- Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering
- Some of Julie’s studies on the influence of social capital:
- Martin, J. P., Simmons, D. R., & Yu, S. L. (2013). The role of social capital in the experiences of Hispanic women engineering majors. Journal of Engineering Education, 102(2), 227-243.
- Martin, J. P., Miller, M. K., & Simmons, D. R. (2014). Exploring the theoretical social capital “deficit” of first generation college students: Implications for engineering education. International Journal of Engineering Education, 30(4), 822-836.
- Trenor, J. M., Shirley, L. Y., Waight, C. L., & Zerda, K. S. (2008, October). Influences for selecting engineering: Insights on access to Social Capital from two case studies. In 2008 38th Annual Frontiers in Education Conference (pp. F4B-1). IEEE.
- Martin, J. P. (2015). The invisible hand of social capital: Narratives of first generation college students in engineering. International Journal of Engineering Education, 31(5), 1170-1181.
- Miller, M. K., Martin, J. P., & Orr, M. K. (2014). Toward determining changes in engineering-related social capital: Resource composition as students make decisions about college. Journal of Education and Training, 1(2), 72-91.
- Brown, S. H. A. N. E., Street, D., & Martin, J. P. (2014). Engineering student social capital in an interactive learning environment. International Journal of Engineering Education, 30(4), 813-821.
- Pfirman, A. L., Miller, M. K., Alvarez, G. A. S., & Martin, J. P. (2014, October). First generation college students’ access to engineering social capital: Towards developing a richer understanding of important alters. In 2014 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) Proceedings (pp. 1-7). IEEE.
- Martin, J. P., Gipson, K., & Miller, M. K. (2011, October). Developing a survey instrument to characterize social capital resources impacting undergraduates’ decisions to enter and persist in engineering. In 2011 Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) (pp. F2H-1). IEEE.
- Martin, J. P., & Newton, S. S. (2016). Uncovering forms of wealth and capital using asset frameworks in engineering education. In ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. https://doi. org/10.18260 (p. 27087).
- Women in Engineering Proactive Network (WEPAN)
John: Students who are the first members of their family to attend college often arrive with less information about navigating the college experience than students who had a parent that attended college. In this episode, we discuss the role that social capital plays in student success, retention and persistence.
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. Julie Martin. She is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University, and former Program Director for Engineering Education at the National Science Foundation’s Directorate of Engineering. She has conducted a wide variety of studies on factors associated with the under representation of women and people from minoritized ethnic and racial backgrounds in engineering education, and she is a new Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. Welcome, Julie.
Julie: Thank you.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are…
Julie: I’m not drinking tea. I’m drinking water.
Rebecca: Well, that’s a good healthy choice. [LAUGHTER]
John: That’s what tea is mostly anyway
John: I’m drinking black raspberry green tea,
Julie: And I have Oolong today.
John: Wow! You’re really mixing it up this week
Rebecca: I know. I am out of control.
We invited you here to talk about your research on engineering education, but could you tell us first a bit about your path to an engineering degree?
Julie: I think I really had two motivations for getting an engineering degree. And the first one was really personal. Since I was a toddler, I have had a pacemaker which was needed to make my heartbeat regularly. And somehow I grew up understanding that engineers, along with doctors and other folks, contributed to designing and making those devices and improving that technology that really affects my quality of life every day. And then the second part of it was that I also had adults in my life that were encouraging my interest in math and science. And it was something that I was good at and enjoyed, and they helped me connect those interests to majoring in engineering when I got to college.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about what prompted your research interest on barriers for women and other underrepresented groups in engineering, specifically?
Julie: Well, the obvious first part of that is that I was a woman studying engineering. And then, early in my career, I worked at the University of Houston and that was a fabulous place to work. The student population there…. really diverse… there are many students who come from the Greater Houston area and that’s a really diverse city. So the students I work with, they came from a variety of cultural backgrounds and economic backgrounds. And many of them were first-generation college students. And my position was as the Director of Recruitment and Retention for the College of Engineering. So I was talking with students who were considering engineering as a college major and then I was working with those same students who were already engineering majors or the students that later came in as engineering majors. So, I started to see all of these, I guess I would call them structural issues, that were really making it difficult for them to succeed. So, there were students there that worked full time, on top of taking the full credit load of 18 hours of engineering courses, because they had to pay for their tuition or because they need to contribute to their family or both. And when I’ve talked about structural issues, one example of that is most professors’ office hours were only offered at specific times. So, if a student was working, in addition to going to school, they might not be able to get to the professor’s office hours, because they were working at that same time. So they couldn’t even get there when they had a question. This is, I think, an example of how a particular group, in this case working students, can unintentionally get marginalized in engineering education. Those professors weren’t trying to put up those barriers for the students who worked, but it was still a real challenge for those students.
Rebecca: Did you come across any other structural barriers other than some of these time conflicts?
Julie: I think that that’s sort of an example that cuts across a lot of different groups of folks… students that are working. Some of the other kinds of things, I think had to do with generational status in college. So some students who were first-generation in their family to go to college or maybe the first person in their family to go to college didn’t necessarily understand how to navigate the university system. And that was from everything from the application process, filling out the FAFSA (Federal Application Form for Student Aid), and all the way to even necessarily understanding what office hours were, and that it was a time that you could go talk to the professors about anything related to questions that you had in class.
John: You’ve done quite a bit of work on the effect of social capital on persistence in engineering degrees. Could you tell us a little bit about what you were looking at? And as part of that, could you explain what is meant by social capital?
Julie: I was initially drawn to the idea of social capital because it’s really about relationships, and that’s something that’s really important to me in my life. So the way that I define social capital is the resources that you have in your social network, in the relationships that you have. And so this research that I’ve done is really based on my belief that everybody needs access and support to making informed decisions about their academic and career plans. So by studying social capital, what we’re really looking at is: how do people get the information and resources that they need to succeed? So to achieve their goals. And in the context of getting an engineering education, achieving their goal would be getting an engineering degree.
John: What did you find in terms of the impact of social capital on student persistence?
Julie: One of the things that I’ve looked at a lot in my research is studying social capital from the perspective of looking at students’ generational status in college. How is social capital similar or different for different groups of students? And when we look at students who are the first-generation in their family to go to college, first-generation college students versus students who have parents that went to college, which I call continuing-generation college students, there are some interesting similarities and some interesting differences as well. So, for example, for those two groups, students who are first-generation college students, and those who are continuing-generation college students, many of the same people are in their social networks. Many of them have teachers and family members and peers and other educational kinds of personnel. But sometimes the role that each of those different groups of people play can be different. For example, continuing-generation college students may have parents that know things like how to navigate the application system to get into college or how to navigate a university campus or a university system. And first-generation college students, their families may not have that same kind of what we call instrumental knowledge to help them succeed, but they have shown like really, really strong emotional support. And we call that expressive social capital. So when their families really encouraged them to get a degree… Many of the students talk about how their families are behind them 100%. And so they receive a lot of support for going to college and for getting an engineering degree from their families. It’s just a different kind of support than continuing-generation college students received from their families.
Rebecca: What role do faculty play in terms of social capital for these two groups? Because I imagine, in some cases, it might actually be really different without us realizing it.
Julie: Yes. So I think one of the really interesting things is that I think faculty have an important role to play for all students. And this can be especially powerful for first-generation college students. One of the things that we see is that sometimes first-generation college students experience a delayed access to resources because they don’t know necessarily how to navigate the campus system or the university or the educational system, they might not know for example, that there is an Academic Success Center or a tutoring center, or they might not know that it could be important to join study groups or student organizations. And as a result, it might be a few semesters before they figure that out, kind of to have to figure it out the hard way. And so professors and faculty can play really important roles in a couple of different ways. I think they can help make sure that some of what we might hear called the hidden curriculum of going to the university and some of that intrinsic knowledge that folks that work in the university system or have families that went to college might know, is available up front for all students, so they can do things like connect students to places on campus, like I mentioned for academic resources. They might be able to share opportunities that they have for undergraduate research or other kinds of things like that, that helps students get involved. Faculty can encourage students to join student organizations. That’s one thing that’s been really shown to affect students persistence and their sense of belonging… and encourage students to form study groups… and faculty can also help students build their professional networks. And this can be something that can be really important, not just while they’re getting a degree, but after they get out and get a job or during their college studies, if they want to do a co-op or an internship. And then some of the things that we may not think about as faculty have turned up to be really important. So, just faculty sharing their own academic and professional experiences are things that students refer to and say to themselves like, “Well, you know, if she can do it, then I can do it too.” Or it can also help normalize students’ feelings about maybe the difficulty of their courses or the difficulty of persisting in an engineering program. Those kinds of things can really be just as important as some of what we call instrumental actions that are actually connecting students to resources and information on campus.
Rebecca: One of the things that I’ve experienced in my classes…I’m a designer. So it’s related to engineering in some ways… we have some of the same kinds of behaviors in the field… is that students don’t always understand what professional development opportunities can be, or what the benefit of going to a conference is. And it may be just because the students never had a family who did things like that. It just wasn’t a part of their everyday conversation. So sharing what it’s like to go to one of those kinds of events and what you get out of it, and then personally inviting a student who seems hesitant, but might really benefit from it, nd then also helping them find the resources to go… can be really useful.
Julie: Exactly! Those are exactly the kinds of things that I’m talking about. So not only helping the students understand the value of it, but then putting that extra bit in there… making sure that it’s accessible and available to all students with respect to finances and those kinds of things.
Rebecca: It also sounds like the social capital things that you’re talking about would be particularly important in first-year classes or gateway courses into a major.
Julie: I think some of these things that we’ve been talking about with first-generation students may have delayed access to some of the resources that are on campus… it’s just because they haven’t been made aware that they exist. So, first-year courses can be really important for that. Absolutely.
Rebecca: What are some of the barriers that you find with continuing-generation students that we might not expect?
Julie: So I don’t know that I’ve necessarily identified barriers there, but one of the things that’s really interesting to me is the roles that families play, and how that is different for these two different groups of students. I mentioned that first-generation college students have really staunch support from their families often for going to college and feel like their families are behind them 100%. And that kind of expressive support, that emotional support, can be really important. And certainly continuing-generation college students report those kinds of things as well. Sometimes it has a bit of a different meaning because first-generation college students are often motivated to get a college degree to have a better life than their parents did. And they might define that as just a more stable job or more stable income or being able to work in an area where you’re not, for example, doing manual labor. So, what’s interesting for me, then, about continuing-generation college students is how often they start out with the family support that’s able to give them specific information and resources about applying for college, about going to college, maybe even about things like selecting their coursework. And what we see is that through time, students who have been in college longer report that the role that their families play changes during the course of the time that they’re in college. They’ve come to rely more and more heavily on their peers and actually, both groups of students talk about that… that the support that they get from their peers, the information and resources that they get from their peers is really important. And these family roles change from a parent who might be helping the student with everything, with filling out the financial aid application, with filling out the application,with selecting the courses in the early years, to the friends becoming the people who the student really relies on, and the families then providing the emotional support to persist and to finish.
John: It seems like helping to develop a strong network on campus is helpful. Could we do that perhaps by encouraging more group work and more peer interaction and peer instruction, especially in introductory courses, but perhaps all the way through?
Julie: Yes, absolutely. And even when it’s not something that happens officially in the class, it’s really important to help students form these networks outside of class as well. So, one of the things that I think is so interesting about studying social capital is that it’s studying the student experience in college, not just from the perspective of what’s happening in the classroom. That’s a really important part and we can apply the social capital ideas to what’s happening inside the classroom. But as soon as the students leave your classroom, after 50 minutes or 75 minutes, then what happens then? …and that’s really when the majority of the college experience takes place. And the majority of the learning and the majority of the things that can affect students persistent, so that part’s really important too. So anything that we can do that helps students connect with their peers, and their near peers, students that may be a few years ahead of them or graduate students in class, but also keep those connections out of class is really important, and that’s one reason I mentioned supporting and promoting student organizations. So that’s one thing that most faculty may feel like is not really part of their job description, is to encourage students to become involved in student organizations. But even doing something as simple as making announcements about when student organizations are going to meet in class can lend that weight from a faculty member to encourage students to do things like that outside of class as well.
Rebecca: So we focused a lot of the discussion on the difference in terms of first-generation and continuing. Can you talk a little bit about some things that might specifically impact underrepresented groups?
Julie: When we start thinking about social capital, the theory of social capital talks about the fact that typically people who are not in the majority position can have different kinds of access to social capital than people who are in the majority position. And in my work, we focused on the generational status in college because that’s where we have seen the difference. I’m absolutely not trying to say that being a woman in engineering where women are at best about 20% of the population or being from an underrepresented ethnic or racial group is not important. All of those identities are important for students and they intersect and have different effects based on whether you, for example, might be a woman who is from a minoritized ethnic or racial group. So I’m not trying to say that those things aren’t important, they absolutely are. What we are focusing on is generational status in college, because that’s where we see the biggest qualitative difference in the way that students talk about their experiences, selecting engineering as a major and then persisting in the discipline.
John: One of the issues that often come up is that, in engineering and STEM fields in general, we see a lot of people dropping out along the way; that many people start the discipline, and then they either drop out or change their majors into other areas. And the rate of return to students investing in education in these fields is pretty much the highest that we can get in any field. And yet we see a lot of people dropping out. Is that more common for first-generation students? And, if so, why might that be occurring?
Julie: I think that there’s multiple reasons that students leave the major. And there’s been a lot of work done, over the last at least 40 years, to study that. I think that the benefit of looking at it from the social capital perspective is that we’re able to think about how the things that happen in the classroom and the things that happen outside the classroom can help students be successful. And so I wouldn’t say that it’s more common or less common for first-generation college students. But when we think about it from this perspective, we can think about what are these ways in which we can help students tap into the information and the resources and the emotional support and all of the assets that they have in their social networks, in their relationships and then help them make informed decisions about what they want to do. Some students leave engineering because it wasn’t the best choice for them to start with. And honestly, I’m fine with that. I’m really interested in helping students make the most informed choices about what they want to do with their college major and their career.
