assign points to each of the milestones in the project. So you assign points with the project proposal and selection, but you also then have smaller team-based events where it’s worth a little bit. Also, the discussion board is a really important aspect of online learning. But it’s hard. How do you evaluate and grade that? So I recommend that about 15%, even 20% on the discussion board. And it’s pretty much a given like the classroom discussion is… so long as students are reasonably consistent about following the rubric for the discussion boards. So you’ve got a little bit there, you have also shorter essays and shorter leadership opportunities in an online course where they might summarize a week’s discussion. So there’s other kinds of activities within an online course. At no point is everything dependent on that one big project, but it does require the students to invest time and energy in that.
John: Many people often think of a need to develop metacognitive skills most for our less able students, thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and so forth… that those who know the least often overestimate their learning by the most. But I think those issues may apply for students at all levels.
Judith: Yeah, we assume that great kids, actually, automatically have these skills and think that way, and they don’t.
Rebecca: Which I think is also a really great thing to talk about, too, because we often talk about metacognition, and helping students who are struggling, do better. But it’s also a great way to challenge students who are already doing well, to do better.
Judith: Absolutely, a great point.
John: For the last 32 summers, I’ve been teaching in the Talent Identification Program (or TIP) at Duke University. And one of the things I’ve observed is that many of the students there have generally been able to breeze through their regular classes without ever having to really learn how to learn. So they sometimes face a little bit of a challenge when they arrive at TIP, and suddenly they’re faced with a challenge. But a really nice part about this is that it’s an ungraded program, so that they can develop their learning skills without worrying about what sort of grades they’re going to get in their classes. And it’s much better to do it there than it would be at some future point, perhaps in a physical chemistry class, or a differential equations class, or some other class later in the career, when they haven’t really had to develop those metacognitive skills that are going to be useful in their future. Developing metacognitive skills really are important for students all along the spectrum.
Judith: That’s a really good example too, John, it’s an interesting phenomenon to talk about, really.
John: How can we tell whether students have higher levels of metacognition? Or how can we tell when students have not developed their metacognitive skills?
Judith: Well, you know, this is obviously a great question. And so let me share just a little bit about my thoughts on the students. How do we know when the students are totally clueless about their thinking processes? And I think one really red flag, particularly in online courses, that these are the students who rather consistently post comments on the discussion board: “What are we doing now? What was the assignment about? When is this? Oh, there’s a rubric, I didn’t know that.” These comments often are the ones from students that they really haven’t taken the time to really read the assignment and to make plans on that. These are also the students that we know for online students that they’re trying to do too many things. They’ve got 1000 things going on with their families, and work, very likely. And they just simply don’t take the time. So I think… just simple reminders all the way along the way in an online course from the faculty member. In the assignment, to be really clear about the assignment and to say, “Be sure to think about the following.” For example, if an article has been assigned, that you as a faculty member say, “Okay, this is why I’ve selected this article. Here are some of the core concepts that are really important in this” and guide the reading to say, “Why do you think the person did this? Be sure to be able to answer these kinds of questions?” And then also to be clear about maybe what you want to do when you finish this reading assignment, to talk about it. If necessary, explain it to your 12-year old. See if you can explain it to that person. So being really clear in the assignment would be, I think, super helpful for all students in an online course, because again, it’s the kind of thing a faculty member would do in the classroom, you’d say, “Okay, I want you to read this article. And you know, this is one of my favorite articles. This is why I want you to do it” …and all the rest of it.” I think we need to do more of that in the assignments in the online course. That’s one thing.
The other students that are clueless are the ones that keep thinking that all they have to do is passively read and reread and reread. We hear that all the time from students that “Oh, well, I read it 15 times. I don’t know why I don’t understand it.” Without saying, while giving help and modeling, as you’re reading this, think about the following.
Just as an aside, I signed up to take a course on brain, dendrites, and synapses from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and oh, my gosh, lesson three, they said, “Well, you know, if you’re not familiar with the electrical circuits, you probably need to go into the Wikipedia and get all this information.” I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m lost right here.” But the idea was that there was some foundational content that I didn’t have. And so again, if in an online course, if some of their content is dependent on some of those other core concepts that they might not have, to remind students that, “hey, this is a difficult reading. And you may want to get some further help in X, Y, or Z.” So again, going back to that whole briefing, and using the assignment as a briefing and giving them clues how to do well in the reading. Some of those comments really have to do with whether students are struggling or not. Because we want to emphasize more clearly the reasons for why we make choices. When we design a course, we really make lots and lots of design decisions and selections as to why I want my students to read X, Y, or Z. And I think sharing that rationale and sharing those reasons, I think, really helps give insight into the metacognitive thinking of the faculty member as well.
Then John, you ask the question, where we talked about little bit about how even when students are doing well, they may not be thinking metacognitively. And I think that it’s important to recognize that these explicit thinking skills about thinking, about visualizing, and about planning, etc, that it would be a good idea to build those visualization and planning into the assignments.
Now, one of the challenges with online courses, and I’ve seen this for years, is the fact that some students don’t have good places to study, they can be living in very busy environments, they don’t have an office, they don’t have a really quiet place to go. And so one of the things that we can do is actually ask the students to post a picture of where they’re going to be doing their studying. It kind of gets them thinking, “Okay, where am I going to be doing my studying? Is it going to be a place that I can really concentrate?” There was one study hint… that I actually just pulled it out, because I gave it my granddaughters…. and it was called “How to study” …and the little hint in there was that when you are sitting down to study, what you do is you find, select or design, some kind of a flamboyant little hat… think Cat in the Hat kind of thing, you know… just flamboyant things, design some kind of a flamboyant hat so that when you put that hat on, you tell your brain and you tell the other people around you that you’re going internal now… you’re really going to think… you’re going to work, you’re going to study. We almost do that nowadays… when I go into my Starbucks, or my local coffee shop… that’s where I do my writing, by the way… I put on my Bose headphones, because again, that signals to the people around me that, “Hey, I’m working, I’m really concentrating.” So if we asked the students to really stop and think, “where am I going to study?” If I’m a family person, and I’m working, “When am I going to study?” That I have to schedule my week, and the times and places that I’m going to do my work and do my studying. And oh, by the way, I kind of have to get my family and my friends on board to say “Yes, John or Rebecca, they’re studying now I can tell they’re studying, you got to leave them alone, give them the time and the space to leave them alone.” For online students I think this is super important for them to build a schedule ahead of time. And again, it recognizes the fact that metacognitively takes time and it takes space in order to do it well.
John: That reminds me of a couple of our previous podcasts, a few episodes back Mathew Ouelett from Cornell, when we were recording, he mentioned that he has a drawing or a painting, I think he did of a tomato, I don’t remember if it was a painting or if he colored it, but he has a big poster with a tomato on his door that he puts up as a signal for faculty to leave him alone because he’s engaged in a pomodoro technique, and he wants to be just focused on this. In a much earlier podcasts, our very second one, Judie LittleJohn was here and we talked about a metacognitive cafe online discussion forum she and I had both used. And one of the things she uses in it, and Rebecca has introduced that in her classes too, is exactly what you suggested, having students describe their study space and perhaps post a picture of it. And then to address all those issues about how well it works, how they deal with distractions, and so on. This ties in nicely to some of our earlier discussions,
Judith: Well great, actually as I was in my Lucky Goat local coffee shop, actually getting ready for this podcast a couple weeks ago, it turns out this young business person came in and he had a briefcase and all the rest of it and I could tell he was kind of settling in… a little too close to me… but that’s okay, there weren’t many seats available. But anyhow, he was talking pretty loudly. And I thought, “Oh, he’s on his phone.” You know, there’s everybody who talks to themselves these days is on the phone, right? And anyhow, we ended up talking to each other partially because he was talking. He said, you know, what he was doing was he was talking to himself about what he was going to do during his time there. And obviously setting his own personal goal. And then he had learned that from his mother. [LAUGHTER] But that does remind me of something else I do want to share. And that is when I do sit down… my own metacognitive practice… when I sit down to do a task… say, I go to the coffee shop, and I got a couple of things I need to do, I write out a mini plan. And list the time I’m starting… list my first subtask, the second sub tasks with approximate time to completion, and everything else. And of course, it doesn’t happen exactly like that. But I do get done, and I do manage to check the pieces off. But then another really important metacognitive practice that I’d like to share is that when I finish that task, I say “What is my next important step?” In fact, David Allen and his book Getting Things Done on Stress Free productivity, thee whole environment, even in business. His primary question is, “What is your next step?” So before you stop where you are, particularly in a writing project, you write down what your next step is. Because it’s totally short circuits, that transition. Because when you sit down, “Yeah, what was I doing now? What do I have to do? What is my next step?” Hey, I can’t tell you the number of hours that that particular little hint has saved me in terms of really making progress and stuff. So that’s another little hint to build into all that project planning. “What is my next step? What do I have to have next?” And sometimes for online learners, particularly, it’s not sitting down and studying, they have to get a resource, or they have to get a book or they have to make an appointment or they have to do something. But then that’s something that doesn’t have to necessarily be done exactly in order. To kind of almost wanting to build a little calligraphy thing, saying “What is my next step?” is a really, really great little hint.
Rebecca: I think experience certainly teaches us that, but it’s something that students who have less experience don’t explicitly know to do. Because we all know that we’ve tried to cut corners and hurry through something. And then if we don’t do that… I know I’ve spent hours figuring out now what was I doing? Like it’s been a while since I’ve worked on this project. Now, where was that? What was my filing system?
Judith: Yes. And what was I thinking? And oh, dear, I wish I bought that along with this other thing with me. Yeah, exactly.
Rebecca: I also wanted to circle back a little bit to the workspaces too. One thing that I found with asking students to talk about their workspace is also to show them professional workspaces. And to talk about the different kinds of environments and how space can help facilitate certain kinds of activities, but also can short circuit certain kinds of activities as well.
Judith: I think that’s really, really helpful. I know, I can’t tell you the number of conversations I had with people when I was in a work environment, and management was making all kinds of decisions that were not conducive to good collaborative work or good independent work. I mean, it’s a real discipline to think about.
John: And you need both spaces, but you will often only have something that’s better for one or the other.
Judith: Exactly, exactly. For any kind of a course, as we’re talking about metacognition, we get overly focused on “what” the students are learning as opposed to the “how.” So just in a capsule comment, that as we are designing online our classroom based courses that we really include in our assignments.. in the design and the various activities… that we include both the “what” of the content and the “how…” How do I get there? And I think we started getting there when they start setting those personal goals. Because some of the courses now are starting to include a goal or a learning outcome that they want their students to think like a scientist. You’re not just learning biology, we want you to think like a scientist. Or we want you to think like an engineer, or an entrepreneur, or whatever. But getting this… it’s a different mindset. You just don’t want to learn what biology is and learn about the content of biology, but I love finding out about the biographies of like Einstein and a few other folks. It’s just fascinating to get into their heads as to the process that they use to do that. Eric Kandle, by the way, is another Nobel Prize winner. He’s got some fabulous book out about his thinking and his processes by which he actually investigated and learned about memory. So… fun.
Rebecca: I think that using biographies is a great way to introduce students to that a little bit.
John: A number of software packages, such as Lumen Learning’s Waymaker package, Norton’s Inquiszitive, and some of McGraw-Hill’s and CENGAGE’s products include attempts at building student metacognition in their products. For example, they’ll ask students questions and they’ll also ask them about their confidence in their responses. The Norton Inquizitive package, in particular, sets it up in a somewhat game-like situation, where they get to bet points on how confident they are. And then it gives them feedback on how they did versus how they perceived they were doing. Do you think this type of approach might be useful?
Judith: I was just reading a research study about that, John, and the students… Who was that by? I would have to go back and find it, I’ll have to email it to you. But the results showed that the students who were less confident…
John: …did better.
Judith: Yeah. Who was that?
John: I don’t remember. I think it was on the POD list, but maybe not, it might have been on an economics list. Consistent with the Dunning-Kruger effect, the students who did relatively poorly, had relatively high self perceptions of how well they did that were not reflected in their test scores.
Judith: …So important to be asking the question: “What do I know?” and “What don’t I know?” Because that’s a core, isn’t it? If we can answer that question. In fact, one hint that’s in that book called Make It Stick… which is a real good one… one of the key things I took away from that was the technique or practice of having in a textbook, taking the heading and turning it into a question and then seeing if you can answer that when you finish reading something. So again, “What do I know when I start? What do I know when I finish? And am I able to answer that question? Or am I able to pose another good question based on that?” So explaining to ourselves what I know and what I don’t know, I wanted to go back to that study that we were just both talking about, because my question that occurred to me as I was reading this is that, you know, the problem, I think, is that the study really didn’t really give the students an opportunity to verbalize why they felt confident or less confident, which is, I think, a whole missing piece of that. And I don’t know how they obviously would make designing a study… actually, my dissertation, in fact, I will bore you with the title of it is “Fluent Readers’ Strategies for Assigning Meaning to Unknown Words in Context.” And the thing is that, half the time, they didn’t know that was an unknown word, they just assumed they knew the word. So again, if we don’t know we don’t know something, we can be very confident. [LAUGHTER] But anyway, in order to get the answers to that question of the study, I actually had the students talk out loud to me, they verbalized and I would go back and ask them about the word and say, “What were you thinking when you came to that?” …and all the rest of it. So they had to verbalize their thinking. For me, it was a good study, it really worked. So again, going back to the value of verbalizing,”What do I know?” and “What don’t I know?” and “What do I think I know?” And Rebecca, we got that when you said, “Well, you started talking about what to do, and then you realized you didn’t know anything.”
John: As you suggested before, a really good thing with any project is to think about where you’re going next. And we always end our podcast with the question, “What are you doing next?”
Judith: What a great question. Okay, what am I working on next? I did mention that I just finished a little video for the Distance Learning Conference in Madison in early August. On my back burner, and I’ve been saying this for a couple of years, I would really like to write a book on concepts. What I’d like to do is… I mentioned I love working with faculty, and when we design courses it so often on a topic-to-topic basis. And yet, as I started working with faculty towards the last 10 years or so, I started asking faculty to tell me what their core concepts of a course is. And, you know, faculty, that’ve been teaching for 10,15, 20, even 30 years, they would pause and they’d say, “Uhhhh, [LAUGHTER] you know, we just teach topics,…” as opposed to core concepts. And we think about core concepts are what stay with us when we finish a course, hopefully. So the question really is, what do you expect your students to know, five years, 10 years down the road from what you have been spending all this time and energy on? So I’d like to write a book about thinking about concepts and how to design a course, and focus on problems and concepts rather than topics.
