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