Rebecca: So, for those who might not have families who are doing the rah-rah-rah-like support of education, there’s a lot of students who don’t necessarily have that particular support network, are the ways that we can help foster that on campus for students?
Julie: I think we can foster it on campus for students regardless of what kind of support they have at home. One of the things that we’ve seen in my research when we’re looking at first-generation college students in particular, is that there can be adults in the lives of K 12 students who are really important and even though they’re not their actual relatives, we call them fictive kin because they are really influential in their lives. So, this may be somebody who works at a STEM summer camp that the student attended, or at an after-school program. And those are people that are providing information and resources for the students about what they might want to major in college, and giving them information and resources to help them make informed decisions about what they want to major in in college.
Rebecca: I certainly felt that as a student… I had people outside my family… I was a first-generation college student. And so I certainly had people who were in that network of people. I had a faculty member in my high school who wasn’t even a person that I took classes with, but who just kind of took me under her wing and made sure I knew how to navigate certain systems because my family didn’t really know how to navigate those systems and supported me in the idea that I could do things that maybe didn’t occur to me.
Julie: And I think the really important lesson from that is that everybody can have a role. If you’re a scout leader, or you’re a summer camp teacher or you’re someone in the community, everybody can have a role in supporting students.
Rebecca: I guess the trick then becomes, how do we help everyone realize that?
Julie: Yes, that is the trick. And that’s one reason why I worked really hard in my research to try to provide a lot of implications for practice. So, you know, taking the research back to “What does that really mean for somebody who’s a faculty member? What does that mean for somebody who’s a scout leader? What does it mean for somebody who is an academic advisor?” And so really helping people understand that everybody has a role and maybe giving them some examples of the types of things that they can do, even if those are not things that you’re able to do in your own particular role. Hopefully, it can inspire you.
John: What are some specific things that faculty might be able to do to provide a more supportive classroom climate. We’ve talked about some, but are there any additional methods?
Julie: I think one of the things that faculty can do, and many of us don’t necessarily do very often, is talking about the kinds of things that are available for students outside of the class. And not just academic resources. So most faculty will say “well if you need tutoring, you go to this place and these times” but the kinds of things that can really help student persistence and really help them develop social capital with people all across the campus might be things that faculty normally aren’t really involved in. So those might be the student organizations on campus that I mentioned, or encouraging students to form study groups, so that they’re working with their peers, and developing those really important relationships that become critical. And those kinds of things are just as important as the kinds of things that happen inside of the classroom.
Rebecca: Sometimes I’ve had discussions with students who are struggling with time management or these other kinds of things that connecting them to the fact that there’s a gym on campus to relieve some stress or to build that into their schedule. And just pointing out that there are yoga classes or that there’s this other kind of group that has nothing to do with academics at all, might be a great place to find some relaxation and support in a really different kind of way. And I think they’ve always been surprised at me saying, “Well, did you schedule in something like that?”
Julie: Yeah, you know, what I love about that is that’s thinking holistically about the student as a person. That’s thinking about all the things that they need to be happy and fulfilled and ready to come to class and to learn and then to go be involved in other campus activities. And so I think that that approach of thinking about students holistically and not just thinking about what’s happening with them, in that brief time that we have with them in class, it can be really critical for student success for everybody.
Rebecca: I’m really curious about how someone who’s coming out of engineering comes across the idea of social capital as a way to study this.
Julie: That is an interesting question. So my degrees are in material science and engineering. And I actually, as an undergrad, did a minor in the humanities. And my reason at the time was very simple. I wanted to be able to have at least one class a semester that I didn’t have to bring a calculator to. [LAUGHTER]……But I have always enjoyed reading and writing and thinking about things that aren’t related to engineering. And it wasn’t until after I got my degree and started actually working in academia, teaching engineering, that I started to realize how I could sort of marry those two interests. My very first teaching job was at Virginia Tech, and I was there during the time that they were forming one of the first departments of engineering education. So even though at the time I was really focused on just teaching in the first Engineering program. It was really interesting because I was hearing all these things about this new area of research interest. And so I started to begin to get some training in that area and eventually, by a few years later, had moved my entire focus over to engineering education.
John: The reason I approached you about doing this topic, is I saw on Facebook that you had received an award recently for your work in this area.
Julie: I think the award you’re referring to was the Betty Vetter Award for Research from the WEPAN Organization (Women in Engineering Proactive Network). And that’s an organization that I’ve been really involved in over the past number of years, that is supporting culture change in the culture and climate in engineering education.
John: We always end with a question. What are you doing next?
Julie: I have just started my position at The Ohio State University. And I’ve just started my position as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. So those two things are going to keep me quite busy for the near future.
Rebecca: Well, sounds exciting, a nice new adventure.
John: And you’re doing some really important work, and I hope you continue to be successful with this.
Julie: Thank you.
Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a great discussion.
Julie: Thanks. It’s been a lot of fun.
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.
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.
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: 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]
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 live and work in communities where there is a strong town and gown divide. Building trust, engaging authentically, and developing deep understanding through intergroup dialogue takes time, patience and the right structure. In this episode, Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College, joins us to explore a model of engaged scholarship that challenges the academy to engage in dialogue with and work alongside the community to address pressing local issues.
- King, R., Hussain, K. & Wattles, J., (2015) Claiming the Right to the City Through Intergroup Dialogue: The Tools for Social Change Initiative in Geneva, NY., The SOJO Journal. 1(2)
- Hayes-Conrad, Jessica (2016). Big Talk in the Little City: Findings and Analysis
- Hussain, K. (2015). A Dream for service. In Tinkler, A., Tinkler, B., Strait, J. R., & Jagla, V. M. (Eds.), Advances in Service-Learning Research Series.
- Walker, Kelly. (2017) “Let’s Talk Economic Opportunity with Tools for Social Change. WEOS Public Radio, July 24.
- Shaw, David (2015) PAYING ATTENTION: At Tools for Social Change meeting, group zeroes in on city issues they want addressed. Finger Lakes Times. October 21.
- The National Intergroup Dialogue Institute
- Hussain, Khuram and Wattles, Jeremy. (2017) Can Intergroup Dialogue Combined with SLCE Answer Today’s Call to Action? The SLCE Future Directions Project.
John:Many of us live and work in communities where there is a strong town and gown divide. Building trust, engaging authentically, and developing deep understanding through intergroup dialogue takes time, patience and the right structure. In this episode, we’ll explore a model of engaged scholarship that challenges the academy to engage in dialogue with and work alongside the community to address pressing local issues.
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: Our guest today is Dr. Khuram Hussain, an Associate Professor of Education and Interim Dean at Hobart College. Welcome, Khuram.
Khuram: Thank you for having me.
John:Our teas today are:
Khuram: I’m actually drinking coffee. I hope that’s ok.
Rebecca: You and most other people. [LAUGHTER] We’ll let it go.
Khuram: I will end the day with tea.
Rebecca: Ok, perfect. I think we had a recent guest who also ended the day with tea. Today I have chai.
John:And I have pineapple ginger green tea.
Rebecca: Well, that sounds good. You always are far more adventurous than me.
Khuram: If it’s any consolation, I have a little cardamom in my coffee, which I typically put in my tea, but I really like it in coffee as well.
Rebecca: That sounds good. I should try that.
Khuram: I highly recommend it.
Rebecca: Do you have an advice about how much?
Khuram: One. One is good.
Rebecca: One is good. [LAUGHTER].
Khuram: If you want it a little stronger you can crack it and then let it sit and it’ll be even more cardamom(y). [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Perfect. [LAUGHTER]
John:We see you’ve done some work with engaged scholarship and service learning. Could you tell us a little bit about what is meant by engaged scholarship for those who aren’t familiar with it?
Khuram: Engaged scholarship is essentially the integration of community needs with learning and it involves addressing community needs along with whatever respective disciplines and skills a scholar may apply to a particular condition. It could be anything from developing a literacy program that is also being useful and utilized in a community, but drawing from that community in order to make sense of what questions you want to answer. So, you’re not drawing it just from a review of literature or from a body of scholarship that emerges from conferences or a community of scholars, but in fact from a variety of voices within the community itself. It’s a much more community relevant approach to even designing research before you actually do it, and it spills out into community engaged teaching as well.
Rebecca: What got you involved in engaged scholarship?
Khuram: I first had the opportunity to do engaged scholarship as a professor of education at Hobart William Smith. I was teaching a course on the civil rights movement and a colleague approached me about volunteering to serve as a professor at a maximum-security prison, and the program there was run by a Bard Prison Initiative where long term inmates were given the opportunity to enroll in an undergraduate program. And so I taught the exact same course that I was teaching on campus within the educational space that they had created for prisoners (maximum security prison) and that was my first chance to think about the ways in which the needs and realities of communities outside of campus and inform the work in learning on campus and could also inform my notions of scholarship.
John:Your work is a form of service learning in terms of the student involvement in it. How does your approach differ from the more traditional service learning approaches?
Khuram: I think that a lot of what I have seen in traditional or conventional service-learning approaches is that there’s a great focus on the ways in which our students will learn by “doing for” communities. So how can we help children learn how to read? How can we provide food to food-scarce areas? And that becomes such a central narrative and the assumptions that young people have about what service-learning is is that we’re gonna learn through service for, and what I think is unique and special about the kind of work that many folks are doing today and I hope to be a part of that (and I hope I have been a part of that) is to do service with. To move from that model means we are required to collaborate and to take a much more team-based approach to service work and the learning then moves both ways. The service then moves both ways, and that I think is the fundamental difference between what we’ve been trying to do the last few years and what we’ve often seen provided to students.
Rebecca: How does your engaged scholarship relate to the service-learning projects and things that you do with students?
Khuram: In part, the ways in which engaged scholarship works is by providing students and faculty and community members an opportunity to create knowledge out of the questions and concerns that emerge in community related work. So for instance, we started an initiative known as “Tools for Social Change” some years ago, and before we looked at any kind of service project we looked at the ways in which the community saw itself. How did long-term residents see college campus residents? How did college campus residents in the same city see long-term residents of the city? And put them into intentional dialogue, first through interpersonal relationship building and then talking about social and structural issues that have informed their understanding of themselves within the city. And within larger structures of identity, race and class particularly. After they developed that understanding we asked, “Ok, what does this community mean to you? Where do you feel empowered? Where do you feel isolated?” Based on the answers to that, we were able to map out a different kind of geography. Even though we had developed a sense of connection and collectivity as members of a community that had been dialoguing all semester, we were operating within a city that was deeply segregated and divided, and so it was from there that we looked at scholarship. We looked at research that we could pursue, and one of the first things that became really important for us to consider was the way in which the economics of the city and the capacity of some to gain access to jobs opportunity was very different than it was for others. And so we ended up taking that initial group and developing wider groups that would go out into the city and inquire… essentially do a self-study of the city about the economics and economic opportunities that were available. And so essentially it was these two stages: first of engaging in dialogue; coming to an understanding of what shared community work could be and then going out into the city with the same participants and essentially conducting appreciative inquiry and having students and faculty and community members (long-term community members) interviewing members of the community, and we were out at the Salvation Army, we were in barbershops, we were in laundromat, we were in every corner of the city and particularly in corners of the city that didn’t often have a strong voice or were not well represented, I should say, in conversations about economic development. We were able to take those, transcribe them and give them to members of the working group that are trained qualitative researchers. They synthesized that, summarized it, and we were able to present it to the city. So, here we’ve created knowledge and we’ve created it through a certain kind of process, right? You might want to call it bottom-up, but I like to see it as horizontal; it’s relational knowledge, and that, I think, is one of the most powerful things about service-learning with as well as engaged scholarship with.
John:That group that was doing the analysis of the data… Were they faculty? Were they students? Was it some mix?
Khuram: It was some mix, but here you do have kind of a hierarchy of knowledge and skill, I should say, in terms of how to do this, and so students and community members were trained by ethnographers and researchers on how to hold a tape recorder, what kinds of questions, and how to ask questions, the ethics of confidentiality, and then they went out and they conducted (after receiving a few weeks of training) these interviews in the community and it was the researchers, mostly faculty, that then booked and analyzed that data and ultimately synthesized that data, but every turn there was some part of this that was democratic and collaborative. Even the questions themselves were questions that the participants generated in concert with other community members. What is it that we want to know about ourselves? And so those were the questions that were ultimately used when we did the broader interviews.
Rebecca: Sounds like a really powerful way of breaking down the town-gown divide that happens in a lot of communities where there’s an institution of higher education.
Khuram: I think that it was transformational for all of us. I don’t think anyone could truly have appreciated what was going to happen, and I think part of it is because it was an open conversation and we sustained a certain level of openness, curiosity, and vulnerability to each other as well as what we hope would come out of it, and I mean for me it’s transformed the way I think about everything from teaching to service to even social action and the role of institutions of higher education in really engaging in communities, and so the power of it, I think, was also to reveal what’s possible that we are capable of operating on different terms and the institutions of higher education do not need to be paternalistic in their engagement with communities and they do not need to take a charity-based approach in their supportive communities; they can be collaborative, it just requires us to match strength to strength to define the things that are going to be valuable for college students and faculty and staff to learn from communities and what communities will benefit learning with their work with institutions of higher education.
John:It strikes me too that this type of project could be much more sustainable. Many service-learning projects or one-off projects where the students work and do something in the community or to the community or for the community, but when you get the community itself engaged it swould seem that that could, at least for some types of projects, set the stage for continued collaboration, either with later groups of students working with them or with the community itself. Has there been much success in continuing the efforts once the classes ended?