Rebecca: I like that, I think that would be really helpful. Can’t wait to read it.
Judith: [LAUGHTER] I can’t either.
Rebecca: You gotta visualize, you gotta visualize. [LAUGHTER]
Judith: Thank you. You can give it right back to me.
John: We talk a lot about backwards design. But a lot of the classes that many of us teach were not designed in that way. They did not start with those major course learning objectives, and then work backwards to get to that point. And they’re just series of topics taught in the same way that they were taught to them when they were students. And they were taught in the same way as their previous generation taught them. And there’s not always a lot of thought going into that. And that sounds like a really good project.
Judith: Well, thank you, I may call you and see. I’ll need faculty to work with on that project. So I may contact you for that.
Rebecca: I’ll sign up.
John: Be happy to.
Judith: I’d be willing, God be willing that I get going on that. [LAUGHTER]
John: I think we all have a few projects like that. But eventually they often happen.
Judith: Yes, well, actually talking about it is a good thing. Because the more things we write down, and the more things we actually talk about are more likely to happen.
Rebecca: And I have just told the world so it’s gonna have to happen, right?
Judith: Oh, dear. [LAUGHTER]
John: Although if you change your mind, we can edit it out.
Judith: Scratch that…
John: I know I come up with some things after a podcast where I say I want to do this in my class next semester. And once it’s in a recording now, I pretty much have to do it. [LAUGHTER]
Judith: Well, John, before we break up here, when you do go to Duke, what do you teach?
John: I teach economics, introductory micro and macro economics.
Judith: Okay. Sounds great.
John: It’s been a lot of fun. I love doing it. The kids are just so amazing.
Judith: Well, kids are amazing at that age. They really are. It’s wonderful to see them evolving to young men and women. You know, I’ve got eight grandchildren. My oldest is now 19 and a half. In fact, she did microeconomics online, both one and two this summer.
John: Thank you for joining us.
Judith: Well, thank you very much. I really enjoyed being here.
Rebecca: This is a lot of fun. Thank you so much.
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.
As faculty, we often don’t take emotions into account when planning our courses or curricula. In this episode, Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh joins us to discuss the powerful role emotions play in student learning. Sarah is the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion and of Hivemind: the New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World and numerous scholarly publications. She is the Associate Director for Grants and Research at the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science, and also Research Affiliate at the Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory at Tufts University.
- Sarah Rose Cavanagh – website – twitter
- Caulfield, M. (2017). Web literacy for student fact‐checkers. Pressbooks.
- Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion. West Virginia University Press.
- Cavanagh, S. R. (2019). Hivemind: The New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World. Grand Central Publishing.
- Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: 49 techniques that put students on the path to college (K-12). John Wiley & Sons.
- Lemov, D. (2012). Teach like a champion field guide: A practical resource to make the 49 techniques your own. John Wiley & Sons.
- Lemov, D. (2015). Teach like a champion 2.0: 62 techniques that put students on the path to college. John Wiley & Sons.
- Parker, P. (2018). The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters. Penguin.
- Harrington, Christine. “61. A Motivational Syllabus,” Tea for Teaching podcast, December 25, 2018
- Bain, K. (2011). What the best college teachers do. Harvard University Press.
- Lang, J. M. (2006). The promising syllabus. Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(2), C2.
- Knapp, Jennifer, “41. Instructional Communication,” Tea for Teaching podcast, August 8, 2018
- Pekrun, R. (2006). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: Assumptions, corollaries, and implications for educational research and practice. Educational psychology review, 18(4), 315-341.
- Pekrun, R., Frenzel, A. C., Goetz, T., & Perry, R. P. (2007). The control-value theory of achievement emotions: An integrative approach to emotions in education. In Emotion in education (pp. 13-36). Academic Press.
- Smith, Kentina (2017). Stimulating Curiosity Using Hooks. Noba Blog. June 7
John: Before we get to our regularly scheduled program we have a small request. Our 100th episode is around the corner and we’re collecting stories from our listeners about episodes, guests, or ideas that have influenced or impacted you, your colleagues, and your students. Please share your stories on teaforteaching.com.
We now return to the regularly scheduled podcast.
Rebecca: As faculty, we often don’t take emotions into account when planning our courses or curricula. In this episode, we discuss the powerful role emotions play in student learning.
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.
Rebecca: Today our guest is Dr. Sarah Rose Cavanagh. She’s the author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing Education with the Science of Emotion and of Hivemind: the New Science of Tribalism in our Divided World and numerous scholarly publications. Sarah is the Associate Director for Grants and Research at the D’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, the Co-Director of the Laboratory for Cognitive and Affective Science, and also Research Affiliate at the Emotion, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory at Tufts University. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah: Oh, thank you.
John: Our teas today are:… are you drinking tea?
Sarah: I am not. I am a coffee drinker. And I just had a very large coffee and I’m moving on to water now.
Rebecca: So many coffee drinkers on this show.
Sarah: Yup. It’s important. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I’m drinking English breakfast, despite the fact that it’s no longer morning.
John: I’m drinking Tea Forte Black Currant tea.
Sarah: Mmmm. That sounds tasty
John: It’s very good.
Rebecca: So Sarah, we asked you to join us today to talk a little bit about The Spark of Learning. In that book, you argue that faculty should design all aspects of the course to target student emotions. Yet as teachers, we don’t really think about emotions, necessarily. So she can talk a little bit about why considering emotions is so important.
Sarah: Sure. Well, I think when you look at what’s required for learning in the classroom, you’ll see that there’s numerous cognitive resources that are required for learning. They have to pay attention to the material, you have to be willing to work on the material and your working memory, you have to be motivated to put effort and energy into that work both in the class, but then also outside of the class when you’re working on assignments. And all of these cognitive resources are limited, there’s only so much of them to go around. You can only pay attention to so much at once, you can only work on so many bits of information in your working memory. So we have to think about how can we motivate students to direct those cognitive resources towards the class material, toward the work of the class. And I believe that emotions are a critical ingredient in doing so because emotions attract attention. They were motivated to pay attention to work on emotional material, things that are self relevant. And we think that emotions evolved in the first place in order to motivate behavior: to push us toward things that are good for us, to pull us away from things that are dangerous or irrelevant, and also to tag information as important to remember. …and thinking a little bit about the emotional design of a presentation style, of the assignments that we choose, of the class activities, and even of how we assess students. All of these are strategies by which we can get students more motivated and more engaged.
John: One of the things you talk about in your book is the importance of first impressions. Could you tell us a little bit about why that’s so important to open the class with something that engages students’ emotions?
Sarah: Mm hmm. Great. Well, I think that students come to the class, they have busy lives… lots of things pulling them from work of the class… and when they first come into the class, we need to spark their curiosity, we need to get them engaged, and to focus them on the work of the class. I had a speaking engagement in Tennessee on the subject of learning and their planning committee was reading Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering. So I picked it up in the airport, and I was reading it and she talks not about classrooms, but any gathering or meeting space. And one thing that she said that I love that I thought was very consistent with this idea of first impressions is you shouldn’t start with logistics. She says, “Don’t start a funeral with logistics.” Don’t stand up and say, “here’s the parking information.” And I think that we can use that lesson in the classroom. Like why start a class with “Oh, here’s the learning management system.” And “here’s what happens if you plagiarize” and all of these logistics that are kind of boring, and kind of ugly. [LAUGHTER] Why not start with the idea that we’re watching this intellectual journey together? Here’s what drew me to psychology or literature, chemistry, here’s what I think that you’re going to take from this class, here are the things you’re going to learn… to start with that passion. That’s going to form student feelings about the entire semester. And so I think that first impressions are important.
John: So perhaps going over the syllabus, interminably, on the first day may not be the best strategy. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: To follow up on that a little bit, though, syllabi have all these policies and things… is there a way that we can tap into this emotional connection in a document like that, that can feel very policy oriented and rules oriented?
Sarah: Well, I think…a couple things. One, I wish I could remember the person’s name, but probably five years ago now, I saw some person’s blog posts on Twitter or something. She was a historian. And she had redone all of her syllabi, with images and famous quotes and made them really beautiful and kind of exciting to look at. And even though it was late in the summer, and I was already a little stressed about everything that was going on, I was inspired to redo all my syllabi similarly. And so I think just putting a little design into your syllabus can make it a more attractive document. I think my colleague, James Lang has a Chronicle post about starting syllabi with kind of what we were saying about Priya Parker and the Art of Gathering with a promise, “here are the exciting things that we’re going to be covering” instead of, “we’re going to read these books and cover these principles.” So in that section, when you say what the course is about, I think is powerful. And then in terms of policies, certain policies are a good idea to include on the syllabus. But I think the language that you choose matters quite a lot. And back in the day, I think I had a section on issues of courtesy. You know, “don’t pack up your bags while I’m still talking,” “don’t use your cell phones,” all these things. Now that section on my syllabi talks about “Let’s respect each other, and here’s my commitment to you: that I will start and end the class promptly on time that I will return your assignments to you within a reasonable time frame, but I will respect all of your contributions. And in return, I would ask that you not pack up your bags, while I’m still speaking and these kind of things.” And so I think framing some of the policies in terms of both what’s exciting that’s going to happen, but then also in the sort of communal language rather than punitive language, I think can go a long way to make this a little bit more inviting.
John: I’ll throw in a reference to a past podcast… we had Christine Harrington, who talked about her book: Designing a Motivational Syllabus. And also, Ken Bain had written about the “promising syllabus” way back. And I think that’s inspired a lot of these discussions. And I think they’re all very good suggestions. We should all do more of that, I suspect.
Rebecca: So we talked a little bit about the setup in the beginning of the class. Some of it is also just deciding what assessments there’s going to be and what the assignments are going to be. So can you talk a little bit about how we can plan for emotion in those kinds of design aspects as well?
Sarah: Sure. And here, I’m going to cite Reinhard Pekrun, the researcher and psychologist, and he has an entire theory of academic emotion. So he was having a lot of respect before I ever did. And his theory of academic emotions, he calls the control value theory of academic emotions. And by control, he means autonomy. So giving students choices, giving them flexibility, and the sense that they’re crafting their own intellectual journey, not just that they’re submitting themselves to yours. [LAUGHTER] And then value really being about some of these things that we’re talking about in terms of emotional engagement, but also the whole idea of relevance . So the students see the relevance of the assignments and the assessment. And relevance is multifaceted, it can be relevant for their personal lives, or their future careers… It could be some transcendent purpose, here’s why we should be evaluating this topic in order to improve society at large… that the students should see the value. And so kind of the opposite of busy work. We’re not just doing this for no reason, there’s a purpose, there’s a relevance. And so I think, using his framework, and thinking about ways that we can help students shape their own intellectual journey, and which assignments they’re going to do with the topics, you’re giving them choices of topics… on exams, giving them choices of essays, things like that. And then value, always illustrating the relevance and the importance of the work that they’re doing, I think are ways that we can think about assignments and assessments.
John: You also talk a little bit about using emotional contagion in classes to help build motivation. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Sarah: Sure. That whole topic really engaged me in reading and researching and writing… kind of turned into my second book project. But I think that we are incredibly social beings, we’re individuals, but also have this collective aspects to our psychology and how our brains work. I think that in the classroom, we’re in a social setting. And there’s certainly lots of research evidence showing that emotions, in particular, are contagious, that they kind of spread from one to another. I think one of the ways that that topic is relevant in the classroom is from instructor to students. And so putting a little bit of thought into your presence and the kinds of emotions that you’re showing: are you showing passion? Are you showing enthusiasm? Are you engaged yourself? Are you interested and present yourself? …that level of curiosity and passion can spread through the class. There’s student to student emotional contagion. And I’m sure anyone who’s taught a while has had these experiences both positive and negative ways… the ways in which enthusiasm and motivation can kind of spread among the class and the ways that negative emotions can spread throughout a class. And there’s a big literature on the topic of reactance, which is a term that refers to when the students sort of collectively decide that you, the instructor, are unfair, or uninteresting, or something else, [LAUGHTER] and kind of bands together and bond over that. And so thinking strategically about how to minimize those occurrences, are also ways to think about emotional contagion in the class.
John: So, on those days when you’re not feeling as energetic and enthusiastic, what can we do to help create that emotional contagion effect?
Sarah: Yeah, coffee. [LAUGHTER]
John: …or tea.
Sarah: Yes, or tea… coffee or tea. But, that’s a fascinating question, and one that’s a little under studied. And so I looked at the research literature, and there are a couple of research studies on the whole phenomenon of faking it, and doing emotional labor. So putting on a happy face, and an enthusiastic face, even when you’re not there. And it’s mixed. There’s a power in authenticity. But sometimes we also have to engender some enthusiasm that we might not necessarily be feeling. I think that prior preparation can also go a long way. Some of these ways of being more emotionally engaging, I think, can be in your choice of activities in the class and videos that you’re showing. And so thinking ahead of time, if it’s kind of a dead time of semester for you, thinking of things you can do in the classroom to mix it up, because you know that your energy might not bring that energy.
John: And you also suggest that mindfulness training might be useful in helping faculty become more focused or more present in the classroom.
Sarah: Yeah, mindfulness is super interesting. I think it’s one of those topics that are so multifaceted that they’re hard to break down and study from a psychology perspective, because mindfulness itself has attentional components it has components of acceptance. But research shows that mindfulness is really good at bringing people to the present moment. And I think that some of these present and performance related topics… a lot of it is “are you there with the students,” instead of off in your own mind, creating your shopping list or thinking about your manuscript that’s overdue. [LAUGHTER] And so I think bringing yourself back to that present moment, and reconnecting with the students… making eye contact, thinking carefully about what you’re going to say. That is the essence of mindfulness training, bringing yourself back to the present moment, and so it may benefit your work in the classroom.
Rebecca: Can we talk a little bit about those negative emotions.
Rebecca: You know, sometimes that happens… you’re having a bad semester or something goes wrong. And then perhaps that contagion effect really does happen in your class, and you need to bring it back.
Rebecca: Do you have some strategies on how to bring it back.
Sarah: I think that those emotions tend to build within the class itself, when students aren’t feeling heard, when they are not feeling that autonomy, and they’re not feeling that control. And I think a lot of those emotions are just around perceptions of unfairness and status and authority. So some of the ways do work on that, I think, are being transparent and having open conversations with the students doing mid semester check ins… you know, giving them a voice, and a way for them to.. Instead of telling each other what they don’t like about your class… to tell you. And then that, in demonstrating that you care… that you want to know what their feedback is, especially if you’re able to make slight changes, because they might have a point… and none of us are perfect. But having that open conversation and valuing their voice, I think, is a way to try to alleviate some of that reactance. The literature on reactance shows that the best defense is a good offense… preventing it in the first place. Some of the ways that the research suggests to prevent it is, again, that presence and immediately… this whole concept of immediacy cues, things like eye contact, using inclusive language, varied vocal tone, things like that that shows students that you’re there with them, have been some of the best variables that predict lower reactants and lower negative emotions over the semester.
Rebecca: There’s some really great tips on immediacy in the episode we had with Jennifer Knapp.
Sarah: Oh, good. I’ll check that out.
John: You also talk a little bit about self disclosure as a way to building more immediacy. Could you talk to us a little bit about how self disclosure might be done productively? And when does it go too far?
Sarah: Yeah, I think self disclosure does two things that explain why it’s effective. One, it’s a way of being present. And secondly, it’s also a way of using storytelling in the classroom. And we know that stories are kind of cognitively privileged… that they work… they’re effective in the classroom. I read a couple of qualitative studies in which they had a sort of student think tank somewhere asking them about instructor self disclosure, and the times that they felt that it was very effective, and the times that they felt that was less effective. What students reported was that it was most effective when instructors shared stories about their own intellectual journeys, especially times that they had trouble with this material and how they worked their way around it. I always tell my students that I failed to get into a single graduate school the first time around and they love to hear that. Because it shows that when you look toward your goal, it’s not always smooth sailing, we all hit bumps in the road and have to re-strategize. Some degree of personal one-on-one disclosure is also effective… talking about the game you were at with your kids over the weekend, or your favorite movie, and things like that… just because it makes you a person instead of just an authority figure at the front of the room.
Rebecca: I thought we were all robots at the front of the room. [LAUGHTER] I didn’t understand that we weren’t that.
Sarah: Yeah, it always surprises me when my students perk up whenever I share something personal. And I’m like, I’m this old fogie, like… It surprises me that they’re interested. But they are, I think, for those reasons. I think reasonable boundaries, they don’t need to know about… [LAUGHTER] what they don’t need to know that. They don’t need to know everything.
Rebecca: We’ve talked a little bit about design and thinking about getting students motivated together, and us helping them get motivated and them motivating each other. But you also talked a little bit about the strength of emotion in being able to just process and remember things. Can you talk a little bit about that, and maybe some strategies that we can incorporate into our classes related to that?
Sarah: Sure. and I think primarily, the first thing that I always think of with emotions, in that sense, is grabbing attention. And we have lots of literature showing that, on a very basic neurological level, emotional stimuli arrests attention. And I ran into a blog post after writing the book that I wish I had run into before writing the book by Kentina Smith, and she talks about using emotional hooks in the classroom. And I love that term. And what she means by that is kind of sectioning up your class into whatever makes sense for your length of your class and for your material. And then beginning each segment of your class, of your material, with an emotional hook… that they hook them in. And that can be using videos… stories, again, are really great… reading passages that are emotionally interesting. Again, demonstrating relevance for career or for something else. I was running a workshop at Northern Illinois University and one of the professors shared what she did… she was in a nursing program… and in one of her freshman classes that were really a lot of work… and students often got discouraged… she would have the students who had just graduated and now were in their internships come back and talk about how the material that they learned in that class… how they were using it in the field at this moment… and how they were so grateful to have those skills. And I thought that was amazing. That was a really powerful way of hooking students attention and saying, “Okay, this material might be a little boring, but it’s really important.” That isn’t too flashy. I think sometimes people worry that what I’m talking about means that we’re just purely entertaining the students. And I don’t think that’s the case… and so using those emotional hook.
Memory is interesting, it’s a little trickier. Because there is some evidence, I shouldn’t admit this. But when you do something really emotional, that students remember the emotion, and then not what comes next. Because they’re so caught up in the emotion. But I don’t think much of what we’re doing in the classroom is making students super emotional, but just like giving them a little bit of a prime, we’re more likely to remember things that are novel, that are interesting that would get us a little outraged, that get us a little passionate. And so I think that at a very basic level, emotions benefit these cognitive resources.
John: One of the emotions you talk a little bit about is frustration, and that it can be useful sometimes to confuse students a bit. Could you talk a little bit about?
Sarah: Sure. When I talk to people about ideas in the book, they sometimes think that I’m advocating that students should be happy all the time, that it should be nothing but positive. And I don’t think that. I think that some frustration is a natural part of the process of learning. There’s experience-sampling studies where students are learning new skills from computerized tutorials, and also reporting on their emotions, like on a dial at the same time. And it shows that, as the students learn new skills, it’s a repeated dynamic cycle between initial confusion because they don’t know this yet… they start strategizing and start trying things… working on it… and then they’re frustrated. Then they solve that level or skill or problem and they achieve learning, and then they have this flash of pleasure. And then the tutorial system brings them to the next level and they’re confused again. And that learning seems to be that repeated dynamic cycle. I think that that’s very true. I think helping them navigate that through self disclosure… through transparency… saying, “Hey, you’re going to get frustrated and that means you’re learning. That means that this is something you haven’t encountered before.” I think this can help navigate them through because you don’t want them to get so frustrated that they get anxious and worried. So normalizing and acknowledging that that’s part of the process… But I think it is, I think it is part of the process of learning.
John: We often have students from very diverse backgrounds, though, in terms of their prior knowledge. How can we design activities that will provide an optimal amount of challenge for students, when students come in with so different backgrounds?
Sarah: That’s really tricky. [LAUGHTER] I think that’s one of the trickiest things about our job. And I think routinely assessing where your students are at, can be a strategy. I mean, it’s still going to tell you a lot about the average, which is not going to tell you as much about the diversity of experiences, but having kind of your finger on the pulse of where your students are, either through quick quizzes, online check-ins, but even through the questions that you ask. I read Doug Lemov’s book, I’m forgetting the title, [Teach Like a Champion] but he worked in high school and studied star teachers who were having with amazing outcomes, even in high schools that had low resources. And one of the recommendations that comes out of his analysis of those teachers was asking questions in ways that really reveal the student level of knowledge. Instead of saying “Everybody’s got that?” or “Does everyone understand? …asking those questions so that you can have a gauge of where all of your students are. Smaller classes… you can do more personalized, focused things. One of the works that I read had talked about getting progress feedback, as well as discrepancy feedback. So having papers be due in segments, and not only showing students where they needed to improve, but also telling them where they have improved. I think that sort of personalized attention we can’t all do when we’re teaching classes of 500. But, if you’re teaching a smaller class, some of that personalized stuff can help.
John: Can peer instruction, perhaps, help leverage some of that when you ask questions that are challenging for some and easier for others.
Sarah: Yes, I love that.
Rebecca: Sometimes students may get too frustrated and give up. How do you get them back to a place where it can be productive again?
Sarah: Again, being transparent, kind of my go to, and talking about the fact that that’s likely to happen at different points in the semester for different students and helping them do that. I think, knowing your college’s resources in terms of student mental health, in terms of academic support, and being able to refer students out to those, I think is important. And I think even just small things like sending an email. And again, they realize that I have this bias because I teach small classes, relatively. But you know that a student is struggling and you can observe that they’re hitting kind of a rough point… sending them a personalized email and saying, “Hey, do you want to drop by office hours, this is when they are…” and feeling seen by the professor and knowing that there are resources, I think, can be very helpful.
Rebecca: One of the things you mentioned up front was the idea that we want them to get curious and engaged and own their learning. Can you talk a little bit about ways other than just the choose your own adventure kind of opportunities where they have choice, that we can leverage students curiosity and get them really hooked?
Sarah: Yeah, I think asking questions, kind of the idea of puzzles and mysteries. Every field has their unsolved mysteries. And I find that students really respond when I present debates that are ongoing in the field. And I think that works on two levels. There’s not a set answer and so they’re curious, because we’re always most curious about things that we’re not quite sure about. And they also feel the freedom to contribute, because they know they’re not going to get it wrong, because no one knows. But also putting them in this position where they feel like they too could join this quest. And they might be able to push knowledge, if they were to go on to graduate school. So, putting them in the shoes of a contemporary psychologist or biologist and here are the things that people are yelling at each other about on Twitter, because no one can agree. “What is your opinion?” is a way to get students curious.
John: We’re recording that in mid-August, but will be releasing it shortly after your new book, Hivemind comes out? Could you tell us a little bit about Hivemind?
Sarah: Sure, it’s a complicated book. I see it as having three layers. On it’s base layer, it’s really a contemporary overview of social neuroscience, the current state of knowledge in terms of how we are, as I was saying before, not just an individualistic species, but we also have this collective aspect. That as Jon Haidt says, we can be hive-ish. And that’s why the title Hivemind. And so at its base level, it’s kind of like a bird’s eye overview of what’s going on in social neuroscience: How do our brains relate to each other? How do we engage in this sometimes almost collective consciousness and things like that. And then the second layer is how smartphones and social media, the invention of those devices and technologies, are amplifying our social natures, both in good ways and in bad ways… on evaluating that evidence. And then the third layer is sort of our current political polarization moment, and what we can learn from social neuroscience and social media as to what’s going on in the world.
John: How have the changes in technology led to the changes in polarization that we’ve been observing?
Sarah: Yeah, it’s a fascinating question and one that would be a great question for a class because I don’t think we know for sure. But anyone who has a smartphone or is on social media, I think, has seen evidence of this polarization and felt like it has become more extreme. And certainly, there’s some polling about in the States, Republicans and Democrats and how comfortable you would or wouldn’t be if your child married someone of the opposing political party. And those sorts of studies are definitely showing greater polarization. And there’s a lot of principles in terms of when you get together with a group, and you begin discussing your opinions and you’re sharing your opinions, that your opinions become more extreme, because you’re hearing it echoes back… the whole phenomenon of good polarization and echo chambers. So there’s evidence that that’s making all of that worse. I think that there is also evidence, though, that we may be paying too much attention to the polarization and that talking so much about the polarization, in some ways gives us permission to be polarized. And I think that there’s evidence from social psychology that we form much more extreme “us versus thems” when we feel under perceived threat. And certainly we are under numerous threats. But I think that also we are kind of buying into a collective panic and fear. Ironically, in part, one of those panics, I think is about smartphones and social media. And I think we’re overly panicked. It’s really, really complicated. And I think it’s really, really fascinating. And I think we’re not sure quite yet.
Rebecca: I know that a lot of faculty have talked about how the polarization, the spread of misinformation through social media, is impacting conversations and things that are happening in their classes.
Sarah: um hmm.
Rebecca: Do you have any suggestions for how to navigate that, using some of this emotional research that you’ve been focused on?
Sarah: Sure, I think that, I’m going to go back to my transparency again. But having ground rules, especially if your class is focused on a topic that is likely to generate some of this heat, starting the semester with ground rules about respect, about open dialogue, and then also with the tapping back to control and then autonomy, giving students some power over that. So, on Twitter, people are sharing stories about how to charge the class to sit down and develop, with an agreement about how we’re going to debate things together. And students would make suggestions and some of this is done on Wikis… that’s really interesting work. So I think acknowledging that, and I think this is going to vary a lot on different campuses. And I’ve seen that… I do some traveling around doing workshops and talks, and I see that variability. Different campuses very politically in terms of whether they’re left leaning or right leaning… The students vary in their degree to which they’re politically active or interested. On my campus, I find that students are reluctant to debate some of these issues, and that we have to bring them to the table. Whereas I talked to people in some other campuses where they have to cool down the whole class because everybody’s jumping in. So I think the strategies will vary a lot based on your student body and the topic that you’re teaching. But I think ground rules about respect, especially collectively sourced, can be very powerful… and getting students some say,
Rebecca: It sounds like maybe this book is coming out just in time, so we can all prepare for 2020. [LAUGHTER]
Sarah: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
I was at Wellesley College, I think, a year ago. They were asking me about the topic of the book, Hivemind, and they were saying the same thing. They were like, “Oh, this is so timely.” And one of the women, as she looked at me with such dismay, and she was like, “I really hope it’s not still timely by the time the book comes out.” …that we resolve some of these issues. But now it’s coming out in a few weeks and I don’t think we’ve solved much.
John: Is some of it, though, a shift from national media, where the major newspapers and TV stations and so forth had to appeal to a broader audience, so they aimed at the middle of the spectrum? And now we’ve diversified, as has happened in many other areas with music and arts as well, so that now any particular point of view can develop its own hive, and extreme views can spread perhaps more easily,
Rebecca: …like the long tail idea?
Sarah: Yes, I definitely think there’s a lot to that. And I think that some of those things are, when we’re not looking politically, necessarily are really positive. It allows social media and has allowed people of like mind to find other people of like mind in terms of like hobbies or interests, or people who share their life experiences. I interviewed some people in the book who have had those experiences: there’s no one that understood them, or if they were disconnected from their heritage, and they were able through social media to connect. But I think that it is more dangerous when it’s news sources and politics.
John: One of the issues I’ve seen in my classes in the last several years is that people used to disagree about policy outcomes, but they generally didn’t disagree about basic facts and evidence. And now I’m seeing a lot of that in classes in ways I’ve never seen until the last few years. How can we deal with that type of an issue?