Khuram: I first off want to say that I absolutely agree that service-learning is conventionally structured as a one semester project-based or hour-based experience, and it’s usually focused on alleviating one particular social issue, and what we have found is that it’s necessary to do year-long initiatives and we’ve been very fortunate to see that this initiative has been able to sustain itself for over three years, but that’s required us to allow it to evolve into what it needed to and one of the biggest parts of that has been that it has been untied from any particular course. It used to just be tied to my classes and so students would do service learning project were tied to classes they were taking with me. Now, students are participating as participants in independent studies, they’re participating in different working groups that sustain themselves a little bit more autonomously, and that is also true for a lot of long-term community residents that have joined smaller working groups. There’s a working group on food insecurity, there’s a working group on political representation, there’s a working group on economic empowerment and economic opportunity, and so any one of these working groups becomes its own kind of autonomous community that intersects with long-term residents and college students and faculty and staff and that, I think, is a sign of progress and health, is when the institution of higher ed that’s tied to these projects doesn’t need to own it, control it, and manage every aspect of it. If it can become a little bit more fluid and have its own purpose outside of a predetermined purpose from the institution, it becomes more organic and more impactful often.
Rebecca: The continuity that set up in a structure like that of “community who doesn’t go away” versus students who drop in and out as they go through four years—they’re a member of the community but then they often leave—seems like it’s a really useful model for not only making the learning better but just making the impact better. Can you talk a little bit about the community’s response to these projects.
Khuram: Yes, drive-by service-learning isn’t the way to transform communities or students; it requires a real, authentic engagement, and I think when you put people in real situations you get real outcomes and that’s across the spectrum. So you’re going to get people that are going to collaborate, develop great friendships, but you’re also going to get friction and struggle and honest expressions of frustration with one another. And so that becomes a part of it too, so our students need to learn or end up learning—whether they need to or not—the ways in which their participation is both important but sometimes limited. They are going to sit and be witnesses to long-standing struggles in a community; for instance, long standing struggles between law enforcement and communities of color, and they’re going to find their own footing in those spaces; they’re going to need to make sense of how to be an ally, how to be an advocate for an inclusive community that they now belong to, so the stakes become a little bit more real. But I would be a little bit disingenuous if I was going to imply that it’s neat and tidy. I’ve received pushback at times. I remember we were holding a dialogue and I had said that we’re really starting to build some really empowering opportunities here and someone coughed and said, you’re from the colleges; you have all the power. It was a great check on my own assumptions about how I was being seen in that space… that participating in a community activity while still being associated in some ways representative of a very wealthy, multi-million dollar institution in a post-industrial Rust Belt City is not going to play out in someone else’s mind the way that it might in mine. Now what I’m proud of in that work is that someone felt that they were in a space where they could call out people’s unseen or unacknowledged privilege, and that I thought was really important for other people to see, and for me to experience, but it also means that tension in real relationships is ongoing. Honestly, we are not dealing with a utopian situation where we’re all playing on equal terms; we’re coming with different levels of capital and different levels of support within that community, so even as we do this work, my students are good to remember, as am I, we cannot be tourists in other people’s lives, that if we have certain privileges this is a place to take responsibility for some of them.
Rebecca: In a situation like this where tensions can be high, differences big sometimes, and you’re trying to dialogue, how do you set up that environment so people feel safe, like the situation that you’ve just described.
Khuram: Always sit in a circle. Always begin with some expectations. What do we need from each other to have respectful and productive and meaningful conversations? Let’s create those standards together and revisit them every time we sit in circle together. Have people that are prepared to facilitate, that have training or are getting training in facilitation; that needs to be, I think, a critical piece of that, because while it is important to hear from everyone, there is a lot of value in having someone who can reflect back some of the bigger messages and patterns that are emerging in the conversation, someone that can point to the standards that we’ve set for ourselves and what we expect as our best way of engaging, and to remind people that there are strategies that we’ve identified when things get really heated where we want to go with that. So, I think being very intentional about creating a dialogical space, and for us, the use of intergroup dialogue and a lot of the pedagogical strategies developed by the University of Michigan Intergroup Dialogue were very important and helpful resources to get started.
Rebecca: I think one of the things that I was hearing here that I want to just note, is if you’re having one of these conversations that you should have a facilitator and that the facilitator is not really participating in the conversation but rather facilitating the conversation. I think that can be challenging if we want to be involved in those conversations, but you need to make sure that you’ve picked that person and that person is staying as a third party.
Khuram: Yes, absolutely. And we typically have two people that will facilitate and that way there’s still some opportunity to give feedback or response or to slightly move out of a facilitator role, at least in terms of being able to share some ideas. But yeah, it does require you to pull back a bit. But having two facilitators… and it isn’t something that can’t be learned; I don’t think that people have to be lifelong professional facilitators. Most teachers are facilitators, and most of us have some experience facilitating or mediating conversations between others. As much as it’s important to start with people that have a background in facilitation, I think ultimately you want to end in a place where many of the participants feel comfortable and can contribute to the facilitation process over time, so we would meet every week. Ideally, we wanted to prepare people for their opportunity to do some facilitating. At this point we’ve seen dozens of participants go on to do much more formal facilitation in other spaces. That’s something that I’m very proud of and I’m very proud of them, I should say, for what they’ve accomplished.
John:You had mentioned some broad categories of tasks and working groups. What were some of the specific projects that were undertaken by people working in these projects in the community?
Khuram: All of these emerged dialogically as members of the campus community and long-term residents of the community talk through ways in which they felt connected and disconnected. We had four big ones, I’d say. We had community police relations, economic opportunity, food justice and food insecurity, and political representation. I’ll touch on each of them a little bit and then if you want to know a little bit more about any one of them I can pause. So, for food justice and insecurity, part of the challenge was an immediate one where it was about galvanizing community members to glean food and to increase access to fresh food, so we had volunteers doing gleaning. In the midst of that they were also looking at the president’s food deserts and dialoging along with community members about their access to nutrition and presenting some of those findings to the City Council and the Mayor. Or police community relations, we had two dedicated members who were part of a standing committee known as the Community Compact that met with different members of law enforcement and city government on a regular basis to talk about police-community relations and to develop programs to engage the community as well as to address certain policies. Then we have political representation, and for that what we saw was a wonderful volunteer energy of members of our entire group that went out and facilitated dialogues between political candidates and community members. Unlike conventional town halls where you’d have people sitting behind a table or behind a podium, we chat in circle with political candidates, and we had facilitators asking questions and facilitating dialogue in a pretty different kind of environment than I think a lot of us have when we engage with people that want to be elected, as well as elected officials. So we ran those, along with giving people an opportunity to register to vote. For economic empowerment, we trained facilitators to go out into the community in pairs and to hold circles in different corners of the community… in laundromats… in a variety of public spaces… to ask them what were the ways in which they were experiencing opportunity and what were the ways in which they were limited from economic opportunity. We also explored with them if they could wake up tomorrow to a different city, what would it look like? What opportunities would exist? And we took all of that and made it a final document called the “Big Talk in a Little City,” which has become an important and integral part of the city’s long-term commitment to economic empowerment, and so, not only are those voices and stories included in an official document, those voices and stories are now helping to shape policy and resource distribution in the city.
John:How have students reacted to this? Have any of them considered careers as working with communities and such things?
Khuram: For some of our graduates this has been life-changing. I think that one of the most fundamental things that we did well was simply to put people that would otherwise never have encountered each other in the same room and to ask them to share their stories and to talk about themselves. Developing those personal relationships between people that would otherwise pass each other on the street without a glance. People that had age differences, 40, 50, 60 years, people that had racial and socio-economic differences and geographic differences were suddenly having dinner at each other’s table, knew the names of family members, and knew the smallest things about one another were coming to their respective graduations and ceremonies and really becoming participants in each other’s lives. So, for a lot of our undergraduate students, having an opportunity like that is so deeply transformative because now policy is not just a matter of abstract equity and justice; it’s a matter of empathy and equity. You feel differently for someone who feels like a friend or family when they are in need and that informs your approach to policy and your approach to work in a community differently. So, we’ve had students that have gone on to do some really powerful work in law clinics, AmeriCorps and have stayed in the community to do some of that work because it was so transformational and they committed so much of their learning to this kind of engagement that they want to continue it. We do have a few folks that took a gap year between graduate school and stayed on, or decided to pursue a different kind of professional path because of the work they did.
Rebecca: It’s really exciting.
Khuram: I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it.
John:Could you give us some idea of the scale of this—how many students are involved and how has it grown?
Khuram: We started with a relatively small group of about 20 students and 20 long-term community members, and in terms of active participants, it never really went much bigger than that, but it sustained itself over time and it also engaged a lot of other students and long-term community members for months at a time. What I mean by that, for instance, is a lot of our sustained participants would engage their friends, their roommates, their neighbors to come to our weekly sessions. So, we would oftentimes have topical session that were open to the public and those open sessions we could have up to 60, 70, 100, 200 people at those sessions, and so we had an active presence for quite a long time in the community when the courses were running, and now that we have the working groups there’s smaller numbers, but again, their impact, I think, in some ways is deeper because they’ve sustained some really deep work. One of the most incredible things that I saw the students do was they developed a course that would involve high school and college students learning together; so they essentially wanted to do what we were doing through these community dialogues in the high school. They wrote a course proposal, they submitted the course proposal, and after a few revisions and edits it was approved by both the college and the high school and we had a small group of about a half-dozen college students and a half-dozen high school students that took a course together at the high school. And that’s not a lot of people—but that doesn’t—what an incredible experience that they’re participating in something they helped codesign in order to address an issue that they perceive to be real across these age differences and community differences; that these teenagers and these college students together identified this town-gown divide and saw high school and college as a way to build bridges and constructed a course to do that and then participated in that course together. To me, that’s a kind of deep, transformative, impact that doesn’t quite reflect big numbers, but big experiences.
John:It’s certainly a testament to the impact that it had on those students that they were willing to do this and interested and motivated to do this.
John:How have your colleagues responded?
Khuram: I think that my colleagues have been excited, and I think that for many of them it created a new opportunity for them to engage. So, we’ve had faculty that have come in as participants, we’ve had them lead certain workshops and activities. They’ve come in with their expertise within their respective disciplines and fields. So, we’ve had a really great showing of faculty support. And part of it is we did not host this work on campus. We were very intentional about finding a place and space that was both a place that could be shared as well as a place that was easily accessible for long-term community residents, and so we found ourselves at the oldest black church in the city and a place that many of my colleagues had never been… that many people in the community had never been, and it was in the part of the city that is still segregated across a number of lines of race and class, and yet it was one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse spaces that you could sit in in the city and here it was in a historically or at least currently segregated space… and so I think the opportunity for faculty and for staff to engage with a community that they’re really caring about in a context that seemed more inclusive was really exciting and affirmed a lot of their values. I think this is something that people really want, it’s just a matter of creating the opportunity so that they can engage in it. I don’t think that most faculty or staff want to engage in these kind of vertical relationships with communities. It’s just how we’ve been doing things for so long.
Rebecca: Seems like your background in teaching about equity and teaching about intersectionality and doing some research in the classroom about these topics set you up really well to do this work. Are there tips or other things that could provide faculty who don’t have that same background that you could share to give us a doorway in?
Khuram: I think that in some ways having a background as a scholar in any kind of social justice or equity field can be a barrier, and here’s why. That work is always in your head and it is disembodied in the institution, and the institution is, by its very nature, disembodied from the communities that it surrounds. And so you can very easily be a deft and prolific scholar of social inequity and convey and facilitate inequity in your actual life. So really it’s not a guarantee of anything. I think the measure of your capacity is in the doing, and I think it’s really about addressing questions. Who am I inviting to the table? Where is the table? Who is not here? What do I need to ask now to get who’s not here, here? Those are the more important questions, and I think if we don’t presume that there’s a certain kind of institutional privilege that comes even with being able to wax philosophical about questions of equity, then we’ve already lost the plot. We’ve got to honestly think about the spaces and places in which we’re doing our work and the kinds of privileges that we need to interrogate about ourselves before we can do any of this work in equitable and meaningful ways, and so I would say this work is for everybody, and this work is for anybody who is willing to really work with community members and to find shared purpose with community members. It’s willing to listen and learn from… and is not just interested in providing to.
Rebecca: Those are such great reminders… and empowering to make sure that we can all find a way to help and work with the communities that we live in.
Khuram: Yeah, and sometimes it does mean maybe rethinking a service-learning project that’s a semester long and seeing if you can map it out over a year. Would you spend a semester just creating relationships between students, yourself and long-term residents of a community just in that exploratory project? and then say, “Ok, out of this what have we identified collectively as a community need that we can address as a class?” …so that you get, of course, that buy-in, which is so important, but there’s a truly transformative possibility that is emerged that simply wasn’t there until you took the time to really connect and build that relationship, so I’m also in practical terms a really big proponent of year-long service-learning initiatives and moving away from the pressures of a semester-long initiative, unless you’re willing to do half a semester of really just relationship building and collective meaning-making and then cut the service piece a little shorter.
John:We usually wrap up the podcast with a question: “What are you going to do next?”
Khuram: What I would like to do next is to start preparing and supporting students to be the initiators of this work. I am currently working with a couple student groups that are creating their own curriculum and their own activities to engage people in the community with. Right now it’s a youth-to-youth, college student and high school student initiative, and the aim there is to just be a guide on the side, to really maximize whatever space and context I can help create for students to develop their own initiatives for engagement. Again, along these principles of working with, but to see our students become the guides that they need that our students can be the leaders that they’re looking for and that they can help develop leadership in their communities, and so for me right now what that involves is again having college students and high school students connect and collaborate and learn from each other with really very little use of faculty and take from us what you need and build what you must.
Rebecca: Sounds really exciting. Thank you so much for all that you shared today; I think it gives us all a lot to think about. Not just think about it; we need to take action too. [LAUGHTER]
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. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer.
As faculty, we want our classrooms to provide all of our students with a comfortable and productive learning environment. Stereotype threats, implicit biases, and microaggressions can have an adverse effect on classroom climate and on student learning. In this episode, Dr. Rodmon King, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at SUNY-Oswego, joins is to discuss what we can do to nurture an inclusive and productive environment for all of our students.