Sarah: Yeah, there’s some great people working on this issue. Mike Caulfield has a whole fact checking literacy. It’s a free online PDF, a book, and he has what he calls “Four Moves to Fact Checking.” And what I really love about this is it ties into the emotional piece and understanding how humans work. Because other approaches to fact checking in media literacy are really laborious. There are 12 steps… and I think unrealistic for how we engage with information. And he has, I don’t know each one of his moves. But there four moves for checking facts in which students can quickly advocate for certain information and look for the background… look for actual scholarly sources on it and get to a better place of is this actually information that’s true. And I do it with my own students, my intro Psych students, we do a little fact check on a couple different memes [LAUGHTER] to get them used to that sort of thing. Because if we can’t agree on facts, then we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.
Rebecca: It sounds to me like talking about emotions in general, no matter what your class ia, could be a benefit in helping students understand and sort through the difference between an emotional response to something versus a cognitive response to something,
Sarah: Right, I think so too. My research background is in emotion regulation. And in the book, I advocate for using cognitive reappraisal, which is an emotion regulatory technique in which you reinterpret the situation or the emotion that you’re having. And there’s some really fascinating work being done using cognitive reappraisal to people on two sides of intractable conflicts, and it is effective… and I think, using emotion regulation and regulating our own information, especially as it intersects with facts, especially facts that are political. I absolutely agree it’s going to be a critical strategy.
Rebecca: Do you have like a Cliff notes version of that, that you could share with folks who are maybe not in your field, that we could share that information with students?
Sarah: Yes. Sure. I think that’s one of the basic examples that I give for cognitive reappraisal is, you know, if you’re fired, you got a pink slip at work. And you could interpret that on the one hand as “You are a failure, you’re never going to have another job, that this is a devastating loss.” And that’s going to lead you down a directory of a certain emotional response. Or you could rephrase it as “You know, the company is downsizing and it’s nothing personal, that you would always want to just shift careers to these and this is an opportunity to do that.” And that set of appraisals or interpretations is going to set you on a very different emotional path. I think that reappraising some of these “us versus them…” You talk to people on either side of the political spectrum and about the opposing political side… and there’s also a lot of dehumanizing speech: they’re monsters, they’re evil. I think when we engage in those appraisals, it’s just going to drive us further and further apart. And so reappraising those, yes, disagree with this person on this policy, but trying to see their perspective… going to have that conversation, framing them as a human being who has different opinions than you, rather than a monster or a creature, I think, are powerful ways of trying to step back from some of the heat of this polarization.
John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?
Sarah: I want to answer it on two levels. One on the like Spark education level. With my colleague, James Lang, we’re focusing our attention and have some grants out the door on grading. And so you think about emotions in the classroom, emotional moments in the classroom, I think being graded and handing back a grade… students’ reactions to grades as one of the most emotional moments. There’s a lot of literature showing that students find receiving grades demotivating. Sometimes if they get a lower grades than they expected, they won’t read any of that careful feedback. And it can be unreliable, from professor to professor, from student to student, there are biases… gender biases… racial biases… in grading. And so I think we kind of need to fix grading, and that’s what we’re turning our attention towards next. On the writing side, I’m working on a book proposal that’s going to remain mostly secret, but it’s gonna be something fun. [LAUGHTER] I don’t want to think about politics anymore. I sometimes joke that writing Hivemind, it’s like I sat down and developed, like, “How many hate lists can I get on? “ And that’s like the farewell to the chapter outlines.
Rebecca: So now you need balance, you need to get on the good list, right?
Sarah: So I might do something like a little fun. It will still be psychology and neuroscience, personal anecdotes, and interviews and things like that, but one that has nothing to do with politics.
Rebecca: Sounds like a nice place to be.
Sarah: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been really interesting and I think faculty as they’re getting started in the new semester will take advantage of some of this information as they move forward.
Sarah: Awesome. Thank you. This has been such a pleasure,
John: Thank you. And I’m looking forward to the arrival of Hivemind which should be in early September, I believe.
Sarah: Yep. September 3,
John: it will be out by the time this podcast is released.
Rebecca: Yeah, September 4.
Sarah: Oh, that’s so cool. my publicist will be so pleased.
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.
Many of us strive to be inclusive in our classrooms but may not have the training to be as effective as we want to be. In this episode, Dr. Amer F. Ahmed joins us to explore inclusive pedagogy and to encourage us to consider our roles as both instructors and learners in intercultural contexts.
Amer is the founder and CEO of AFA Diversity Consulting LLC. He previously served as Director of Intercultural Teaching and Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as faculty at the Summer and Winter Institutes for Intercultural Communication, and as a member of Speak Out: the Institute for Democratic Education.
Rebecca: Many of us strive to be inclusive in our classrooms but may not have the training to be as effective as we want to be. In this episode, we explore inclusive pedagogy by considering our roles as both instructors and learners in intercultural contexts.
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.
John: Today our guest is Dr. Amer F. Ahmed. He is the founder and CEO of AFA Diversity Consulting LLC. He previously served as Director of Intercultural Teaching and Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, as faculty at the Summer and Winter Institutes for Intercultural Communication, and as a member of Speak Out: the Institute for Democratic Education. Welcome.
Amer: Thank you.
Rebecca: Today our teas are:
John: Are you drinking any tea?
Amer: Not at the moment, but I like jasmine tea and green tea.
John: I’m drinking pineapple ginger green tea.
Rebecca: Oh, that sounds yummy.
John: It is.
Rebecca: I am drinking my good old English afternoon tea.
John: …for a change.
Rebecca: Yeah. [LAUGHTER]
John: We’ve invited you here to talk about your work on creating inclusive learning environments. Could you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been doing and what you recommend?
Amer: Yeah, well, in recent months, I’ve been spending a lot of time with various campuses, working with faculty, working with teaching excellence of faculty development units, and diversity officers, on building capacity around inclusive teaching and inclusive pedagogy at various institutions around the country. It’s a big area of emphasis and focus these days for a number of institutions. It’s a tremendous challenge that many institutions are facing in terms of the classroom environment for students in higher education. My work has been on diversity, equity, and inclusion in a number of different arenas within higher education. But more recently, beyond just the broader strategic and institutional strategies and efforts that I work on, there’s been a lot of focus on the classroom and working with faculty on building capacity around that.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by inclusive pedagogy. I think that that’s a term that’s being used a lot, but not defined often.
Amer: Yeah, I think that one thing I learned by working in a faculty development unit was that many faculty have not spent a lot of time in their training and development around teaching in general. Quite honestly, as scholars, we’re trained to be researchers. And then as a result, as a default, we often teach the way that we were taught. And the reality is that there’s historical systems of inequity that are built around who’s privileged in terms of what cultural norm feeds our privilege in the way in which teaching and learning has been traditionally occurring. And Paulo Freire talked about banking and depositing… just the faculty member and the teacher as an expert, just dumping information into students as passive recipients and regurgitators of that information and knowledge. And I think that teaching, really… many people say it’s an art and the idea of pedagogy as a process, right? …that we engage with our students. An inclusive pedagogy, I think, really emphasizes who we are as teachers and learners, and that we all are teachers and learners, but that who we are and our identities and our backgrounds and experiences are all resources for learning. And then the question becomes, what is the process for us to harness the benefits of all those unique backgrounds and experiences and identities that we each bring as related to the content of the course, or of what we’re focusing on in the learning environment? And so I just think that a lot of times, we’re really focused on the content, and of course we should be focused on the content, but less focused on who is in the room, engaging the process of learning.
John: How can we tap into students’ identities? How can we find out information that’s relevant for the course?
Amer: Yeah, well, I think where I try to start is recognizing that we can’t know everything about everybody, right? And again, that’s where we have to think of ourselves as educators as learners as well. We don’t know it all (about anything, certainly), let alone the idea of who our students are. And as a result, can we develop some core competencies and skills around understanding who we are in relationship to who we encounter and have some intercultural skills that position us to be able to learn who our students are, and to draw from who the students are. So then it gets even back to the course design of: have we designed our course to leverage who are students are… to bring that forward. And then to be aware of our biases, when we’re aware of we are in relationship to others, we might realize that, oh, maybe I have some pre-existent stereotypes or perception of what it means to be X, Y, and Z. And instead, can I build a process where students are really articulating who they are, how they understand what we’re engaging in the content of the course in relationship to their backgrounds and experiences. And so I think that, for faculty, I think a lot of the fear is, “I’m going to mess up, I’m going to say the wrong thing.” So can we create a learning environment where it’s okay to make mistakes, but we’re going to do the best we can to understand as much as we can about one another and position ourselves to be able to draw from that to learn?
Rebecca: You said something about designing your course to leverage identity and leverage who’s in the room and who the learners are. Can you give an example from a specific course of what that kind of courses I might look like that does take advantage of that?
Amer: So I taught a global implications of hip hop, race, and spirituality course last fall at UMass Amherst. And one of the projects that I had the students work on was, after we learned some kind of key principles and issues as related to hip hop, and learned some examples of hip hop in different places in the world. I asked them to bring in an example and share an example in the course of hip hop somewhere in the world, that met some of these principles and concepts and ideas that we were talking about. And for me, it was just so fascinating to learn about all these examples. I mean, I’m familiar with a lot of examples of hip hop in different places in the world. And there was plenty that I was not familiar with… examples from Russia, examples from Iran. And it was really interesting to see how students were drawing from their backgrounds and experiences as oftentimes, not always, as a rationale for why they picked that example. So for one student, his roommate was Iranian and he learned a lot about Iran from his roommate. And that’s how he learned about hip hop in Iran and so he wanted to share that with the class. We have other examples of the Dominican-American students wanting to share examples from the Dominican Republic. So not every example was drawn directly from their own personal identity, some of it was just from their experience, but they felt connected to it in a different way, because they had the room and permission to connect who they were. And then we did other things in the course, to really try to harness that. But they understood that their background, experiences, their trajectories, were valued. And then part of how that was also articulated in the course was in their reading responses. I made it very clear to the students that I don’t want just a summary of what the reading was, I’ve read it, you know, I know what’s in it. What I’m curious about is, how do you understand yourself in relationship to what you’re reading? How does it connect to your background and experience? And I think that creates way different responses from students, and for me to affirm when they’re connecting the content to their experience, when I’m validating that that’s what I want… that’s what I like to see. Because whether we like it or not, they’re going to elevate us as faculty members. So they need to know that it’s okay, that that’s what we want. And the incentive is in that. I think for us as faculty, the course becomes less rote. How many times have you heard a faculty member saying, “I taught the same course, again, last semester, I’m teaching it again, this next semester.” You know, no two courses should ever be the same, because you never have the same people in your class. So the question is, what have you done in the class to be able to harness who’s in the room… to make it a new experience every time for you, as well as, of course, a new experience with the students.
Rebecca: It sounds to me like you do a lot to set up a very safe space for learning and discussion. Are there some things that you do at the beginning of the course or in your syllabus to actually set that stage to have those conversations and make students feel comfortable about sharing those experiences?
Amer: Yeah, and “safe space” has become a little bit of a loaded phrase these days. Can you truly make a learning environment truly safe given some of the trauma and backgrounds and experiences that people are bringing into the classroom? And so obviously, many people have been talking about brave spaces these days. Can we find ways to be courageous? But part of how we do that is to try to create mechanisms of safety, to whatever degree we can, for students to want to be courageous and brave and sharing who they are in the classroom. And so for me as a person who started my career in student affairs, just norms… working through creating a set of norms and agreements with your students at the beginning of a course. And this is something that’s widely done in co-curricular learning spaces, as you bring folks together for dialogue. But what I’ve learned is that a lot of faculty don’t do that. And many faculty feel like that’s a waste of time, I’m trying to get to the content. And it’s just one more thing to do. But I think it’s important for students to feel like they’re able to articulate what it is that they feel like they need to be able to be their full, whole authentic selves… participating and engaging the classroom. And sometimes that means students being able to articulate their comfort level with verbal communication, whatever it is, confidentiality, different kinds of expectations that they put out. And as a faculty member, you’re not telling them necessarily, they might say exactly what you were thinking, but the sense of ownership of what’s happening in the classroom… and that I had some kind of say over how we’re going to engage, so that I can feel comfortable bringing myself forward. And so what I do is I create a Google doc. So whatever they come up with, I put that into a Google doc and I make that available to everybody throughout the course, if anybody has concerns about the list that was created by them, they can always let me know and revisit it if they feel like there’s something that’s not working or that I’m not ensuring that those agreements are being held to. But again, it means that I’m not telling them how I expect them to engage. They’re articulating that… again, different ownership over what’s happening in the classroom. And so that means that we’re decentering ourselves in the process, and more of a facilitator role of the learning that’s happening, I think, for a lot of faculty, that seems ludicrous. Like, I’m the expert, I’m the one that went and did all this work to be able to share. But I think the question is, what is the learning that we wanted to see occur? Is it about us downloading this information, and students may or may not grasp all of it, or feel connected to it and be disinterested and disengage in it? Or is there a way for them to connect to it, where they actively engage the learning where they’re more centered, and the idea of student-centered learning where who they is centered more. The faculty member may be decentered more, but that opens up the space to be able to bring more of who everybody is into the learning process.
John: It sounds like one of the important components then is devising learning activities that bring this out, that gives students the opportunity to express themselves and their identity through the activities or through the assignments. Is that correct?
Amer: Yeah. And that’s the reason why faculty need each other as resources. And they need faculty development and teaching excellence offices and units as resources, because every faculty member cannot be expected to come up with all these different kinds of activities. Faculty need support, they need support to be able to do this. But there also needs to be incentive, there needs to be some kind of value in the institution for it to be worth their time. Because it’s like, why am I going to take all this time, energy and effort to be a better teacher, if my entire path to tenure and full professor doesn’t value that in any way, shape, or form, right? So that’s where my system lens comes in around that. So it’s a combination of faculty wanting to teach, and for our academic affairs areas to provide the resources and support a faculty to actually want to develop these skills,
Rebecca: You mentioned the role of teaching center. Can you talk a little bit more about the role that you see teaching centers in helping faculty move forward? What kinds of services or tutorials or what have you?