- Kirwan Institute
- SUNY-Oswego Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching
- Sue, D. W. (2016). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. John Wiley & Sons.
- Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of personality and social psychology, 69(5), 797.
- Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American psychologist, 52(6), 613.
- Steele, C. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us (Issues of Our Time). W. W. Norton & Company
- Project Implicit
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2017). Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Rowman & Littlefield
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The Souls of Black Folk, Project Gutenberg. – Du Bois discusses double consciousness in this work.
- Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc..
John: As faculty, we want our classrooms to provide all of our students with a comfortable and productive learning environment. Stereotype threats, implicit biases, and microaggressions can have an adverse effect on classroom climate and on student learning. In this episode, we investigate what we can do to nurture an inclusive and 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.
John: Our guest today is Dr. Rodmon King, the Chief Diversity and Inclusion officer at the State University of New York at Oswego. Welcome, Rodmon.
Rodmon: Great to be here. Thank you for having me.
John: Today’s teas are:
Rodmon: I’m not drinking tea. I have not joined you.
I am still drinking the one cup of coffee… I have now reduced myself down to one cup of coffee a day. I usually have tea in the evening after dinner, I like to have tea.
Rebecca: So, next time we’ll have to make sure we record in the evening so we can have tea.
Rodmon: I think everything’s better in the evening. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: I have Estate Darjeeling.
John: … and I have ginger peach black tea.
Rebecca: … again.
John: … again. [LAUGHTER]
Rebecca: Issues related to diversity and inclusion are on the minds of many faculty at our institution and many other places, too. We invited you here today to help us lay the groundwork to talk about these issues and also to help faculty think about how to have these difficult conversations in their classrooms. Many faculty indicate that they want to be more inclusive but don’t know where to start, or feel inadequate or unprepared and don’t know where to start. So maybe the best place to start is “Where should we start?”
Rodmon: Yeah, well, it’s not surprising that faculty members in our community will feel unprepared or inadequate when thinking about things like inclusive pedagogy or making a classroom environment a place that is inclusive, challenging, yet safe. And the reasons that it’s not surprising is that, for many of us, we don’t get training in these things in our graduate programs, even for folks who’ve been in the professoriate for a while, may not have had it as part of their faculty education or ongoing faculty training. And some of the work that I’m looking to do with members of the community is to look at some of the processes, especially new faculty orientation and ongoing sort of things—opportunities like this, exactly, where we can help educate people, equip them with tools, not only for faculty success but for the success of our community. To give credit, we’re not starting from nowhere. The first thing is to realize that you actually need help or that there’s a problem or there’s something that you need help with, and so it’s good to know that members of our faculty are there and understand that. A good starting place—and there’s multiple starting places; it’s not just like one place that you can start, but it’s a multi-modal, multi-level kind of way that we have to dive into diversity equity and inclusion work with respect to faculty. Know what the resources are. CELT is a good resource. I’m more than willing to sit down and meet with departments. I’ve done some of that… meet with individual faculty to talk about everything from syllabi to things that are going on in a classroom or a topic that’s upcoming that someone wants to think through how to make sure that this is a really positive educational experience for the individuals in the classroom. There are our colleagues that, some of them, their research is in this area, so engaging with colleagues. We have other resources. Kirwan Institute has publications and information about things like implicit bias and stereotype threat, it’s a good resource. CELT’s running the reading group for Dr. Derald Wing Sue’s book. That’s another great resource. Another thing I would add is a good starting place generally is to take ownership of the things over which we have the most direct control, and part of that is our own identity. As educators or professionals working in education, thinking about your intersectional identity, thinking about your life experience, sort of a self-reflection there, and thinking about what kind of perspectives or insights your identity provides you and your life experience provides you and what kind of experiences it doesn’t. What kind of blind spots or limitations that you may have because of the way your identities situates you in communities and in contexts. Think about syllabi or lesson plans for courses; those are things that faculty have direct influence over. Hopefully, as this conversation goes on, talk some about the ways in which a faculty member or members of a faculty department can use syllabi or activities in class to help address some issues related to diversity and inclusion. Also, I’m a big fan of using some of the existing structures as our way to use faculty meetings or things like that to jumpstart conversations or keep conversations going over time. One thing that I want to make sure that I emphasize also is it’s important for us to develop our empathetic capacity, to develop our ability to understand other ways of experiencing and being in the world, to be fully aware of and not just an intellectual sense but a full sense that our walk and the way we navigate this community is not gonna be these default or universal way. Often times so that other people have other experiences and those experiences are very often shaped by their identity, their robust intersectional identity. And the last thing I would maybe add to that is that a word, if not caution, but something to be mindful of is that when we talk about identity we’re not talking about sort of granite blocks, these monoliths. Identities, even as we think about dimensions of diversity, are these sort of really dynamic and robust things that evolve over time as a person of color who identifies as black. Blackness is not one sort of thing; it is actually very, very rich our understandings of what it is to be a black person, especially a black person in America are constantly evolving and blackness as a deep and rich concept and identity links into, intersects with other identities that informs it, so my black identity is connected to and shaped by in certain ways other facets of my identity being cisgendered, being heterosexual, various other sorts of things that are part of who I am. All of those things I bring into classroom settings or to other settings with me, those things give me awareness of some issues that give me power and certain kinds of contexts, but they also can limit my vision and understanding in other ways too.
Rebecca: Thanks. That’s a lot to start to think about.
John: Yeah, it is. [LAUGHTER]
Rodmon: Yeah, I know. It might be “oh my gosh” that’s a lot, but here’s the beauty of this is that people think, well, you know, I don’t know what to do, well, i n some ways we’re actually living this. Diversity and inclusion is part of our day-to-day lives inside of the professional world and outside of it, so it doesn’t have to be a mysterious sort of thing; there’s a way to connect into it and in very open and common-sense ways.
Rebecca: I really wanted to touch back on issues of power that you mentioned as you were laying the groundwork for things. When we’re in the classroom we’re certainly in power, more power than students, perhaps, although not all of us have the same amount of power or students don’t perceive us to have the same amount of power. A young female may have a different amount of power than an older white male, for example. Can you talk a little bit about things that we need to be aware of as people who have power in that position when we’re trying to deal with difficult issues or difficult conversations in the classroom?
Rodmon: Early in my faculty career there was a point at which I really needed to emphasize to the members of my department that I was not just a tan version of them, that being a person of color in the classroom changed the ways that I needed to function as an instructor. For some of my students this is the first time that a person of color would have some power to vet their work and there was some stuff under the surface about that and sometimes explicit things where people were not comfortable with that. As a cisgender person I come into a classroom setting with that privilege and there’s ways in which that allows me to navigate and do things, whereas other people’s identities may position them differently, and so one of the things that I think is important for both an individual faculty member and a department to understand is the ways in which that can play out over time. In classroom settings and things like that there are ways to be aware of the sort of larger discourse and the biases that are out in the society and the ways that may inform what happens in a classroom. The way that students may react to an instructor, the ways that students may react to other students or engage with other students. We live in a country and at a time where certain ways of being, certain ways of knowing things are privileged over other ways, and so that can actually work its way into our classroom. This is one of the reasons why it’s important to think about these kinds of things. Classrooms are not sort of a by default; these marketplaces of ideas. These are things that we have to actively construct. I’ve had a course, one of the, I think the last few courses I taught before I became an administrator and transitioned away from being a faculty member and it was a senior capstone on race and social justice—philosophy majors. So I’m in a room as the only person of color talking about racism, talking about other things like that. And so knowing that there was going to be part of that dynamic that students may not feel comfortable expressing all of their opinions to a person of color who’s going to give them grades and maybe decide whether or not they graduate. I use that as an opportunity to open up the discourse and say, look, here’s where we are. These are some of the barriers to us maybe having discourse here. I’m a person of color; we’re gonna be talking about racism. You here are white and the discourse is gonna be difficult, here’s what we need to open that up. And so faculty should be—I would hope thinking about these things both in the moment and beforehand, and that’s where things like syllabus design and thinking about the ways to start off of a course. You can signal to students the ways in which as an instructor and as an educator you’ll engage with them and maybe intervene if there’s bias present or other things like that. You can set the context for discourse as well, but being aware of who is gonna be in the classroom, what potential identities are there, what your identity is and then what power dynamics flow from that is gonna be crucial to creating a place where things like these buzzwords, inclusive pedagogy and all these kinds of things of transformational education can actually occur.
John: You mentioned syllabus a couple times. What can we do in our syllabus to make the course more inclusive or to help set the stage for that?
Rodmon: Well, you can do signaling. In syllabi, and this is something that I think across the nation a lot of institutions have encouraged or required not just because it’s legally required but also because it is good practice for people to talk about accommodations and accessibility and have a statement like that in the syllabus. You can set community expectations in other ways. You can set terms of discourse, you can actually as a faculty member talk about how the class is gonna be managed as a community, and then outside of statements from the syllabus the sort of first day or first week activities, you can actually set the tone. One of the things I did in one of my classes was say, look, we’re gonna be dealing with some really tough issues and we’re people of a variety of life experiences and identities and things like this. One of the things that I am gonna do as an educator in this room if something happens where is potentially traumatizing for a member of the classroom, where the discourse could have the effect of marginalizing, if bias is coming to the fore, I’m actually gonna directly confront that. I’m gonna engage with that, and I’ll do it in a way where I’m gonna still respect people’s agency and humanity and understand them, but we’re gonna have to call these things out and confront them. We can do those things in a way that is educative.
John: Couple weeks ago when we were starting our race talk discussion, the book we’re talking about is “Race Talk” by Derald Wing Sue. The first couple meetings we didn’t really start with that sort of discussion but you suggested actually that we should start with setting the ground rules for discussion, and we did that and it opened up a much more active discussion. When people were reacting to things before they were very polite in our earlier meetings and we didn’t really notice a problem, but the politeness hid a lot of things where people just wanted to avoid those discussions and once we set the ground rules where people talked about the need to be open with these things it really opened up the discussion quite a bit and we saw a much more productive dialogue. So that type of priming that you talked about could be really effective, perhaps especially among faculty.
Rodmon: Yeah, most definitely. And again, the key bit I want to pull out of what you said. You might be thinking, well, geez, it’s great that this podcast happened—why didn’t we have it a few weeks ago when I was starting my class? Well it’s never too late, really. You can still set the terms of discourse, you can still have those moments in classrooms that are for classes that are currently running. It’s always good practice to revisit these things. Over the weeks of a term you may want to have moments where you remind people about the agreements and standards of discourse, especially as you approach really fraught topics or topics that people have a variety of feelings or opinions or can be impacted by the discourse.
John: One of the issues that we’ll be addressing and we’ve done past workshops on is implicit bias. Could you talk a little bit about what implicit bias is for the people who haven’t been exposed to it and the difference between implicit and explicit bias?
Rebecca: Especially because you hinted towards it in your groundwork by saying blind spots.
Rodmon: Yeah, and so let’s go with the clearest kind. There’s a lot of literature on it. Kirwan Institute has this, like I said, Derald Wing Sue. A lot of people, Claude Steele has written about a bunch of different things. A lot on stereotype threat. A lot about other stuff that connected with this. It is what it sounds like. An explicit bias is something that, it could be a stereotype that’s informing it. There’s a way in which people consciously hold a view, and that could be a positive affinity, like, people from Buffalo are just better people. You can have that bias towards them. A lot of times in the world, though, what we see are explicit forms of bias that hook into things like structural racism, sexism, heterosexism and things like that. Someone saying that they do not like racial or ethnic minorities or they do not want undocumented populations in this country, those are explicit bias; the person holds the belief, they know they hold the belief, they’re acting on an active knowledge of that belief, they’re articulating it in words, action, thought, and maybe even constructing environments where that is explicit. Implicit is a bit harder. It is sort of a subconscious way in which stereotypes or things like that become wired into us and affect our decision-making on an unconscious level. The hard part about implicit biases, whether those are positive or negative associations is often times they stand in stark contrast to our conscious beliefs. I’ve spent a good part of my life thinking about diversity and equity, I’ve taught it when I was in the classroom. I’m here as a CDIO, I’m working in this field and I still have biases that I have to combat. One of the things over time and taking some of the implicit association task tests, I realize that what I have is a skin tone bias. Now if you were to ask me, “What are your beliefs? What do you think about colorism?” I think colorism is horrible. I think it’s another way in which people are oppressed and marginalized and traumatized. I do not want to be part of communities that reinforce that I am my own actions and decision-making definitely want to be inclusive and open to all kinds of people. I don’t want to be a person who judges people on skin tone and everything else, but it’s there, and so having that bias does not make me a bad person; it’s part of the human condition that we have these implicit associations. Being aware that I have those things and doing nothing to educate myself about them and nothing to try and unseat them or challenge them, that makes me accountable and perhaps blameworthy.
John: We’ll share a link to the implicit association test. And I’ve actually used them in my classes for the last I think three years now, and their online classes, and the reactions have been interesting. Some students are very shocked by the results and it forces them to reflect on these. Others who get very strong results often tend to just believe the tests themselves or bias so they react against it, but at least it’s forcing them to consider the possibility.
Rodmon: In general, when I did that when I was teaching the first response is emails. Like, you know, I took this test and then I googled something and there’s the evidence that this does not work, and that’s evidence that the self-concept, right, so I think of myself as this person and I have this evidence that says I’m not that person and so it’s unsettling. For some people, as you said, they look at those results and are like wow, I had some idea that I might but now this really shows me evidence of the work that I have to do. More often than not in my experience when people get these results, especially as you do more of the tests, people are like, wow, there’s got to be something wrong with it—they want to externalize it—something wrong with the test, or there’s something wrong with something else and I’m not that person. Well, to a degree, all of us are in this common mode as human beings where we’re going to have these positive and negative associations. And really talking about power, the reason that this becomes so important is that some of us are in positions of power. Whether that’s in the classroom or in our communities or in departments and things like that, and when we intersect with processes and structures that we have influence over and that we shape and participate in, if we’re not careful our biases then become really blown up by those circumstances. So imagine me as a diversity and inclusion officer not challenging my skin tone bias and I’m going about my work. Now that skin tone bias that I have can get pushed into processes that I’m part of. Working into conversations and interactions and engagements that I have in our community, and really doing a lot of both structural and individual experiential damage. So for both the well-being of people and their experiences and for the type of community we’re constructing and maintaining, we need to really focus attention on those things. So yeah, implicit bias is a really, really, really big challenge, and whether or not we want to talk about it, it exists and it’s gonna be present where human beings are present.