Amer: Yeah, this is a really evolving space in higher education from my purview. I mean, I’m fortunate that I get to see a lot of different institutional environments, situations in working across so many contexts. Again, we have so many different kinds of institutions, some institutions have really robust resources, and some have one person. And some of those one-person offices are understandable on a really small, private liberal arts institution, but maybe without a lot of resources. But I think what I see universally is that the resources that are made available to faculty are usually voluntary. And then the tendency is that we see junior faculty more likely to tap those resources and I think that it may create goodwill amongst faculty, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into reaching a broad swath of faculty. And so that’s really, I think the big question is, are we going to have resources that actually reach a number of faculty, and are there going to be some incentives and or expectation of faculty utilizing those resources. Increasingly I’m learning more about trying to make more resources available online, and not just links to articles, not just some basic resources, but literally full blown professional development… learning opportunities around effective teaching. But the next piece is the inclusion piece. So there’s a varying degree to which inclusion is focused on in these Teaching Excellence offices. And so what I found as a diversity, equity, and inclusion professional coming into that area, and finding myself to be one of the few people of color around in the field, I mean, obviously, around the country, you’ll find a decent amount. But generally, there’s not a lot, I didn’t come across a lot… So, I haven’t so far. There are some out there. Not to say that you have to be a person of color to advocate for inclusion. But it might be in a lot of context: “Oh, and by the way, we want to try our identities matter and we want to try to be inclusive in some kind of way,” as opposed to a real emphasis and real commitment to embedding it into every aspect of how we engage teaching excellence. And I think that that is something that is very much in process and a lot of places. I see there to be a lot of bifurcation between how we talk about teaching in general, like a lot of people don’t talk about student-centered teaching as a practice of inclusion. A lot of people don’t talk about backwards design of courses as a process towards making a more inclusive classroom, but it is… and so how do we connect in a more clear and articulate way how those mainline, mainstream, faculty development teaching excellence practices connect to broader efforts and work of inclusion? That bifurcation, I think, perpetuates faculties perception that the inclusion piece is not relevant, especially if they’re in a field that they think the content of their work is not relevant to those conversations.
Rebecca: I think it’s interesting that in a series of episodes that we’ve had on inclusion, this kind of theme bubbles up frequently… that evidence-based practices are a good way to start to be inclusive. And focusing on teaching and being student centered is a good way to be inclusive. So it’s interesting that that kind of bubbles up once again in this conversation. I think it’s also interesting to hear you talk about because I feel like I’ve experienced this a bit, that there’s teaching center stuff and that’s like one silo. And then diversity/inclusion is another silo. And accessibility and disability is another silo. But they’re all interconnected and we don’t often interact necessarily or work on things collaboratively in a way that could be useful. I think your background in student affairs also is another area where that’s its own silo. And those folks don’t necessarily interact with the academic folks as often as perhaps they could, because there’s a lot of different expertise in both of those silos, essentially, that benefit from one another.
Amer: Yeah, the student affairs piece was exactly where I was going to go. It was just shocking to me to move across from student affairs to academic affairs, and find out that norms and agreements were just not something that most faculty did and was not even like on the radar. I just was shocked by that when I first encountered it. I’ll never forget my first staff meeting… and coming from a student affairs background, you’re student centered, you’re thinking about students all the time. And I just remember, it was just in a staff meeting, saying, “You know, why don’t we get a student perspective on what they think faculty need?” And I was just looked at, like, I was an alien. I mean they were just like, “What are you talking about?” “Why would we ever ask a student?”… you know, and it’s like, because they’re the recipients of what faculty do… you know what I mean? So they have another perspective that could be valuable in getting us to think about what faculty need, not just hearing from faculty about what they need, but hearing from students too. So there’s all these different ways in which se silos end up creating challenges and I feel blessed and fortunate that I’ve worked across them. And it gives me a lens and perspective, but I increasingly find that that’s not typical as I work across the country.
Rebecca: Do you have some examples of really successful ways that folks have worked across areas or have been a little more integrated in the way that they think about inclusion and evidence based-practices and student and academic affairs that are worth maybe sharing as a model?
Amer: Well, I would say that anywhere that that’s happening, there’s a robust diversity, equity, and inclusion apparatus, structural work that’s working collaboratively across the institution. Because those areas, if they’re going to be effective, they have to be collaborative with Academic and Student Affairs. A senior Diversity Officer at a cabinet level, needs to have a good relationship with the Provost, and needs to have a good relationship with the VP of Student Affairs. So most of the examples that I know, there was a robust infrastructure around that, and where that more synergistic work is housed varies. Sometimes that can be within a Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, where they’re doing some academic support resources, they may be working with a teaching excellence office collaboratively. I can think of Wake Forest as a place that I knew some of those things were happening. But I still think that, in a lot of places, too much of this is dependent on personnel-dependent relationships, and not structurally positioned to really create the expectation that these areas and some dotted lines in the org chart to really say that we think that these things are directly relevant and important and need to be connected. But yeah, too often teaching excellence and faculty development units are not at all connected to the diversity apparatus. I think it’s starting to happen because the Chief Diversity Officers are increasingly focused on the academic affairs area, and the need to engage that tough slog and the fact that students are protesting all over the country about their experiences in the classroom, but a lot of it usually depends on your Provost. And do they see the connection? Are they committed? Do they want to have a strong relationship with their senior Diversity Officer at a Cabinet level? Some institutions, their senior diversity officer is a Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion under the Provost and those are the places that I think you tend to see more of a natural connection because they’re within the same division of the institution. But oftentimes, in my experience, that silo between Academic and Student Affairs is a chasm, which is true in most institutions. But I think in a lot of those institutions, and they might have a separate focus on diversity within Student Affairs that is really operating almost autonomously from what’s going on the classroom stuff.
John: Let’s bring this back a little bit more to inclusion in the classroom. You mentioned a couple things that faculty can do. One is having students create rules for engagement in discussion and creating more activities that naturally bring students more in. Are there any other suggestions you have on what faculty who would like to start making their classroom more inclusive could do to make some progress in this direction?
Amer: Yeah, there’s obviously work that you can do in the content in terms of who are the authors, what perspectives they’re bringing of the content. Because if every single person that you’re citing for the content of your workshop is a white man, then at this point, most fields have a broader selection of people to draw from, or at the very least, highlighting key contributors to a field who are from backgrounds that have been historically marginalized, and noting their contributions. And so that’s a long way of saying there’s a curricular way to get it as well, that’s important. I’ll never forget my first English class in college, and it was a requirement, I went to Miami University in Ohio, and, you know, white male teacher, but he decided that all our reading was going to be World Literature translated into English from around the world. And I was writing my assignments, I thought, “Okay, whatever, I’m just going to do my homework and respond to these readings.” And again, it’s also about does the faculty member value the perspective that you’re bringing, and he made a point to make clear to me, like “You’re articulating perspectives, that are really different from anything I’ve ever heard, and from anybody else in the class.” And for me… and I think this is particularly true for younger students… is that I had never heard anybody say that to me before. Like, I didn’t think there was a value of being South-Asian and Muslim. I just thought it would made me different and weird from the majority, I didn’t think that was an asset. I didn’t think that there was something valuable to that. I didn’t know that what I saw and my perspective, that that was a resource for what was happening in the classroom, but he did. He valued that and he wanted to leverage that and he wanted to help me understand why it was valuable, so that I would be more willing to share my perspective, if I wanted to, towards what was happening in the classroom. And that’s why you have to set up the agreement about how we’re going to engage, so that I’m going to want to share that. Because I think, oftentimes, faculty in the desire for that student who might be a different background from everybody else to share, they may end up tokenizing, unintentionally, that student. And so that’s why it’s better to build it into the process, where you’re drawing it out from students, and they’re really making the connection on their own.
John: Because if you’re going to ask students to be representative of some group, you run the risk of stereotype threat and so forth, and making them feel more marginalized. Right?
Amer: Right. That’s part of those core intercultural skills and competencies we have to learn is that our identities are complicated. For students to be able to self articulate how they understand what they’re engaged in, in the learning, as related to their experience, it’s all about creating an environment where they’re going to want to do that.
Rebecca: I think kind of highlighting the idea of a personal note on an assignment. that is thoughtful… could be brief, but demonstrates that you’ve read, you understand, and that you’re interested,… that can go a long way in setting up the environment when everybody’s around so that private encounter can be really important to more public interactions. And I think that we don’t always think as faculty like the power in doing something, frankly, that’s fairly simple like that.
Amer: Yeah. So I had their weekly readings… and again, I made it really clear that I want to know about what you think, how do you connect your background experience to what we just read? How does this resonate for you? Don’t regurgitate it, because I read it. And the thing is that now they’ve spent some time connecting it to their experience before they’ve gone into class. And so for some students, they’re not comfortable just improvising in the moment in class. And so what I’m saying is that, when we engage in the conversation in class, you can draw from what you wrote, you don’t have to come up with it on the spot. Some students, they’re more comfortable with that; other students they’re going to want to look at what they wrote to really be their prompt. And here’s the other thing, as a faculty member, I know that they wrote it. And so if they don’t feel comfortable speaking or engaging, I’m not going to penalize them for that, because I know that they read it and I know they connected to their experience already. And obviously, you’re going to try to do what you can small group work, dyad work, other kinds of ways of getting them to engage, because some students are just not going to be comfortable engaging in a large group setting.
Rebecca: You mentioned a few minutes ago about intercultural competencies that faculty need to obtain. Can you outline what some of those are, so that faculty that are newer to this area, or really interested in inclusion but really haven’t thought about the competencies that they need to obtain… the little checklist of things to think about?
Amer: Yeah, and I will say that it’s really important to note that it’s a lifelong process, right? For all of us. We’re all learning, we’re all encountering, we all have assumptions and I think that sometimes I think it’s important to highlight that we all are in that process, because sometimes it feels like we’re saying, some of you have to learn and the rest of us, we already got it. Maybe because I was South Asian and Muslim, I had to adapt and adjust to more types that I’m more aware of more types of things automatically through my experience. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a whole lot to learn still. Let me just give you a quick example. I was at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity a couple weeks ago, and I’m sitting in the car with three Pacific Islanders and we’re going back to our hotel from a social gathering and I find out that three of us are Muslim in the conversation. Now, I have to admit, I did not think that I was going to be in a car with two other Muslim people, given that three of them were Pacific Islanders; that was just my assumption that I made that clearly turned out to be incorrect. Now, I didn’t articulate that until later… I mean, I told them, because I was like, yeah, I have to be honest. But there was enough trust in those encounters and relationships. But my point is that we all are capable, we all have that learning to do, we all are going to make our assumptions and so forth. Some of the core competencies around intercultural development are self awareness… for me, the foundation is self awareness, we have to be able to spend some time reflecting on who we are, how do we understand ourselves and our experiences, our biases, our styles, our identities, including social identities in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class. For folks from other countries, maybe race might not be something that they’re used to thinking about and that’s fine. So for somebody coming from India as a professor, okay, well, if it’s not race, then I know that there’s caste and there’s religion, and there’s other historically based systems of inequity. How does that shape your understanding? How are you positioned in relationship to those things? How does that shape your understanding of the world in their experience? I always find it to be interesting that we are asked to be self reflective as researchers, but not as teachers. I think that’s really an interesting thing. So absolute foundation… because to me, if you don’t have that foundational level of self awareness, you don’t have the reference point that you need to be able to empathize, which is the next key competency, and that when I say empathy, it’s validating someone else’s experience as true for them. We don’t have to agree and this is another area in which academics struggle, right? A lot of times we think that well, because I’m entitled to my point of view, no matter what, then I don’t have to be empathetic, because I don’t agree with you. And that’s not necessarily the case. So if a woman is saying to me, a woman identified individual, shares with me that she feels uncomfortable every time somebody is around, and I say that I’m sure they mean no harm, it doesn’t make me a bad person, it just means I’m not being empathetic. I’ve just dismissed how she feels and what her experience is and so it creates unnecessary barriers between us. If I did something like that, what’s the likelihood of that person’s gonna want to come to me the next time something’s going wrong for them? So when we work on it, it makes us more approachable. It makes us more trusted in these things. Another competency or skill is tolerance for ambiguity and I think this is a big one. Being okay with the fact that you don’t know all the details all the time and that’s okay. I did not know I was going to be sitting in a car with two other Muslims out of the three other Pacific Islanders in the car. But quite honestly, when they disclosed it, I wasn’t like, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” I didn’t do that because I’m like, okay, I didn’t know. I sat with the ambiguity, right? …rather than trying to make them feel strange for the fact that they’re Pacific Islander and Muslim. So for me, I get people asking, “What are you?”
And I’m a little bit racially ambiguous. And I’m like, “Well, I’m a person…” …you know.
“Well, where are you from?”
I’m like, “Well, I’m from Ohio, originally, and…”
”No, where are you originally from?”
And that can happen the first time you meet somebody. We don’t have a relationship… we haven’t established one… and I don’t necessarily feel like sharing my entire ancestral lineage with someone the first time I meet them. And some people are okay with that. Some people like being asked that. To me, I get asked that so often I’m like, “You know, I’m good.” I feel essentialized and tokenized in those situations and that creates a barrier… Again, unnecessary. So can we sit with that ambiguity? And that’s tied to things like patience, but it is good to be curious, a lot of people are like, “Well, isn’t it good to be curious and want to know”and I’m like “Yeah, that’s great.” Now with that curiosity, be patient and sit with the ambiguity as long as you can. But it’s important to be curious, because if you’re not curious, you don’t even want to know. So it’s important to be curious. These are some of the core competencies and skills that it’s helpful for everybody to work on, to position ourselves to be more likely to be successful. And then it’s like, knowing that we’re all going to make mistakes, and can we create an environment with enough trust to where we understand that mistakes will be made? And I think that’s important as well.
Rebecca: And the key there, right, is that there’s mistakes with both faculty and with students, right? Anybody can have mistakes.
Amer: Anybody is capable, so then it becomes how we navigate that and I think that’s part of those difficult conversations… concerns that a lot of faculty have these days.
John: How would you suggest faculty address that if they or a student makes an insensitive comment that offends other people, what would be a good approach?
Amer: Well, there’s a whole set of things tied to our whole conversation about how you create the environment. So there’s a prep in terms of how you create the environment for navigating moments like that. But then there’s like, what are you going to actually do in the moment? …and one of the things that some of my colleagues and I have talked about is that you’re allowed to pause… you know what I mean? …like to take a moment and really try to reflect. I think, also, it’s really helpful to ask clarifying questions. Can you help me understand what you mean by what you’re saying? Or where are you coming from? Can you help clarify? Because I think sometimes when we react, it’s not always necessarily operating from the clearest place and so asking the person who’s sharing to be a little bit clear about where they’re coming from, and the basis of their rationale for why they’re saying what they’re saying. That preps work and working on your intercultural skills, those are the things that are going to help you to be more likely to recognize that something is occurring. I think one of the number one things that students get upset by is it something that they view as problematic has come up and been said or asked and the faculty member didn’t notice it, didn’t recognize it, didn’t note it, didn’t say anything about it, didn’t address it, just kept on going. So there’s two things here. One is that if that happens, you’re allowed to go back the next class, if you reflect or a student contacts you and say, “Hey, you know, there was something that happened in the last class that I just want to address.” I know, folks are like, “I gotta get to my content,…” but you have to remember that you may have just lost a bunch of students in your class… they’re not going to trust you and they’re not going to go with you the rest of the course, if you just keep going. So you still have an opportunity to come back at the beginning of the next class, and to say, “Hey, I was reflecting” and to address it then, so that the rest of the students know that you are aware, and that it does matter to you, and that you’re going to try to do whatever you can to address it. And you may have to say we’re not going to resolve this here, but I do want to acknowledge that there were some concerns or x, y, and z. I think it’s important that we know that there were different sentiments or feelings or whatever. So those are some of the initial things that I really try to get folks to think about.
Rebecca: One of the things that I heard you say without directly saying it, I think, is that sometimes our gut reaction might be judgmental.
Rebecca: And it comes out that way, rather than from a place of wanting everybody to learn.
Amer: Yeah, I think this is an important thing for a number of people, of a number of trajectories and backgrounds. And what I’ve been talking about a lot is the difference between reacting and responding. Responding requires critical reflection, reacting is like that you have a stimulus, and then you do exactly whatever your response is to that stimulus. This is important for everybody. But I think if you’re from a marginalized identity, I think this is a big one, because students can say things that are triggering for you that you may have been traumatized or marginalized as a faculty member, I think that’s part of the reason why it’s important to do a lot of self work and reflection. And I think part of what we need to talk about is faculty getting the time to be able to be reflective, and that that being a value, that that is actually valuable for faculty to have the time to be reflective about who they are and what they bring to the classroom. Because the thing is that when we react, that’s when we’re more likely to draw from our implicit biases, that’s when we’re more likely to commit a micro aggression against a student, that’s when we’re more likely to do those things. And so we need the opportunity to reflect, to take the time to really understand who we are in relationship to other colleagues, with our students, so that we’re more likely to bring our best self into the classroom. That also involves faculty getting the opportunity to engage one another around these conversations. The number one thing I’ve noticed around the faculty development spaces around teaching is that they love the opportunity to talk to one another about what they’re experiencing, and what’s working for them and where their challenges are, and so forth. And they need the opportunity and space to do that. And I know that’s hard. Sometimes it involves faculty unions, and contracts and stuff, but I think we just got to make it part of what we do and ee got to create space for faculty to engage each other on these things.
Rebecca: Are there things that we think we should also address that we haven’t addressed yet?
Amer: I do want to note that I know that we’re in a very intense political and social climate in multiple trajectories and I don’t want to sound like I’m creating any false equivalencies. There’s hate, and there’s people being targeted for their identities and that’s a factor for what’s going on and that’s horrible. But there’s also, what I refer to as the culture of campus social justice elitism, in which I think we’ve created a new hierarchy around the language and discourse of social justice. Actually, there’s a reason why I talk the way I do around this stuff, and not constantly using an elitist form of discourse of social justice. And part of that, for me, is rooted in the fact that I was an activist before I came into the work… and more connected to grassroots activism. What I would say to my students sometimes is, let’s take all your big words, because they’re replicating what the academy is doing. It’s teaching them these words and languages and it’s like a way of showing that they know, which is where all the incentives are in the academy. None of the incentives are around not knowing, they’re all around knowing. So even around social justice stuff, I’m going to be performative around how much I know. One of the things I used to say to my students when I was at the University of Michigan, and I was like “let’s go to Detroit, where some people are organizing in the community. Let’s take all those words. And let’s just see how that’s going to go. These are the communities that you say that you advocate for and… you know what I’m saying?” …and I think they know. I think part of what we have to recognize is that it’s not just what students are doing, they’re being positioned to do certain things, whether it’s the impact of technology, whether it’s the way the Academy is structured, whether it’s where they are developmentally if they’re young adults, we have to continue to account for that. And so part of why we have to do our work is so that we don’t take it so personal. And yes, it’s hard. It is frustrating when students come at us in some of the ways that have been happening these days. And quite honestly, I think part of the reason why faculty are engaging these resources these days more is because they’re scared to death that they’re going to get blasted on social media, because they’ve heard it happen to a colleague or someone they went to graduate school, and they really don’t want that to happen to them. I wish that wasn’t the motivating factor for some faculty, but increasingly it is. So I’m not going to say that I have a magic wand. And I get, on a general level, the challenges of our time and the moment. But I don’t think that that’s a reason to not engage these processes and not to be committed to it. And we have to do that with authenticity, and recognizing that we also don’t have all the answers. So all we can do is just do the best we can. And if we’re committed to it, we can go down a path towards creating a more inclusive learning environment for all.
John: And whatever brings faculty to this if they create a more inclusive learning environment, it’s all to the good.
Amer: Yes, exactly. Absolutely. One of the reasons why I made sure that I prefaced what I said with “I don’t want to minimize the fact that there are people being attacked for their identities these days.” First of all, I’m part of one of those groups that gets attacked incessantly and demonized so I fully understand that. But secondarily, I think part of it is that we’re in this binary dualism of like, if you say one thing, that means you’re the opposite. Or if you say one thing that that means that you’re planting your flag in the ground. And this dualism means you’re either on one side or the other. And I think the academy shouldn’t be about dualism, I think it should be about exploration of knowledge, which is much more nuanced than dualistic camps on things. So I really do think that we need to actually start valuing and emphasizing not knowing, and I think that would actually make our teaching better.
Rebecca: I love that idea. Not knowing and being curious. That is really what the Academy is actually about. That’s what learning is about. It’s actually the not knowing.
Amer: That’s what it’s supposed to be about.
Amer: But I do think that the systems of the academy position us to replicate the idea that the only thing that matters is knowing; that critical thinking, even just epistemologically, we say that critical thinking is… in many cultural contexts, intellectual critical thinking knowledge is only one paradigm of knowledge, and that there’s other forms of knowledge that we can draw from. And that’s part of what we have to be open about. And that’s part of what our students are bringing from their various trajectories that they’re coming from… many different types of ways of knowing and being in the world.
John: We always end with the question, what are you doing next?
Amer: Well, the most immediate next thing is that I’m, in terms of professionally, is that I’m giving a keynote at a Jesuit institution diversity conference, I’m really excited about that. I’m very interested in the idea of connecting more intentionally religion and spirituality to broader intersections of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think that oftentimes gets separated out. And I think for a person like me, who is part of a community that’s targeted, partially because of racism, but partially also because of faith, that I think is something that we need to spend more time being willing to engage. And I think too often in the academy we’re dismissive of religion and spirituality as something that is intellectually weak.. You know, weak minded or something. So it’s something that I’m particularly interested in, and I’m actually going to be co editing a volume focusing on that, which I’m really excited about as well.
Rebecca: That sounds really interesting and definitely fills a space that’s very empty.
Amer: Yeah. And particularly on a practical level, like how do we actually support and work with students and various constituencies on our campus around that?
John: Well, thank you for joining us. This has been a fascinating conversation, and I hope it helps lots of people in moving towards a more inclusive environment.
Amer: Thanks so much.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for your insights, This was really, a really productive conversation.
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.
Faculty often find that grading student work is a stressful and time-consuming activity. Students sometimes see grades as a subject of negotiation rather than as an assessment of their learning. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to explore how specifications grading can save faculty time while motivating students to achieve the course learning outcomes.
Linda is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Specifications Grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time as well as many other superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.
- Linda Nilson – Director Emeritus of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University
- Nilson, L. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
- Nilson, L. “80. Self-Regulated Learning.” Tea for Teaching podcast. May 8, 2019.
John: Faculty often find that grading student work is a stressful and time-consuming activity. Students sometimes see grades as a subject of negotiation rather than as an assessment of their learning. In this episode, we explore how the use of specifications grading can save faculty time while motivating students to achieve the course learning outcomes.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
John: Today our guest is Dr. Linda Nilson. She is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.
Rebecca: Welcome, Linda.
Linda: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.
Rebecca: I think it’s more of a welcome back, right?
John: Yes. Welcome back.
Linda: Welcome back. Yes, yes, yes. Good to be here again.
Rebecca: Are you drinking any tea today?
Linda: As a matter of fact, I am. Yes, yes, yes. Of course I had coffee this morning as well. But I am drinking tea. I am drinking a berry tea, but it also has black tea in it. So it’s still a bit of a stimulant anyway, but it tastes really good.
Rebecca: Sounds good.
John: I have ginger peach green tea.
Rebecca: And I have English breakfast.
John: In an earlier podcast we talked with you about your work with self-regulated learning and one of the topics that came up with that was specifications grading.
John: So we’d like you to tell us a little bit about your book, Specifications Grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time… especially that last part. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Yes, saving faculty time. Yeah, I figured that would help sell the book. But it’s true. It does save faculty time. And one of the things that inspired this book was just my hearing so many complaints from so many faculty over the years, about grading and the aftermath of grading and returning grading material to students. And the constant steady stream of students trying to get another half a point, just arguing… just conflict… constant conflict… students being stressed… faculty being stressed… faculty getting larger and larger classes with less and less help… fewer and fewer TAs, if there ever any TAs. And I got tired of it. But there was a part of this that I did not invent. I heard it from a faculty member in the School of Management. And she was doing that pass-fail grading. It was saving her tons of time. She had huge classes, online classes. And she just invented this and she was also sick and tired… getting complaints from students and students not paying attention to her feedback, which of course, took her hours and hours and hours to write and return. So I took some ideas from her. But I also wanted to tie grades somehow to outcomes. And this is where another aspect of specs grading comes in. And that is with respect to bundling assignments, or turning them into modules or whatever. But I prefer the term bundles because it’s much more universal. So anyway, this was a solution to a problem. And that’s what a lot of my work has had to do with, making the faculty members job easier and more rewarding.
Rebecca: I think that you’ve been spying on me for the last many years. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Yes I have. Yes I have. [LAUGHTER] I’ll admit it.
Rebecca: I knew it. I knew it. So I think John and I are both really interested in the idea of saving time, as are many faculty. But you also talked about, in your book, the history of grading… how its evolved… the 4.0 system. How is this different? And how does this relate to the history of grading?
Linda: Well, let’s look at the history of grading first. Grade started, well everywhere, in 1783. It was Yale’s idea. And what they started doing in that year was an achievement-based student classification system. They were not using As and Bs, what they were using were Latin designations of like optimi outstanding and pejores for failing, like as in pejorative, right? Anyway, then in 1800, Yale dropped the Latin designations and started using numbers 0 to 4. Sound familiar? But that was Yale doing that now. In 1850, the University of Michigan initiated grades, but for them, it was strictly pass/fail, and it only took 50% to pass. So we talk about grade inflation now… look backwards. [LAUGHTER] Mount Holyoke, though, just a few years later set passing at 75%. Harvard, also a little bit later, invented the A to F system, but passing was only 26%. So if you were wealthy enough, you had to know less, right? Okay. But anyway, that’s where ultimately grades came from before 1783. This was in Europe. And this started hundreds of years before our notion of grades. There was something… it was like a Jeopardy game, where graduates… or graduates to be… the hopeful graduates… were answering questions in a tournament style, but the stakes were really high. And so yes, if you are winning throughout, you were really showered with honors. But if you were at the bottom, you lived years in shame. It was terrible. We talk about high stakes. Oh my. So anyway, grades were invented after universities. Socrates didn’t talk about grades, right? It’s a relatively new invention for sorting students.
Rebecca: How does the specification grading relate to this letter system or this 4.0 system?
Linda: Well, it kind of takes a break away. Because first of all, all this grades that I was talking about was with respect to courses, there have been pass/fail courses. Sometimes they worked well, sometimes they didn’t work so well. They work pretty well in medical school ‘cause we’re dealing with a highly motivated students who really understand the need to know. But other than that, most students would do the absolute minimum to get their C-… whatever, it didn’t work very well in terms of like motivating students to learn, they learned the absolute minimum. With specs grading, the pass/fail is within the course, the assignments and tests in the course. But, you don’t pass with a C or C-. You set the passing level at what you would regard as a B level. And this is what restores the rigor. I think we have been sold a poor bill of goods, when we don’t set our students to high standards. We say, “Well, maybe they can’t do it, and then they’ll get…” They can do it. Come on. They’re just not doing it because of our partial credit system and our point system ‘cause they can always get another half a point, right? …just by wearing you down. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Really, they do and they know it works, it worked in high school, so it works now. Now it may have worked the previous semester, these students aren’t stupid. And they can do what we ask them to do for “B” work… certainly at the undergraduate level, or actually at the graduate level as well. They could do it. But they choose not to, because they can survive otherwise. They could do well enough to pass or get their “B” or even get their “A.” So why should they sweat it, they can always get the partial credit. And students get partial credit. It’s almost like going back to the University of Michigan 50% passing for assignments and tests. I mean, we pretty much lowered the bar, because we want so many people to get over it. Well, people are getting over it without preparing… without doing a decent job. And they’ll spend 10 minutes… 20 minutes… the night before on an assignment knowing that no matter what they do, they will get partial credit and they will pass. So again, they’re not stupid, it’s just that, for them, college is a game that doesn’t have much to do with learning. That’s not where the focus is, and at least with specs grading, there is a lot more focus on learning, because you are tying the assignments and tests to student learning outcomes. And that’s a really nice part of the system in that those grades, the ABC, mean something in terms of outcomes achievement, and these, in turn, might be tied to program outcomes as well. So all of a sudden, you’ve gotten rid of an entire step at the departmental level of having to measure program outcomes. And why do you have to do this? Because accrediting agencies know that our grades don’t mean much of anything, as far as learning is concerned, as far as what they’re interested in, which is outcomes achievement. And outcomes achievement, it’s an up-or-out sort of thing. You can either do something or you can’t, and as long as there are standards set for that, and certainly the accrediting agencies want standards set for that. So let’s say “Okay, so your goal is a student can write a good quality, maybe not great quality, but a good quality business proposal.” Okay, fine. So if that is your outcome, what really does that entail? What exactly are you looking for in terms of a very good business plan? And that should be incorporated in your directions to students. But we don’t articulate that, do we? We really don’t. We speak very vaguely, “Well a business plan should have this and here’s your rubric.” Well, first of all, students often don’t understand the language, but is simply not detailed enough such that all students can understand the directions and actually follow them. We need to put more detail. Usually what we assigned undergraduates is some sort of a template or a formula to do this. And we’re not talking about that. We’re not sharing this template or formula with our students. And that’s what we need to do… not to say that you can’t allow for creative work. Matter of fact, with this system, you can and you don’t have to worry about tearing your hair out in different ways. “Well, I don’t know how to grade a movie.” Well, no, but you can talk about certain qualities of that movie, as in just simple things like the length, or perhaps the number of scenes that you want to see. And certainly they’ll be a learning goal and a communication goal connected to it. And that’s pretty much all you have to do. For most of our assignments, they are formulaic, but students don’t know the formula. And we need to tell them, and those are what you would call our specs for an assignment. So that’s really what we need to do. So all our work is up front and laying out what those specs are. It’s like a one-level rubric. But we don’t have to worry about different levels of the rubric, where there are four-level rubrics and five-level rubrics. We don’t have to worry about that. All we need is one. So we can afford the time to actually specify what we’re looking for… what that template involves.