Rebecca: I found it really useful to share with students that it’s like, I too, have implicit bias and to tell them what some of my results were on some of the tests and some of the checks and balances I put in place for myself to help make sure that I’m not reinforcing that bias in the things that I design or do. So one of the things I share with students often is that there is a stark contrast sometimes between an emotional response for something and that’s often the implicit bias that’s coming out, like judging or something that starts to happen and you catch yourself and say, wait a second, I shouldn’t be doing that; I don’t believe in that, that’s not what I wanna do. And I think that that helps students just recognize that there are things that we can do to improve how we relate to other people and how we improve the society that we live in by changing ourselves or improving ourselves.
Rodmon: Reflecting back on my comment on blind spots, some of it can be a self-check, but some of it we’re not always aware of our blind spots, and so it’s hard to figure these things out sometimes, so as a person of a certain age, socioeconomic class, racial identity that I embrace, being cisgendered, being heterosexual, all of these things affect how I navigate the world and what I see and what I don’t see, and so as I become more in-tune to myself, as I take more empathetic journeys where I’m actually trying to see the world through other lenses and experience the world as other people experience them and take their concerns on as concerns that I should share, I can become better attuned to the things that I am not just automatically conditioned to see. Some of that, though, we may need help with, right, and so this is where really having connections in with people that you can sort of like well, you know, I want to make sure that I’m doing the right thing, and whether that’s planning ahead for something that you’re going to do as an activity in class or if there’s something and you just want to reflect on it. And there’s resources. There’s, again, the same sort of resources we have are available out there for people to do that kind of reflection. We won’t always catch it in the moment, especially when it deals with ourselves. We might have a conversation or have an interaction and then later be like, I’m not sure I feel good about the way that I was present and active in that context. But maybe, and you can create opportunities to go back and revisit that and make it right. That’s the thing that I think is really important. It’s great to get it in the moment, and I think over time if we are vigilant in thinking about these things, practicing, doing the kind of proactive work, we’ll be better in those moments, but we also should be ready to and equipped to do that sort of restorative transformative work that can happen when we don’t catch it. Even at our very best we’ll miss things.
John: But you first have to be aware of the possibility so you can reflect on it and then work to do that.
Rebecca: I think that reflects a lot of things that have bubbled up in some of our reading group discussions about the guilt that you might have after a moment of realizing you didn’t handle something the way that maybe you would have liked to have handled it and you rehearse it over and over in your head but if you keep rehearsing it over and over in your head you’re not actually making any change, you’re not doing anything, so having that community to help rehearse that so that you can then reflect on it and then do something I think is key, so thanks for that reminder.
John: Going back to my class example; they’re very reluctant to discuss issues of race. But one issue that students were much more willing to discuss, particularly female students, was the implicit association test between gender and careers. And women in particular were very surprised to see that here they are in college working towards a career, but they still had this sort of bias between being female and home type activities, male and careers, and that brings us perhaps to the concept of stereotype threat. Maybe we could talk a little bit about that in general?
Rodmon: Yeah, this is a bit more complicated. Claude Steele has done a lot of work; his book “Whistling Vivaldi” is really good. He’s done a lot of publications and research, I think, in the hundreds in terms of things that he’s done on stereotype threat. The basic idea, and I’ll try to demystify this to make it as clear as possible, the idea is that people can be in circumstances or situations where they either are concerned about or they have evidence that they actually are confirming some generalized or stereotype characteristic about their group that they participate in, and that can be along racial or ethnic lines, gender lines, sexual orientation, various other sorts of things. Those things take a different set of skills to disrupt and to address whether in a classroom setting or not, so what happens is, and you know, look at some of the research. Women when told that some sort of a valued mechanism, be it a test or something else, was gonna have a component about gender, or that the test historically women don’t do well on it, score lower—score lower than when those kind of statements are absent. And so one of the things to be mindful of in practice is sometimes very well-meaning folks will hook into deficit ways of approaching and engaging students. You see it a lot with first-generation students. “I know you’re first-generation, you may need a lot of things,” and you just—it’s almost like stereotype confirmations. While we want to be aware of and sensitive to and open to the needs of different populations, we have to be aware of the fact that it’s not just deficits that they bring into our community; there’s strengths and resilience and things like this. Derald Wing Sue has some work on this in terms of the recommendations that he has. One of the ways to approach this instead of saying, here’s some tests or thing like this that people don’t do well on, and I can think of my own faculty career. I used to say things and like one of my classes was like, yeah, you know, historically in this class everybody does bad on the first paper, and guess what? [LAUGHTER]
John: You’re priming them to think that way.
Rodmon: Yeah, you know, and so that can get into stereotypes of people not thinking that they’re good writers, not having a facility with English; those kind of stereotypes that are placed upon communities. When you say things like, “I want to make sure everyone in this class is maximally successful on this paper and that there’s ways in which everyone can be successful, I’m invested in your success; I believe in your ability to complete this, let’s talk about ways to set up success.” You’re into a different place. Very, very subtle the way that stereotype threat can function, and some of it, some of the literature it has to do with sort of a Du Boisian and sort of double consciousness—people are aware of the ways in which society views the affinity group that they’re part of, and so they’re stuck in this space negotiating their own identity on their terms and knowing that society is actively trying to put them into a box, and so you worry about confirming that stereotype and it gets into the forms of self-questioning that undermine performance. Being aware that people can be experiencing that in a classroom, whether that’s during an exercise, during a class activity, during a test or as a part of a paper or something else like that, and during those sort of positive measures can make a difference, so micro affirmations is a term that’s come up.
John: So the opposite of micro aggression?
Rodmon: Exactly, yeah. And those can be both explicit statements, but sort of cues that can be like, yeah, yeah, I think that’s really good to think about or things like that. It takes practice to get those things right. The line between a micro affirmation for one population and a microaggression for another population can be very, very subtle. And so I’m a big believer in preparing just like you would for other things. I’m a—what you call –I’m a weekend warrior discount musician kind of thing; I love music, I love playing music, and I’m better when I have practiced and done those things so that when I’m playing I can be in the moment and do those kinds of things. We need to do the same sort of things. And thinking about diversity equity inclusion we’re now in the context where we can provide opportunities for members of our community to actually think about, practice some of these skills, so that when they’re in the situation they’re optimally prepared to function.
Rebecca: Can I ask a follow-up question on that?
Rebecca: I really like the idea of the micro affirmations, so if you’re noticing, I don’t know, like a trend in class, the students are struggling with X and you want to address that. Is there a way to handle that that’s not like, hey, I noticed that most people in this class are having this particular problem that might make someone feel like they’re in a box?
Rodmon: So let’s look at the heart of that. There’s maybe as part of an analysis or some part of the course that people are struggling with, and a way to come around that, instead of saying like, here’s the way in which everybody’s kind of turf’n, you know, crashing and burning on this, say, look, there’s an important aspect that I want us to think about: I want us to think about this because it’s an important part of the linkage of this course, and so some of the stuff that I did in philosophy was about thinking about arguments or thinking about ways to closely attend to textual material, close reading, things like that. And those are skills that people don’t always come to the table with, and so thinking about it in that way and saying instead of here’s a deficit you have, here’s this thing that I want to make sure that we build up as a skill area, and you can be successful. This is something that you’re capable of doing and I want to help make sure that we actualize that set of skills, and so it goes more from a, here’s the things that you’re doing wrong and the things that you need to correct to, here’s the things that I know and believe in you that are positive steps that can be taken, right, and it doesn’t have to target anyone like that. Philosophers have their own technical language; it’s a strange little fantastic world, philosophy. But one of the things that can be a barrier is the formal ways that sometimes arguments have to be presented in philosophy and students may struggle with that and coming at it from a point of appreciative inquiry. Here are the things that you’re already doing that are great, and then building from that is a different entry point of here’s the ways that you’re messing up the premises and the argument and not seeing the logical entailments.
John: What you’re just discussing here is very much what Carol Dweck is suggesting with a growth mindset, so we should focus on reminding students that they’re capable of doing this and working on building that sort of mindset.
Rodmon: Yeah. I want to be careful that we don’t give individual rated readings of this. We want to empower individual faculty members and members of our community to address these things. I think proactively about these things, but we as a community need to be thinking structurally, how do we create contexts where people can learn, have the skills needed to be successful to combat things like implicit bias and stereotype threat. We can’t leave it on the shoulders of individual members of the faculty or individual members in any constituency of our community.
John: One other topic that I think was mentioned a couple of times was microaggressions. What would be some examples of microaggressions that happen in academic settings?
Rodmon: Yeah, unfortunately, there’s a lot of them. Some of the ones that are very common are things like microinvalidations. There’s ways in which faculty will make fun of a student name that is not a very common sort of name or a difficult name to pronounce, they’ll nickname people, they’ll do other things. Those kind of things can be invalidating for people are ways of othering folks. There’s ways that people can fall into gendered language that can affect different populations and it’s just by default. There was a move years ago, and I mean many, many years ago, and I’m kind of coming back to my home discipline of philosophy; a lot of the examples and four-cross fields of philosophy of people who had either bad epistemic practice or everything else were gendered female. And so people became aware of that are like, we need to stop doing that because it really can affect people in a lot of ways. Other things that happen, and a lot of times in my experience, jokes, whether it’s a faculty member making a joke or something like that, those kind of things people retreat behind and say, well, it’s a joke, but the content of that joke actually marginalizes people and there’s a subtle—well maybe it’s not a subtle point—I think it’s an important point. When we’re talking about diversity and inclusion, when we’re talking about microaggressions, these kinds of things, they’re not just matters of etiquette, right, it’s not like chewing with your mouth open or not covering your face when you sneeze; these are deeper. The way the cumulative effects—there’s been research that these things can have on individuals and the way they feel or do not feel connected to a community; it can have a really huge impact. So it’s not a matter of etiquette or these kinds of things, it’s about respecting the rights of individuals and respecting their right to be in the world in ways that are different than to be in the world in ways that are different than the dominant population or myself or someone else as an individual. So there’s those. More specifically, there have been a really unfortunate incidents with faculty members trying to make a point about Immigration and Naturalization and having people who are not U.S. citizens stand up in class or disclose their status; those things are really traumatizing. And some of these are with the best of intentions. Faculty may ask students to represent some part of their identity and say, please give us the female perspective or please give us the other sort of perspective. Those kinds of things. There’s other ways to elicit that or present that material without placing students in the position of having to speak for their race or gender or other dimension of their identity. The last one I would mention, and I think this is one that unfortunately over my career had many of these is people invalidating someone’s identity because of assumptions they have about that way of being. So you have students who identify and are people of color by their history and so forth who are denied that, who a faculty members says, well you’re not positioned to speak on this, and specifically this was a student who was white passing who was a Latin-ex and a professor said, “you’re not on standing to speak for that,” and the student in that circumstance has to defend their identity. And so that’s a tougher one. Is it a general good practice for people to speak only from their experience and so forth? Yes, but the assumptions we make about who has the standing to do that can feed into stereotypes and end up setting the context for microaggressions.
Rebecca: What should faculty members do if students are making micro aggressions against one another, or if a student confronts a faculty member about their own microaggressions that the faculty member is doing something but a student has confronted them.
Rodmon: Yeah, that’s a microaggression. So let’s deal with the student-to-student first. Here’s some of the things that are a challenge. As an educator you will not hear everything that goes on in your class. Last academic year had an incident where very horrifically traumatizing thing happened: the instructor was unaware of it until it hit social media after the class had ended in the evening that explodes. In those circumstances the instructor had no knowledge, you know, the professor, that something had happened in the class, but again, that doesn’t mean that we don’t address it right away. And one of the good things for this instructor is that in the syllabus were community standards and things were clear there were reminders of that and so there’s a natural way to enter into that discourse, both by an email message to the class and some signaling about this is what we’re gonna address when we get into class tomorrow and the offer to meet with students in the interim to deal with that. A person also came to me immediately for help, so this is going on, it’s 9 o’clock at night and instructor is getting signals that there is something going on in social media and of course he emails me right away and says, “I’m really going to need help with this; can we meet in the morning?” I’m like, no, let’s have the conversation now. Talk about a strategy now and then let’s follow it up in the morning and let’s really stay close together so we make sure we’re helping the overall community and the students in this class process and understand what happens. In immediate circumstances where you’re aware, as the instructor I think it’s important to have developed the skills to call that out and say, wait a second, we need to take a pause here because there’s something going on that we have to address. Sometimes it can be something that a student says is a comment, sometimes it’s part of a presentation. I’ve had a class once where a student was making a presentation and saying, well, the blacks are and it was like, whoa, let’s stop right there. Ok, you have to understand that saying that the blacks as a terms of pejorative, those kind of things. And then the next step that is crucial, whether it’s coming back afterwards or something else, is unpacking what actually the microaggression is and why it can be traumatic and damaging. Even things that are sort of microaggressions that are disguised compliments, or are you a credit to your race, or you really speak so well; those kinds of things can be disguised microaggressions. We have to be aware to call those out as well and unpack those. Although it seems really positive, it fits into and reinforces stereotypes about different kinds of people. So acting in the moment can be terrifying, and this is why I think really the thing about getting practice and understanding how to do that, and it’s not like you’re gonna hit the ground running; it’s something that we have to work on constantly and get help with and use the resources available to help with. Even if you address it in the moment there is still most likely gonna need to be the need for follow-up in continuing dialogue around that. The one piece that I think is the question that I haven’t addressed yet is, what if someone calls you out? And one of the first initial reactions could be defensive, like wait a second, what do you mean I’m doing a microaggression or that’s a microaggression. That’s another moment to pause and stop and say, ok, I want to explore this and understand. Those kind of things can be tougher to parse out because you’re situated internal to it, and so some of my engagement over my career with faculty is to help them like, you know, what if you have this moment, well, to be open, right, to be open and not immediately go to default denials of responsibility; no, no, no, you’re taking this too seriously or other kinds of things like this you want to actually say, ok, I want to understand what I need to own here. Had a situation where an instructor—a student came up after class and said to them, I’m really hurt and traumatized by what’s going on class; you won’t call on me, and I think it’s because of my race. And that is a form of microaggression; ignoring someone because of their identity. It’s something that can happen. And the professor was really struck and said, I think some of the right things in terms of approaching the other person first and saying, I am really, really, really—and not just sad—but I’m really sorry that you had this type of experience in this classroom and I want to understand what I need to learn about it, and I want you to have a positive experiences from now on. What that person is experiencing is valid, the work of how to unpack that, what ownership the instructor needs to take is work that can happen. Part of the things that I can help faculty with is to negotiate those spaces. Approach those kinds of things, meeting with a faculty member and the student, things like that, those kinds of things. But I think the initial reactions to it have to be really important. Do not deny it, do not go into defense mode. If someone feels that way you can validate the feeling, then explore the value of the experience and explore what has to be helped.