John: And then the focus is helping students reach the standard, rather than negotiating with them over the grades for what they’ve received.
Linda: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, forget negotiation. There’s some things that ought to be non-negotiable. I mean, we’re not sloppy when we grade, I know, we get sick and tired of it. But we are so diligent in our grading. And then we have a line of students outside our office saying, “I deserve another two points on this because Susie said the same thing. She got 12 points, I only got 10.” …like write an essay about it… justifying it.
John: One thing I really like about it, though, is that right now we have these two levels of assessing students’ learning, we have these complex assessment plans for each department. And then we have a grading system, which often bears little resemblance to the assessment. And this is making the assessment transparent and obvious to students. And it’s forcing both faculty and students to focus on the learning objectives for the course.
Linda: Yes, as we should be, you think about it, what does it mean, when a student gets an A? Does that mean that that student has achieved all the objectives? all the outcomes at the level we want to see? Well, maybe for some of the students who get an A. What does a “B” mean? Now we’re starting to get into really ambiguous territory. Does that mean that the students sort of achieved or barely achieved all the outcomes or maybe achieved some really well and then didn’t achieve others? And a “C,” forget it. You can’t tell what’s going on there, especially given the way we give out “Cs” these days. So maybe the “C” student achieved one outcome well, but which one? Yeah, I mean, no wonder accrediting agencies pay no attention to our grades. They don’t even want to know them. And I can understand why, if they’re focused on learning outcomes. And so yeah, we’ve got this whole extra level of work that we have to do and the department chairs have to do and the Provosts have to do. I mean, who needs it?
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between specs grading and contract grading, because it seems like they have some things in common?
Linda: Yes, they do have something in common. With contract grading, students individually work it out with a faculty member as to exactly what they’re going to do. And if they do all those things that they will get there “A” because I’ve never heard of a student contracting or a ”B,” it just doesn’t happen. Now, contract rating goes back to the 60s, and the first half of the 70s. And what was happening was since there was this individual relationship, first of all, faculty didn’t specify enough about what they wanted… what constituted “A” work… same problem we have had up to now… and faculty weren’t all that much different then, in fact, they probably gave less guidance. But in any case, there were the specifications. And then faculty and students would develop this relationship, this individual relationship. And it became particularly difficult for the faculty member to give anything but an “A” to the student. And the student would have thought, “Well, why didn’t you tell me to do this to get my ‘A,’ because that’s what I contracted for.” So contract rating was: 1. sloppy, but 2. highly individualized. With our class sizes, we can’t even talk about contract grading. And because it was something that was mutually established, between the faculty and the students, and specs grading is nothing like that. This is all in the faculty members’ hands. Well, at least, setting out what is required to get the “As” and “Bs” and “Cs” and “Ds” . But students choose what grade they’re going to go for. And according to what grade they believe that they need, but also according to what kind of a workload they want to shoulder for this particular course. And you know, maybe all they need is a “C.” And you know what, that’s okay. And we don’t look down on that student if the student says: “Well, all I need is a ‘C.’ We do otherwise. We say “Wow, this is a lazy student.” That’s what we’re thinking in the back of our heads. We have negative thoughts about students who settle for low grades. But with specs grading, you don’t have to feel that way. This student chose a seat for whatever reason, I don’t care. My course is not in that student’s major. So I’m not going to take it personally. So, that’s nice. But the fact that that’s making that choice, gets rid of all kinds of grading complaints, or that thing at the end of the semester: “What can I do to bring up my grade?” Well, it’s very clear what you could have been doing. If you went for a “C” now you could have done these additional assignments, or taking this additional test to get a “B.” But you didn’t do that. Now, you’ve got a week left, maybe you want to try to do that. But don’t ask me, I laid out the contract, I laid out the terms, I laid out the specs at the beginning of the semester, and you make your choices. This whole thing makes students feel a lot more responsible for their grades. They made the choice. And we respect that.
Rebecca: So I think a question that would come up for many faculty is you’ve laid out that certain assignments need to be accomplished to get even a “C…”
Rebecca: …and what the specifications are. What happens when a student struggles to meet those specs?
Linda: Oh gee. Well, now when you say struggle, you can struggle before the assignment, or you can be disappointed and angry after the assignment. So if you’re talking about struggling before and say, “Professor, I don’t understand these two specs. I don’t even know if I can do it. Could you give me some more guidance?” No problem, and then because the stakes are higher, you get credit or no credit whatsoever… doesn’t count towards your bundle… doesn’t count towards whatever grade you’re doing. So you’d better figure this out. Now, afterwards, don’t meet the specs. Okay. And obviously, you didn’t come to see me in advance, did you or otherwise, we would have hashed this out. Anyway… so you didn’t pass? So you missed these two specs. All right, well gee, that’s most unfortunate. But there’s this system called tokens… or I call them tokens, but you can call them… I don’t know, you can call them pigs in a blanket for all I care, it doesn’t matter. They’re like get out of jail free cards. I’ve seen them called hail Mary cards. In a geography course, they were called globes, but anyway, they are opportunities to either redo an assignment that didn’t meet the specs, or to get a 24-hour extension. And there might be some other things that you make up along the way if absence counts against you in your course, you can get out of absence. But let’s say it’s for redoing this assignment, which is really important early in the semester, because students are not going to believe that you’re going to grade them pass/fail, because this is all new for them. And they go, “Well, how can this be…” and “There must be some sort of partial credit or something…” They won’t believe you. So there will be a number of students who will need this token or get out of jail free card to redo the assignment. It’s up to you, as a faculty member, as to how many get out of jail free cards or tokens that they might have. Three is a nice number. I like it, but some people give five. Some people give two. But I think it behooves you to have some reasonable number of tokens with specs grading, because that takes the pressure off of students; it allows them to screw up at least a few times. So this is something that students can get second chances out of this because the stakes are higher than typical. But the thing is, when you’re grading these assignments, all you’ve got to do is check the specs that weren’t met, and say, “This is why your assignment failed.” Now, if you want to give additional feedback, by all means, I’m not going to stop you. But I want you to have a life. That’s the only thing. And you can give positive feedback as well. And then you know what, you’ve passed something, then you get positive feedback from your instructor that you figure, “Wow, the instructor gave me this positive feedback out of the kindness of her heart, because she really cares about me and my success… told me how I could maybe do better in the future.” First of all, I’m going to read this, because this is meaningful feedback. This is not justification for having taken off points, because that’s what most of our feedback is about: why you didn’t get full credit. And now this is actual substantive learning feedback. So, it decouples feedback from evaluation in a way, but students get the chance to do it over and now that you have their attention, that let’s say they didn’t pass a certain assignment, that they can come to you and say, “Okay, how should I do this better?” Oh, okay. Isn’t this lovely? So the worst that will happen is you’ll have a conversation with a student about how to improve his or her work, that’s the worst that will happen. Isn’t that wonderful? [LAUGHTER] And sometimes students know, they just got lazy.
Rebecca: How would you suggest structuring specification grading for a class that’s more project based or even collaborative work?
Linda: Oh, sure. Whether it’s projects, or papers or whatever, again, it’s a matter of specs. Oftentimes, with our projects, that we might allow our projects different media, what we have to do is lay out specs for each media. Or say, if you can think of a different media, you can do a film, you can do a play, you can write pamphlets, you can write a paper if you want to, or you can do any of, let’s say, a half a dozen things. And let’s say if you want to do something else that’s not on the list, come talk to me, and we’ll work it out, we’ll work out some specs for it, too. So what you have to do is you have to lay out specs, but oftentimes the specs that you have to lay out, and students love creative assignments, is you have to lay out, let’s say, length, and so you might say, “Okay, if you’re going to go with a film or video, I want 20-mintues of that. Going to go with pamphlets? I want at least four pamphlets, I want each pamphlet to have at least 250-words in it. If you’re going to go with writing a play and performing a play for your peers, I mean, wow. But I do want it to be a half an hour long. And I want it to involve everybody in the group, everybody’s acting. And if you’re going to write a paper, I want it to be at least, let’s say, 2000-words long… or maybe that’s too long, whatever… and you lay it out, and I want it to follow this kind of an outline.” You can lay out specs for different kinds of media, and let students run with the project. Now a design project, what you might allow students to choose is exactly, let’s say, in architecture, what kind of a building they’re going to design. Let’s say, “Okay, you can design a residence, single family, a separate dwelling, but I want it to be at least four bedrooms, I want to be two stories, this and that. And you could do an office building too. But I want this to be at least two stories, and I want it to be so many thousands of square feet.” And then you let them run with it. And you know what, we know from our history, and from a lot of publications, that students run with this sort of thing. So I’ll give a little guidance and off they go, it’s a beautiful thing. Now in terms of projects having to do with group work, I don’t know that that specs grading will make group work smoother. [LAUGHTER] And I’ve talking about out-of-class group work. If you want to play marriage counselor, you just go right on ahead. But you don’t have to. I mean, there are some people who say, “Hey, you guys work it out on your own, I don’t want to hear about it and you can fire freeloaders. And if you are doing all the work, you can resign from your group and any other group will be happy to pick you up. But all this has to be done by the end of the fifth week,” whatever. So I don’t know that we’re going to get rid of those problems. [LAUGHTER]
REBBECCA: I think my question was more about the high-stakes nature or the long-term nature of projects.
Rebecca: So would you recommend doing scaffolded specs or something like that to help make sure they’re on track?
Linda: Well, yes, what you need to do, as with any major project, you need to divide it up into smaller tasks that students can be at accountable for along the way, and maybe even get feedback for. Now, you can give feedback… your peers… people in other groups… can give feedback. Because after all, we’re doing criteria referenced grading, we’re not grading on the curve. So there are different ways for students to get feedback. But in any case, this divides a massive task into little pieces. So maybe starting out with, “Okay, by the end of the third week, we want your group to have a literature review put together.” And we put specs for the literature review. “And we want so many references. And we want so many of them in the last five-years,” And what have you. So we can even put the specs, I even specify specs for the format that we want: APA format, or ASA format, or Chicago, whatever it is that we want. That’s something that we can put in the specs if we want to, and that way students will actually proofread. Now I think we ought to be somewhat tolerant with respect to format anyway, we ought to allow three little errors in format. Because you know what, when we submit a paper to a journal, they’re tolerant of us, right? [LAUGHTER] I mean, you can’t be sloppy, but if we put a period instead of a comma, hey, we are forgiven. And we’ll catch it later on the proofs. So we need to allow some errors on something like that. But anyway, yeah, we divide up a big task into pieces. And then students get feedback on the pieces. And that’s also a good way to find out early about who are your freeloaders, who’s not doing the work early, so they can get rid of the freeloaders if they need to. Here’s another thing that you can do with specs grading, when you do bundles, you know, the project, the big project, you can make that big project required for an A, period. And then you will only have groups with students who are going for As. So it depends on the size of your class, of course. You might wind up with only, let’s say, three groups who are going for As. Or you know, the number of students that will fall into three groups. Well, guess what, you’re going to get some really fine projects, you’re not going to have to worry about it, and they might not be freeloaders. But anyway, in the examples in my book that a lot of faculty members and I recommended as well, that group projects be reserved for getting an A, for the A bundle. And other assignments be in the B bundle and C and the D bundle for that matter, which might be very minimal. But hey, if you want to a D, far be it for me to stop you. So, anyway, that’s another way to solve the problem, you just put those projects in just for the students are going for an A.
John: You’ve mentioned bundling a few times in terms of grades, could you talk a little bit about that and how you can go from the specs grading to the course grades that are assigned in the course.