Rebecca: Thank you. I think that’s a good reminder for faculty, and I think like there’s always a fear that something like that’s gonna happen, so rehearsing in your mind what you would do in a situation like that is important. One of the things that we talked about leading up to this conversation today were a lot of the terms that we’ve talked about today, like implicit bias, microaggressions, et cetera, but one that you had introduced me to that I wasn’t familiar with was lateral animosity, so can you explain what that is and share a little bit about that?
Rodmon: Yeah. So at least in my ways of thinking about where people are and where communities are, there is some discourse. In academia and outside academia about microaggressions and stereotype, and there’s increasing because of things that have happened in the world and the way community discourse is happening, stuff about stereotype threat and things like this. Lateral animosity or lateral violence is one of those things that is a bit subtler. In essence, what happens is you have, let’s say a group of individuals and in that group you have individuals who are marginalized populations, and what happens is instead of pressing a case or reacting to or having, not that you want animosity in the community, but animosity towards the dominant group. You have animosity to equally or other marginalized populations, and some examples of this are for people of color, especially African Americans, who sometimes react and say, well, you know, things like marriage equality, things like LGBTQ rights, well, you know, that’s not really what civil rights is about. The same sort of things we see the microinvalidations, the things like that can happen within communities and infinity groups and across them, right. Some unfortunate things in my career that I’ve had to work with populations is in particular some African American students saying clearly to other students of color and international students that their needs were not legitimate, that their oppression was not real and their marginalization. And so that sort of invalidation can be really damaging. Sometimes for people, and they make this natural assumption if you’re part of a marginalized community that you wouldn’t have a blind spot when it comes to another community, but sometimes we do. You can find it in other dimensions of diversity, you have people who are racial and ethnic minority populations talking in ways where accessibility and other forms of diversity are not things that we really should be thinking about or invalidating people’s identities, things like that. Those sort of things are very, very difficult, can be very, very painful, but the same sort of techniques that we use to address these sort of things need to be used in those contexts too. Internal to populations you have some tough experiences where domestic African American populations say to other students of African descent, whether they’re African Diaspora or they’re African international students, but they don’t qualify as—they cannot claim blackness, they cannot claim to be people of color, that their needs are somehow secondary or not as pressing as those of domestic African-American populations, and I think my sort of semi-sarcastic way of saying this is like, look, we’re not in an oppression Olympics where we need to battle one another to try and prove who is most oppressed.
John: There’s plenty of oppression to go around.
Rodmon: Unfortunately, plenty of oppression to go around, and in building community it’s gonna be important that we actually understand and appreciate and validate the needs of other constituencies within our community, so yeah, that is an emerging problem—it’s an emerging problem in higher ed as the demographics shift. Unfortunately, what you can see is when you have a minority population that becomes large enough that they have more structural power than other marginalized groups… So what we see in sometimes marginalized communities when they have enough either presence in terms of large enough numbers or enough structural power within the community; they reinscribe all the oppression that they’ve suffered and themselves and do it either internally or to other marginalized populations and it’s really, really, really very, very sad and damaging to communities. We need to have an awareness of that—this is again something that is a hard point of discourse and dialogue for folks—coming to a person who’s experienced marginalization and saying that you are not only the oppressed, but in certain contexts, you are the oppressor. Again, people get defensive, the walls go up—no, no, no, no, you’re miss reading this, no, that’s not it or whatever else, but taking ownership of that is important.
Rebecca: One of the things that’s come up in some of the reading group discussions is knowing the need to address issues like this, and I think you kind of commented about the oppression Olympics is maybe like one way to kind of go down that road, but faculty have indicated a tentativeness towards it because they’re not familiar with the histories or the details to fully unpack a particular thing that’s happening. What are your recommendations in those situations where you know that’s not right, you know kind of what’s happening, you can probably identify as maybe lateral animosity, but can’t really unpack the details of what exactly is going on and why?
Rodmon: Well, so, if it’s in the moment, I mean, I think you still call it out in the moment, but this is where—is in moments like this that really creative and dynamic people kind of act the opposite. It’s like I don’t know anything, I don’t know anybody, there’s no one who can help me. Again, we have people with expertise, so if it is about the history of African and African American populations, we’ve got people who teach and do research in those areas, right. If it’s about other dimensions of identity, we have people, both professionals who work here, fellow faculty colleagues that can help understand that history, ok. One of the things over time that I had to become much more knowledgeable about very quickly as I started doing diversity equity and inclusion work was the history of both oppressor marginalization of transgender populations, right. Had an understanding of some of it but really needed a much deeper understanding of that and reached out to people who do scholarship in those areas, reached out to individuals really looking to understand and learn. A lot of times negotiating these spaces is not something that we have to do alone—get help, bring the help in, use the resources that are available to you to help unpack that. And so there’s this way in which we can be like, well, you know, in the classroom I’m supposed to be the expert; that’s like yeah, that in some ways you are co-explorers. Simultaneously you have a letter of expertise and knowledge that students may not have, but you should develop enough comfort to say, this is wrong, and here’s the mechanics of it and what we are gonna do is actually get the resources to understand why saying things like, you know, this lateral animosity or violence kind of stuff, whether it’s through act or action, those things are not things that we need in our community. We also need to be aware that sometimes we’ve talked, you know, in very sort of human agency kind of ways, but structurally communities can reinforce implicit biases and things like that. You know, one of the ways that, you know, you can make someone feel welcome or unwelcome or things like that just by the very structure of the community around you and things that people have to deal with and counter. We are in the midst of this community really needing to do work on gender-neutral bathrooms throughout our community, and it’s a challenge and it’s one of those things that confronts people in ways, depending on your identity it may be well, yeah, we need those things, those are good, but it’s not something that on a daily basis you navigate spaces where the very spaces themselves are telling you that you are not valued as much as others as a part of the community.
John: So we always end our podcast by asking our guests “what’s next.” What are you going to do next?
Rodmon: All of it. [LAUGHTER] But not to be silly or whatever else, but to say this: there’s multiple levels of activity that need to continue. To say this: there are multiple levels of activity that need to continue. My door is not just sort of metaphorically open; I’m available to meet with faculty wherever that people have a need to do that dialogue about how to be successful, how to implement inclusive pedagogy, to work on things. I want to do work and started doing some work with departments on issues of diversity and inclusion. The thing that I really want to get us as a community further down the road on, we have these large institutional statements of value and mission, we have a diversity plan, there’s goals in there; there’s all these other types of things. I want to make sure that those larger things that are out there connect in real ways to the world that faculty live in and experience on a day-to-day basis, that’s something that I really want to make sure that as a community we’re doing that. And not just for faculty but for staff, for students, for all members of our community that these things aren’t just banner fodder—you put them on banners, they look nice, they’re on websites—but are part and wired into. People can see themselves connected to these goals and priorities.
Rebecca: Well thanks so much, Rodmon, for joining us today, and we’re so thankful to have you on campus now, right, like we’re glad that these conversations are really are happening and that the community is coming together to start addressing some of these issues.
Rodmon: I’m thankful for you as well; this is great. I’m glad to have the opportunity for the podcast. I think the podcasts have been great thus far and it covered a lot of different things; it’s a valuable way of engaging our community and communities within our community, so thank you for doing this.
John: Well thank you, and we’ll have you back soon.
Rodmon: Most definitely, love to. Thanks.
John: Thank you.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Theme music by Michael Gary Brewer.
Have you ever received comments in student evaluations that focus on your appearance, your personality, or competence? Do students refer to you as teacher or an inappropriate title, like Mr. or Mrs., rather than professor? For some, this may sound all too familiar. In this episode, Kristina Mitchell, a Political Science Professor from Texas Tech University, joins us to discuss her research exploring gender bias in student course evaluations.
- Fox, R. L., & Lawless, J. L. (2010). If only they’d ask: Gender, recruitment, and political ambition. The Journal of Politics, 72(2), 310-326.
- MacNell, L., Driscoll, A., & Hunt, A. N. (2015). What’s in a name: Exposing gender bias in student ratings of teaching. Innovative Higher Education, 40(4), 291-303.
- Miller, Michelle (2018). “Forget Mentors — What We Really Need are Fans.” Chronicle of Higher Education. February 22, 2018..
- Mitchell, Kristina (2018). “Student Evaluations Can’t Be Used to Assess Professors.” Salon. March 19, 2018.
- Mitchell, Kristina (2017). “It’s a Dangerous Business, Being a Female Professor.” Chronicle of Higher Education. June 15, 2017.
- Mitchell, Kristina M.W. and Jonathan Martin. “Gender Bias in Student Evaluations.” Forthcoming at PS: Political Science & Politics.
Rebecca: Have you ever received comments in student evaluations that focus on your appearance, your personality, or competence? Do students refer to you as teacher or an inappropriate title, like Mr. or Mrs., rather than Professor? For some, this may sound all too familiar. In this episode, we’ll discuss one study that explores bias in course evaluations.
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.
Today our guest is Kristina Mitchell, a faculty member and director of the online education program for the Political Science Department at Texas Tech. In addition to research in international trade and globalization, Kristina has been investigating bias in student evaluations, motherhood and academia, women in leadership and academia, among other teaching and learning subjects. Welcome Kristina.
Kristina: Thank you.
John: Today our teas are?
Kristina: Diet coke. Yes, I’ve got a diet coke today.
Rebecca: At least you have something to drink. I have Prince of Wales tea.
John: …and I have pineapple ginger green tea.
John: Could you tell us a little bit about your instructional role at Texas Tech?
Kristina: Sure, so when I started at Texas Tech six years ago, I was just a Visiting Assistant Professor teaching a standard 2-2 load… so, two face-to-face courses in every semester, but our department was struggling with some issues in making sure that we could address the need for general education courses. So in the state of Texas every student graduating from a public university is required to take two semesters of government (we lovingly call it the “Political Science Professor Full Employment Act”) and so what ends up happening at a university like Texas Tech with pushing forty thousand students almost, is that we have about five thousand students every semester that need to take these courses… and, unless we’re going to teach them in the football stadium, it became really challenging to try and meet this demand. Students were struggling to even graduate on time, because they weren’t able to get into these courses. So, I was brought in and my role was to oversee an online program in which students would take their courses online asynchronously. They log in, complete the coursework on their own time (provided they meet the deadlines), and I’m in a supervisory role. My first semester doing this I was the instructor of record, I was managing all of the TAs, I was writing all the content, so I stayed really busy with that many students working all by myself. But now we have a team of people: a co-instructor, two course assistants, and lots of graduate students. So, I just kind of sit at the top of the umbrella, if you will, and handle the high level supervisory issues in these big courses.
John: Is it self-paced?
Kristina: It’s self-paced with deadlines, so the students can complete their work in the middle of the night, or in the daytime or whenever is most convenient for them, provided they meet the deadlines.
Rebecca: So, you’ve been working on some research on bias in faculty evaluations. What prompted this interest?
Kristina: What prompted this was my co-instructor, a couple of years ago, was a PhD student here at Texas Tech University and he was helping instruct these courses and handle some of those five thousand students… and as we were just anecdotally discussing our experiences in interacting with the students, we were just noticing that the kinds of emails he received were different. The kinds of things that students said or asked of him were different. They seemed to be a lot more likely to ask me for exceptions… to ask me to be sympathetic…. to be understanding of the student situation… and he just didn’t really seem to find that to be the case. So of course, as political scientists, our initial thought was: “we could test this.” We could actually look and see if this stands up to some more rigorous empirical evaluation, and so that’s what made us decide to dig into this a little deeper.
John: …and you had a nice sized sample there.
Kristina: We did. Right now, we have about 5000 students this semester. We looked at a set of those courses. We tried to choose the course sections that wouldn’t be characteristically different than the others. So, not the first one, and not the last one, because we thought maybe students who register first might be characteristically different than the students who register later. So, we took we chose a pretty good-sized sample out of our 5,000 students.
John: …and what did you find?
Kristina: So, we did our research in two parts. The first thing we looked at was the comments that we received. As I said, our anecdotal evidence really stemmed from the way students interacted with us and the way they talked to us. We wanted to be able to measure and do some content analysis of what the students said about us in their course evaluations. So, we looked at the formal in-class university-sponsored evaluation, where the students are asked to give a comment on their professors… and we looked at this for both our face-to-face courses that we teach and the online courses as well. And what we were looking for wasn’t whether they think he’s a good professor or a bad professor, because obviously if we were teaching different courses, there’s not really a way to compare a stats course that I was teaching to a comparative Western Europe course that he was teaching. All we were looking at was what are the themes? What kinds of things do they talk about when they’re talking about him versus talking about me? What kind of language do they use and we also did the same thing for informal comments and evaluation? So, you have probably heard of the website “Rate My Professors”?