Linda: Okay, there are two ways and the first way I’m going to just mention and not recommend. But you can keep your point system, and you might have some haggling over grades. But in any case, you can keep the point system and say, “Okay, my course is 100 points and if you get 91 points or more, you’ll get an A.” And okay, fine, but the bundling system allows students to choose their grade. So what you do is, you set up clusters of assignments and tests that students have to pass at that B level to get credit for their bundle. So you set those up. And the easiest way to do this, so you got a D bundle, is pretty minimal. And you can tell students, “Look for your D, here are the only outcomes that you will be able to achieve if you go for the D.” Some students say, “Hey, I don’t care, not in my major.” Fine. So it’s minimal work, maybe it involved just passing tests at let’s say, a 70% level, and maybe doing a couple of little written assignments along the way. But, they all have to meet whatever the specs might be. Whatever specs you set out for those assignments… And C bundle, “Okay, you got to do everything that you do in that D bundle, plus there are extra assignments as well.” And so maybe what you are having students do, and I’m just making this up as an example, is the students have to turn in 15 out of the 18 reading assignments that you have, they have to turn in a typed up outline on a particular reading. This way, at least your C students are going to do the readings, right? Because at least most of the readings, almost all the readings, and you’d give your teeth for almost all your students to do almost all the readings, right? But that’s all they’ve got to do. Maybe for a B you have to do all the requirements for a C, maybe even more of those reading notes, or something different. Perhaps keep learning journal, keep a journal on how you are learning, what you’re having trouble learning, the different strategies you are trying to learn the material, and it’s going to be collected. But you really have to specify what questions you want students to answer. So that will be collected maybe four times during the semester, and you might collect some every week or so and look at a few of them. But again, you’re just looking for the answers to the questions. That’s what you have to do for a B. You’re going to get a good handle on those readings and you’re going to find out how to best learn this material. For the A, you got to do everything for the B, but you have to do some sort of a group project where you’re going to learn, let’s say application, analysis, evaluation, what have you, whatever higher thinking levels that you have in there. At the C level, that’s pretty low. But good lord, at least they’re understanding the readings, at least they’re reading the readings and presumably understanding it. And you know, you can spot check some of them to see that they are understanding and if they’re not, you can help them with that. And as soon as they’re learning how to learn for that B, but students are learning how to analyze the material, even higher-level learning outcomes for that A. Now if your student learning outcomes are dictated by a professional accrediting agency, then you’ve got to put all of those outcomes in what’s required for a C, or maybe your institution considers D passing, some institutions don’t. Whatever you consider passing, that’s where all of those outcomes have to go. B students and the A students, they will achieve even more outcomes. If you’ve got an outside accrediting agency telling you what your students have to be able to do, then guess what? All the students that pass the course have to be able to do these things. And you’ve got to set out the specs accordingly. There are some accrediting agencies that layout good outcomes with active verbs. And other accrediting agencies, they give you crummy outcomes where you’ve got to essentially rewrite them so you can assess them. But I’m not going to get into that. [LAUGHTER] Did I answer your question, I hope?
Rebecca: Yeah, I think a lot of your examples focus on a more traditional class and not necessarily a lab or a studio kind of class where there’s a lot of class work that happens inside of class. What might a bundle look like in a situation like that? Where a lot of the learning activities are happening in person rather than for homework. So, for example, I teach studio classes that meet for six hours a week, and they presumably do about three hours outside of class. Versus the reverse, which many people have and labs are similar.
Linda: What area are you in?
Rebecca: I teach graphic design.
Rebecca: But it would be similar to something that would happen in the sciences too and having to do lab.
Linda: Yeah, to an extent, it depends on whether it’s a decent lab or not. [LAUGHTER] Some labs are a waste of everybody’s time. But anyway, what you have to do there is, you’ve got projects, right? …throughout the semester, different things that students are doing. but how many projects do you have in a semester?
Rebecca: Usually, it’s like four big projects, or three.
Linda: Okay, well, now this sounds very, very radical. But what if for a D, you only had to do one project? …and I mean, at that B-level that you set to pass. What if for a C, as a student, I only have to do two. Now, for the first two, because I presume this is somewhat cumulative. For a B, I only have to do three projects. But an A, of course, I have to do all four, if there are four projects. Now, what does this mean? Oh, by the way, do you have tests?
Linda: Just curious. Okay, it means that assuming your D student does passable work, that first project, you can say bye bye after that first project is done. If the person wants to sit in… you can’t, you know… it’s a free country, right? Well, not really. But they can sit in if you want them to, that’s fine. For a C student again, you can say bye bye after the second project, assuming they do it at that passable level. And by the end of the semester, you have only you the most motivated and committed students that you have to be concerned with. And you can give them some very challenging work. Now, I don’t know how you feel about that. But that’s the way you could do that. Now, you could also bundle it differently. You can expand the number of projects that you have as well and simply make them shorter if that’s what you would be required. But I don’t know how you react to that.
Rebecca:I think my accrediting agency would react to that in that they have to put a certain number of hours in. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Okay, okay, so your accrediting agency is time focused.
Rebecca: It’s part of it. Because presumably with more practice, you get better.
Linda: Well, presumably. [LAIUGHTER] …practice with feedback, you get better. But yeah, if we are committed to this hours business, that makes things very unruly, everybody’s got to put in the same amount of time…
Rebecca: In class anyway.
Linda: Oh, in class, okay. That’s very unruly, with respects to specs grading because specs grading isn’t about time. I mean, you can recommend that such and such assignment should take you at least three hours for it to be passable. But other than that, that’s your recommendation for a certain given assignment. But yeah, that makes it very unruly when your accrediting agency says, “Okay, they’ve got to spend so many hours in class and not just looking at their phone.”
Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, we do critiques and things like that. We provide a lot of feedback. But yeah.
Linda: Yeah. Okay. You do critiques?
Rebecca: Yeah lots of critiques.
Linda: Yeah, like art classes and things like that?
Linda: Okay. Well, that’s nice. But now, you could hold your B and C students to doing critiques on all the assignments, just so they can put in their hours. But they don’t necessarily have to do the assignments, at least they can see models. But again, I don’t know if your accrediting agency would be happy with that either.
John: This may not exactly be specs grading, but could you give, say, different levels of activity in each of the assignments? If you have four-projects, you could have one bundle in that project that would give a C, another that would give a B, and another that would give an A, changing the scope of the projects and it would be specs grading within that scope.
Linda: Yes, that has been done and I’m not sure about what kind of projects you’re doing. But yes, you could do that. And you could set different specs for each level. So D students, lets say, have to do a D-level project, which is not nearly as time consuming and not nearly as high a level cognitively, it doesn’t demand that much, doesn’t demand much time, it doesn’t demand that much thinking. And so you could do that and that way students would put in their time, and as long as you can set out the specs for those levels. Yes, absolutely you could do it that way.
Linda: But yeah, accrediting agencies can really get in the way of flexibility. Rebecca, would your accrediting agency go along with that?
Rebecca: With scope, probably. Yeah.
Linda: Yeah. Okay, good. I want to tell you about a course that does this, it’s in computer science, they have students writing programs, and there are six projects that students have to do, they do these individually. If you are going for a C, you get some pretty easy projects to do, pretty easy problems to solve. If you’re going for a B, well you get sort of intermediate-level problem, you don’t do the C one. Because if can do the B ones, you can do the C ones. Now for an A you get some much more sophisticated ones. But still, for every level, you only get six. So there is that, that as long as you can designate level of difficulty, or for that matter, breadth of knowledge, if you can designate that… of course, usually people can do that… that you can make levels out that you can make different bundles out of that. This is another little interesting take, in this particular course, if you are late handing in your projects, that you’ve got to do two more projects at that level. So in other words, you are penalized for lateness by having to do more work. Now that really hits students where it hurts. And if you’re like super late, you got to do yet two more. So any way that keeps students on their toes. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, so in this particular course students are rarely late. So yes, there are ways that you can do that just in terms of level of complexity or level of cognitive operations demanded.
John: How do you explain this to students, if you’re going to introduce a specs grading system?
Linda: First of all, you’ve got to sell specs grading, because they’ll look at you like, “Huh?,” which is fine. And you should explain this, but you can tell them, “You know, I’m going to hold you to higher expectations.” And we know that holding students to higher expectations feeds into student success, student learning, but also student success in general. You could explain to them the concept of andragogy. In other words, that pedagogy really has to do with little kids. Andragogy has to do with adults. Saying, “I’m going to treat you like an adult.” And students like that kind of thing, you might be choosing the kind of project you’re doing. It’s easy to build choices into this. “This will be a safe but a challenging environment because you know exactly what you’re supposed to do. I’m going to give you the descriptions of what you have to do for the assignment to pass in advance and in detail. So you almost can’t screw this up unless you don’t read the directions or pay attention to the directions.” So you want to emphasize the choice and control over their grade that they’re going to have. You want to tell them about tokens, we’ve got some wiggle room, if you will. Now these tokens, by the way, are not physical, you make them physical students will develop a black market, [LAUGHTER] believe me, but virtual and you keep track, or you can ask for an extension, but you don’t ask me for an extension. You’re late, I just take a token away. That’s all. We don’t have to talk about it. I don’t care why you’re late, this is just the way it’s going to be. Just like your boss won’t care why you are late or why you are absent, it counts as like a holiday. Now we’re going to tie what your grades is to what you are learning. If they look at the syllabus at all, everybody’s going to know what you have learned in this course. So that’s how you sell it to students. Now students will need to be reminded about how the system works, because this will strike them. “This is so weird.” Even if they initially like the idea, they still need to be reminded a few times because it is really strange. According to my research, students way prefer this system to traditional grading. And one of the reasons why they do is because we give better direction, we tell them what we want, we give them the formula, we give them the template. or we give them tons and tons of freedom to meet the specs. Especially with students when we talk about length or whatever, length means depth to the students. It doesn’t mean that necessarily to us. Students really like this because they feel way more secure in it. And they do like the element of choices that are built in, that’s motivating for them. And they do learn more. And if they are more motivated, they’re likely to do more of the work at a higher level, they are more likely to excel. And the A students are going to do A work anyway, because they don’t know any better. All they know is A work. And there’s a sense in which they want us to love them. I mean, really, so they’ve got this strong sense of loyalty towards us and they really want us to respect them. And they’re used to feeding off of that they’ve been doing it all their lives. Don’t worry about them getting sloppy, they’ll never get sloppy on you. [LAUGHTER]
John: If someone wanted to transition to specs grading, how should they get started?
Linda: What you might want to do if you’re switching, transitioning to specs grading, you want to look at your assignments, and for that matter, look at your tests, like what you have in your tests. You want to look to see what can be transferred into pass/fail. You also want to look at your tests, if your tests are very objective, and you’re relying on a test bank, remember, it’s so much easier for you to grade with the specs that you can start assigning more written work or design work on tests, what have you. But definitely higher-order thinking types of questions and you will have the time to grade them, because you’re going to lay out the specs and without giving away the farm, you will tell your students the specs of your essay questions in advance, and they will study accordingly. But anyway, you want to look at your outcomes and then you want to identify the cognitive level of your assignments and your test questions which again, you might want to change. You want to be able to group your assignments and tests by that cognitive level so you can develop bundles. It’s kind of a radical way to do it, but it makes your life so much easier once you have those bundles. Because all you’ve got to do is say, “Okay, let’s see. So I had four assignments in this bundle, this student passed them all, hey B. It’s so much easier, you just have to be sure that you set out the deadlines for the different assignments in the bundles. You don’t want everything being submitted to you in the last week or two. So you still have to have your deadlines along the way. Just warning you about that. I want to refer people to my book for examples of courses, and not just my courses either, that have been specs graded. And they cover a range of over a dozen different disciplines. So they can see all kinds of examples.
John: That’s a great resource for those who are considering moving to specs grading.
Rebecca: And it also sounded to me like a couple of cautionary tales that you have about transitioning are about time and making sure that you spread things out…
Rebecca: …but also being very clear in what the specs are, and then following through with whatever you said.
Linda: Yep, yep. And if you didn’t lay out enough detail, well, there’s always next semester. [LAUGHTER] But you can’t change those specs in midstream. “Oh, I wish I thought of this and then start grading students.” No, no, no, no, no. But again, we live and learn, right? We’ll get better the second time.
John: We always end with the question. What are you doing next?
Linda: Oh, what am I doing next? Well, what I’ve been doing is I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, doing keynotes and workshops… oftentimes on self-regulated learning, sometimes on specs grading, and sometimes on any number of different topics having to do with either teaching or academic writing, or something like that. So I’m going to be taking a little bit of a break from that until the end of, or late, July anyway and then things start up again. But that’s kind of nice. I don’t mind that because this keeps me semi-retired and that’s the way I want to be. A semi-retirement is Nirvana, just letting y’all know. [LAUGHTER] So, that’s what’s next for me, that and to finish my tea.
Rebecca: Sounds like the key to semi-retirement is the semi not retired part. [LAUGHTER]
Linda: Yes, it is, it is. Your brain is still working and you still got your thumb in the pie so to speak. And it feels good because you’re not under that same 60 hour a week pressure that you otherwise have with a regular job and then doing these other extra things on the side and it doesn’t work real well.
Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us.
Linda: Well, thank you for this opportunity. I normally say… autograph books and things like that… happy teaching, but I want to wish everybody happy grading. [LAUGHTER] An odd phrase right? Happy grading. [LAUGHTER] What an odd phrase, right? Happy grading!
John: Thank you.
Rebecca: Thanks, Linda.
Linda: Bye bye.
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.
- Robin DeRosa’s presentation on Open for the Public Practice for a Hopeful Higher Ed
- SUNY’s Conference on Instruction and Technology (CIT)
- Income Inequality and Intergenerational Mobility – the book project created by the students
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.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
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?
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…
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.
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.
- 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
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.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Teaching and Learning in the Diverse Classroom Online Course
- President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST)- 2012 Report
- The Tea for Teaching Podcast- Ep. 49 with Angela Bauer
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.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
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.
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.
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.
John: But fortunately, we have the ability to edit. [LAUGHTER]
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.
- Institute of International Education
- Diversity Abroad
- American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU)
- Office of International Education and Programs at SUNY-Oswego
- Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad project
- 76. Courses with Travel – Tea for Teaching podcast featuring Casey Raymond and Jeffery Schneider
- Scale of Intellectual Development
- Education Abroad: Bridging Scholarship to Practice
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.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.”
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.
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.
- SUNY Oswego First Year Signature Courses- Black·ish Mirror: A Study of Black Characters on Television (THT 198) – (a short video introduction to this course)
- Where do good ideas come from? Freakonomics podcast, episode 368.
- Fredrickson intensive on rapier dagger training
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.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.
Rebecca: Our guests today are Mya Brown, an Assistant Professor of Theatre at SUNY Oswego, and Ajsa Mehmedovic, one of Mya’s students. Welcome.
Ajsa: Hello there.
John: Our teas today are….
Mya: I actually am not drinking tea. I have coffee and water.
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
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.
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…
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: 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.
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?
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,
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….
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.”
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?
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.
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.