Kristina: Yes, everyone’s heard of that website and none of us like it very much… and let me tell you, reading through my “Rate My Professors” comments was probably one of the worst experiences that I’ve had as a faculty member, but it was really enlightening in the sense of seeing what kinds of things they were saying about me… and the way they were talking about me versus the way they were talking about him. So again, maybe he’s just a better professor than I am… so we weren’t looking for positive or negative. We were just looking at the content theme… and so the kinds of themes we looked at were: Does the student mention the professor’s personality? Do they say nice… or rude… or funny? Do they mention the professor’s appearance? Do they say ugly… pretty? Do they comment on what he or she is wearing? Do they talk about the competence, like how how well-qualified their professor is to teach this course and how do they refer to their professor? Do they call their professor a teacher? Or do they call their professor rightfully a professor? And these are the categories that we really noticed some statistically significant differences. So we found that my male co-author was more likely to get comments that talked about his competence and his qualification and he was much more likely to be called professor… which is interesting because at the time he was a graduate student. So, he didn’t have a doctorate yet… he wouldn’t really technically be considered a professor… and on the other hand when we looked at comments that students wrote about me, whether they were positive or negative… nice or mean comments… they talked about my personality. They talked about my appearance and they called me a teacher. So whether they were saying she’s a good teacher or a bad teacher… that’s how they chose to describe me.
Rebecca: That’s really fascinating. I also noticed, not just students having these conversations, but in the Chronicle article that you published, there was quite a discussion that followed up related to this topic as well, and in that there was a number of comments where women responded with empathetic responses and also encouraged some strategies to deal with the issues. But, then there was at least one very persistent person, who kept saying things like: “males also are victimized.” How do we make these conversations more productive and is there something about the anonymity of these environments that makes these comments more prevalent?
Kristina: I think that’s a really great question. I wish I had a full answer for you on how we could make conversations like this more productive. I definitely think that there’s a temptation for men who hear these experiences to almost take it personally… as though when I write this article, I’m telling men: “You have done something wrong…” when that’s not really the case… and, my co-author, as we were looking at these results about the comments and as we were reading each other’s comments, so we could code them for what kinds of themes we were observing… he was almost apologetic. He was like: “Wow, I haven’t done anything to deserve these different kinds of comments that I’m getting. You’re a perfectly nice woman, I don’t know why they’re saying things like this about you.” So, I think framing the conversation in terms of what steps can we take to help, because if I’m just talking about how terrible it is to get mean reviews on Rate My Professors, that’s not really giving a positive: “Here’s a thing that you can do to help me…” or “Here’s something that you can do to advocate for me.” So, I think a lot of times what men who are listening need… maybe they’re feeling helpless… maybe they’re feeling defensive…. What they need is a strategy. Something they can do going forward to help women who are experiencing these things.
Rebecca: I noticed that some of the comments in relationship to your Chronicle article indicated ways that minimize your authoritative role to avoid certain kinds of comments and I wonder if you had a response to that… and I think we don’t want to diminish our authoritative roles as faculty members, but I think that sometimes those are the strategies that we’re often encouraged to take.
Kristina: I agree, I definitely noticed that a lot of the response to how can we prevent this from happening got into “How can we shelter me from these students,” as opposed to “How can we teach these students to behave differently.” I definitely think the anonymous nature of student evaluation comments and Rate My Professors and internet comments in general. You definitely notice when you go to an internet comment section that anonymous comments tend to be the worst one. …and so the idea that what we’re observing, it’s not that an anonymous platform causes people to behave in sexist ways, It’s that there’s underlying sexism and the anonymous nature of these platforms just gives us a way to observe the underlying sexism that was already there. So the important thing is not to take away my role as the person in charge. The important thing is to teach students, and both men and women, that women are in positions of authority and that there’s a certain way to communicate professionally. Student evaluations can be helpful. I’ve had helpful comments that help me restructure my course. So, it’s a way to practice engaging professionally and learning to work with women. My students are going to work for women and with women for the rest of their lives. They need to learn, as college students, how to go about doing that.
John: Do you have any suggestions on how we could encourage that they’re part of the culture and in individual courses the impact we have is somewhat limited. What can we do to try to improve this?
Kristina: Well, I’ve definitely made the case previously to others on my campus and at other campuses that the sort of lip service approach to compliance with things like Title 9 isn’t enough. So, I don’t know if there at your institution there’s some sort of online Title 9 training, where you know…
John: Oh, yeah…
Kristina: …you watch a video
Kristina: … you watch a video… you click through the answers… it tells you: “are you a mandatory reporter?” and “what should you do in this situation?” …and I think a lot of people don’t really take that very seriously; it’s just viewed as something to get through so that the university cannot be sued in the case that something happens. So, I don’t think that that’s enough. I think that more cultural changes and widespread buy-in are a lot more important than making sure everyone takes their Title 9 training. So, in our work I mentioned that we did this in two parts, and the second part just looked at the ordinal evaluations. The 1 to 5 scale, 5 being the best… rank your professor how effective he or she is… and not only are students perhaps not very well qualified to evaluate pedagogical practices, but once again we found that even in these identical online courses, a man received higher ordinal evaluations than a woman did. And so what this tells me is in a campus culture we should stop focusing on using student evaluations in promotion and tenure, because they’re biased against women… and we should stop encouraging students to write anonymous comments on their evaluations. We should either make them non-anonymous or we should eliminate the comment section all together. Just because if we’re providing a platform it’s almost sanctioning this behavior. If we’re saying, “we value what you write in this comment,” then we’re almost telling students your sexist comment is okay and it’s valued and we’re going to read it… and that’s not a culture that’s going to foster positive environment for women.
John: Especially when the administration and department review committees use those evaluations as part of the promotion and tenure review process.
Kristina: Exactly. I mean when I think about the prospect of my department chair or my Dean reading through all the comments that I had to read through when I did this research, I’m pretty sure that he would get an idea of who I am as a faculty member that, to me…maybe I’m biased… but to me, is not very consistent with actually what happens in my classroom.
Rebecca: It’s interesting that anonymity.. right, we talk about anonymity providing more of a platform for this become present. But I’ve also had a number of colleagues share their own examples of hate speech and inappropriate sexual language when anonymity wasn’t a veil that they could hide behind, increasingly more recently. So I wonder, if your research shows any increase in this behavior and why?
Kristina: We haven’t really looked at this phenomenon over time. That’s just not something that we’ve been able to look at in our data, but I would like to continue to update this study. I definitely think that… current political climate is creating an atmosphere where perhaps people don’t feel that saying things that are racist or sexist are as shameful as they once perceived them to be. So there’s definitely a big stigma against identifying yourself as Nazi or even Nazi adjacent and that stigma, while it’s still there, the stigma against it seems to be lessening a little bit. I don’t know necessarily that I’ve seen an increase in what kinds of behavior I’m observing from my students, but I definitely will say that a student… an undergraduate student… gave me his number on his final exam this last semester like I was going to call him over the summer. So, it definitely happens in non-anonymous settings too.
John: Now there have been a lot of studies that have looked at the effect of gender on course evaluations, and all that I’ve seen so far find exactly the same type of results. That there’s a significant penalty for being female. One of those, if I remember correctly (and I think you referred to it in your paper), was a study where… it was a large online collection of online classes, where they changed the gender identity of the presenters randomly in different sections of the course, and they found very different types of responses and evaluations.
Kristina: Yes, that was definitely a study that that… I hate to say we tried to emulate because we were limited in what we could do in terms of manipulating the gender identity of the professor… but I think that their model is just one of the most airtight ways to test this. I agree, this is definitely something that’s been tested before. We’re not the first ones to come to this conclusion… I think our research design is really strong in terms of the identical nature of the online courses. At some point, I find myself… when I when I was talking about this research with a woman in political science who’s a colleague of mine… the question is how many times do we have to publish this before people are going to just believe us… that it’s the case. The response tends to be: “Well, maybe women are just worse professors or maybe there’s some artifacts in the data that is causing this statistically significant difference.” I don’t know how many times we have to publish it before before administrations and universities at large take notice… that this is a real phenomenon… that’s not just a random artifact of one institution or one discipline.
John: It seems to be remarkably robust across studies. So, what could institutions do to get around this problem? You mentioned the problem with relying on these for review. Would peer evaluation be better, or might there even be a similar bias there?
Kristina: I definitely think peer evaluation is an alternative that’s often presented, when we’re thinking of alternative ways to evaluate teaching effectiveness. Peer evaluation may be subject to the same biases. So, I don’t know that literature well enough off the top of my head, but I imagine that it could suffer from the same problems in terms of faculty members who are women… faculty members of color… faculty members with thick accents, with English that’s difficult to understand… might still be dinged on their peer evaluations. Although we would hope that people who are trained in pedagogy who’ve been teaching would be less subject to those biases. We could also think about self evaluation. Faculty members can generate portfolios that highlight their own experiences, and say here’s what I’m doing the classroom that makes me a good teacher… here are the undergraduate research projects I’ve sponsored… here the graduate students who’ve completed their doctoral degrees under my supervision… and that’s a way to let the faculty member take the lead in describing his or her own teaching. We could also just weight student evaluations. We know that women receive 0.4 points lower on a five-point scale, then we could just bump them up by 0.4. None of these solutions are ideal. But, I think some of the really sexist and misogynist problems in terms of receiving commentary, that is truly sexually objectifying female professors… that could be eliminated with almost any of these solutions. Peer evaluation… removing anonymous comments… self-evaluation…. and that’s really the piece that is the most dramatically effective in women being able to experience higher education in the same way that men do.
Rebecca: So, obviously if there’s this bias in evaluations then there’s likely to be the same bias within the classroom experience as well. We just don’t necessarily have an easy way of measuring that. But if you’re using teaching strategies that use dialogue and interactions with students rather than a “sage on the stage” methodology, I think that in some cases we make ourselves vulnerable and that does help teaching and learning, because it helps our students understand that we’re not you perfectly experts in everything… that we have to ask questions and investigate and learn things too… and that can be really valuable for students to see. But we also want to make sure that we don’t undermine our own authority in the classroom either. Do you have any strategies or ideas around around like that kind of in-class issue?
Kristina: Yeah, I think that the bias against women continues to exist just in a standard face-to-face class. One time, when I was teaching a game theory course, I was writing an equation on the board and it was the last three minutes of class and we’re trying to rush through you the first-order conditions and all sorts of things… and I had written the equation wrong, and as soon as my students left the classroom I looked at it and I went, “oh my gosh, I’ve written that incorrectly,” and so the next day when they came back to class, I I felt like I had two choices: we could either just move on and I could pretend like it never happened, or I could admit to them, that I taught this wrong… I wrote this wrong. So I did. I told them “Rip out the page from yesterday’s notes because that formula is wrong,” and I rewrote it on the board… and I got a specific comment in my evaluation, saying she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.. that she got that she got this thing wrong… and it was definitely something that, while I don’t have an experimental evidence that says that if a man does the same thing you won’t get penalized in the same way, to me it very much wrapped into that idea that women are are perceived as less qualified as men. So whether it’s because we’ll refer to as teachers or whether it’s because the student evaluations focused more on men’s competence, women are just seen as less likely to be qualified. How many times have you had a male TA and the students go up to the TA to ask questions about the course instead of you. So, I definitely think it’s difficult for women in the classroom to maintain that authority, while still acknowledging that they don’t know everything about everything No professor could. I mean we all think we do of course…. So, I think owning some of the fact that there are things you don’t know is important, no matter what your gender is, but I also try to prime my students I tell them about the research that I do. I tell them about the consistent studies in the literature that exists that shows that students are more likely to perceive and talk about women differently, because I hope that just making them aware that this is a potential issue, might adjust their thinking. So that if they start thinking “wow, my professor doesn’t know what she’s talking about” they might take a moment, and think “would I feel the same way if my professor were a man.”
Rebecca: I think that’s an interesting strategy. We found the similar kind of priming of students about evidence-based practices in the classroom works really well… and getting students to think differently about things that they might be resistant to… So, I could see how that that might work, but I wonder how often men do the same kind of priming on this particular topic.
Kristina: I don’t know. That would be an interesting next experiment to run if I were to do a treatment in two classes face-to-face classes and and you know do have a priming effect for a woman teaching a course versus a man and seeing if it had any kind of different effect. I think a lot of times men perhaps aren’t even aware that these issues exist. So, talking about the way that women experience teaching college in a different way… if men aren’t having this conversation in their classroom, it’s probably not because they’re thinking, “oh man, I really hope my female colleagues get bad evaluations so that they don’t get tenure.” It’s probably just because they aren’t really thinking about this as an issue… just because as a sort of white man in higher education you very much look like what professors have looked like for hundreds of years… and so it’s just a different experience, and perhaps something that men aren’t thinking about… and that’s why I’m getting the message out there so important because so many men want to help. They want to make things more equitable for women and I think when they’re made aware of it, and given some strategies to overcome it, they will. I’ve definitely found a lot of support in a lot of areas in my discipline.
John: …and things like your Chronicle article there’s a good place to start too… just making this more visible more frequently and making it harder for people to ignore.
Kristina: I agree. I think being able to speak out is really important, and I know sometimes women don’t want to speak out, either because they’re not in a position where they can or because they’re fearing backlash from speaking out. So, I think it’s on those of us who are in positions where we can speak up. I think it falls on us to try and say these things out loud, so that women who can’t… their voices are still heard.
John: Going back to the issue of creating teaching portfolios for faculty… that’s a good solution. Might it help if they can document the achievement of learning outcomes and so forth, so that that would free you from the potential of both student bias and perhaps peer bias. So that if you can show that your students are doing well compared to national norms or compared to others in the department, might that be a way of perhaps getting past some of these issues?
Kristina: I definitely think that’s a great place to start, especially in demonstrating what your strategies are to try and help your students achieve these learning outcomes. I always still worry about student level characteristics that are going to affect whether students can achieve learning outcomes or not. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds… students from underrepresented groups… students who don’t come to class or who don’t really care about being in class… these are all students who aren’t going to achieve the learning outcomes at the same rate as students who come to class… who are from privileged backgrounds… and so putting it on a professor alone to make sure students achieve those learning outcomes, still can suffer from some things that aren’t attributable to the professor’s behavior.
John: As long as that’s not correlated across sections, though, that should get swept out. As long as the classes are large enough to get reasonable power.
Kristina: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s definitely it’s time for more evaluation into into how these measures are useful. I know there’s been a lot of articles in the New York Times op-ed, I think there was one in Inside Higher Ed, really questioning some of these assessment metrics. So, I think the time is now to really dig into these and figure out what they’re really measuring.
Rebecca: You’ve also been studying bias related to race and language, can you talk a little bit about this research?
Kristina: Yes, so this is a piggyback project after after I got finished with the gender bias paper, what I really wanted to do was get into race, gender, and accented English. Because I think not only women are suffering when we rely on student evaluations, it’s people of different racial and ethnic groups… it’s people whose English might be more difficult to understand. What we were able to do in this work is control for everything. So, we taught completely identical online courses the only difference we didn’t even I didn’t even allow the professors to interact with the students via email. I told them to make sure I… like Cyrano de Bergerac…writing all of their emails for them over a summer course and so they were handling the course level stuff just not the student facing things. They were teaching their online course but they weren’t directly interacting with the students in a way that wasn’t controlled… and the the faculty members recorded these welcome videos, which had their face… it had their English, whether it was accented or not… and I’m I asked some students who weren’t enrolled in the course to identify whether these faculty members were minorities and what their gender was. Because what’s important isn’t necessarily how the faculty member identifies – as a minority or not – as whether the students perceive them as minority… and even after controlling for all of that… controlling for everything… when everything was identical, I thought there was no way I was going to get any statistically significant results, and yet we did. So, we controlled even for the final grades in the course… even we controlled for how well students performed… the only significant predictor for those ordinal evaluation scores with whether the professor was a woman and whether the professor was a minority. We didn’t see accented English come up as significant, probably because it’s an online course. They’re just not listening to the faculty members more often than these introductory welcome videos. But we did when we asked students to identify the gender and the race of the professor’s based on a picture. We asked the student: “Do you think you would have a difficult time understanding this person’s English” and we found that Asian faculty members, without even hearing them speak, students very much thought that they would have difficulty understanding their English… and then we have a faculty member here who… blonde hair and blue eyes… but speaks with a very thick Hispanic accent, and the students who looked at his picture… none of them perceived that they would have a difficult time understanding his English. So, I think there’s a lot of biases on the part of students just based on what their professors look like and how they sound.
John: Can you think of any ways of redesigning course evaluations to get around this? Would it help if the evaluations were focused more on the specific activities that were done in class… in terms of providing frequent feedback… in terms of giving students multiple opportunities for expression? My guess is it prob ably wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Kristina: I think, as of now, the way our course evaluations here at Texas Tech University look is that they’re asked to rate their professors you know in a 1 to 5 on things like “did the professor provide adequate feedback?” and “was this course a valuable experience?” and” “was the professor effective?” and that gives an opportunity for a lot of: “I’m going to give five to this professor, but only fours to this professor” even when the behaviors in class might not have been dramatically different. Now this is also speculation, but maybe if there was more of a “yes/no,” “Did the professor provide feedback?” “Were there different kinds of assignment?” “Was class valuable?” Maybe that would be a way to get rid of those small nuances. Like I said, when we did our study, the difference was .4 out of a five-point scale, and so these differences aren’t maybe substantively hugely different. Maybe it’s a difference between you know a 4 and a 4.5. Substantively, that’s not very different. So, maybe if we offered students just a “yes/no,” “Were these basic expectations satisfied?” maybe that could help and that might be something that’s worth exploring. I definitely think that either removing the comment section altogether, or providing some very specific how-to guidelines on what kinds of comments should be provided. I think that that’s the way to address these open-ended say whatever you want… “are you mad? “…are you trying to ask your professor out? …trying to eliminate those comments would be the best way to make evaluations more useful.
John: You’re also working on a study of women in academic leadership. What are you finding?
Kristina: A very famous political science study, done by a woman named Jennifer Lawless, looked at the reasons why women choose not to run for office. So we know that women are underrepresented in elective office, you know the country’s over half women but, we’re definitely not seeing half of our legislative bodies filled with women. What the Lawless and Fox study finds, is not that women can’t win when they run, it’s just that women don’t perceive that they’re qualified to run at all. So, when you ask men, do you think you’re qualified to run for office, men are a lot more likely to say: “oh yeah, totally… I could I could be a Congressman,” whereas women, even with the same kind of qualifications, they’re less likely to perceive themselves as qualified. So, what my co-author Jared Perkins at Cal State Long Beach and I decided to do, is see whether this phenomenon is the same in higher education leadership positions. So one thing that’s often stated is that the best way to ensure that women are treated equally in higher education, is just to put more women in positions of leadership… that we can do all the Title 9 trainings in the world, but until more women are in positions of leadership, we’re not going to see real change…. and we wanted to find out why we haven’t seen that. So you know 56 percent of college students right now are women, but when we’re looking at R1 institutions only about 25% of those university presidents are women, and then the numbers can definitely get worse depending on what subset of universities you’re looking at. We did a very small pilot study of three different institutions across the country. We looked at an R1 and R2 and an R3 Carnegie classification institution. Our pilot study was small, but our initial findings seem to show that that women are not being encouraged to hold these offices at the same rate as men are. So what we saw was that… we asked men “have you ever held an administrative position at a university?” About 60% of the men reported that they had, and about 27% of women reported that they had, and we also asked “Did you ever apply for an administrative position? …and only 21% of the men said that they had applied for an administrative position, while 27% of women said they had applied. Off course it could be that they misunderstood the question… that maybe they thought we meant “Did you apply and not get it?” but we also think that there may be something to explore when it comes to when women apply for these positions they get them. There are qualified women ready to go and ready to apply, but men may be asked to take positions… encouraged to take positions… or appointed to positions where there might be opportunities to say: “There’s a qualified woman. Let’s ask her to serve in this position instead.”
John: That’s not an uncommon result. I know in studies and labor markets starting salaries are often comparable, but women are less likely to be promoted and some studies have suggested that one factor is that women are less likely to apply for higher level positions. Actually, there’s even more evidence that suggests that women are less likely to apply for promotions, higher pay, etc. and that may be at least a common factor that we’re seeing in lots of areas.
Kristina: Absolutely. I definitely think that University administrations need to place a priority on encouraging women to apply for grants, awards, positions, and leadership because there are plenty of qualified women out there, we just need to make sure that they’re actively being encouraged to take these roles.
Rebecca: Which leads us nicely to the motherhood penalty. I know you’re also doing some research in this area about being a mother and in academia, can you talk a little bit about how this impacts some of the other things that you’ve been looking at?
Kristina: Absolutely. The idea to study the motherhood penalty in academia stemmed from reading some of those “Rate My Professor” comments. Because at my institution, we didn’t have a maternity leave policy in place… so I came back to work after two weeks of having my child and I brought him to work. So my department was supportive. I just brought him into my office and worked with the baby for the whole semester… and it was difficult, it was definitely a challenge to try and do any kind of work while a baby is, in the sling, in front of your chest… but one of my “Rate My Professor” evaluations from the semester that I had my son, mentioned that I was on pregnancy leave the whole semester and I was no help. And so this offended me to my core, having been a woman who took two weeks of maternity leave before coming back to work… because I didn’t… I wasn’t on maternity leave the whole semester, and in addition… if I had been, what kind of reason is that to ding a professor on her evaluation? Like she birthed a human child and is having to take care of that child… that shouldn’t ever be something that comes up in a student comment about whether the professor was effective or not.
So what we want to look at are just the ways in which women are penalized when they have children. Even just anecdotally, and our data collection is very much in its initial stages on this project… but as we think through our anecdotal experiences, when department schedule meetings at 3:30 or 4:00 p.m., if women are acting as the primary caregiver for their children (which they often are) this disadvantages them because they’re not able to be there. You have to choose whether to meet your child at the bus stop or to go to this department meeting… or networking opportunities, are often difficult for women to attend if they’re responsible for childcare. Conferences have explored the idea of having childcare available for parents because, a lot of times, new mothers are just not able to attend these academic conferences… which are an important part of networking and most disciplines… because they can’t get childcare. So at the Southern Political Science Association meeting that I went to in January, a woman brought her baby and was on a panel with her baby. So, I think we’re making good strides in making sure mothers are included, but what we want to explore is whether student evaluations will reflect differences in whether they know that their professor is a mother or whether they don’t. So, how would students react if in one class I just said I was cancelling office hours without giving a reason and then in another class, I said it was because I had a sick child or I had to take my child to an event. That’s kind of where we’re going with this project and we really, really hope to dig into what’s the relationship between the motherhood penalty and student evaluation.
Rebecca: Given all of the research that you’re doing and the things that you’re looking at, how do we start to change the culture of institutions?
Kristina: Well, I’m thinking that we’re on the right direction. Like I said, I see a lot more opportunities at conferences for childcare and for women to just bring their children. I see a lot of men who are standing up and saying, “hey, I can help, I’m in a position of power and I can help with this” and what, you know, without our male allies helping us, I mean, men had to give women the right to vote, we didn’t just get that on our own. So, we really count on allies to put us forward for awards. One thing, I think, that’s an important distinction that I learned about from a keynote speaker is the difference between mentoring and sponsoring. So, mentoring is a great activity, we all need a mentor, someone we can go to for advice, someone we can ask for help, someone who can guide us through our professional lives. But what women really need is a sponsor, someone who will publicly advocate for a woman whether that’s putting her in front of the Dean and saying, “Look at the great work she’s doing” or whether it’s writing a letter of recommendation saying, “This woman needs to be considered for this promotion or for this grant.” Sponsorship, I think, is the next step in making sure that women are supported. A mentor might advise a woman on whether she should miss that meeting or that networking opportunity to be with her child. A sponsor would email and say, “we need to change the time because the women in our department can’t come. because they have events that they need to be with their children.”
John: A similar article appeared in a Chronicle post in late February or maybe the first week in March by Michelle Miller where she made a slightly different version. Mentoring is really good… and we need mentors, but she suggested that sometimes having fans would be helpful. People who would just help share information… so when you do something good… people who will post it on social networks and share it widely in addition to the usual mentoring role. So, having those types of connections can be helpful and certainly sponsors would be a good way of doing this.
Rebecca: I’ve been seeing the same kind of research and strategies being promoted in the tech industry, which I’m a part of as well. So, I think it’s a strategy that a lot of women are advocating for and their allies are advocating for it as well. So hopefully we’ll see more of that.
Kristina: I think the idea of fans and someone to just share your work is hugely important. I have to put in a plug for the amazing group: “Women Also Know Stuff.”
Kristina: It’s a political science specific website, but there are many offshoots in many different disciplines and really it’s just the chance that, if you say, “I need to figure out somebody who knows something about international trade wars.” Well, you can go to this website and find a woman who knows something about this, so that you’re not stuck with the same faces… the same male faces,,, that are telling you about current events. So “Women Also Know Stuff” is a great place. They share all kinds of research and they just provide a place that you can look for an expert in a field who is a woman. I promise they exist.
Rebecca: I’ve been using Twitter to do some of the same kind of collection. There might be topics that I teach that I’m not necessarily familiar with… scholars who are not white men… And so, put a plug out like, “hey, I need information on this particular subject. Who are the people you turn to who are not?”
John: You just did that not too long ago.
Rebecca: Yeah, and it, you know, I got a giant list and it was really helpful.
John: One thing that may help alleviate this a little bit is now we have so many better tools for virtual participation. So, if there are events in departments that have to be later, there’s no reason why someone couldn’t participate virtually from home while taking care of a child, whether it’s a male or female. Disproportionately, it tends to be females doing that but you could be sitting there with a child on your lap, participating in the meeting, turning a microphone on and off, depending on the noise level at home, and that should help… or at least potentially, it offers a capability of reducing this.
Rebecca: I know someone who did a workshop like that this winter.
John: Just this winter, Rebecca was doing some workshops where she had to be home with her daughter who wasn’t feeling well and she still came in, virtually, and gave the workshops and it worked really well.
Kristina: Yeah, I definitely think that that’s a great way to make sure that that everyone’s included, whether it’s because they’re mothers or fathers or just unavailable… and I think that’s where we look to sponsors… the department chairs… department leadership to say, “This is how we’re going to include this person in thid activity” rather than it being left up to the woman herself to try and find a way to be included. We need to look to put people in positions of leadership to actively find ways to include people regardless of their family status or their gender.
Rebecca: This has been a really great discussion, some really helpful resources and great information to share with our colleagues across all the places that…
John: …everywhere that people happen to listen… and you’re doing some fascinating research and I’m going to keep following it as these things come out.
Rebecca: …and, of course, we always end asking what are you gonna do next. You have so many things already on the agenda but what’s next?
Kristina: So next up on my list is an article that’s currently under review that looks at the “leaky pipeline.” So the leaky pipeline is a phenomenon in which women, like we were saying, start at the same position as men do, but then they fall out of the tenure track, they fall out of academia more generally… they end up with lower salaries and lower position. So, we’re looking at what factors, what administrative responsibilities, might lead women to fall off the tenure track. We already know that women do a lot more service work and a lot more committee work than men do, so we’re specifically looking at some other administrative responsibilities that we think might contribute to that leaky pipeline.
Rebecca: Sounds great. Keep everyone posted when that comes out and we’ll share it out when it’s available.
John: …and we will share in the show notes links to papers that you published and working papers and anything else you’d like us to share related to this. Okay, well thank you.
Kristina: Thank you.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts, and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.